Bruce Ario: The Form Of The Man
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/25/01
Bruce Ario's website: http://home.earthlink.net/~ariowrite/
Bruce Ario's poems
Excellent. Great. These are words Bruce Ario isn’t used to. At least he is not
used to them applied to his own person or work. Who is Bruce Ario? you
ask. Well, regular visitors to Cosmoetica know Bruce as- next to me- the most
faithful attendee of the Uptown Poetry Group. Bruce is also a poet, playwright,
& novelist. In this essay I will examine 2 of the 3 aspects of Bruce’s
literary life- I’ve not read nor seen any of Bruce’s plays so they will not
be spoken of. I will discuss Bruce’s outstanding unpublished novel Cityboy,
as well as some of the best poetry Bruce has produced over the past few years.
Bruce has mastered a free verse form [oxymoron?] of his own making- 1 which I
dubbed in honor of its creator: the ario. I will explicate it, & its
relation to that noted form- the Shakespearean sonnet, in a bit.
But 1st some personal asides. I 1st met Bruce in the early 90s when he was a regular at the old Ophelia’s Pale Lilies poetry readings. Bruce had had- according to his own recount- a tough 1980s; due mostly to booze, drug problems, & mental ills. Then Bruce found the church & became a Born-Again Christian. Believe me, I know how offputting that phrase can be to artists. Yet, Bruce is the farthest 1 can imagine from a Jerry Falwell’s ilk. He’s 1 of the most genuine people I’ve ever met, as well as big-hearted & open-minded. We’ll never agree on religion & guess what- Bruce is kosher with that! Is he really a Christian? you say. Yes. My wife calls him a classic Feeler personality.
It is this personality that allowed Bruce to produce 1 of the best novels I’ve read. Late last year Bruce asked me to critique his novel Cityboy. At just under 200 pages it’s a quick read. I will not quote from it here, because you can read the opening to the novel by going to Bruce’s website. I will give a brief summary & opinion. The novel is a roman á clef of Bruce’s life. His alter ego is John Argent. From the 1st line describing John’s escape from the womb we know we are in a world as different from reality as Kafka’s. John is an unreliable narrator because in the 3 or 4 decades covered in the book we see John- especially in the last 1/3 of the book- deteriorate mentally. The writing style might best be called hyperlucid. Bruce avoids most of the typical ‘moments’ that recur in autobiographical novels. Whenever John encounters something he tends to dwell on a little moment. Big moments that would provide digressive fodder for most novelists are just handled in brief quips. If John is feeling down he will state, ‘I felt bad.’, or some such pronouncement. We find out John lost his virginity in a similarly offhanded reference. The girl’s name & the incident don’t even rate a 2nd sentence. Recounted, in sometimes unexpectedly hilarious fashion, are such episodes as John’s recurring fetish with women’s nylons, & a growing obsession with an unnamed Hawaiian man John deems diabolical, & the cause of his split with an ex-girlfriend. John’s mental state deteriorates by the end of the novel. In characteristic Bruce/John fashion an episode where John drinks his own piss in prison is given very brief treatment. & it gains in power for it. The book’s reminiscent trope of the Upper Midwest of the 60’s & 70’s is especially evocative. John Argent is also 1 of the GREAT narrators in that, as far as he knows, he is a 100% truthful revealer of facts. I was really thrilled to know that such a novel existed, but just as pissed to know it would probably never be published because of its overt simplicity. Local University of Minnesota professor Michael Dennis Browne had told Bruce the novel was not good after reading a 15-20 page excerpt. This was 10 years before I saw the mss. For a decade it sat in Bruce’s desk drawer because this bad writer (Google him & you’ll agree!), in a position of power, discouraged him. I’d thought little enough of MDB prior to learning this fact- but after, sheez! I asked Art Durkee to read Bruce’s novel, just for confirmation for the wary & insecure Bruce. As I predicted, Art was as positively effusive as I was! In short, it is at least an excellent- & likely a GREAT- novel. Yet, it’s probably the only sort of novel Bruce could pull off successfully. Were he to engage a sci fi or typical fiction novel, it would probably not be very good.
The reason also relates to Bruce’s poetry. While capable of some really GREAT poems- at least 6 or 7 by my count, & perhaps twice as many, Bruce also lacks the consistent critical facility to know why his writing works- when it does. On to the poetry:
Let me state that Bruce has brought a good portion of bad poems to the UPG- as well as some great poems. Most have been somewhere in the middle. Yet even those unsuccessful poems are as good as the bulk of successful poems of far more well-known & published ‘plain speech’ poets as William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, or Larry Eigner. In fact, despite their reps for the music of the mundane, all 3 are anything but. The very enjambment of most of their poems argues against their representing the ‘spoken’ word. Bruce, however, has no such problems in his patented ario verse form. The ario is a 10 line form of 4 stanzas in free verse. There is no syllable count- the only stricture is that the stanzas have 3, 3, 3, & 1 line each. Dramatically, the form is a de facto free verse Shakespearean sonnet minus 1 line per stanza. The endline/last stanza serve the same dramatic purpose as the Shakespearean end couplet- as a summing up. However, unlike the sonnet’s end, the last line of an ario can also send the reader off in to another direction; it can be contrapuntal, if not just ornery. But an ario is a zeitgeist too- not just a form. Last year some UPGers had a contest to see who could write the best ario. While some were technically good- they all lacked the POV that is total Bruce. The same POV on life that makes John Argent such an interesting novelistic narrator. Yet Bruce is very hit & miss himself. He rarely revises poems he’s brought. He uses his gut, more than his head. I’ve often wondered if Bruce’s brain had not experienced so many traumas earlier in his life would he be much more consistent a poet?
Now I want to do a comparison of 3 well-known poems by the 3 aforementioned ‘plain speech’ poets to 3 arios I have posted on Cosmoetica. I will try to pair them off via approach & subject, as well show why Bruce’s arios are much superior. 1st the famous poem, then the ario, then brief commentary.
As I was walking
I came upon
the same road upon.
As I sat down
by chance to move
if and as I might,
light the wood was,
light and green,
and what I saw
before I had not seen.
It was a lady
by goat men
Her hair held earth.
Her eyes were dark.
A double flute
made her move.
where are you
Copyright © by Robert Creeley
My life sashayed into a train
Running far faster than legal limits.
I was thrown out of the passenger seat like a pit.
There I met dogs, thieves and
Occasionally with light in their lives-
A place to rendezvous and start up
For a match I could only sense.
I couldn't hardly rise to take my seat
Among the others who didn't know
Where I was or where I was going
Copyright © by Bruce Ario
Let’s start from the end 1st. Both poems end with what seem
to be naked clichés. By themselves neither is particularly profound. But what
leads up to each line makes Creeley’s end a cliché & Bruce’s line not.
Creeley’s has some nice sounds (alliteration, assonance, rimes), yet it says
nothing new. 1000s of poems (especially those on love) have essayed the same territory in the same ways- the road to ________.
The speaker is lost, has a revelation, & finds love. Not a bad poem- in fact
1 of Creeley’s better poems. But Bruce’s poem, also on finding oneself, is
better. From the enigmatic title, which is more inviting than Creeley’s, to
its descriptions & metaphors- no light & green wood, earthen hair, or
dark eyes. No. Bruce’s life sashays, then is vaulted faster by a train. The 1st
stanza ends with a great image of the speaker’s lostness- being thrown out of
a seat like a pit. He meets an odd assortment before him & is ready to actually
‘participate’ in living. He seeks communion by returning to his ‘seat’,
with others equally clueless, yet whether he makes it depends on how you read
line 8’s ‘couldn’t’- the speaker may or may not have made it. He is
stuck midway- the direction is up & down- not the 4 cardinal points, nor
backwards or forwards. The endline is thus a natural outflow of the predicament
& a stabilizing force in a poem you feel dizzy trying to understand.
Creeley’s speaker merely exhales & follows- all previous actions, as
sitting, are just that- there is no metaphoric gravitas to the speaker’s
situation. He has direction. Bruce’s speaker does not, & the reader’s
role is much more important- for the reader has full power to decide how the
poem is to be taken.
On to an even more famous poem & Bruce’s counterpart:
If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,-
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely,
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,-
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?
Copyright © by William Carlos
is this wind?
The marionetted leaves filter
Power lightly taking on
The images before me.
courier of my imagination
Defeat of gravity and all
Else locking my mind.
Blow through me until
I am transported into
That special place
And stand against your whimsy.
Ó by Bruce Ario
Both poems have a speaker reinforcing a belief in himself. WCW’s is
really straightforward description. An enigmatic title seems to be the most
interesting part of the poem. Is the speaker Russian? Or in a brown, decaying
mood? Both? Why line 1 is set apart is odd. It seems to serve no rational
purpose. Clichés abound: flame-white sun, silken mists, shining trees, as well
the before the mirror surmise. The ‘lonely’ mantra is unoriginal, although
not inappropriate, since the safe (clichéd) situation leads us to no other
place which would not seem contrived. The end- description + query- really
shines. This is a good poem, but it’s all backheavy. His might have been a
great poem had the 1st 2/3s been better. Let’s look at the ario.
Aside from its concision- due to the form- its images & description are far
more intriguing: leaves filtering power which become image. In 1 3 line stanza
we get a total cycle which evokes sunlight backlighting leaves which may or may
not fall. Then this great description of what- leaves, images, power? Whatever,
it is a muse that is a dreadnaught. It conquers the physical & psychic
worlds. The speaker then invokes this thing to filter through him as well. The
‘special place’ is not clichéd because it is revealed as a coy jab by the
next lines rebuke to lightness. That this remarkable call to personal power is
titled as a question with the word wind in it only highlights the poem’s
words' actual uniqueness. That this poem actually works away from query to
declamation, while WCW’s poem does almost the total opposite, contrasts well.
Kind of makes standing before a mirror look silly.
On to the most avant of this poetic tercet. Let’s compare Larry Eigner’s lauded style to the mighty ario.
in view but time
here a direction
the land drowned or
Copyright © by Larry Eigner
And out the windows
Life is what it seems
Or much more than possible.
Suppose I settle in
Suppose I give up support
Suppose I just ride
I really hope the headlights are shining.
Ó by Bruce Ario
Both poems use description of things passing by. Eigner’s title
suggests it is part of a movement. Then we get simple description- rather
generic at that. About the only non-descriptive moment is when the speaker tells
us time creeps on- not particularly original. & why is ‘exposed’ broken?
The word ‘posed’ can stand alone but ‘ex-’ cannot. The last stanza’s
imagery of night is so dull & trite that the insertion of the word
‘night’ is superfluous. Not much of a poem- & a poem that can be tossed
off in 3 or 4 minutes. Or in Eigner’s case- due to ALS- 30-40 minutes! Also,
the poem’s word placement hardly qualifies as ‘natural’- it’s the height
of artifice. Let’s see this in comparison to the ario. We get a very,
seemingly, trite title. Then we get the opening sentence. 1 word. Coming after
the title we are really hammered. Trains have tracks, but is the train being
spied & measured as it moves? Or is it merely on the tracks- unmoving?
There’s a nice dissonance that propels us onward. The rest of the line is a
warning- why? Line 2 answers enigmatically. Cue to moving images. We must be in
the train, after all, because we’re looking out of windows- no? At this point
in the poem the reader is very disoriented. We then get a calming ‘Life is
what it seems’- homily? No. Because the next line refutes it. Then the
repetitive ‘Supposes’. This gives us the chugga-chugga of a train in a very
new way than the standard iambic attempt at such in many train poems. What the 3
lines say also works as a exhalation in contrast to the dissonant start. Note,
too, how the relative paucity of punctuation here tends to compress the imagery,
as if dream-like, or if picking up speed & thrusting the speaker back into
his seat. Also, contrast this to Apparent Scope’s ending. There the
speaker is ever middling & at the reader’s discretion. Here the speaker is
snuggling in to his situation- yet the end image is his thought of exit into a
new place. The train headlight image is very powerful- even more so in this new
light. Look at the last 8 lines. Very plain. Some are borderline clichés if
left alone. Yet, in concert, they build a strange power, almost all derived from
the great start. The power is definitely of ‘plain speech’- hard to get more
plain than the last 8 lines.
Each of these 3 arios is significantly better than its more famous counterpart. Each is arguably a great poem- some of Bruce’s best. Now, I don’t want to give a false impression. This is the ario at its apogee. Most arios- Bruce’s or others- are not as good. & the main ingredient, other than the 3, 3, 3, 1 stanza form, is the mix of plain speech with unique situation or POV. The ario is a marvel of concision & exposition when it clicks well. Let me end by stating that Bruce’s mastery, at times, of the ario’s intricacies is probably an outcome of Bruce’s mental state- which is often discombobulated, yet also hyperlucid! But what marvelous discombobulation! Bruce’s best work deserves more readers. I have concentrated on Bruce’s baby- the ario- while only briefly limning his great novel Cityboy. That’s because excerption would be almost futile. The novel is as close to an in toto piece as 1 can get. But it shares much with the perceptual stances of the best arios. The 3 arios I have discussed should be rather obvious in their excellence. So is the novel. I’ve even invoked Shakespeare as a comparison to Bruce. Nonsense, you say. True, Bruce has not written 37 plays- a dozen of which are great- at least to my knowledge. Nor has he penned a dozen or so great sonnets. But the Bard never wrote a great novel- Bruce has. Nor did the Bard ever invent a form- contrary to popular belief, he merely popularized the Shakespearean sonnet, he did not invent it. Bruce is both the inventor & undisputed Master of the ario. & the number of his great arios rivals the number of the Bard’s great sonnets. Artists often beg for support for being for the ‘right’ causes or ideals. That’s bunk! Support excellent art- which Bruce’s best work is. But if you want a PC reason, know that Bruce hopes greater exposure for him & his work will allow him to bring the plight of the mentally ill to a greater audience. Think about that! You can do the right thing (support great art) for the right reason (because it should get support) for a good reason (helping the less fortunate). Plus you’ll enjoy yourself while learning to stand against your whimsy!
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