Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Book of Jade

The Book of JadeThe Book of Jade by David Park Barnitz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While I love poetry, I am far from qualified to analyze it in any depth. For me, getting The Book of Jade was an attempt to deepen my ability to read and dig into poetry with greater depth. Because of the breadth of this volume (all the writing contained therein that are explicitly not poetry), I feel like this was a fantastic way to take a deep dive. This is not to say that I don't appreciate (what I consider to be) good poetry - I really do love the form. But I'm just not very good at plucking out themes and some poetic subtleties like others can. That's also not to say that I don't have opinions. About half of the poems here are ones I would consider "good" poetry - and, no, I'm not even going to attempt to define "good" here. That's all subjective: I know it when I see it. Your identification of a "good" poem will likely disagree with mine. Such is art.

Barnitz opens with a dedication "To the Memory of Charles Baudelaire" - an auspicious start, before the poetry has even begun! You can do much worse than to lead with that.

I will also play the coquette (or whatever the male equivalent is) by not telling you, title-by-title, which poems I considered the best. Here, I give only a faint gloss on the poems themselves because this volume is so much more than the mere poetry.

"Sombre Sonnet" is a goth manifesto. I approve. I've always had a little goth, who hides behind my heart and peeks out occasionally - most especially when I am writing fiction. The poem's first stanza is:

I love all sombre and autumnal things,
Regal and mournful and funereal,
Things strange and curious and majestical,
Whereto a solemn savor of death clings:

This is made abundantly evident throughout. It is Barnitz's morbidity, more than anything else, that stands out to fan and critic alike.

"Nocturne" is a poem worth quoting in full. Alas, I don't have the time, stamina, or legal team to successfully transcribe this four-page-long love poem. If you have goth friends who are planning on getting married, offer to read this at their wedding, then at their respective funerals. They will not be disappointed!

If you are prone to a mid-life crisis, do not read "The House of Youth". It is not for the sentimental, nor the nostalgic, especially if guns, pills, ropes, or cutting tools are near at hand. It hurt to read that poem, which, to me means that, yes, it was good. But bad. In a good way.

My single favorite line amongst all the poems is: "Until the dead stars rot in the black sky", found in the poem "The Grave". Neither Ligotti nor Lynch could have done better. Barnitz occasionally leaves the merely decadent and rises through the dark clouds to the sublime.

"Fragments" is, ironically, the most cohesive and comprehensive poem in the entire Book of Jade. It might be Baritz's best (though I'm confident that the critiques I read disagree with me)! At eight pages, it has breadth, but does not meander. Every word is chosen carefully, and the meter escapes the sometimes-trite rhyme schemes that make some of the works in The Book of Jade seem dated and even "twee".

Barnitz also wrote essays, which are included in this volume. In the first, he utterly annihilates Rudyard Kipling in what I can only call an Anti-eulogy for the dead writer (though Kipling was not dead when this was written - Barnitz asserts that Kipling's writing was symbolically dead at the time of writing. In point of fact, Kipling outlived Barnitz, who died early either from suicide, heart failure, or drug overdose, depending on which sources you believe). Essentially, he destroy's Kipling's reputation by saying there is no reputation there worth destroying. If I were to define the word "scathing" by way of using a literary critique as an illustration, this would be the one.

Barnitz's essay "The Art of the Future"(1901) is an intriguing overview of the state of affairs in American art, music, and literature at that time. There's acknowledgement that not much is happening, but an overly-hopeful patriotic streak runs wide throughout. Barnitz is an excellent essayist, and I would have liked to have read more, even if I didn't fully agree with him or his stylistic choices.

There is a biography included, as well, which shows Barnitz to be a contrarian, plain and simple, one of those people who channels his high intelligence into focused spite. Normally, I might laud Barnitz's snarkiness toward his father, but while reading this biography, I am feeling more and more that he was just a petulant jerk of a son. It's too bad he died young, or he might have gotten over himself and proven a great contributor to dark poetry, maybe even philosophy. Middle age tends to do that to a person.

With so much happening with decadence in and around Harvard during the time Barnitz attended there, it's a wonder that we have very little direct evidence that he interacted with his poetic peers. One wonders if he was a misanthrope or even sociopathic? In any case, he died ignominiously and his work was forgotten until discovered by those who "discovered" H.P. Lovecraft, who mentions Barnitz in a couple of his letters.

Many of the contemporary reviews of The Book of Jade are damning. Most of the critiques of his work are unforgiving, merciless. If you asked the critics, it's a wonder that Barnitz was ever published at all, though I think this is an unfair assessment. Still, I've gotten in trouble on GR for writing reviews like these!

Following the reviews is a section replete with various biographical sketches and references to Barnitz. I realize that this section is meant to satisfy the completist, but I grew tired of it quickly. It's like a really, really boring phone game in which people ("scholars") perpetuate and morph errors again and again. Make it stop!

Next follows a series of essays, and this is what I consider the brain of the book (the poems themselves being the heart, of course, the previous section of biographical sketches the bowels and bladder). K.A. Opperman's essay "The Perfection of the Corpse: Necrophilia in The Book of Jade" is exactly the sort of scholarship I was hoping for in the extra material of this volume. It's a careful thematic analysis focused on one aspect of the poems that draws the subject of necrophilia to the forefront. Now, necrophilia might not be your "thing" (it's not mine, either), but the treatment of the subject is an amazing piece of scholarship, not too academic, but exacting enough that one must take it seriously.

The essay "The Grotesques: Sins Against the Afterlife" by Ashley Dioses really helps my appreciation of Barnitz's ouvre. As I've said, I'm not a good poetry analyst. I'm learning, but I'm far from erudite in this regard: a real amateur! So, it's great to read an essay like Dioses' that I can apply as I go back and reread the poems in my efforts to become better at reading poetry. I'm making progress!

If it was illustrated with cartoons, the first segment of Matt Sarraf's essay on "Barnitz and Pessimism" would read like a reverse Jack Chick tract on anti-natalism. That said, Sarraf does an excellent job of concisely laying out the philosophical war between Hegel and Schopenhauer and arguing (successfully, I think) that Barnitz based his text for the poem "Hegel" on Schopenhauer's arguments against the Hegelian view.

Chuck Caruso, in his essay "I am Weary of that Lidless Eye", gives a fantastic line-by-line analysis of Barnitz's "Mad Sonnet". He also explains Hegel's "abyss of subjectivity" quite well. But his reading of the poem "Hegel" misses the mark and his analysis of Barnitz's poems through the lens of Hegelian philosophy is strained and unconvincing. Interesting that this essay should follow after Sarraf's. Score: Sarraf +1, Caruso 0.

Gavin Callaghan's critique of Barnitz's critique of Rudyard Kipling, "Two Dead men: Park Barnitz and Rudyard Kipling" rightly points out some of the inherent hypocrisy in Barnitz's essay on Kipling. But there is a decidedly pro-conservative bent to the whole essay that becomes as derisive of Barnitz as Barnitz was derisive of Kipling. It's good to have the balance of views, but taken by itself, the essay was off-putting.

Barnitz's poems range from trite to awe-inspiring. If this volume only contained the poems, I might be wont to give it a three, possibly four-star rating. But, given the inclusion of so much scholarly material (so much that one can easily grow tired of it, honestly) of varying viewpoints, this is clearly much more than that. If you are an aficionado of decadence with an eye for scholarly criticism being bandied about, this is your book. If you are, like me, an aspiring comprehender-of-the-poetic, you would do well to pick it up and dive deep into the "loathed sty"!

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  1. I was startled to see a review of that old essay of mine on Barnitz and philosophy. I'm quite sure I'll never read that essay again--if I did I'd be wincing in pain. I wrote it as an undergrad, and from what I remember, the text makes that all too clear. It's embarrassingly overwrought and has no shortage of other problems, I'm sure. Clearly I was trying to show off with a lot of flashy verbiage.

    There was a time that I was sympathetic to anti-natalism, fortunately now past. Excess youthful angst, probably.

    In any case, I appreciate your kind remarks on the interpretive aspect of the essay.

    1. I felt your essay was quite successful, Matt. And, yes, some of my youthful angst has sloughed off, thankfully! I'm still a . . . "pessimist" isn't the right word . . . skeptic? Maybe just "guarded," but age has softened some of that angst, rather than heightened it for me. Do existentialists soften with age, I wonder?