Joseph F. Keppler on Ralph La Charity
THOUGHTS PROMPTED BY POEMS
ARRIVING WITH YESTERDAY’S MAIL
That ancient Greeks worked in the language and culture of their day comes as no surprise. Nor should it be a surprise that a contemporary American poet like Ralph La Charity works in his. Yet the consequences of being an artist in far different times and places are too little appreciated.
It is a small book La Charity sent me. Four 8½ by 13 sheets are folded in half and stapled to become a 16-page, 6½ by 8½ book, entitled flawed man drowns. For images, the booklet has three surrealist collages.
Reflecting on the once inspired Seattle poetry scene I remember the pro-vocative, confrontational way La Charity presents himself and his poetry. This seems to me to be how La Charity composes: to write poetry in con-temporary American English, speak like Homer, think like Socrates.
Yet our present language is, like us, full of sales and fury, signifying noth-ing. Just listen to radio, television, or the conversations around you. Today it seems much talk is a racket we make to one another. American English is maybe as stuck-up, musical, and abstract as Periclean Greek but surely not as momentous, meticulous, or particularly philosophical. The U.S. is not ancient Greece, and Bengal Cincinnati, La Charity’s home, not bronzed-armored Athens. Differences time takes take time. La Charity is practicing an ancient poetics in our noisy streets’ exhaust and exhaustion.
He performs poetry like a traveling rhapsode from a long-forgotten legend. Sometimes he’s a bard accompanied with music. He recites from memory and repeats stock phrases the same way oral poets like Homer have always done. Playing his voice and his words he appears to enter a trance as his rhythms work their way through his mind. He also wrestles with countless demons in league against divine poetry and that means challenging his con-temporaries. With Socratic insistence, he probes their knowledge and deliv-ers their affectations.
Poets like Ed Dorn, Lew Welch, and Roberto Valenza he admires. Using their work to accompany his own, he memorializes a period only slightly past. Other names in his poems are little known outside the poetry world and require footnotes like those supplied by scholars who translate the com-pany of Plato’s or Xenophon’s Socrates. Those who know who ‘Major’, ‘Bill’, and Tom Beckett are can better realize that in a poem like ‘pithy yet over’ La Charity is taking to task the publisher and editor of The Difficulties and E-X-C-H-A-N-G-E-V-A-L-U-E-S (the one a journal focussing on lan-guage-school poets, the other a series of poet interviews). La Charity criti-cizes this apparently sophist editor’s choice to surround himself with aca-demic starlight while slighting the lights shining in his own neighborhood.
Other poems in the booklet range from the sweeping Taklimakan Desert to La Charity’s own sense of what his life really means. In ‘flawed man drowns’ the poem that gives the book its title, La Charity writes his Apol-ogy. He wonders, “so what will it feel like to be deeply me/doing the very thing I want to & must do” when drawn into “the obliviating proverbial gun-fight armed / only with a smattering of mattering . . . dependent upon / the silent tympanic of strangers?”
Like La Charity we can only wonder what if any poetry from today might become as immortal as the ancient epics. We cannot decide that; it is not our decision or a decision at all.
Rather it is for poets to oblige greatness while alive and then to die like and unlike everyone else:
The dead do
they do so
For those interested in this unique booklet or in his poetics, La Charity’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joseph F. Keppler
Seattle, Autumn 2011
Joseph F. Keppler’s essay, The Mallarmé Project, an examination of a yearlong series of art and writing in Seattle, will appear in E·ratio 15.