Saturday, 26 July 2008

I Remember by Joe Brainard

One of the challenges facing us in the 21st century is that we have too many reading choices; each year (yes each year) around 320,000 books hit UK and USA bookstores alone. And the pace of this is increasing with smaller and smaller print runs meaning more and more specialised segmented reader markets. Don’t know about you, but over my allotted 70-80 years I may manage 1001 books to read before you die; meaning that over my life tsunami of published books, I will read a passing sip of around 0.1% only. Think about all those great books that you are going to miss because of the noise from the ones with the best marketing budgets. Or from reading, what you always read.

I Remember by Joe Brainard is one of those books that was buried with the fishes a long time ago yet deserving of a wider readership. Ok let us get to
the killer; its poetry linked to the New York School of the 1950-60’s, which had a massive influence on contemporary music, art, dance, prose, and poetry. The ‘movements’ approach was observational, physical, using contrasting vivid imagery to shock the observer, listener, or participant into an emotional response that enables a revitalised experience of the world. The poetry of the ‘movement’ was a reaction to the confessional styles of poets such as Sylvia Plath who tended to write about their inner struggles.

Before you think, I sip Earl Grey tea in some fancy café jabbering on about the prevenient nature of the stanza or the catachrestical no-no, of the imagery let me tell you otherwise. My last experience of any poetry was 1975 when I did English Lit O level and although I enjoyed T.S.Elliot and Sylvia Plath, poems on seeing daffodils or Nightingales croaking did zilch for me-and rhymed couplets, please give a guy a break.

To my horror, I discovered I have to write an 80-line poem for my University Creative writing course in the autumn. Reading the course materials calmed me down. The course teaches you to start with an image or word and then free write a story. This triggers decisions on line, stanza, metre etc depending on the mood and scope of the poem. Suddenly it started to make sense so much so that I wrote my first poem in over 40 years. It was doing the background reading that led me to I Remember by Joe Brainard, which is poetry in ways you don’t imagine.

He was a major painter, as well as poet, with a keen interest in collage and assemblage. One of his central works was a collection of over 3000 postcard size images that reflected the public-private experience of living in New York. The book reflects this technique by assembling hundreds of lines starting with I Remember. You may recognise it as a well-known technique for teaching children poetry. The lines list the fashions and fads, public events and private excesses of his 40's and 50’s childhood as well as his creative life of the 60’s and 70’s in simple, honest and witty lines that spin off from each other. In reading, you are hooked into a poetry biography like no other.

You may never have given avant-garde 70’s poetry a thought before but make it one of your 1001 books to read if you get the chance. It’s only a 175 page slurp of a book readable in 1-2 hours as you surf through lines like this:

I remember when babies fall down “oopsydaisy”

I remember, with a limp wrist, shaking your hand back and fourth real fast until it feels like jelly.

I remember trying to get the last of cat food from a can.

I remember when a piece of hair stands up straight after a night of sleeping on it wrong.

I remember before green dishwashing liquid.

I remember a free shoehorn with new shoes.

I remember never using shoehorns.

Not convinced? Let me leave the final word with Paul Auster.

I Remember is a masterpiece. One by one, the so-called important books of our time will be forgotten, but Joe Brainard's modest little gem will endure. In simple, forthright, declarative sentences, he charts the map of the human soul and permanently alters the way we look at the world. I Remember is both uproariously funny and deeply moving. It is also one of the few totally original books I have ever read.

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