Monday, December 6, 2010

How the state co-opts community and personal responsibility

Here we have two opposing views on what it means to be a responsible member of a community.

In the first we have Jesus:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

And then we have The MTA, now co-opted by DHS:

Remember, if you see something, say something. Alert a police officer, train or bus operator, station personnel or call 888-NYC-SAFE.

The first requires individual courage and responsibility.

The second relinquishes both courage and responsibility to the state.

Since we are what we imitate, in which world would you live?

Why Bad Poetry is Bad for Poetry

Walter Benjamin: we have a "gift of seeing resemblances."

Iain McGilchrist: "Imagination is how we know what we know and how we become who we are."

Humans are imitative animals. I'm demonstrating this if nothing else than by these posts from the Good Doctor's Good Book, in which I stop reading because I have "seen a resemblance" between what McGilchrist has written and the reality of poetry.

We imitate what we know.

When we are given "bad poetry" to imitate--poetry that is selfish, that is closeted, that is straight-jacketed by convention (even, perhaps especially, when that convention is "experimentation"), that is, for lack of a better term, bad--we in turn make bad poetry.

The first test of "bad poetry" should be:

does someone who is not a poet like this?

Why, you ask?

It's easy. We process art as a new, whole, living thing--unless it is something we have studied in depth--then we begin to process art with which we are familiar as pieces of a mechanical whole. We artists are only "surprised" by something entirely unexpected--even then we may only appreciate it on a mechanical level; i.e. "oh, that is clever" not "oh, that is Good."

The layman, however, still approaches art as a whole thing alive. If the artificiality of your art for artists means that it does not read as a whole living being to a layman then you have failed--you have made, not art, but a clever imitation of art--that is, you have made "bad art."

So what happens when you, as a jaded artist, continue to appreciate "bad art" for its "cleverness" and then teach this to aspiring artists and laymen?

First is that the aspiring artists learn all the wrong things--they learn to create art for artists' sake, not humanity's. They learn that "cleverness" is to be praised above all else. They learn, in short, to make bad art.

What does the layman learn? He learns that art is not for him and rejects it.

Perhaps he is lucky and encounters a novel that a friend passes on, or notices a particularly beautiful painting or sculpture, sees a great play, and rediscovers art. Note what I have left out--where is that layman to find great poetry?

We have become so dedicated to bad poetry that we have no galleries, no word-of-mouth, no stage for greatness--only hollow planks supporting hollow words.

No wonder we are in a rats' land.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

No end, just silence

The end of what, Son?
The story?
There is no end,
there's just the point where storytellers stop talking.
Pretty profound for a little comic strip.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Honesty is the Best Policy

FYI: I support Wikileaks in spirit, if not with capital.

Does that make me a terrorist? Or just a thoughtcrime terrorist in training?

Neither artist nor Christian should side with secrecy and dishonesty. It's unfortunate that our current purveyor of disclosure and honesty should be such an apparently unseemly fellow (one should avoid all appearances of impropriety) but I, as a proud member of civilization, applaud his organization's work, even if it means DHS opens a file in my name.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Palmer on Poetry: 197.2 November 2010

To say that November's issue of Poetry pleased me far greater than October's would be unsurprising to those familiar with my taste. November's issue has sat on my desk for a few weeks now, and since December's issue came in the mail on Friday, I figured it was time to get this review done.

Volume 197
Issue 2
November, 2010

Ron Offen
Edwin Morgan
Samuel Menashe
Karen An-Hwei Lee
Joshua Mehigan
Derek Sheffield
Jeramy Dodds
Alan Shapiro
Donald Hall
Billy Collins
Larry Bradley
Wesley McNair
David Yezzi
Lance Larsen
Rebecca Lindenberg
Brian Swann
Christopher Shannon
Dora Malech
Brooklyn Copeland
Miriam Bird Greenberg
Nate Klug
D.H. Tracy on Ange Mlinko and Gjertrud Schnackenberg
Giacomo Leopardi (trans. W.S. DiPiero)
Various Letters to the Editor complaining about this review or praising this essay.

The gravestone poem on the first endsheet of November's issue is by Ron Offen. He begins "Being of Pound mind, hence dotty" and I have to stop there if for no other reason than from what I can tell, having spent time with folks who knew Pound well (like his daughter, Mary), I don't think "dotty" is the right word--though it certainly belies a lot about Offen (and a general set of poets): Pound must have been "crazy" to believe things because no sane person can believe differently from me. Ach du.

The remainder of the poem is a mashup of creeds; a sort of prayer-vow-credo that really highlights the limited and pathetic nature of its vein of contemporary poetry.

The first poem proper is "Who" from Samuel Menashe. As the delivery of the November issue predates Hallowe'en, I think the poem itself is a nice touch for those who might want to "decorate" with poetry. The poem itself does a good job of "touch[ing] "the corpse[s]" of the Golem story and Dr. Frankenstein, with the requisite hints to Job thrown in and is a study of how much one can pack into six quick half-lines.

"Who" is followed by two poems by Karen An-Hwei Lee: "Prayer for a Bamboo-Flowering Famine" and "Dream of Ink Brush Calligraphy." "Prayer for a Bamboo-Flowering Famine" refers to this phenomenon, which means that the poem, in light of its first five lines, tries to have it both ways:

May our seedpods nourish rodents
who roam our groves

without rebuking lands with famine.

Well, that's pretty impossible. Either the seedpods are going to feed the rats and create a rat flood (yes, you read that correctly: Rat. Flood.) or they're not going to blossom. It's hard to take a poem seriously that errs so egregiously in its dealings with reality--but there's nothing wrong in dreaming (or praying), though one dreams or prays for something impossible. The poem, ultimately, is over-long but nice enough, with lovely phrasing like "turmeric flourish" and "perennial synchrony."

In another unreal poem, Lee's "Dream of Ink Brush Calligraphy" begins "In prayer." The poem is a reversal/palindromic poem; each line is repeated except for the middle line, "chaogao or grass calligraphy." The poem creates a nice concrete image of a calligraphic stroke, raising what could easily be a "trick poem" to something more useful--an interesting retreading of the "ink as my blood" theme.

Joshua Mehigan's "Fire Safety" comes next, which I am delighted to say is a precise example of what I mean by "fun verse" (though the phrase "nothing to reveal" is perhaps a tad both inaccurate and harsh). Mehigan personifies all of the life-saving devices tucked away "like a tea urn," sitting/supernaturally still" "waiting for us to cry out" because the poem, the poet, and its readers know "we will." A fine and fun poem.

I'm still trying to understand why Derek Sheffield's "The World's Other Side" is center-justified. Poets, please, don't do this--the only thing more ugly is to not lineate at all. The poem itself lacks a center, so perhaps this is the reason. "The World's Other Side" is made up of three unmarked sections. The first is a description of death in Japan. The second is a description of a father at the beach. The third is a memory of finding a globe in the ocean. If you can figure out what these three sections are doing together, please feel free to comment. Perhaps the poem is a sort of macro-ideogram: death-beach-globe and is a metaphor for Pearl Harbor. I've no idea--and more importantly--the poem doesn't give me a reason to want to know.

Jeramy Dodds' parents "blessed" him with an "alternate spelling" of his name. Perhaps this inherent confusion--this strife to make sure his name is spelled "correctly" plays out in his work--a second disjointed work, though one with far more hints as to "why" than the previous poem. Perhaps, of course, I'm just editorializing.

At any rate, Dodds's "Harbor Porpoise" juxtaposes two scenes or rather two views of a scene: viewing a porpoise jumping out of the water as folks leave a place to which they "cannot return" and a relating of a discussion of the event with the ship's marriage counselor. The poem is marred by an anachronistic and unearned "thus" which serves to mark the shift from the first to second part. I suppose the poem is a serviceable image of said porpoise and there is imagery sort of hanging around, but the whole thing seems unemployed. One would guess that the dual nature of the porpoise speaks to some sort of relationship between the speaker and his apostrophe, but there's not enough there there to suss it out.

So speaking of Pound, ever since I read as a high-school sophomore that Pound took a green crayon to The Waste Land, I have found myself editing poems that I thought could benefit from such cutting.

One such poem is Alan Shapiro's "Flowerpot." In just about every line there's an unnecessary word: "I lay back on the carpeted bottom step" needs either "carpeted" or "bottom" but not both. Likewise we don't need to know the television is "on somewhere above me"--either location will do. Having cut the lines so that the poem appears like the first draft of Radi Os, I like the poem and its view of the colloidal sunbeam.

Shapiro's second poem, "Sickbed," suffers from a problem hinted at in "Flowerpot": being trapped in time. In "Flowerpot" we hear of the television, a word even now old enough to date its speaker but in "Sickbed" we hear the song about "short shorts," which either dates us to the late 1950s or to the mid 80s and those awful Nair commercials. It is possible Nair is still running that campaign--but one would have to watch "television" regularly to know--'taint no Nair commercials online 'ceptin' for youtube. Anyway, the poem ends with the ancient notion "no one paused to wonder/Who to thank for just how bad it was." I say ancient because in the book of Job, God asks: "will you pronounce me wicked/in order that you may be right?" "Sickbed" is a odd poem to come upon before Thanksgiving--it's the voice of someone who can't see the forest for the trees--Thank God you're not dead. Thank God you're not a child soldier. Thank God your mind still works. Thank God you've got the leisure to write and read poetry.

Next is Donald Hall's lengthy "Closings," an elegy in nine parts for Liam Rector. The poem, like all of Hall's work of the last fifteen years, is also an elegy to Jane Kenyon, who is mentioned in one of the poem's many sectional enjambments. The poem works, as it does, though it's possibly too close to the subject be useful more broadly and one suspects that it finds itself in the pages of Poetry both because of Hall's prominence and Rector's importance to the citizens of Poetry America. The poem ends on a wrong note, though one Hall felt he had to write, in order to deal with the subject:

Tree knew Liam
did what he planned and needed to do.

Tree is Tree Swenson, Rector's widow. Hall lets Rector get away with the suicide, which apart from rearranging deck chairs, hardly makes for a moving elegy--an elegy doesn't accompany a proper death but rather one that, as James Dickey says, bares "that eternal process/most obsessively wrong with the world."

It is telling, of course, that "Closings" comes on the heels of "Sickbed." These poems reject not so much God (though that is implicit in such behavior it is hardly necessary to the conversation) but the sense of wonder and awe in humanity. Both of these poets, both of these poems look Dylan Thomas's "dying of the light" in the face and give up and die.

Is this where we, as poets, have come?

Next comes Billy Collins's "Memorizing 'The Sun Rising' by John Donne." I know I've had less than complimentary things to say in the past about Mr. Collins, and I stand by them. This poem is interesting, as are Collins's poems, in that it takes a clever conceit and runs with it.

This poem takes Donne's aubade and throws it into the middle of a solitary work poem. Donne's speaker is surrounded by his lady, Collins's speaker is surrounded by poetry--it is possible, even probable, that Collins wants the poem to work as a love poem to a love poem. And as that is, it's fine. My complaint with Collins is, as always, that his poems don't stand up to being beaten with that "rubber hose" and I want my poems tougher.

Collins is followed by Larry Bradley's "Barber," a poem that for some reason lacks most punctuation. It reminds me of Christopher Smart's cat and doesn't seem to update much from that point.

"When She Wouldn't" by Wesley McNair is a poem in the old-folks-at-home tradition. It surfs the wave of popularity lent by the show Hoarders and is rather overlong for a poem about not doing things.

Continuing the thematic vein of inaction, David Yezzi's "Lazy" does a better job at doing nothing. Yezzi has several poems in the voice of an "asshole speaker," my favorite being "The Call," collected in Azores. This poem is along those lines, though more metrically and sonically playful. With hints of Pound's "Tame Cat" (why does he keep popping up in this issue? Damn you, Offen!), the speaker spins around engaging with anyone as his radio spins in the dial--until landing on a song that's "not the one [he] hoped for." I put a period here because the poem ends more strongly on the line than the next, which is unnecessary, even if its unnecessariness is perhaps intentional.

For something completely different, Yezzi's "Lazy" is followed by his "Crane," which along with being diametrically opposed to laziness, is a structure apart. Its clean lines that approach dimeter without being trapped and clean rhymes remind one of the poem's "creased paper." The poem itself speaks of slow construction, the process by which we "press our designs" which seems to "diminish/what we hold." In the end, though, the speaker can

how this unleaving
makes of what's before
something finer
and finally more.

It's a flawless note on the process of creation; creation as "unleaving." We artisan apes cannot leave a thing untouched--and by our "hands'/careful work" what we touch becomes at first "diminish[ed]" but "finally more." My note on the poem is simply: "damn, son." This truth of creation, important in general, will be specifically important later in the review.

Yezzi's work is followed by Lance Larsen's "Backyard Georgics," seven couplets apparently unrelated. The third and seventh are especially lovely--the third reprinted here because of the issue's dependence upon elegy:

Not euologies or hearses but sandwiches after,
estranged cousins chewing under one umbrella.

Rebecca Lindenberg's "Litany" follows this and since I'm already connecting everything to Pound, I might as well point out that the poem sounds like "Canto II" with its "long-limbed animals" but quickly makes what can only be termed an Essbaumian turn: "O you gods. . ." becomes "O you gods. . .please." Like "child, please."

The poem doesn't quite turn into a satire of itself, however; its lines following the turn keep the lift of the opening's language, only hinting back at playfulness with the likely puns of "coax" and "her soft hollow," which lead to a second "please," this time, not playful at all, but entreating the gods to "lend [her] a word." Acknowledging the gift, at the end, she sings.

The "regular poems" are closed out by Brian Swann's "Peel," a poem that, about an orange and creating art, reminds one of Frank O'Hara's much anthologized poem. Being from Florida, I do like oranges. Can we find a new metaphor though?

The next group of poets are all "Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellows" which means that the poets each got an award of $15,000 and so if you see them you should hit them up for drinks.

The first poet is Christopher Shannon, whose poems "We dollhouse monsters," "We had decided with Cocteau," and "The Late Show" each commit some errors that one supposes can be chalked up to youth. In "monsters," Shannon has apparently not learned that folks don't really want genitalia in their poetry--especially not genitalia pertaining to ones father. The rest of the poem is similar to McNair's "When She Wouldn't" but with the requisite disdain for structure that passes for artistry these past ten decades. We are told, by way of explanation that the speaker of "We had decided. . ." is Igor Stravinsky. This may be true, but it doesn't make me any "less proud of being bored," as the poem says. The final poem is "The Late Show" which has little to be forgiven or recommended for.

The second poet is Dora Malech, whose "Delivery Rhyme" is a combination lullaby and gore-fest. Full of punning and wordplay: "debutante bawl," "wrest from the nest," the poem can't get above the "drawn lots, blood" that cover over it. "The Kisser," Malech's next poem is also hamstrung by its dominant image. On can't say "the kisser" and then "as in, in the, of course" and not then be bound by The Honeymooners. This poem is also full of Essbaumian (hey there's that word again) word play--I say Essbaumian because it's "sexy" word play: "trussed me." Her final poem, "Love Poem," gives words to the problem inherent in her work:

KO to my OT and bait to my switch, I crown
you one-trick pony to my one-horse town.

Well, she said it.

The third poet is Brooklyn Copeland, who is apparently channeling e.e. cummings in her "From 'Field Notes,'" which one hopes are not "plucked" from a collection. Far stronger is "Prayer's End," which is disserved by its linear disassociation. "The wind/speaks fluent/rain" is a fine line on its own without being sliced mercilessly. Reverting completely into disjunction, "From 'Reunions'" is another piece that appears, in a refreshing honesty, "penniless/before/a judge."

Miriam Bird Greenberg seems to have an idea of how a poem should appear on the page and moreover seems to enjoy narrative, but with "Brazilian Telephone" and "I Passed Three Girls Killing a Goat" she seems to forget Twain's instruction that "a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere." So while I always praise the attempt at narrative, I wish these were good narratives. Greenberg's final poem, "Long ago I heard footsteps," has more of a story--in fewer words--but it attempts to create a mystery by leaving out important information--not exactly the preferred mode of construction; however, the poem itself "works" in a way the previous two don't.

The final fellow is Nate Klug, whose "The Choice," with a nod to "Prufrock" and Bishop's "One Art" would be better written as a two- or three-line aphorism. "Parade" and "Conjugation" work towards their final images and questions but without lifting above the bar set by "The Choice."

The final endsheet poem is a nice apocalyptic piece from Edwin Morgan that is a fine combination of 60s end-times chic and H.D.'s "Oread."

In the Comment section, D.H. Tracy reviews two works: Ange Mlinko's Shoulder Season, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg's Heavenly Questions. Tracy, in full Enlightenment mode, praises Mlinko for being "self-conscious about aesthetic cliche. . .that descriptive fidelity would expose her to." He sings that in her work "nothing is quite literally given shape and, as it were, trapped." To quote Ms. Lindenberg: "gods, please." It floors me that this review comes on the heels of Mlinko's interview with Iain McGilchrist and that Tracy--and apparently Mlinko--misunderstand how the mind views art. When we see a painting of a landscape, we think neither to ourselves "this is a window" nor "this is some color on a board." Art does not have to draw attention to itself in the way that Mlinko's poetry appears to, according to Tracy's review, and in the way that Tracy's review does in its self-referentiality. When a work says "I'm art here! I'm being fake here!" it robs the mind of its ability to see it as art--as something alive and new--and only leaves the work as object.

Tracy's review of Schnackenberg's work is, I assume, intended to make sure Heavenly Questions "sit[s] on this year's shelf with a hundred other poetry books, to all appearances an identical order of thing." It does the trick.

The penultimate section is a collection of writings by Giacomo Leopardi, translated by W.S. DiPiero. There are a few passages worth mentioning, that serve to criticize poetry in general and Poetry in particular. I wonder, with reading this work and the McGilchrist interview if such things are seen by the staff--I would guess they are.

First the quote that graces the back cover:

Everything since Homer has improved, except poetry.

Though I would take a bit of umbrage at this (friendship? love?), Leopardi's point is one to be taken by today's writers: what, exactly are you trying to improve?

More succinctly, art doesn't change. A minor interval is just as "sad" now as it was four thousand years ago. An archetypal, moving hero is the same today as four thousand years ago--the need to sell news aside.

Second, from August 7, 1822:

Certain foolish poets, realizing description gives pleasure, reduce poetry to nonstop description: they drain all pleasure from poetry and replace it with boredom.

He goes on to paint Ovid with this brush, so if you are feeling "called out" remember that you are in good company. This quote is the problem with the Greenberg poems above--all setting and no story.

There is an excellent passage from July 12, 1823 in which he discusses what it means for a poet to be "contemporary." His jist is that "cultured people" are "self-engrossed and philosophical, stripped of meaningful illusions and barren of vital passions" and when they call for poets to be "contemporary," they want the poets "to conform to the language and ideas of this narrow class of people."

"What is poetic in them?" he asks. What indeed.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Three--no, Four--truths about Art

Keeping in mind that truth conceals as much as it reveals.
Also, the first is not mine, but comes directly from Joe Bastianich, and apparently indirectly from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Children's Publishing.

Art without commerce is just a hobby.

If you must explain your work you have failed as an artist.

If it can be summarized it is not art.

And a fourth (from the Good Dr. McGilchrist): We experience art as a living thing.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why Do We Still Have the Old New?

If Heidegger proved that things repeated become "dulled and inauthentic," ultimately resulting in our conceptualizing of them, which is an inability to directly experience them, and Wittgenstein showed that practice--that is, experience--is always more important, more primal, more real, more useful than theory,

Why do we still have a dominant poetic mode based upon a 100-year-old call misinterpreted as senseless innovation strangled and supported by theory?

It is no wonder that our art is sclerotic--it is held up not by reality but by machine.

It is time we pulled the plug.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Thinking rationally is only half thinking.

The root of "rationally" means "to count."

Counting--rational thinking--means separating the parts from the whole. Rational thinking is essentially dissection. You cannot think rationally about a subject and keep your subject alive.

One must also think holistically.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Poem as a Poem is Not Enough

from The Master and His Emissary (151):

"We see things by seeing them as something."

Another problem with self-aware quasi-Enlightenment-style modern poetry is that it often takes too close to heart MacLeish's "a poem must not mean but be."

No really, folks, a poem must mean.

That is to say--we already know it's a work of art. We know upon reading the thing that it is, in fact, a poem (prose poetry/ubuweb-stuff aside).

But we cannot see the poem unless we see it as something. We cannot understand the value of the art itself unless it becomes an object in our minds. Not a mere poem, a rank verse, but a living, breathing thing that engages our mind.

McGilchrist says earlier in the book that metaphor is the only way of knowing anything--that we learn and understand by comparison.

If a poem exists solely as itself, it's nothing. It is by calling upon itself comparisons to previous knowledge and experience--that the poem becomes anything, let alone art.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Why Poetry is Difficult

Poetry is inherently difficult because its understanding requires three forms of knowledge:

The denotative meaning of words. That is, words "alone."

The connotative meaning of words. That is, words "in context."

And the archetypal meaning of words. That is, "hyper-contextual words"--words not in the context of the poem itself but in their historical use.

A well-written poem combines the three required forms of knowledge to create meaning on multiple levels--that is, "depth."

The problem with many poems is the direct neglect of one (or more) of these forms of knowledge--creating far more difficult--and ultimately less satisfying--works at the expense--or on the altar of "progress."

Once we understand that the arts do not progress--and that this includes poetry, we can embrace poetry for its inherent artistic value.

This means accepting that poetry, on its face, is "difficult"--moreso than prose--because it requires a greater depth of knowledge--and that there is little point in making it intentionally more difficult (to show ones "intelligence" perhaps?) in order to satisfy some overthought and overwrought "need" of the author.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Language and Manipulation

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is properly named because its practitioners used the manipulative nature of language, specifically through criticism, both formal and informal, to turn poetry from its correct nature as prosody (that is, the music of language) and metaphor into prose spaced on a page--robbed of power, metaphor, and currency.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Palmer on Poetry: 197.1 October 2010

As Poetry doesn't read blind, these reviews are likely the end of any small hope I had of my work being included within its pages. I suppose I embrace that, though being included in the same pages that broke Eliot has always been a dream of mine. Ach du.

I hope to have these reviews done in a more timely fashion in the future, but take them as they come. I hope you, my readers, find them useful.

Volume 197
Issue 1
October, 2010

Leslie Scalapino
Rachel Wetzsteon
Bob Hicok
Eleanor Ross Taylor
Joel Brouwer
Peter Spagnuolo
Dean Young
Jane Mead
Ange Mlinko
Iain McGilchrist
Fanny Howe
Paul Baumstarck
Daisy Fried

October's issue opens with a word-salad tribute to Leslie Scalapino. The poem begins its end with "'embarrassed' is being elated." I'd have to agree; this poem, as an epitaph, is an embarrassment.

The poems proper begin with another tribute. Rachel Wetzsteon's poems "Cabaret Ludwig," "Algonquin Afterthoughts," "The World Had Fled," "Rain at Reading," and "Silver Roses." The order of the first two poems, perhaps, should be reversed--because as "Algonquin Afterthoughts" is quick to point out, Wetzsteon is here rewriting Dorothy Parker. While one wonders if Ms Parker needs rewriting, Wetzsteon's poems are fine for what they are--sexy without solemnity. "Cabaret Ludwig" is clever for the inclusion of the f-bomb in its glaring absence (a poem about sex that rhymes "duck" and "pluck" and "cluck" and "luck" is hardly going about itself subtly) but finally too light. This lightness is echoed in "Algonquin Afterthoughts" in which one is reminded of Milton's exhortation of English rhyme as something "to set off wretched matter." Perhaps Wetzsteon would have agreed; in poems like these there seems to be too much rhyme for meaning to seep in--we're carried to quickly by the words to their works' end. It may be, as with many poems in this issue, that meta-cognition is the point. If true, it's too fine a point on which to balance a poem.

"The World Had Fled" is a lovely poem on the nature of "love's widening third stage" marred by the odd simile of "flying lovesick pigs." What are these pigs doing in the poem? It is as if Wetzsteon was afraid to leave her poem lovely. "Rain at Reading" gives a nearly too precious moment of "exchanges. . .between craft and climate" after which the poem exposes the inherent flaw in much of light verse--as Stein said: "there's no there there."

Wetzsteon's poems do end on a rather more solid note, however, with "Silver Roses," a sort of ballade-canzone hybrid. It's a bit of a disappointment that Wetzsteon didn't insist on a handful (instead of a pailful) of rhymes in this poem--as her strength for rhyme limited to four or five repetitions would have served the poem well--indeed, its most successful points are in its few recurrent internal rhymes:

when he marches in the door
they soar some more

The Italian feel of the poem leads one to look within the words, and in the penultimate image of a "trembling ungloved hand" one can't help but see the word "love." In this final poem, the deft rhyming that is nearly wasted on rewriting Dorothy Parker becomes, not a pushing force, but an inexorability throughout the poem--this is how rhyme drives verse.

Bob Hicok's selections, "Feeling the draft," "Report from the black box," "A private public space," and "Unmediated experience" are underwhelming. The first three poems feel as if the final lines were written and the poems then shoehorned on top of them. There's certainly something to be said for "When the next Adonis/stepped up to throw the bomb" but, as the rest of "Feeling the draft" feels, well, drafty, it's hardly worth the journey. As I said of Wetzsteon, perhaps this is another "meta" poem in which we're supposed to feel drafty until the end--ha ha get it? But I don't think so--and even if I did, that's hardly a conceit on which to build a poem.

"Report from the black box" begins with the precious Wheel-of-Fortunism "A cooler/head of lettuce" and quickly devolves into, as its says, "the etceteras." The poem ends on the question "which side is which side/are you on?" Which begs the question "what thought is what thought/picks these poems?" One can understand the writing of such work--indeed, when I get to Iain McGilchrist below, he sums up why they are written, but one is baffled to consider the publication history of such work. What, finally is the point?

"A private public space" has more "there there" but again drives to the final thought: "'just/a friend'. And oceans are merely dew/upon the land." This is a delightful flaying of the old relational lie, but does the rest of the poem live up to it? Moreover, it's indicative of our current sickness that the poem contains this passage:

I said nothing
for years until this morning I realized
no one reads poems: my secrets and hers
are safe in verse.

Really, now, Poetry?

If we let ourselves adopt this attitude we might as well pen drivel.

"Unmediated experience" is a bit more interesting than the previous works--but a poem that abuses the old chestnut "a puppy is not just for Christmas" to write on growing up leaves an empty taste in the mouth.

Eleanor Ross Taylor's poems include "Vita," "Schizotableau," "Trying to Get Through," and "Small Trek." Unlike the previous two poets, Taylor's work gets exponentially weaker as it progresses from first to last. "Vita" does what light verse is supposed to do--with a not to Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," it captures the nostalgia of childhood in a far more perfect way than Hicok's poem--and with dependence upon nothing but the English language.

Unfortunately, "Vita" is by far Taylor's best work here. "Schizotableau" is simply a rehash of "author-as-writer" works with a dash of Yellow Wallpaperism thrown in. "Trying to Get Through" could be saved as a meta-work--it screams for context as much as its narrator does and though this is perhaps the first poem in the collection to be able to carry itself on its metatextuality this is certainly thin praise. Taylor's selection ends with "Small Trek" that "pointblank" has no point.

Joel Brouwer's "lines": "Lines from the Reports of the Investigative Committees," "Lines on Marriage," and "Lines on Distance" are weighty with craft but for at least the first poem, drowned by temporality. Just a few months after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it is already too late to read such a poem--poetry is not news, it's truth. A mismashed, dial-spinning, wheel-spinning poem simply goes nowhere. Perhaps like all that effort to seal that cap--but I fear that is gilding the wilted lily.

"Lines on Marriage" and "Lines on Distance" are more successful, though "Lines on Marriage" falls into the nihilist's trap:

they don't do
anything and are
no one. Which is to
say they're like us.

. . .

the disease
is pettiness and
mediocrity, which is
to say life itself

The hateful bleakness of Brouwer's poem is countered with the image of marriage, and hearkens back to Wetzsteon's earlier poems in the issue:

and as long as you
are with me I wish
never to be cured.

The speaker has an absence of faith in anything but his love. This is far more bleak than sweet.

"Lines on Distance," while not as disjointed as the first poem, is still bogged down by temporality (the War on Terra) and a distasteful discourse on masturbation. The poem includes the curt instruction: "If nothing like/this has happened to you, imagine it" but its value hardly pays for the poem itself, which ends up being a purposeless poem about purposelessness. If that was the goal, how is the ink superior to a blank page?

Peter Spagnuolo's two sonnets are "Her Scar" and "Interpol 22019-1.7: The Head of the Hatra Apollo." "Her Scar" is a passable nostalgia poem that makes the nearly unforgivable mistake of a heavy-handed etymologicalizing of "remember" into "re-member." I suppose this is inevitable in a climate where metaphor is shunned, but obvious wordplay is hardly a substitute. "Interpol. . ." cuts a more dramatic picture regarding the dual impermeability and inessentiality of art. Of the poems in the issue, it does the best job of painting image--we see the singing goatherd and his Kalashnikov.

Dean Young's two poems: "The New Optimism" and "Speech Therapy" have "learned all the wrong lessons." "The New Optimism" falls prey to histrionics ("the last polar bear") and, though it begins as fine satire, loses it in the last quarter, not unsurprisingly, when it mentions a certain oil spill. "Speech Therapy," as it says "learned the wrong lessons": it begins on a wrong note and ends, not explaining the wrong note, but in an entirely unrelated place--perhaps imagining how the speaker is better than Prufrock? I suppose that's a fine and attainable goal (he's not the best person, you know) but if a poem's going to run up against Eliot, it ought to have some fight in it.

Jane Mead's poems "The Geese" and "Walking, Blues" close out this issue's poetry section. In "The Geese," Mead refers to geese as being "nuanced/and muscular." Perhaps there is a different brand of Goose in Florida and Italy, but I've never seen one I would consider either nuanced or muscular--indeed, cooking a Christmas Goose means using an electric roaster so as not to coat the house oven with fat. "Walking, Blues" is a good stab at light verse, with rhythms and rhymes hidden. But the poem is in such a hurry--to what?--that I can't get a grip on it. I wonder if it's not a rewrite of "We Real Cool"--but it lacks the threat and punch of Brooks' gangsters.

In "This Is Your Brain on Poetry," Ange Mlinko interviews Iain McGilchrist on the nature of the division of the brain and its relationship to poetry. First let me say that McGilchrist's responses were so cogent and moving that I put down the issue in the middle of the interview, went to amazon and ordered the book. If you like the angle of the arguments I have presented on this blog, this book is for you a thousand times over.

Mlikno references the "atomized, utilitarian culture in which . . . the quantitative is valorized" but does not seem to see that this applies to much of contemporary poetry. McGilchrist puts her straight. It is his assertion "that metaphor is the only way of understanding anything." Though I would restate this as "comparison is the only way of understanding anything," McGilchrist is fundamentally correct.

In discussing the value of "slow poetry," McGilchrist says "Subtlety and depth require tact, time, and sheer hard work, not likely to find favor in a culture that demands instant gratification, prefers the loud and blatant over the quiet and tentative [c.f. "School of Quietude"], and is impatient of the idea that nothing good is achieved without a battle. McGilchrist almost dismisses his battle when he says that his neuroscientific research was "rather a waste of time" because it hasn't convinced anyone. It is cogent, however, that as metaphor or comparison is the root of all meaning that people reject correct comparisons if they do not jive with their worldview (of course, that means I perhaps overvalue McGilchrist because of selection bias--but selection bias is just a tool for discounting arguments).

In response to his emphasis on metaphor, Mlinko says that "metaphor is . . . merely ornamental." She then goes on to quote Larkin's "The Trees" and Ashbery's "Some Trees" in an effort to show the value of Ashbery's complexities over Larkin's simplicities.

Having none of it, McGilchrist points out that Mlinko, as she says "fetishiz[es]" Modernism (indeed, faith is simply replaced with fetish) and points out that the Enlightenment is when metaphor was first rejected (as a reaction against Donneian/Miltonic conceits) and that her trying to box in Larkin is a lark. McGilchrist goes then on to pull apart Mlinko's assertions and demonstrate why Larkin is "far richer" than Mlinko allows and while the Ashbery "is a great poem too, . . . because it takes more working out exactly what is being said" it is "the less powerful of the two."

McGilchrist then makes the "distinction between newness and novelty": "poetry need not seek novelty, because true poetry makes what had seemed familiar new."

After backpedaling, Mlinko tries to defend the notion of "over-aphasic poetry" as a reaction to "the disenchanted world." But apart from one wondering what the point would ever be of writing "over-aphasic poetry," it is clear that because McGilchrist has already said "in poetry, being simple takes more skill than being difficult" Mlinko's assertion falls flat.

McGilchrist closes with the assertion that "we should not be concerned with proving ourselves clever, but with doing something science could never do on its own, understanding and celebrating experience." He says that insisting on making our own world traps us in "the postmodern predicament: nothing really exists because we made it all up ourselves." He insists that "incarnation provides the necessary resistance without which nothing could move, or change, or have any meaning." Dante would be proud, of course, but it is just as well to see a modern thinker admit the "soul and body" are "each as awe-inspiring as the other."

In "Keepers of the Image," Fanny Howe discusses adaptations and translations she has done from Ilona Karmel, a Polish writer. I've difficulty reading the passage, though her assertion that poetry is "syntax, balance, and image" makes me smile. If only she had used the word syzygy.

The October issue closes with a Letter to the Editor from Paul Baumstarck regarding Daisy Fried's previous Letter to the Editor in which she derided Dana Gioia for serving "America's most malignant administration ever." Baumstarck chides Fried for "self-indulgence" but I think a more apt response would have been to encourage her to write a Brownian "Lost Leader" sort of poem. At least it would have scanned.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Poem I Wrote

Hey y'all.

Haven't posted in forever.
I know.

I keep trying to write reviews of Poetry but I'm having a hard time writing negatively without sounding like my old prof William Logan.

Anyway, if you go here you can read a poem I wrote for my wife for our anniversary.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Taking Poetry Seriously

"Decadence" comes from the Latin for "falling apart."


Is "flarf" like the following:

The farmer in the dell
The farmer in the dell
Ox chip gastrology
The farmer in the dell

The farmer takes a wife
The farmer takes a wife
Pupa reconnaissance
The farmer takes a wife

mere gallows humor?

Or have we not progressed in nearly a hundred years beyond Gertrude Stein?

That's right, flarfy folks--what you're doing was tried and tired way back in 1910. Note: it wasn't very interesting then, either.

It seems at least honest to me that many writers of free verse are gladly unlining their work--the current obsession with "prose poetry"--but when your work is (apologies to the Nepotist, for whom I have only the highest regard) best characterized as disjointed or wholly derivative (see the above "Farmer in the Dell" riff), in what way are you a poet?

I would prattle on about how poetry is a craft but that's not the point, actually.

The point is that poetry is not just the sound of words.

Nor is it just the juxtaposition of images.

The former is music and the latter is figurative language. The two by themselves do not create poetry.

Ah, but you say, they dooo--anything artsy is really "a poem."


Our problem is that, inbred like royalty, we've lost all notion of perspective--instead of improving ourselves, we've taken on the affects of our most deformed relations--in the Spanish Court it resulted in the comical and delightfully kooky Cathtillian lithp. In poetry it's given us flarf and prose poetry and a host of other garbled crap.

And the garbled crap would be delightful if it weren't so pervasive--if it weren't lauded as an Emperor of invisible cloth. Admit you don't know what the hell you're doing--that you're just having fun and maybe that twitch in my eye will go away.

But people want to have serious discussions about the merit of reconstructed Shakespearean Sonnets. These things get anthologized and taught to kids who think--this is poetry? Fuck this shit.

And that's why I'm writing--not in a tawdry "won't someone think of the children" way but in a "let's think past our own noses" way.

When you write, imagine a non-poet reading your work. Hell, imagine a beginning reader reading your work--or someone who has never seen a poem. Your poem is the only poem they will ever see.

What message, what history does it transmit?

Or rather,

If your poem had to carry the weight of poetry, could it?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Review: Sixty Sonnets by Ernest Hilbert

Sixty Sonnets
by Ernest Hilbert
2009, Red Hen Press $18.95 ($14.97 at Amazon)

First let me say that Ernie Hilbert is a sneaky bastard for including the Bauman's Rare Books Catalogue in the package that delivered his excellent sonnet collection to me. As I am a poor poet and teacher, I include the link in the hope that if I have more well-to-do readers they may buy something and not waste the good Dr. Hilbert's postage. If anyone feels so inclined to buy something for me, there's a fine copy of The Waste Land I saw in there.

On to the poems.

Notes on the organization and structure of the book aside (see, what I value in Sixty Sonnets is tension.

There is a tension between poems, sometimes even an internal stylistic tension within one poem itself, as they skate between the pedestrian and the ineffable. This is not to say the poems are pedestrian, they are far from it; Hilbert, however, is unafraid of employing language in its most ordinary to bring it to its most extraordinary.

In "Church Street," a scene of blasted youth who "needed parties" and "liked company" is revisited in what, but for the rhyming and decasyllabics, would be called mere lined prose; except that the entire sad play is raised by the couplet:

We'd vent, catch any reason not to grieve,
Revel down days torn from the years we'd leave.

Much of the value of Sixty Sonnets is built upon this tension. A lesser (or perhaps "cute"?) poem like "Literary Artifacts" is followed by the strong and quick "Leander Without Heroes" whose conceit of literary death entirely reframes the previous riff on Sammy Peyps's "grand gallstone." This is nothing if not a very well put together collection.

I could go on at length about the tension set within these poems and the collection as a whole, and the music that sings from their springs, but as "Cautionary Tale" says, "you can only get away with so much." Suffice to say that in reading Sixty Sonnets if you think you don't like something, wait and Hilbert will have put in a peach in the next line or on the next page to pay for the pit you thought you read. Indeed, the only other poet who plies risk against reward so deftly is Pound.

The form of the sonnets bears some discussion (and a bit of criticism). Hilbert employs what has been termed the "Hilbertian Sonnet," fourteen decasylabbic lines of two sestets closed by a couplet. Unfortunately, the decasyllabics can get in the way of the poems. I don't know if Hilbert uses the non-metrical line as A.E. Stallings says to "allow for the roughed-up prose rhythms of speech" but when he's forced to write, as in the final line of the train-wrenchingly fun "Blotter": "sometimes you will hide when you should have run," there's something amiss. Take out or contract the auxiliary verbs and you've got a stronger line: "sometimes you hide when you should run." not surprisingly, the line also becomes perfect iambic tetrameter. As I will say until the language changes, iambic tetrameter is the meter of the American tongue. Syllabics are too artificial and the pentameter is too archaic.

Having said that, there are great poems in this collection which is very much worth owning. The collection starts with a quote from Dylan's powerful "Not Dark Yet," a work which in itself looms over the first section, setting that delicious tension before the first rhyme is sprung. The first two poems are both good and exemplary of Hilbert's work, giving us both his juiced-up verb choices ("roamed up," "sprawled to," "propped in") and his linguistic tension:

I would be fine, and they were quite good hosts


I am sinking on a soft black balloon,
Dreaming of the break. It is coming soon.

Then comes the first great poem, "William James Still, Drowned in the Delaware River" (many of the titles are on the long side). After reading it, I reread the first two poems with a keener eye. My love and respect for this poem comes from two halves of one line. In the second half, we have the phrase "staring up to the world." I was, at first, bucked by that "to," but in light of the collection's epigraph ("facilis descensus Averni": it's easy to get to Hell), "to" makes an all too apt sense. The first half of the line is simply the thick, deliciously sonic "snug in muck," a line I loved so much I wrote it a few times and said it aloud. Heck, say it now, it floods the tongue. Snug in muck.

After Billy Jim dies, a girl hooked on "kind blue pills" robs a liquor store and dies on the run in Las Cruces. Seriously. Hilbert can do a fine turn in narrative told through sonnet. Being the narrative junky that I am, I wish those sequences were longer. Instead, the collection moves to tackle Edna St. Vincent Millay and Ted Hughes. I don't know if Hilbert wins, but his work certainly doesn't lose, either. His interweaving of nature and nostalgia reaches a fevered pitch in "Magnificent Frigatebird" and sounds perfectly in "At the Grave of Thomas Eakins."

As the collection develops, the works move towards the "couplet as punch" mode of sonnet writing to great effect. This is most pronounced, perhaps, in the wonderfully revisionist "A Suburbanite Briefs a Historian." After regaling said historian with how "it is fun to be so bourgeois" the eponymous suburbanite goes for the kill with the couplet:

And we can't go back to what came before,
Ten to a room, half sleeping on the floor.

No, no we can't. Such honesty about the human condition is refreshing in a world where the benefits of progress are often shunned. Indeed it is this very sense of no nonsense and honest urgency that redeems any flaws that can be found in the work. The collection pulls you through it, delighting and injuring, sometimes with the same word.

Before I end, I do want to mention my two favorite moments in Sixty Sonnets: rhyming "MoMA" with "coma" and the incomparable "Song," a paean to those who learn and love craft.

But even "Song" can't escape Hilbert's love of tension. Its final line: "valued and unwanted, admired and ignored" is antecedentless: does it refer to the "old ways restored" or "those who learn forgotten, slow / skills"? Perhaps both. Hilbert is a practitioner of that slow art, as are all poets. The truth of admiration and insignificance doesn't escape any of us.

He echoes this in the first poem of the final section, the aforementioned "At the Grave of Thomas Eakins." The final couplet sums up the poem and the collection's musings on the nature of art:

Wind rearranges sunlight through the pines,
Sowing and destroying endless designs.

Not only to admit but to embrace the ephemeral along with the eternal nature of our work is admirable in the main. As is the entire collection.

The design notes say the collection is based in the sixty minutes of an hour. Give it more time than that. You and the poems deserve it.

News and Reviews

While six months is not the longest I've gone between reviews, it is the longest I'll go again.

Today's review of Ernest Hilbert's Sixty Sonnets marks the beginning of a new era for Strong Verse. If you care about my poetics and aesthetics, they're easily found on the links to the right. From today forward, I will concentrate on reviews, with a goal of producing two reviews a month.

One review will be of a collected works (shoot me an email to get into the queue) and the other will be of that month's issue of Poetry magazine, from cover to cover. The collected works reviews start today, the Poetry reviews will start when they send my first issue (note: I'm not reviewing the magazine in any official or knighted role--I just haven't had a subscription in years and renewed a few weeks ago).

I may pop in and make a fuss about politics or poetics in general, but I may not. I'll certainly make some noise when my new work can be found.

Enjoy the reviews, and buy the books!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Across the Whale Road, in memoriam.

Alan Sullivan, poet and polymath, died Friday, July 9, 2010.

Much of his work can be found at his blog, Fresh Bilge.

I recommend his translation (with Tim Murphy) of Beowulf and his translation (with Seree Zohar) of King David's psalms.

Peace, Alan.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Poetry is civilization

So I don't like prose poetry.

Not that a "prose poem" can't be an example of good writing--take today's Nepotist post--but it's not poetry.

Poetry is about restraint.

By definition it's artificial--all of our great accomplishments are. That's what civilization is, imposing artificial (and beneficial) restrictions on nature.

Prose, on the other hand, attempts to capture "natural" language--it's an uncivilizing force. This doesn't mean prose can't be beautiful. What it does mean is that when prose can be confused for poetry there's something amiss.

As the good Don says: civilization always consists in dressing oneself, not undressing.

Prose is language without clothes.

Poetry is language dressed to the nines.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

"The Modern Condition" explained

In 26 words, no less:


Frustration is the distinctive psychological characteristic of democratic society.
Where all may legitimately aspire to the summit, the entire pyramid is an accumulation of frustrated individuals.

From Don Colacho's Aphorisms.


Friday, June 4, 2010

The Nepotist

Who doesn't want to publish their friends? Imagine my surprise when I got an email and a facebook message inviting me to submit "poems that you truly adore but have not been able to find appropriate homes for" to The Nepotist.

Well heck yes! So I sent off my three poems and waited.

On June the first, Anno Domini Two-thousand and Ten, The Nepotist was launched, with Grace Cavalieri as its first poet. The following three days have given us Rusty Barnes, Jenny Sadre-Orafai, and Ernest Hilbert.

Even more than I felt two years ago reading The Oxford American, I'm heartened and thrilled for contemporary American poetry. The work at The Nepotist has been nothing short of amazing.

Go there. Bookmark it before it becomes an anthology.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Strong Verse, Briefly

In a bow to the tl;dr nature of the internet and with an understanding that the revelation of ideas is not their purest expression, you'll find below the distillation of the Strong Verse series.

In order to recall poetry from stagnation, poetry must become an everyday occurrence.

Poets must understand what poetry does best:

Poetry best joins together voices in a homogenious society.

The job of the poet is not to be a slave to language but to be a servant of humanity. As "the proper study of mankind is man," we must realize that if we are to have an audience we must understand and engage that audience.

We cannot, as David Yezzi says, write short poems by a solitary speaker on individual experience about "going into the woods" and "feeling something."

We must serve, not ourselves, but our society--and if we feel that society is not worth serving then we must serve the society we want to see--civilization follows art and art must lead.

To this purpose, lyric poetry remains useless. The lyric mode is incapable of providing the breadth of experience necessary to continue to validate poetry. Without narrative--and without a re-examination of the purpose of poetry, our art will slip irreparably into anachronism and irrelevance.

The easiest way to do this would be to balance the appetite of the audience with the desire of the poet--but because so many have been poisoned on poetry this is, for all intents, impossible. Therefore we must look to a past when poetry held more relevance. This directs us to the Tennyson-Longfellow era in English-language poetry--which is where we draw the desire for the narrative and a disdain for the lyric.

In discussing poetry, however, we must move beyond the simple lyric/narrative divide and delve into grades of poetry.

For that we turn to the troubadors who divided poetry into three classes.
Updating their language we have:

Fun verse:
"Light" verse that is easy to comprehend but lean--subsequent rereadings have nothing to reveal.

Van verse:
"Experimental" verse that is often difficult or opaque--new techniques are explored and multiple readings may be required for the barest comprehension.

Full verse:
Verse that combines the accessibility of fun verse with the complexity of van verse--subsequent rereadings reveal layered meaning and depth of craft but first readings also reward.

Poetry must be a complete art--with introductory, experimental, and mature work, and it is the mature work (Full verse) that is often neglected.

Four steps to writing Full verse are:

1) Use precise language.

2) Use natural language

3) Write with authority.

4) Give the readers what they need to understand the poem--that is, be aware that there is no room for context in a poem.

A development of full verse in conjunction with the currently thriving (for poetry) fields of fun and van verse will result in a "strong verse"--a poetry that regains relevance--that is no longer a parlor trick but an important part of the lives not of poets, but of all readers.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Justice Falls Before Security


I hope that these oligarchs simply don't understand symbolism.

I fear, however, that they do.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Strong Verse, Part 7: Strong Verse, Living Art

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

This post will end the series on creating "Strong Verse." It begins with a bit of discourse on criticism and theory.

So I've found myself dealing again with content created by the fellows at Penny Arcade. Specifically the following:

"As Tycho mentioned, Ebert is simply filling a role played out by art critics throughout history. There was the newspaper headline back in 1959 with regards to Jackson Pollock's work that said "This is not art — it's a joke in bad taste." It's a funny line but time has proven it was also completely wrong. Ebert has thrown his hat in with the rest of the short sighted critics who would rather debate what is or isn't art, rather than simply enjoy the work of artists."

There are two halves to this argument of "Gabe's": the first half, that "time has proven it was also completely wrong" is a bit of a stretch--will Pollack's work still be hanging in a hundred years? Three hundred? That's the time scale of art--which is at heart, the problem with both being a critic and being a critically minded artist (as opposed to one who simply "creates" without mind to audience or time--but generally those ditherers are not worth spending ones time on). Moreover, it doesn't take into account the critics and patrons who supported Pollack.

But the part of Gabe's quote I've been running around in my head is the second part, regarding "short sighted critics who would rather debate what is or isn't art rather than enjoy the work of artists." On the one hand, he does us a great deed to remind us that the proper response of art is our enjoyment.

Critics, on the other hand, serve an important purpose, as recounted in the inimitable Ratatouille:

"There are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends."

"The New," is of course, the crux of the problem. Too many critics are concerned with defining "the Good" and not finding "the New."

Defining "the Good" is not possible. What I've tried to do on this blog when writing about writing for the past two years is not to define the Good but recognize its signs and encourage poets to write not for themselves but for the Good. But this is writing theory. One must be careful not to confuse theory with criticism.

It is the job of the critic to discover and defend the new.
It is the job of the theorist to recognize and encourage the Good, which needs no defense.
It is the job of the poet to create work both new and good.

That having been said, let's come to the remaking of a living art (or the resurrection thereof, depending on your level of pessimism)--making a Strong Verse.

It must be said, of course, that poetry is alive and well within the realm of poets--a nebulous population of perhaps a hundred thousand to a million souls in the US.

But poetry has left the mainstream. No longer does a Longfellow create the idiom of the coming decade. No longer does a Dante create and enshrine a new language.

It is possible that that task has been given to song birds and television and film writers. Possible, though depressing.

In order for poetry to return from the echoing halls of academia, strong verse must be brought back to the mainstream. There are three ways for this to happen:

First, the Wagnerian argument that poetry must be a larger part of art (as in, one part of opera--which I'm sure Wagner would put on "the big screen" now) is certainly a tempting one. As I mentioned in the AWP recap, the discussion regarding poetry and opera librettos was both fascinating and productive--I am still waiting for the delightful and energetic Beth to put out her list of poets and composers interested in collaboration--and, indeed, as "novelizations" of films tend to sell very well, it is possible, even probable, that a successful opera, whether filmed or live, would put books of poetry into the hands of non-poets.

The second, as David Yezzi says, is for poetry to embrace the dramatic element, either fully--in developed plays, as Eliot and MacLeish did, or partially--in poems, as Frost was famous for.

The last has been my argument all along, that contemporary poetry is hung on the cross of fealty to the lyric and that narrative poetry will engage the mainstream.

All three arguments are essentially the same--we should tell stories with our verse.

Of the parts of "strong verse," "full verse" is the voice of narrative poetry.

I hope that this series will serve as the definitive theory of this blog. I would prefer to spend my time on discovering and defending the new strong verse being written today--the new narratives that will define our language in the decades to come.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Prophet Muhammad

Butts and crap!
There is no religion or faith when one must fear not God, but the followers of a god.
The whole "Prophet Muhammad" crap has got to go.
We can tolerate faiths,
we can tolerate beliefs,
we cannot tolerate violence in the name of anything.

Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad

Friday, April 16, 2010

AWP 2010 Recap

Though certainly appreciative of the comments and traffic and progress generated by the 14th's post, I've got other things to cover. As I said, I returned on Sunday from the AWP 2010 Annual Conference in Denver. Here's the recap:

Disclaimer: If I don't include your name or a good link for you, please forgive me--I'm pretty terrible with names. Just leave a comment or shoot an email and I'll correct the problem.

Flew into Denver about 11p.m. Wednesday night. I know the conference "starts" on Wednesday but I've not been able to drag myself there before Thursday morning yet. Perhaps next year, in D.C.

After using my CPAP machine (why is there an 8-ball in that picture) for the first time (so that's what sleep is like!), I got up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Thursday morning, had a delightful breakfast with the friends who had so generously donated their house for the weekend (seriously, y'all--unless you hit the donate button on the right or get me a book to sell, I don't really have money for all these travelings), and hit the conference.

For the second year in a row (which means 100% of the conferences I've been to) my name tag was "set aside" and difficult to find. Next year I'm starting in the help line.

I started at the reading for the Swallow Anthology of New American Poets, edited by my good friend David Yezzi (who I met at last year's conference). The readers in attendance besides David were:

David also read from Craig Arnold and Rachel Wetzsteon, two poets included in the anthology who both died in 2009. In my forthcoming review of the Anthology, I'll discuss the readings.

During the question and answer session, the tired old "how can form be new?" question was asked. David's answer of "why would you not avail yourself of every trick in the book?" was, I think the best standard answer I've heard--certainly a great way of putting it. Jill Rosser answered with a different tack: she discussed visual art and wondered if you threw out color because it was old (or, I would say, images at all--why not write a song and call it visual art?).

My favorite answer, though, was from Erica Dawson, who referenced Donne, et al. when she referred to "all that old poetry" as being dirty and nasty and decidedly not old and stale. I liked Erica's answer because she was unafraid to speak to the inherent ignorance in the question--the only people who imagine that form can be staid are, I have to imagine, people who apparently have only read--or heard about--Edwardian poetry. The very question they ask belies their ignorance of the vastness of poetry's delightful and delicious forms. Ah well.

After the reading, I bummed around the Book Sale, arm-in-arm, for the most part, with my dear Jill Alexander Essbaum, stopping every dozen steps or so for her to fling her arms wide and embrace the newest person I don't know but quickly meet.

At 1:30 we went to the reading in honor of Craig Arnold. I didn't know Craig, though I am certain, seeing his picture, that we met at AWP last year--nor was I familiar with his work. Jillian, however, had been a good friend of his--as had most of the people she introduced me to, and so, an awkward guest at the funeral of a stranger, I went.

I was very glad to have gone. Apart from a few hiccups of strange and self-indulgent reading, the poets who spoke were both amazing and powerful--reading from their own works and from Craig's (who, if you did not already know, was a poet of great capability--look for more in my review of the Swallow Anthology). The highlight of the reading was Jenn Koiter, a colleague and friend of Craig's who recounted their time together in Laramie. As I said, I didn't even know Craig but Jenn's remembrance brought a tear to my eye.

After a late lunch at Jimmy John's (ohmigod, I just found out there's two in J-vegas! I wonder if they need a poet laureate?) I met up again with Jill and we took a taxi out to Denver's Green Spaces. Certainly not the best place for a reading, it was nevertheless a fine time of small press readings from poets with Bloof, Noemi, and Cooper Dillon (including Jill--Cooper Dillion brought out her chapbook Devastation).

After the reading, an incident involving Reb Livingston, Jenn Koiter, Steven Schroeder, Jill, P.F. Potvin, a poet from Wyoming, me, a sedan, and a shuttle van led Reb and I to admit that we were certainly no longer in high school.

Friday involved more bookstore wandering and a fantastic panel on libretto writing from Kate Gale, David Mason, David Yezzi, and Annie Finch. There was talk during the Q&A about creating a group of poets and musicians interested in creating collaborative works. Whenever I get the email from the group, I'll provide more info.

After the reading, I got a chance to shake hands with Christian Bok, and to tell him he called me a troll. He said it was likely I deserved it. Had he not been so impeccably dressed and so damned Canadian I might have wanted to punch him. As it was, we had a nice laugh.

Friday evening began swimmingly. Kelli Anne Noftle and I made plans to create a poetry folk band and I was exposed to the Austin contingent of AWP (notably--in terms of alcohol consumption--Malachi Black and Chris Mink [who apparently needs a stronger web presence]) and plans were made for a fine Austin party come May.

Then we went off to dinner. It was a pretty lackluster restaurant (that I was late to--ah, miscommunication!) but so were most of the ones I went to in Denver. We then went to a reading for Barrelhouse. Oy. Not that Barrelhouse isn't a great mag. But the venue was for shite--it was opening day for the Rockies and folks were, well, being folks. The bar was loud and crowded and there was not adequate sound engineering for the readers.

Not content to ruin great expectations, we continued on to the Prime Bar. It should be called the Fu Bar. Don't go here unless you think a mishmash of a chic bar and a sports bar that pumps in vintage Sheryl Crow is a good idea. Oh, and the bartenders can't tend bar.

I left (along with Kelli and Andrew[?]) to go back to the Hyatt bar (where at least they made good drinks) but by the time we got back, my morale was all shot to hell. I had a water.

Saturday was a pretty great day. After wandering the bookstore, going back to Jimmy Johns, and manning the UNO table (and selling lots of books!), my hosts took me up into the mountains. Or at least the foothills. I got a nice picture with my foot in some snow and ate a buffalo burger (overcooked but what do you want?).

After the Rockies was The Loudest Voice reading hosted (with free, good booze!) at the lovely and weird Dikeou Collection. If you scroll towards the bottom of the Loudest page, there's a picture of me and a blow-up bunny. Just saying. So I went to the reading to hear Jessica Piazza. Not only did she redeem herself from the terrible choice of bar the night before, but the reading of her crown of sonnets was perfect. I especially enjoyed her line "people like us: we're dust."

We finished up a fine evening in the Hyatt and then at 11 sharp, I turned into a pumpkin. Off to the airport for a 1 a.m. flight, I got back to Jacksonville at 9:00 in the morning--just in time to leave for church.

Well, folks, that was AWP for this year. Look for forthcoming reviews on books from Annie Finch, Jehanne Dubrow, Moira Egan, Nabile Fares, and Antonio Gamoneda. See you next year in D.C.!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Regarding Freedom of Art and Speech

UPDATE: Please read through the end of the comments section--everything personal has been resolved. Also, I have edited the tenses in the introduction to reflect the current status.

I've got a lot on my plate from AWP: seven reviews to write and the AWP recap. Plus there are, I think, two or three posts left in the Strong Verse series. However, an event came to my attention today--back in Gainesville, Florida--my old poetry stomping grounds.

A good friend of mine, who is a conservative in a sea of progressives, read a poem that has been decried as racist--consequently he has been banned from one place of poetry reading and was on the verge of being banned from another one--the oldest continual weekly poetry open-mike reading in the state--possibly the country (going strong for 20 years)--though that director (as seen in the comments) has eschewed any such path of censorship.

Here I'll say no more. What follows is the poem, "The New American Slavery," by Michael Bobbitt. After that is my letter to the two poets in charge of the readings who have banned and are thinking of banning a poet for their interpretation of his poem.

I ask you two things, readers: 1) do you find the poem racist? 2) how do you find my letter in response?

Thanks all,

The New American Slavery

We’re on the cusp of a new world

An order unlike anything our fathers could have imagined

We’ve been trading morality for comfort for too many years

And finally, painted into the corner of our own undoing

We’ve decided to just close our minds

Sit Indian-style like children

And chuckle while shit burns down.

We’ve finally outsmarted ourselves

Reasoned that style and platitudes

Could uplift us straight out of reality

They’s a nigger in the woodpile”

My granddaddy would say

And though I hated his language

I can only imagine he was prophesizing about right now

And how our leaders herd us like cats

Into unnaturally straight lines

“Come on up here little pussies…

Massa’s got some healthcare for you

Come on up to the porch, Toby,

And get you some free milk…”

The fields are going unplanted

The harvest time will come and go unnoticed

But we’ll just keep grinning

And eating

And not worryin bout nothing

Cause Massa’s got this magic machine

And he just gots to hit a button

And corn will roll out this here contraption—

Wheat and chicken and flour

Will just pop right out I think

And we don’t need to ever plant the fields

Or tend the flocks again.

The rich folks’ll keep the magic machines rolling

And we’ll just grin and think about equality

And how nuthin’s really equal

If’n we don’t get to pay less and take a little more

On account of all the wrong done to our granddaddies and such.

But I’m starting to think the magic machines

Might not be working proper

It’s turning cold again and I worry about the empty fields

I’m doing what I’m told, though.

I continue to hope, to think “Yes we can” all the time

But I’m gettin hungry

And it’s taking longer each season

To get my ‘lotment.

I hear the Chinamen gots all the rice they can eat

But it still don’t seem right

They should have to work so hard

At planting and harvesting—

Food is a basic human right—

What sorta evil Massa they got

Makes them work to eat?

The baby’s sick most days now

And we’re all pretty fed up

With the failin’ machines

Think maybe we’ll get pitchforks and torches

And tear apart that woodpile

Till we find that liar done trained us out of farming.

I tried to plant a garden today

But I couldn’t work out all the steps anymore

Massa’s forgot about me

And momma’s long gone

And it’s turning colder again.


Jimmy and David,

I'm sorry, but since when did the CMC PoJam or other Poetry institutions (TWIS) become centers of repression?

I'm hearing from Bobbitt about his banning. In my day we read naked and drunk--people would read poems about cunts and doing coke with William Burroughs while children were in the room. No one batted an eye. Hell, David--you screamed about cunts at a reading at Michael Bobbitt's house while my children were present.
Though I was annoyed--and disgusted--I certainly never thought about curtailing your freedom of speech.

Moreover, on frequent occasions folks would gleefully read--to gleeful response--poetry that was vehemently anti-Christian, anti-capitalist, anti-conservative, anti-Republican, anti-American, anti-man, and anti-white. That is to say, religionist, Marxist, progressive, totalitarian, seditious, misandrous, and racist.

Certainly you can't be banning Michael Bobbitt for the use of the word "nigger" or "Chinaman." I have heard that first word uttered at the CMC on more than one occasion--and none of its pracitioners were banned. Though I have never been to TWIS, I have a hard time imagining that you, David, you who so frequently employ "cunt"--which is the female equivalent of "nigger"--and could easily be accused of writing misogynist poetry--would have the gall to accuse someone of writing "racist" poetry.

Moreover, how on earth can either of you possibly imagine bringing in the police force into all of this? Do you truly wish humanity to be ruled by the state? I thought you, Jimmy, were an anarchist.

More than all of this, though, perhaps you should actually read the poem. In no way is it racist. It is obvious that the terms "nigger" and "Chinaman" are used ironically and for effect through the voice of the speaker.

Nothing I see in the poem justifies anything resembling a dustup over its language--perhaps its content should anger one due to the inherent oppression we have been receiving since at least the first Bush administration, ramped up by Clinton, exploded by Bush, and exploited by Obama--but Bobbitt's poem is in no way a racist work.

Even if it were, in what way is it of either of yours to police someone's thoughts or language? And David, how dare you interrupt someone's reading? The proper response--if you were offended by the poem--would be to address Michael after the reading.

I pray that you all will realize the grave error you have made--and the damage you are doing to the freedom of art in Gainesville.