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.