Paul Auster: Collected Poems: Brigade Book Review

The introduction to Paul Auster: Collected Poems starts off with this beautiful quote written by a student of his work:

“How much credit should we give to coincidence? And if we refuse to give it credit, is a belief in determinism our only alternative? For many years now, Auster’s work has happily wandered between the poles of these beliefs, saved from the merely philosophical by the confidence, grace, and sly timing of the born storyteller. Auster has succeeded so brilliantly in giving life to this heady debate…”
- Norman Finkelstein

It sums up what most poets do, which is taking the heady conundrums of existence, the philosophical and the esoteric, and sizing it down to the everyday and universal. Good poetry and prose is revelatory for readers, it conveys deep truths about life that don’t necessarily come up outside of lecture halls. Paul Benjamin Auster, an American poet starting his writing career in the ‘70s, produces poetry that is beautifully abstract but simultaneously real in character and intent.

I’ve never loved poetry. It’s always been hard for me to understand, I’ll sit down and read verse 5 times and still not fully understand its meaning because of how it breaks the formal structure of prose. It floats in the unknown, and I have a hard time allowing things to float around in terse vagueness. You can hear that in my writing voice. I yearn for extreme specificity. There’s also this residual hyper-masculinity left in me from my more immature days, which creates somewhat of an aversion towards poetry, seeing it as something effeminate. For me, Auster was my transition into poetry. I’m a born essayist, and his work teeters on what is prose and poetic, condensing dense philosophical themes into terse stanzas, taking the abstract and making it real for me. It’s almost like, poetry for people who don’t like poetry. I’d like to say it bridges the gap.

His work is kaleidoscopic in terms of themes, but the main philosophical theme that drew me to his Collected Poems is the human use of language as a means to arrest the world. In one of his published journals, Notes From A Composition Book, he discusses this:

“The eyes see the world in flux. The word is an attempt to arrest the flow, to stabilize it. And yet we persist in trying to translate experience into language. Hence poetry, hence the utterances of daily life. This is the faith that prevents universal despair — and also causes it.”

The fact that the urge to write comes from a need for control is universally resonant. Human existence is like a mass attempt to control chaos. Almost all activity is a yearning for solidity and stability, while writing is the ultimate appetite for control. I’m doing it right now, trying to solidify what it is to be a human equipped with the self-destructive weapon that is language.

There’s a poem in this book called “Facing the Music” where this kind of philosophy emerges.

“… the random

forces of our own lack

of knowing what it is

we see, and merely to speak of it

is to see

how words fail us, how nothing comes right

in the saying of it, not even these words

I am moved to speak …”

Another theme in his poetry is the idea of coincidence versus fate/determinism. It’s expressed in the quote above this review, and it bleeds through all his work and was a central theme in his career, as well. The idea of circumstance is a funny thing, I actually found this book, the book that made me like poetry more, by “coincidence.” On the first day of classes at my university, my philosophy professor didn’t show up. While I was waiting outside of my locked classroom I saw a pile of books that looked like they were free. I danced around it until I saw someone else grab one and take off. I grabbed Paul Aster: Collected Poems simply because I thought the illustration looked cool, and a small part of me mumbled that I should read less stoic non-fiction. I ended up discovering an amazing writer who I will probably be obsessed with for a few months while I delve into all of his work, and who discusses this same sense of seemingly fated happenings. An example of this lives in the same poem I discussed above:

“... (discussing nature) because of this blue there could be

this green

that spreads, myriad

and miraculous

in this, the most silent

moment of summer.

seeds speak of this juncture, define

where the air and the earth erupt

in this profusion of chance…”

I love this book, and I keep coming back to read these dauntingly abstract poems that I thought I’d never enjoy. I writhe with anxiety at the thought of there not being one answer, or one interpretation to a piece of writing. Getting into this book allowed me the courage to bathe in multiplicity, coming back to read a single poem multiple times, taking something new from it, and being okay with not being able to explain it in terse terms. I value this book with personal sentiment, because of how it immersed me in a new appreciation for a genre, and simultaneously helped me spiritually, by dealing with the stick up my ass that keeps me from appreciating the fact that the world is gray, and that good writing doesn’t have to have a single takeaway or intent. I’m easing out of the wormholes that non-fiction literature (I’m talking to you, philosophy) has trapped me in in the past.

I don’t know if this will be the same for you, but I can say that Paul Auster is a genius among postmodern writers, with work that is deeply imbued with gorgeous abstraction, and a coexistent solidity, grounded in the paradoxes of everyday life.

Brigade Book Society Rating: 8.25/10


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