Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium :
poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poets, poetry, and the po-biz
Updated: 8/21/08; 3:42:05 PM.



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Monday, August 18, 2008

I doubled my last on one of the poetry boards I frequent and learned from the discussion (thank you, Petra Norr!) that all(?) the faculty readings from the last two West Chester conferences are online: 2007 and 2008.

I like almost all of it, but let me tell you I was there for this year's readings and was blown away by Dick Davis’s performance, and our laureate Kay Ryan (here, here, here, and here) made me very sorry I missed last year’s.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Used to be I knew how to read free verse out loud. Used to be I wrote a lot of free verse, and reading it aloud didn’t confuse me a bit.

I used to bury rhymes in my free verse, just for the sound of it, and when I started writing rhymed metrical poetry, I continued. I enjambed almost almost every line. I somehow convinced myself that it was cool when people didn’t realize I’d written a sonnet until they saw it on a page.

But I eventually (after far too long) realized that I was crippling the rhythms of my poems.

Well-made metrical verse doesn’t destroy the rhythms of ordinary speech but rather uses meter as a counterpoint (“independent in contour and rhythm, and interdependent in harmony,” says wikipedia) to speech rhythm. Rhyme and enjambment also act in counterpoint to each other: rhyme reinforces the more-or-less strict foot counting of each line, while occasional enjambment allows occasional longer phrasing. Always doing one or the other is as rhythmically boring as always using monosyllabic rhymes, or always using the same sentence structure, or never substituting feet.

Then I got to thinking about my old free verse. Why did I break lines where I did? If I’d broken a line against the phrasing or punctuation of a sentence in the poem, had I intended a rhythmic effect, however unconsciously? When I read them out loud now (I have no recordings of then) I do pause, if only slightly, and I certainly don’t pause on enjambed lines in my metrical verse -- but is that just an artifact of my new and different consciousness of the line in poetry?

I recently auditioned for a role in Return to the Forbidden Planet, a musical loosely based on the B-movie Forbidden Planet, which is itself loosely based on The Tempest. There’s a lot of imported/distorted Shakespeare, and some fairly long passages of iambic pentameter. Now, this is community theater, but the folks are pretty artsy and literary, and at my session no one knew how to read pentameter. Every auditioner paused at the end of every line.

I think that’s because, with free verse being so dominant in our current poetic culture, people have learned to stop, however briefly, at the end of every line of a poem. How about you? Do you pause at the end of every line? Is it dependent on the poetry being metrical or not?

Some recent poetry is not intended to be read aloud (never true before the 20th century). There are also poems which deliberately wrench normal syntax and/or usage in such a way as to create independent rhythms from the fragments. But when free verse written in “normal” English is intended to be spoken, or at least speakable, what does a line break mean rhythmically? Do you pause, even if less so on an unpunctuated line break than on one that is punctuated? Less on midline punctuation than on a punctuated line break? If your answer to either question is “no,” then what does a line break mean? Why break a line in voice-intended free verse if not as a kind of rhythmic marker? Or is it just, as it once was for me, a matter of “looking right”? If that’s the case, is any particular vocal performance of the poem to be judged purely by its fidelity to the language of the poem? And if that’s the case -- what makes it poetry when it’s not on the page?

That last question is not a troll. If there exist poets who do not intend some rhythmic effect from the manner of their line breaks but do have some other conscious intention(s), I’d like to understand it and how it informs their understanding of poetry.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I love Kay Ryan's poetry and am extremely glad that she’s our new Poet Laureate. For those of you who don’t know her work, perhaps the best introduction I’ve seen is this, full of linky goodness, from Meghan_O’Rourke, the culture critic at Slate. O’Rourke’s a pretty good poet herself, as you can see here.

Oh, and as of today, O’Rourke’s Half-Life is on my Amazon wish-list.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

First, a note. This blog has not been the only moribund part of my writing life this summer. I think I've written 3 non-band-related emails, and answered not many more (so it hasn’t been personal); until this week I hadn’t posted once at the workshop sites I’d intended to frequent; I’ve read almost nothing; I haven’t written a single poem.

I’ve long joked that my brain goes away at the Summer Solstice and doesn’t return until the Fall Equinox, and that’s part of the problem this year: I can’t think when it’s hot. But this has also been a summer of weddings, funerals, and thousands of miles of driving. None of the weddings were mine; I’m well past the halfway point to my funeral; you know what driving costs in time and energy of many kinds. None of the above is an excuse — just an accounting. I offer my apologies to them as wants them.

Remember James Carse, who argues in his book and in this interview conducted by Steve Paulson that religion is poetry? Paulson actually has a lot of work on Salon, much of it in the series Atoms and Eden, and the same meme appears in his interview with Karen Armstrong, where she says of theological texts that she learned “to read them like poetry, which is what theology is. It's poetry. It's an attempt to express the inexpressible. It needs quiet. You can't read a Rilke sonnet at a party.”

She doesn’t go to the right parties.

If you haven’t been to too many parties since my last post you might remember I was going to explain why any such claimed equivalence of religion and poetry really raises my hackles, but that I first wanted to reread Tim Steele, in his Missing Measures, on Kant and aesthetics. Well, I ended up reading the whole thing again (too slowly), and that's helped to awaken me from my slumbers — I even spent some time with Kant myself. So thanks to Tim, but the brief rant that follows ain’t his fault. It’s just me, myself, and I.

Armstrong and Carse are a right pair, but they’re right that Religion, the grand thing that’s neither Buddhism nor animism nor anything betwixt or between, doesn’t have much to say. It just points and goes "Ooh!" or maybe "Ahh!" and likely "Sshh!" But I’ll be damned if the same is true of poetry.

That Western culture largely accepted Kant’s separation of art from the moral and practical spheres was a disaster, bringing to artists not freedom, but uselessness. No one, not even a poet, likes to feel useless (at least the painters get to match the living room upholstery). Since useful people — the ones not involved in sordid capitalism or debasing manual labor — performed experiments and made discoveries, artists of all kinds figured that was the way to “advance” their art. But just what is an “experiment” or a “discovery” in poetry? What hypothesis is being tested or confirmed? Which of the myriad schools has informed its successors of anything but its irrelevance? And with, by design (Eliot said he had no interest in understanding what he was saying in The Waste Land), nothing to say about anything the public gives a damn about, what’s the surprise that the public increasingly ignored them?

You may object that there were poets who had something to say, and of course there were. Some turned inward to what they considered the only material truly available to them, their personal experience. But we grow tired of the merely personal even when it comes from those we love. Some, believing that their poetic sensibility gave them access to higher truths (and both attitudes stem from the divorce of aesthetics from the practical world), turned to politics and a few of them, for instance Allen Ginsberg, even got the public’s attention for a while. But what, after all, was the message of “Howl” but “How awful!” Did Ginsberg or anyone else ever go beyond that (not so different, really, from "Ooh!" or "Ahh!") to suggest in poetry some way forward? Ah, but that would have required thinking.

And poetry, we’ve been taught, isn’t thinking but feeling. And even if it could be thinking, who would read all that thinking unless they were either required to or, better, found some intrinsic pleasure in the expression of that thought? And all the “experimenting” had left perhaps a majority of poets with no understanding of or feeling for the traditional tools — meter and rhetoric — of poets engaged in what was for two-and-a-half millennia understood to be the poet’s task: to delight and instruct.

Poetry, like the other arts, is not primarily instrumental, but neither is it disinterested. It had better be more than decorative; it had better offer more than a barbaric yawp; it had better recover the means to embody emotion and action and thought in skillful verse.

Well, I did learn this short piece from Tim’s edition of J. V. Cunningham’s poetry:

For My Contemporaries

How time reverses
The proud at heart!
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.

But I sleep well.
Ambitious boys
Who big lines swell
With spiritual noise,

Despise me not,
And be not queasy
To praise somewhat:
Verse is not easy.

But rage who will.
Time that procured me
Good sense and skill
Of madness cured me.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

I really wanted to reread the chapter on 19th-century aesthetic philosophy from Tim Steele’s Missing Measures before writing this second part of my response to the Paulson/Carse interview — it seems to me there were new ways of being wrong invented from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries as various intellectuals tried either to imitate or to limit the methods and influence of science, and Tim made a fine argument on the relationship between Kantian aesthetic philosophy and the 20th century abandonment of meter in English poetry. Kant’s metaphysics and epistemology are also clearly in tune with statements like this from Carse:

… we can never get outside what we know to say something about it that's definitive. We're always locked inside that body of knowledge. For example, we have any number of theories about the origin and nature of the universe, but there is no way we can place ourselves outside the universe and observe it objectively. However learned these theories are, they contain a profound ignorance that cannot be eliminated.

But the book, like most of my library, is somewhere in the attic and I haven’t been able to find it, so have a laugh on me here (it involves a nose flute) while I rearrange my approach to this poetry and religion thing.

Update: I found the book! So maybe tomorrow.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

OK, I haven't read The Religious Case Against Belief, and after reading “Religion Is Poetry,” Steve Paulson’s Salon interview with its author James Carse, I know I will never read it — and I’m going to tell you why you shouldn’t either.

As you may have surmised from his book’s title, Carse thinks that particular beliefs about the nature and existence of gods, of good and evil, of the afterlife, or of the transcendent have no necessary connection to religion. Here are a pair of Qs&As from the interview:

Paulson: In your book, you say the only defining characteristic of religion is its longevity. It has to be around for a very long time to qualify as a religion.

Carse: Exactly. That's a very interesting contrast with belief systems. Belief systems have virtually no longevity. Think of Marxism. As a serious political policy, it lasted only about 70 or 80 years. Nazism only went 12 years. And they were intense, complete, comprehensive, passionately held beliefs. But they ran out very quickly. The reason the great religions don’t run out as quickly is that they’re able to maintain within themselves a deeper sense of the mystery, of the unknowable, of the unsayable, that keeps the religion alive and guarantees its vitality.

Paulson: You’re also suggesting that there’s no underlying unity that permeates all religions, that, in fact, they’re totally different from each other.

Carse: I’m absolutely saying that.

So long-lasting incoherence — not a kind way of putting it, but I think a fair way — is for Paulson the defining characteristic of a great religion.

I’m not a believer (no spooks for me, big or little) nor do I describe myself as religious, so I don’t really have a dog in that fight. My hackles do stir a little at the ignorance and arrogance he displays — they do go together — when he claims that to be an atheist “is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe” and that “you have to be very clear about what god you're not believing in.” It’s when he implies that his trinity, that “deeper sense of the mystery, of the unknowable, of the unsayable,” should be my concern as a poet, since, after all, “religion is poetry,” that I start whistling for the pack.

And now, since long posts go unread and I have to get ready for a gig tonight, I‘ll leave you hanging.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Sourcebooks, Inc no longer qualifies as a “small publisher,” but it has kept its independent spirit and produces quality books for markets, such as poetry, that the really big publishers seem either to ignore or to treat almost as academic vanity presses — where the vanity in question is the publisher’s, not the authors’. Its poetry catalog is weighted toward hip-hop and spoken word and usually includes a CD sampling the texts. The anthology The Poem I Turn To, edited by Jason Schinder, has a CD as well, though the content is very different, and the structure is, as far as I know, unique. Let me say right up front that I like the book and thoroughly approve of its editorial strategy — and I don’t think I'd have ever bought it. I am emphatically not part of its target audience, as you’ll see below.

The book’s subtitle is “Actors & Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them.” Now, I approve of nearly anything that has a chance of expanding poetry’s audience, but after I got over the giddiness of being asked to review a book I began to dread what I expected to be celebrity egos lathered over a collection of more-or-less worthy chestnuts interspersed with new age crap from the 20th and 21st centuries. I was an arrogant idiot.

There is a strong emphasis on the 20th century and only Blake survives from the 18th, but new age crap and the less worthy chestnuts are a tiny minority in this fine collection. I should have known that actors and directors would have at least as good a taste as toolmakers and teachers, and that people in the entertainment industry would find “inspiration” in tougher stuff than pablum. Producer Kathleen Glynn chose Dorianne Laux’s “The Shipfitter’s Wife” (one of the sexiest poems I know, without a hint of lewdness) and Donald Hall’s “My Son, My Executioner” while Carrie Fisher chose E. E. Cummings’ “anyone lived in a little how town” and Larkin’s “This be the Verse”(!); there’s more Rilke (including two chosen by Jane Fonda) and Shakespeare than anyone else, and there's Yeats and Jon Silkin, James Wright and Kenneth Koch, Gwendolyn Brooks and Andrew Marvell, Ted Roethke and Seamus Heaney, Meghan O’Rourke and Mark Strand, Frost and Cavafy, Neruda and Pound, Plath and Eliot, Kunitz and Lorca …

So why would I not have bought the book? Well, I already own at least one copy of virtually every valuable (to me) poem in the book, and I don't have the slightest curiosity about what the “stars” read — though having found out, I am very gratified and probably will buy copies to give as gifts. Without a hint of condescension, The Poem I Turn To is an excellent introduction to poetry for people who don’t read the stuff. The accompanying CD is particularly valuable because actors can read: its 30 poems are presented beautifully and naturally.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The 30th (counting those 5 limericks) NaPoWriMo 2008 poem is up (scroll to the bottom) but not yet podcast. That page has the original versions (with one exception) of the poems in the order I wrote them this month.

In the last few days I've re-ordered them, done some minor editing, changed a few titles, and set a common format for the poems spoken by my characters — all but the limericks and the final double dactyl. You can, for a while anyway, download a pdf of the whole thing in the proper order and with my current revisions.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

The 29th (counting those 5 limericks) NaPoWriMo 2008 poem is up (scroll to the bottom) and podcast.

One more! — and a lot of reading and drive-by crits.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Three gigs again last weekend, but soon only duets with Krys: one last gig for the band on May 31st until we can find new players for bass, guitar, and drum — and NaPoWriMo 2008 is almost ever. Thanks to the 5 limericks on the 17th I’ll finish, and I’ve written a very late introduction to what I hope will be a workable chapbook.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

I’m finally figuring out the plot for my NaPoWriMo 2008 adventure, and I see I've left some holes. Everything is here, but this last one, "One Phone Call," will actually be placed in the early middle of the story when it’s done. Other poems will move around as well, and one way or another, for a while at least, I’ll make everything available in the proper order.

I hope you’re enjoying it — I’m having a grand time!

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Check this out, from the header of a cached message — somehow a Safari cached message — that Spotlight turned up when I was looking for something I’d said about Paul Goodman's poem "FLAGS, 1967":

Date: Oct 27, 1995 - 2:17 PM
msnider @ nando.net (Michael Snider)

Looks like it was a UseNet post of mine (probably to rec.arts.poems) that I once found doing a Google Groups search, and it’s such a me rant that I’m reposting it here today, sig and all. It begins by quoting some zine editor’s request for poetry (I’ve deleted the names — I don’t remember the people or the zine anyway):


No rhyming poetry. No rented poetry (e.g., tortured soul , bleeding night ). I like personal poetry. I like poetry that makes me think & feel. I like poetry that experiments with form amp; takes chances. I accept …

What on earth can "poetry that experiments with form" mean 80 years after the imagists and the futurists and the dadaists, 40 years after the Black Mountain poets and "Howl"? Found poetry, performance poetry, multimedia poetry, chance poetry, hypertext poetry, god help us language poetry--nothing is so likely to become dated as the avant garde, which must define itself as something different from what just happened. And 80 years of avant garde one-upmanship has led only to Jesse Helms vs. the Piss Christ. You pick one of those two.

Here's a poem that takes chances--a sonnet from Paul Goodman:

FLAGS, 1967

How well they flew together side by side
the Stars and Stripes my red and white and blue
and my Black Flag the sovereignty of no
man or law! They were the flags of pride
and nature and advanced with equal stride
across the age when Jefferson long ago
saluted both and said, "Let Shay's men go.
If you discourage mutiny and riot
what check is there on government?"
the gaudy flag is very grand on earth
and they have sewed on it a golden border,
but I will not salute it. At our rally
I see a small black rag of little worth
and touch it wistfully. Chaos is Order.

and another, also from Goodman:

God damn and blast and to a fist of dust
reduce me the contemptible I am
if I again hinder for guilt or shame
the blooming of my tenderness to lust
like a red rose; I have my cock traduced
to which I should be loyal. None to blame
but me myself that I consort with them
who dread to rouse me onward and distrust
what has a future.
                                   Let me bawl hot tears
for thee my lonely and dishonored sex
in this fool world where now for forty years
thou beg'st and beg'st and again thou beg'st
because this is the only world there is,
my rose in rags among these human wrecks.

And this twerp who says "I like personal poetry. I like poetry that makes me think & feel. I like poetry that experiments with form & takes chances" would exclude them because they rhyme. What an idiot.

I'm tired of those who think being modern means abandoning useful tools--as if a modern carpenter would abandon tape measures, or a modern architect would abandon elevations, or a modern cook abandon good knives.

[deleted] and [deleted] got me thinking seriously about these things after I objected to some "archaic" words in a good poem of [deleted]'s. I write formal poems, and perhaps I've reacted to charges that they were "old-fashioned" by trying to root out anything other than form which might make them seem so--just another member of the poetry police. Well, I'm turning in my badge. Fuck them. Fuck anybody who says poetry has to be this way and not that way.

Just to be contrary, here's my latest free verse:

In the Dark Woods

Getting into the woods is easy--
Even in a park you leave the path

Only a moment--turned around--
Everything is almost right--

That beech was an oak--
The creek gone underground for a spell

Three notes sounding smooth rocks
Quartz breaking open in the hand--

In the thicket wait
Burrs, cuts, and ticks

Up the stony hill
Trampled ferns and asthma

Down the gully broken logs
Or is it legs?

Well. Nothing for it
But to get on with it.

This time you're on your own.

Michael (rant mode off)

All men are poets in their way, tho' for the most part their ways are damned bad ones. -- S. T. Coleridge

Both poems are in Goodman's Collected, out of print but obtainable.

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My 21st NaPoWriMo 2008 poem, another ovillejo, was finished and posted about a half hour ago. Eight more days and nine more poems unless I count those limericks as 5 …

I“ve added the DaRK PaRTY ReVIEW blog over on the left under “Resources” — any blog featuring Echo, Ring Lardner, a furious review of the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and an interview with a first-time novelist on the front page the first time I see it is my kind of place.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Last night’s terzanelle beat me about the head and shoulders till nearly 2 in the morning, so I'm much less ambitious today: for NaPoWriMo 2008 number 20, a triolet (and scroll down — it’s too late for anchors).

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How do you spell Ricky Ricardo’s despair?

But with the three deaths of friends and neighbors (most affecting Krys more than I), getting in a late garden, three gigs coming up this week, and the mysterious disappearance and arduous recovery of this blog, I’m not too disappointed to be only a day behind in the 2008 NaPoWriMo. The 19th poem (hey, it may be the 21st but I haven’t slept yet) is up and the 18th and 19th are podcast.

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… and more than a few dollars short.

But the 18th NaPoWriMo 2008 is up (at the bottom of the page).

WTF? Everything here at the blog — but nothing else of mine on the host server — just disappeared, and apparently sometime early Saturday! Luckily, I have local backups of everything. Let me just say again — WTF?

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

This was in my master's thesis.

And now there are 5 of them (scroll to the bottom) for NaPoWriMo 2008. You can listen to this episode here or choose among them all here.

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