Wednesday, December 19, 2012

W.H. Auden on J.R.R. Tolkien

The mere fact of this existing is enough to justify the history of the old grey lady.


Monday, December 17, 2012

Because a shackle is never enough to hold a man: Jake Adam York

The problem with being a reviewer is that I will never be able to review everyone while you can still know not only their words but them.

Jake Adam York, a poet who was simply good, passed this weekend. Jake and I met only a few times at conferences and yet I feel his loss deeply. Perhaps it was because each time we met he was not only kind but inclusive, warm, and intellectually engaging. Perhaps it is because he's only 6 years older than I am and yet died of a stroke. Perhaps it's because so many of my close friends are close friends of Jake and I grieve for them. Perhaps it's because Jake, as a poet and editor, cannot be replaced in literature. Perhaps all four.

This is an elegy he wrote. It originally appeared in Diagram. Rest in peace, Jake.

Elegy for James Knox

Because a shackle is never enough
to hold a man, but only his body,
and because the body must be made
to hold the man, to join with the chain
until the grip is overwhelming,
they took you from the prison
and sold your labor, your body
for five dollars a month, into the mine
to dig coal for Birmingham's furnaces,
the heat already pressing in on you
like a hand, the coal dust
in your lungs' own flexings
lacerating breath right out of you
little at a time, the hard pump of the arms
speeding it up in the candle-lit dark
that lay on your skin the way 
they already saw you, a density
to be burned so iron could rain
from rock, purified and bright.
But to take you out, the hands
sudden from the tight, dark heat,
and beat you with a wire
spun from the kind of steel
you had begun to forge in the shaft, 
to return your muscles' work this way
till you were red as ore, and then
to tie and dip you in a laundry vat
and boil the hair from your body
as if it were any pig, and then 
call it suicide, as if you had done this
to yourself, to say you drank
bichloride of mercury instead of sweat,
instead of blood, instead of heat
and coal and nigger, to rule it
poison, to inject your dead body
with corrosive metal and call it
another day at the office, ready
to do it all again should the sun rise,
God willing, to ship the coal out
to charge the ironworks so someone else
could draw you from the hearth
for forging a thirty dollar check
in Mobile, and burn you into textbooks,
something dark to be turned
like this chip of iron I finger
as I think of you,
a small, hard strip of Alabama
that's losing, that's turning back
red as the clay that buries it all—
was it ever, will it ever be, enough?

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit

Well, of course it's good.

But there are a few quirks. One is the expanded role of Azog. I suppose Jackson put him in in order to "amp up" the "danger" of the piece AND to give gravitas to Thorin but I don't know how necessary he is. If anything it makes it harder for one to take small children to the film because, in general, it's not terribly "scary" without Azog. Again, that's perhaps the reason for his inclusion but I'm suspect of the overall benefit to the story.

The second is the increased role Radagast plays. Not that I mind Radagast, but I find it hard to believe that Jackson would deliberately skip over Tom Bombadil and then come back with a very Bombadilian Radagast.

The other complaints/oddities make sense within character improvement and Jackson's reframing, such as Bilbo's advice to the trolls on cooking dwarfs. I would have very much enjoyed seeing Gandalf ape their voices but part of Jackson's "drama" in this piece is tension between Thorin and Bilbo (which I assume will come to a head with the discovery and theft of the Arkenstone) and having Bilbo save the company a few more times than in the novel is important to that.

However, it is odd that Gandalf sort of more or less pops in when needed (rather than being around more) but oh well, he's a wizard, right? The real deus ex machina problem is that the eagles don't speak at all. Coupled with their double appearance in saving people in LOTR, Jackson appears to simply make them into salvation engines--which is sad specifically because their appearance in The Hobbit and their conversations with Thorin & Co provides so much more explanation for their behavior in the subsequent events.

Anyway, it's a great 3 hour romp. Looking forward to the others.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dangerous, Sensible, or Both?

From an interesting article about decision theory:

"It is wise to value winning over the possession of a rational decision
theory, just as it is wise to value truth over adherence to a particular mode of reasoning.
An expected utility maximizer should maximize utility—not formality, reasonableness,
or defensibility."

What is "winning" in poetry?

Everyday poetry

Does anyone encounter poetry on a daily basis?



Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What the hell, Boston Review?

So Boston Review has done an interesting thing, asking a pile of poets to write about "the most significant, troubling, relevant, recalcitrant, misunderstood, or egregious set of opposing terms in discussions about poetics today," focusing ultimately on the dangers of binary thinking in poetry.

Unfortunately, the first thing I came upon (thanks to reddit) is this piece of crap by one Katie Degentesh. I don't know her from Adam and she may be the nicest person in the world, but that doesn't excuse something like this:

"If it’s not a legitimate poem, your body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down, up to and including eversion, where your uterus could be forced partially or completely inside-out, or fall or be forced out of the vaginal opening (prolapse). For example, if you’re a man writing poetry about having gay sex with another man, you might get AIDS because your rectal wall is only one cell thick, or you might get fired from job after job because your poetry knows real jobs are for The Man."

Apart from kicking the tired GOPinhead horse here, this is exemplary writing of the pomo-naked-emperor school that Dawkins was decrying.

But let's look at the whole list.

Ange Mlinko has an interesting if ineffective heroic couplet jab at Marjorie Perloff (her essay "Poetry on the Brink" being the catalyst for this) which tries to be Pope and misses but still amuses.

Maureen McLane offers words that are skinny and on the left and not much else. Perhaps her work is an exercise on demonstrating the importance of syntax by its absence.

Stephen Burt writes an essay about "neo-modernism," saying "a neo-modernist poet makes art that tests the limits of “art,” requiring us to ask what counts as a poem, what counts as good, what we assume about art more generally, and whether we ought to reject our prior assumptions" which might be interesting if it weren't some bullshit rehashed from a Pound essay that's a century old. People: please understand that these questions aren't interesting. Don't ask us to figure out what counts as a poem. Don't test the limits of art. WRITE GREAT POETRY.

DeSales Harrison skirts the question entirely while talking about the role of the critic ("praise, don't trash" essentially) which is nice in some ways but entirely tired in others.

Matthew Zapruder actually talks about the binary distinction between poetry and lyrics, arguing that it is both  generally asked for the wrong reasons and ultimately useful and interesting.

Anthony Madrid writes an interesting introduction to an essay on the value of irony in the context of feelings but then had to go to lunch with Jesus and Jimi Hendrix so never finished the darn thing.

Sandra Lim's piece was, I believe, written by The Postmodern Generator. All it's missing is "praxis" and "ontological." And purpose, but I suppose that's the point.

Annie Finch, unsurprisingly, blows these folks out of the water (of course this is simply bias talking as much as anything else) with a lovely piece on "the stale form/freedom duel." Which, unlike everyone except Zapruder actually addresses a real question that interests folks beyond the fetishists of verse.

Dorothea Lasky has the kernel of what could be a very interesting essay-critique on the position of the poet in relation to poetry along the scientist-mystic axis. It isn't, though.

Evie Shockley argues against any binary distinctions by using binary distinctions. Or rather she points out where these are destructive to women and minorities which is an argument that can only be made by validating such dichotomies.

Rebecca Wolff makes a good (or at least interesting) point ("exigency over duty") in a horrible, terrible, no-good way, coming off as someone who has spent the better part of two decades in a one-sided conversation.

Lytton Smith namedrops more than I do to lamely make the point in overwrought, pretentious inkwash that poetry is important as a written and aural artform and we shouldn't neglect the latter. Hear, hear but leave the purple prose and hipsterism at home. Pound did it better and with more humor.

Noah Eli Gordon. No idea what the hell he's talking about. But he uses both "liminal" and Utinni! in the same essay so clearly he is a master of time and space, a post-modern (or is that neo-modern?) Colossus striding etc.

Robert Archambeau argues that binary distinctions can be useful if we let them run amok and use them for understanding and not control. Too much Adorno for my comfort level, though.

Cathy Park Hong writes about race which is its own dichotomy. Instead of insisting on continuing the dichotomy of a poet's color I wish she'd written about a poem's content. Ah well. That doesn't get one "academicized" which is apparently a good thing (?).

Dan Beachy-Quick sounds like Derrida mixed with Pirsig and, apart from an interesting etymological digression of "chorus" doesn't do anything new or interesting.

Marjorie Perloff, Marjorie Perloff is the worst of them all. Her "defense," which can only be described as "butthurt" doesn't tackle any of the interesting points raised (Zapruder, Finch, Wolff, and Archambeau come to mind) but instead attacks the low-hanging fruit of dreck written by pseudo-intellectuals (no need to re-name names). Here is an important note for you, Dr. Perloff--no one knows what you used to do. They only know your recent work. Now, I think it's important to argue (as Perloff does) that these folks could have done some more fact-checking if they wanted to attack Perloff's positions via something more than strawmen and ad hominems--but that doesn't mean they were going to and getting in a huff about it is puerile.

Perloff's Original Essay isn't much more than a collection of things I've read before. She does amusingly misplace importance and ambiguity in the point of the title "Today's Not Opposite Day," having missed, it seems, playing that childhood game.

Where it really fails, however, is buying into the silly idea that the story behind the poem makes the poem, telling us of so many great new works composed in or as a response to tragedy. Who cares? Give us great poems and if the circumstance is important to the poem put it in there. The poetry Perloff is praising can't exist outside of its own context which is to say it is either a fetus or a dying man on life support. It's high time to be born or pull the plug.

Bye-bye Laptop

So the Qii keyboard might not be the end-all-be-all but it's a nice beginning.

With a slightly larger phone/tablet we'll be living in Star Trek soon.

Also: if you want to buy this for me, I'll let you ;)

Monday, December 10, 2012


The question of the existence or non-existence of God and whether or not this is provable by any system of analysis is the wrong question.

The right question is which universe is more interesting. To my taste, a universe with a God, even a Spinozan one, is the only one that has a little ginger in it.

The Postmodernism Generator

Reading a Dawkins review called "Disrobing Postmodernism" lead me to

The Postmodernism Generator

Which is either terrifying or hilarious depending upon your vantage point.

I think the only proper humanities response to such a creation is to make erasure sonnets out of the whole thing.

I'm sure someone could get tenure for that. Or a panel at AWP.

Friday, December 7, 2012

What a student took away from Prufrock

Don't get trapped talking to the weird kid drinking punch in the corner by himself at a party who not even fantasy mermaids will talk to.


200 posts, everyone! 400 much sooner than 4 years, I promise!

CPR on Joseph Epstein

Read CPR's great essay by David X Novak on the delightful and curmudgeonly Joseph Epstein.

Bespoke recordings

From the musician Mike Doughty comes the idea of "bespoke recordings" of music.

I don't know whether I'm appalled or amazed. A little of both, Henry, really.

I mean if, for $600, I could have a personal recording of, say, Sylvia Plath or T.S. Eliot reading something only for me. . .well, that would be pretty awesome. I might even be intrigued by some living poets who I won't embarrass by mentioning, though $600 might be too steep. Of course $600 for *anything* is generally too steep (the life of a poet and teacher, right?) but that this is even hinted at as a viable economic model is pretty damned impressive.

We should be selling the performance, the experience of poetry.

Why aren't we?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Would you read the poem if it looked like prose?

So I asked in that Codrescu AMA if he saw a distinction between verse and prose. It's an important question if we're not all spitting in the wind.

So I thought, as Jill Essbaum once related, that poems are "skinny and on the left" and thought, well--let's look at them that way.

Here's a poem from A.E. Stallings' excellent Olives, delined:

Jigsaw Puzzle

      First the four corners, then the flat edges. Assemble the lost borders, walk the dizzy ledges, hoard one color—try to make it all connected—the water and the deep sky and the sky reflected. Absences align and lock shapes into place, and random shapes combine to make a tree, a face. Slowly you restore the fractured world and start to re-create an afternoon before it fell apart: Here is summer, here is blue, here two lovers kissing, and here the nothingness shows through where one piece is missing.

Here's a Plath poem delined:


     I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions. What ever you see I swallow immediately just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike. I am not cruel, only truthful--the eye of a little god, four-cornered. Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall. It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers. Faces and darkness separate us over and over. Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me, searching my reaches for what she really is. Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon. I see her back, and reflect it faithfully. She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands. I am important to her. She comes and goes. Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness. In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

And a Shakespearean sonnet:

     How can my muse want subject to invent, while thou dost breathe, that pour'st into my verse thine own sweet argument, too excellent for every vulgar paper to rehearse? O! give thy self the thanks, if aught in me worthy perusal stand against thy sight; for who's so dumb that cannot write to thee, when thou thy self dost give invention light? Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth than those old nine which rhymers invocate; and he that calls on thee, let him bring forth eternal numbers to outlive long date. If my slight muse do please these curious days, the pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise. 

And one of mine:

     On this wet rock you come, my hair around your waist in streams like ocean foam; the pressured salty taste rests upon my tongue. As we swallow the night the morning rises stung and stained with our delight. Here in this temple crows are swelling from the altar screaming the holy vows I promised I would keep. I have done much more than falter and vengeance never sleeps.

Well apart from my missing a comma (sorry, Annie!) and paling in comparison to the other three poets, I don't know that any "damage" is done to these poems by delining them. Of course, you get a lot of extra meaning possible with enjambment, etc. but is that at the cost of people who are terrified by work that is "skinny and on the left"?

So are we caught in a trap of convention that limits our impact as writers?

Andrei Codrescu AMA on reddit

Not really sure what else to say.

Happening right now.

Read it on reddit!

Literature is about the past

Here's the money shot from an interesting article by a fellow named Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It appears in full on Salon which is dreadfully cluttered with advertisements. Go there at your own aesthetic peril.

Outside of the niche and isolated genre of science fiction, literature is about the past. We do not learn physics or biology from medieval textbooks, but we still read Homer, Plato, or the very modern Shakespeare. We cannot talk about sculpture without knowledge of the works of Phidias, Michelangelo, or the great Canova. These are in the past, not in the future. Just by setting foot into a museum, the aesthetically-minded person is connecting with the elders. Whether overtly or not, he will tend to acquire and respect historical knowledge, even if it is to reject it. And the past — properly handled — is a much better teacher about the properties of the future than the present. To understand the future, you do not need techno-autistic jargon, obsession with “killer apps,” these sort of things. You just need the following: some respect for the past, some curiosity about the historical record, a hunger for the wisdom of the elders, and a grasp of the notion of “heuristics,” these often unwritten rules of thumb that are so determining of survival. In other words, you will be forced to give weight to things that have been around, things that have survived.

Since our friend NNT is pretty good at discussing the importance of unlikely outcomes, I wonder what specifically he would say about our American poverty of poetry.

NNT does give us (in Antifragile) about the best definition of mythology there is:

Mythology is "the expression of historical intelligence through potent metaphors."

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Literary magazines--who reads 'em?

Apart from assuming that the folks at Tin House and Poetry aren't terribly pleased with me or at least my work, I'm rather intrigued by the idea of literary journals.

Here's a lovely list of "The Top 50"

from "Every Writer's Resource" which totally sounds legit, right?

Anyway, it's not a bad list of the big, bad boys in literary magazineing.


Who reads that stuff? I mean, a lot of folks read The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly but do they read the poems? The short stories?

How many of the 80,000 people with a subscription to Poetry AREN'T poets? I tried to read and review it cover to cover for a few months but it was terribly tedious.

Which probably says more about me than the magazine but as a critic I shouldn't admit that, right?

Do you read literary mags? I do--at least the four that are on the links bar.

But what's the purpose? There's a real question to be asked about what the presentation of and access to literature is doing here in these United States. I suppose the ideal situation would be to convince Disney/Pixar that there should be poems at the start of each film. Anyone have John Lasseter's email handy?

James Franco is supposed to be the modern savior of poetry, right? USC student? Actor-Poet-Heartthrob? Do more people read poetry because of him?

Where are people reading these days? Maybe we can stick poems at the beginning of Fifty Shades of Grey or buy them as Amazon's "Special Offers" for the Kindle. That, of course, would take money--where's the money in poetry?

Was it ever there?

Anyway, the idea of Litmags is/ought (Hume, please) to be to shepherd poetry (and prose) to a wider than the average coffee house audience. If that's true, why don't we call them "reading mags"?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Why isn't poetry better than a movie?

I mean really that's an unfair question.

A movie is a "total work" in all that Wagnerian sense (especially, I would guess a musical specifically but isn't that what a soundtrack does without subjecting us to singing actors?) and a poem isn't.

But do poets even try? Who is writing poetry and who is writing Poetry?

Who is writing because they want to write and who is writing because they want to change the world?

Which is better?

Moreover, what motivated, say, Tennyson?

Here's a fellow that was so damaged by reaction to his second book of poetry that he didn't publish anything for nearly a decade.

I don't think I'll say we should haggle over the "is there a problem with poetry" question. There is. Teaching for 13 years now, I can say for an absolute certainty that there is a problem, in America, with poetry.

Hardly anyone teaches it and children simply fear it--they're not interested in engaging with it at all because they believe it's either some secret language they're not privy to or it's a meaningless drivel of "I think it means XYZ and who are you to tell me my opinion is wrong?"

At any rate they don't read poetry in the main. There are a precious handful of them who do--but most of their appreciation for verse has been withdrawn to lyrics.

I don't doubt that in the 18th century students wrote down the lyrics to hymns and drinking songs and other popular tunes--why wouldn't they? But did they not also commit the lyrics of poems to their memory and graffitos?

So why the stop? What's the problem?

I've explained before that it's twofold: one, we don't teach it and two, poets don't write it.

Now, there *are* poets who are thinking about writing the sort of poetry that would get people interested again in poetry in a general way.

There's work by Rebecca Lindenberg, Jill Alexander Essbaum, A.E. Stallings, Ernest Hilbert, Kelli Anne Noftle, and myself that *point* in that direction--the idea of an openness and accessibility. Hell, the glossary in the back of With Rough Gods is there explicitly because people no longer know their mythology.


That ain't it. Rebecca waxed on her facebook the other day about the Victorians having an idea that we as moderns find quaint but is, indeed, of a power. I've discussed this in short with Annie Finch but we've not gotten the chance to sit down and work out an idea.

But I think I'm beginning to see the light as it were. One criticism (?) of my work, especially WRG, is that I'm writing for a very specific audience of intelligent people who love both poetry and mythology and, for those people, WRG is an indispensable work.

Color me shocked but I thought I'd written it for everyone. 9 months into its publication life, however, with a hundred or so books sold and two dozen ebooks ordered, I think my critic was on to something--she is a brand specialist after all. Perhaps I wasn't as accessible as I thought.

I think, maybe, that even us poets who are writing (or think we might be writing or who I think might be thinking they're writing--there's only so much conversation I can start about why folks write poetry and what they intend to do before the other half of the discussion walks away for a different drink--sorry for being such a nerd, guys) for the common man don't have any idea what the hell we're doing.

Which is, in part, why I'm tinkering with children's literature. I think if you can't write a good poem for kids, maybe you're not doing it right. I've written (and written about?) a couple of fairy tales in my beloved Blues-Beowulf meter (4 beat caesura American) but I don't know if that cuts the mustard. Narrative with meter and rhyme might be the order of the day. If it's good enough for Poe and Tennyson why isn't it good enough for us?

Which leads to the next question--at who should we be aiming? Like Jesus says, your measures measure you--who is the paragon we must either Newtonianly stand upon or Bloomianly kick down? It's worth noting that the scientist says we build upon the past and the lit crit guy says we kill it. Who is doing better these days?

So I started this blog with a call to narrative. I keep up the call. But I add: make it for kids and make it rhyme. Let's hook them while they're young.

What's in a blog?

Back when I started Strong Verse (the blog), as a response to a need for a more "soapboxy" forum from Strong Verse (the poetry magazine) I worked on defining and describing poetry worth reading and writing.

Then I started writing some reviews about that, which got me into some pretty lovely places with regards to houses for my work.

It also has been a good exercise in reading.

Several times I've fallen off the wagon into politics and social commentary.

I think I'd like now to try posting daily. If anyone's still reading (folks are on RSS, yes?) then perhaps we'll get a lively conversation going.

Perhaps not.