Ira Lightman: Experiments in Poetry

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars."

-Jack Kerouac, On The Road

The thing about experiments is that they don't always work out. In this way, experimental poetry can be seen as a high-risk, high-reward art form. Unlike other modes, where poets endeavour to generate sufficient heat to boil water, experimental poets go for either Roman candle effects or stink-bombs--but nothing in between. Much of it ends up the latter for me. I find it falls somewhere between a riddle and an inside joke, packed with cleverness and cerebral effect. It is so often the cerebral quality, above all, that leaves me cold--poems written from the neck up only, leaving the author safe and aloof.

This is why I have so enjoyed discovering experimental poet Ira Lightman's work. Ira pushes the boundaries of word-play, but retains something of the human in doing so. Consider this poem from Duetcetera, a collection of concrete poems arranged with gaps in the middle:

REPUBLICAN DEMOCRAT
unloved the unhated
hate love
precipitating world's cruising
the within
anchor ending dry
yank dock


Apropos of the current US presidential election, the poem captures a certain sense of foreboding I have detected in Brits who follow the slings and arrows of the American political process. We cipher out in the poem, like they cipher out from headlines, various snatches of categorical pronouncement about one party or the other. Reading horizontally, it is disjointed but not without sense. Reading vertically, we have a sense of each party's failings wrapped up in a tidy but surreal package.

Then there is the middle, which, despite being placed so prominently, I always come to last. The eye would seem to move toward dense clusters of words first, but this three-word zinger is no less impacting for each word being given surrounding space. Indeed, to watch from the sidelines as two flawed parties vie for control of the largest standing army in human history, the foreboding can turn apocalyptic. It is because this little puzzle of a poem conveys such a deeply human anxiety, and one I can relate to as an expat American living among Brits, that the poem has accomplished more for me that mere effect.

In his latest collection, i, love poetry, Lightman's work becomes both increasingly intimate and nutty. Turning from politics to sex (another topic one avoids in polite conversation), a poem like "Red" is ingenious in that it is both erotic and profoundly constrained. Here's an assignment: write an erotic poem using only three-letter words, two words per line. Lightman pulls it off.

The single-syllable nature of three-letter words gives the piece an inherently staccato rhythm, so all tricks of lyrical smoothness are out. Yet the diminutive nature of each word heightens the frisson of the explicit in lines like "her lip / red met / his jaw / jut lay / and let / him lap" and "dip the / red dab". This kind of language culminates in a jazzy ending reminiscent of Gwendolyn Brooks "We Real Cool" where "her ego / and our / bed jet / red hot."

Innovation in language thrills me. Strolling through Bruges last weekend, I was amazed at how non-native speakers were employing English, on signs and in conversation, in ways that native speakers never would. Innovation matters most to me when it conveys, not just new for newness' sake, but brings with it another shade of understanding about what it feels like to be human. Lightman's best work carries forward both aspects. Resisting the temptation of so many experimentalists to keep the reader at a safe intellectual distance, he instead plunges us straight in to the intimate inner workings of his psyche. And what a world it is.

Ira Lightman's newest collection i, love poetry is now available.

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