Went to see Glyn Maxwell read at the Hammer last night. Fabulous reading, though the attendance was poor—perhaps because UCLA is on break, and perhaps because Maxwell is not well known so far from the prime meridian. He certainly should be, though. Maxwell pulls off the remarkable feat of embodying both Philip Larkin, with his plain-spoken cynicism, and Dylan Thomas, with his rapturous extended conceits. He also calls to mind Tom Gunn, who, like Maxwell, was an English ex-pat who found a home in the states.
Though I’ve been reading Maxwell for many years, this was my first opportunity to see him in person. Suddenly having a face and voice to accompany the words generally changes my appreciation for poems I’d come to love long ago. In this case, for the better (but that’s not always the way it goes). He certainly has great stage presence, and he’s clearly at home in front of an audience. In fact, when he took the podium, he stood there for what seemed like several minutes, arranging his papers, without uttering a word, before finally launching into a poem. In those expectant moments, he not only took the stage, he set it.
As for the poems themselves, I’ve always been a fan. Maxwell is unusually well versed in the formal traditions of poetry, but though he uses form to his advantage, he does not seem interested in pushing their boundaries. One device that Maxwell has mastered is the poignant repetition. Some phrases are repeated with subtle variations to reflect upon what has already occurred in a poem, or what is occurring in the speaker. In “My Grandfather at the Pool,” for instance (from The Breakage), the speaker focuses on his grandfather in an old photo and notes, “the only one who turned away is him.” Later, this assessment is revised: “the only one who looks away is him.” The shift in verb and tense serves to transport the reader, along with the speaker, from the present looking back upon the past to being in the past as it is unfolding. It also softens the editorial judgement of “turning away,” or rejecting something, to simply “looking away,” which could equally suggest a longing, a revulsion, a distraction, a preoccupation, or (as the speaker seems inclined to believe) a sense of foresight or foreboding. Maxwell also repeats without variation. The effect is a mind wrestling with itself, following one train of thought to its end, then coming back to ride a new one from the same starting point. The technique was quite pronounced in a piece he read last night, “Come to Where I’m From,” in which the title phrase repeats with increasing urgency and frustration as the long poem speeds on.
Maxwell also writes prose, and he shared a few sections from a forthcoming book or essay, On Poetry. As part of the composition, he envisioned a small poetry writing seminar, with students representative of himself at various points in his development. The writing is witty, indeed cheeky, and the “writing seminar” will be familiar enough to anyone who has ever taken one; nonetheless, it somehow perpetuates the American (?) conviction that poetry must have some sort of commodity value to be taken seriously, which means that there must be the equivalent of factories and journeymen and careerists, and that the whole enterprise can exist only as a subdivision within the education corporation. Maxwell’s own poetry on the one hand accepts and exploits this assumption—he’s apparently well connected, and his books have apparently brought the poetic equivalent of fame and fortune—but they also undermine this assumption, through demonstrating that poetry is among the most enduring means by which the human mind can make sense of it’s place in a world which, time and again, defies all logic.