The Frantic Force
Petroglyph Books, 2011
Reviewed By: CL Bledsoe
Ball begins his introduction with a reference to the old TV commercial in which a guy eating a chocolate bar collides with a guy eating peanut butter from a jar, and voilà, these two seemingly disparate tastes combine into the peanut butter cup. Similarly, Ball’s essays combine many seemingly unrelated things – he throws in everything including the kitchen sink – when discussing poetry. This is because Ball is interested in shaking things up, bringing poetry down from the lonely mountaintops of college professors’ covetousness and plopping it down for all the world to see, or even opening it up to scientific inquiry. A noble sentiment. Reaching back to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and even further back to hold Eliot up as the last gasp, Ball argues that modern poetry has become obscure, purposefully obtuse. (Eliot at least knew what he was doing, seems to be the implication.) This obscurity is difficult to argue, in a certain sense. Ball cautions that difficulty in reading is a good thing, but impossibility in reading has made modern poetry irrelevant.
Ball blames the commodification of MFA programs, which afford a common, easy scapegoat. One problem that he neglects to address is that not all MFA programs encourage ‘experimental’ (i.e. purposefully obscure) poetry, and not all the journals he references publish ‘experimental’ poetry. I, personally, studied at an MFA program that strongly dissuaded students from inaccessibility, for example. I’ve also worked as an editor on a couple journals, which I steered towards a focus on narrative poetry. But let me just go on the record saying I have no love lost for MFA programs in general, and many of them may well pump out cookie-cutter hobbyists posing as writers. Likewise, it seems like one can’t virtually spit without hitting some new online journal, many of which boast guidelines that discourage anything resembling emotional impact in the work they’d like to publish. But there are also plenty of journals interested in poetry I think Ball would quite enjoy. So let’s be accurate. But let’s also not skewer Ball unnecessarily. His motivation isn’t sour grapes, and his goal isn’t petty. He’s fighting the good fight.
After the introduction, Ball deals with the very personal topic of his father’s death. There’s some damned good writing, here, as there is in his first true essay, “Cultural Referents The Intermittent Man” which deals with Ball accidentally attacking his mother-in-law when she sneaks into his house and, also accidentally, breaks a vase. Ball waxes philosophically on the gender role of men in modern American society. But what does this have to do with poetry? Ball explains that he is not really a fighter, though when he sees ancient art (the Mycenaean Urn his mother-in-law broke) destroyed, he rises. He is showing the reader some of his motivation. Again and again, Ball refers to himself as a journeyman poet, which I take to mean ‘not a very serious one’. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love poetry, and he sees poetry being ‘attacked’, inadvertently (destroyed through carelessness), just as his urn was attacked. Still, he has risen to the occasion and penned these essays.
Many of these essays are about poetry, but often, Ball is writing about the state of the modern world, i.e. politics, alongside poetry. He uses Da Vinci, Jung, the Bible, Quantum physics, and any number of other approaches to filter his observations. In “Prozac IndigNation,” Ball gives statistics on the numbers of Americans on mood altering medications, and uses this as a possible explanation as to why there hasn’t been open revolution in America, after the Ponzi scheme that brought on the Great Recession. It’s a humorous take, a tongue-in-cheek idea not dissimilar from conspiracy theories (the one regarding fluoride in water comes to mind).
In “Nothing But Nihilism” Ball takes three branches of some of the world’s major religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) to task for their negative tendencies when it comes to apocalyptic fervor. Ball brings in Jung, Christopher Hitchens, and many classical allusions to this well-rounded discussion. Progress is hampered, argues Ball, by people who’d rather look backwards, or worse, who’d rather see society destroyed in apocalyptic vengeance. But let’s not lose hope; Ball considers this extremism the last gasp of this kind of extremism, at least when it comes to these religions. He references the shockwaves of conservatism reverberating throughout America these days, the war on women, and the general backward-looking that’s pushing the Republican party into irrelevance.
And this really brings us to Ball’s strength as an essayist. His chocolate/peanut butter mash up approach allows him to come at ideas in such fresh and new ways. He is, clearly, a philosopher in many regards, but he’s quite accessible and focused purely on application, on real-world ideas. He deals with pop culture only when it’s relevant to larger considerations, but he does take it to task, often relating the negativity so prevalent in pop culture to the nihilism so pervasive in religious extremism, politics, and modern art (he muses, at one point, that a certain starlet may be working for Satan in order to bring about the downfall of Western civilization). He also links all of this to poetry, which is no small feat. In the same way that poetry shouldn’t be a grouping of meaningless syllables interesting only for their complete lack of being interesting, Ball argues that poetry should be (and is!) a vital force for social commentary and change. Poetry is revolution, or it can/should be, anyway. Ginsberg wrote about all the celebrities he fucked, but he also wrote extensively about political corruption and the government overreaching itself (and isn’t Ginsberg’s sex life a kind of political and/or social commentary in itself?).
For such a seemingly stream of consciousness writer, Ball has organized the book mainly around the major topics of poetry, politics, and science, which gives it a nice, readable structure. His tone is playful; admonishing, at times; and very readable. He’s having fun writing about poetry – how often do you see that? I’d like to read more of his work, which is certainly a compliment.
Norman Ball (BA, W&L (’83);MBA, GWA (’91) is a Scottish-born writer, musician and businessman who lives in the Washington DC area. A multiple Pushcart Prize nominee and Associate Editor for The Potomac: A Journal of Poetry and Politics, his writings appear regularly in eScene’s Best of the Literary Journal series. His poetry and essays have appeared in hundreds of publications including Prairie Home Companion, Epicenter, The Times, Scotsman and Raintown Review, among others. His first essay collection is How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable? (Del Sol Press 2010). A collection of poetry: A Signature Advance from Hoof and Paw is due out from Diminuendo Press in 2012. A book on the cultural effects of television, Between River and Rock: How I resolved Television in Six Easy Payments will also appear in 2012.