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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Friday, November 29, 2002

Written in the cold today, outside the closed library:

Such a Pity

When I talk about politics, poems, or love,
My two kids roll their eyes and my wife starts to groan
And my best friends start crying "Enough, please, enough!
Get over it, man, climb down off that throne.

"We don't care, and why should we, that ages ago,
Some old fart named Somethingus said this about that,
And then Somebodyelsus said, 'Actually, no,
Since your whatsus is broke and your ass is too fat.'"

Then they'll laugh and run on about Friends and the Slayer
And "Isn't it awful that gas is so high,"
And I'm forced to conclude that there isn't a prayer
Of serious talk, nor a reason to try.

I shall have myself dubbed, by Italians, I guess--
Though there's much to said for the arts of Hong Kong--
When I ask "Don't you think?" I'll be answered with "Yes!"
I won't care the translation's hilariously wrong.


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Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Off to my family in North Carolina for Thanksgiving--Radio Userland isn't installed on my laptop, so there'll be no posts here till Sunday.

Update: I moved Userland to the iBook--so we'll see how much time my wife has left unplanned.
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Monday, November 25, 2002

I forgot to mention the other day that Hayden Carruth's "Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey" reminds me of Kenneth Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. I don't read much free verse anymore, but I reread that book many times a year, sometimes 3 times in a day.
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It was big news and I missed it because I was playing music three night in a row, the last two with an all-girl band. I swear to God.

While I was busy jamming, Ruth Lilly, the 87 year old granddaughter of the founder of the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, arranged to give $100 million to Poetry magazine, which had rejected several of her poems. Here's the story in the New York Times. It's a big deal, and wonderful news. There are no strings attached, apparently because she's happy with the way Poetry has administered her two previous gifts, the 2 annual $15,000 Ruth Lilly Fellowships and the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Prize. Besides, it helps with the estate taxes--another reason not to end them.

It turns out, though, that one provision of the Homeland Security bill just rammed through Congress protects Eli Lilly, among other companies, from lawsuits concerning vaccine additives like Lilly's thimerosal, which may be implicated in the recent rise in the incidence of autism. The Times has that story, too, including the interesting facts that White House budget director Mitch Daniels used to be with Eli Lilly, and that the current CEO, Sidney Taurel, has a seat on the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

What does this mean for Poetry? I've seen a few people claim the magazine should not accept this "tainted" money. They're nuts. Ruth Lilly's fortune certainly has its origins in the company, but she doesn't have anything to do with running it now, if indeed she ever had. Neither does she advise the Congress or the President. And have these conscientious folks refused to use computers with Chinese-made components in protest over working conditions in the Chinese computer industry? Well, they're posting to mailing lists. And so am I.


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Sunday, November 24, 2002

The wonderful Arts & Letters Daily relays a piece from the free part of the Chronicle of Higher Education about Posidippus, who, despite having been dead for about 2300 years, has a new book out.

Discovered in 1992 while unwrapping a mummy, it displaces Catullus's poems as the earliest surviving collection of poetry by a single author. Posidippus had previously been known (not by me) for his epigrams on drinking and sex; the newly discovered work has sections on many topics including precious stones, bird omens, and horse racing.

I can't read Greek either ancient or modern, and there's no mention of an available translation. But Catullus is available in many translations. My favorite is by Charles Martin, who also wrote a good critical introduction to Catullus and has a new book of poems out himself, Starting from Sleep: New and Selected Poems. Here are two of eight epigrams under the title "Past Closing Time":

II. From the Anthology

Theodorus will be tickled pink to hear
That I am dead: when Theodorus dies,
Someone, I'm sure, will learn of his demise
And a great grin will spread from ear to ear;
When he dies, yet another will be joyful:
If that's the case, then why is Death called "awful?"

III. Deconstructing the Zebra

"Watch out for flailing hooves," hyenas swarm,
Whose one rule is, "Dig in while it's still warm."


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Ruth Stone won this year's National Book Award for poetry. Here's the title poem from the book that won it:

In the Next Galaxy

Things will be different.
No one will lose their sight,
their hearing, their gallbladder.
It will be all Catskills with brand
new wrap-around verandas.
The idea of Hitler will not
have vibrated yet.
While back here,
they are still cleaning out
pockets of wrinkled
Nazis hiding in Argentina.
But in the next galaxy,
certain planets will have true
blue skies and drinking water.

I feel like I've been mean-spirited lately, probably because I've been away from my family for almost 3 weeks now, so I won't say anything about the poem.


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Saturday, November 23, 2002

The New York Times has an interesting piece today about hate speech (free registration required). A good part of the article concerns recent events at Harvard, where poet Tom Paulin was invited to read poetry, then uninvited because of some horrific (and horrible) comments and poetry about Israel, then reinvited in the name of free speech. I don't think it is a free speech issue--Paulin, alas, is widely published and internationally respected and gets to shoot his mouth off pretty much as he pleases--and I'm not sorry to see the rank biases of much of academia exposed. Can you imagine Harvard inviting a poet who had said of any Palestinians, rather than of "Brooklyn born" Jewish settlers, "They should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them."

But discussion of the issue on New Poetry did bring my attention to another case from a few years back in which a Seattle Pacific University, an evangelical Christian school, offered a job to Scott Cairns and rescinded the offer because of his poem "Interval with Erato." Click here and scroll down to read this marvelously sexy poem--it's clear why SPU was upset. Here's Cairns (who has another job now) on the subject:

First off, I wouldn't say the poem caused the scandal; I'd say that the poem's appearance and reception revealed a scandal that has been longstanding in some elements of what we have come to call the evangelical community. Most clearly, I learned to appreciate the blessing of a tenured position in a state university. To others facing a similar response to their work, I would say forgive everyone, and make more art.

Good man.


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I had a very hard time writing about Hayden Carruth's "Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey" because I could not help but see the similarity of my account to Ron Silliman's account of Barbara Guest's "Defensive Raptures," which seemed to me the height of affected silliness. The difference is the poems being treated--Guest's poem, at least in the lines quoted by Silliman, is inhuman gibberish, while Carruth's, even as it says "don't tell a soul, they wouldn't / understand, they couldn't," helps us feel a moment in what seems a real life. Carruth shows a respect for the reader's understanding which makes it worthwhile, at least for other writers, to try to discover the technical means by which he accomplishes the poem; Guest's apparent contempt for any attempt at communication makes courtiers of those who attempt the same, exclaiming at her beautiful nonexistent dress.

Still, Silliman's prose was better than mine. Sorry.


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Thursday, November 21, 2002

Hayden Carruth's "Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey," which I posted Sunday, is a jazz poem not just because it centers on a jazz session but because syncopation is its primary rhythmic effect.

The loose 3-beater (if you want 4 beats in line 12 or 2 in line 19 I won't argue much, but it's not free verse) begins with 3 strong trochees, the drummer clicking it off, and immediately mixes things up, shifting the beat along the line but never losing it. The full stops in line 4 help hold that "And" at the end, a kind of metrical promotion, setting up line 5's trochaic return and the shift to the "limping / treble roll" that even manages to make "the" work as a line ending. In a free-verse poem, this is usually a way to force emphasis onto the remainder of the noun-phrase; in a metrical poem it's almost unthinkable except in strict syllabics and comic poems; but here it's part of a continuing rhythmic surge, bringing the beat back to the one in the next line for the session finish on the first punctuation internal to the line since Hank started going. The rest of the poem relaxes, like the players, with many internal pauses until the rush of the penultimate line (I really don't mind 2 beats here) and the perfect final iambic line, ending, as the poem began, on a strongly stressed syllable. That "tonight" is made even stronger by the near rhymes (never/were fine/tonight) closing things out.

It's really hard to work like this, and Carruth does it over and over, seemingly effortlessly.


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Sunday, November 17, 2002

I said I'd write about reading poetry in bars. I've been living an odd life since July: working in rural southern Maryland, living in an apartment attached to a restaurant/bar, while my wife and 2 stepdaughters stay in North Carolina. I work a compressed work schedule which allows me to have 2 3-day weekends a month, which I spend with them. But for two weeks at a time, I'm on my own.

I didn't start very well. In particular, I was drinking too much. I was buying wine and whiskey, having 2 or 3 glasses of wine with dinner, and then taking 2 or 3 shots after I went to bed. I'd wake up tired and hung over, get not enough done at work, come home unable to write, start all over. So I decided not to drink alone.

I started drinking in bars, mostly the one right next door, because a DUI is not one of my goals. The expense of drinking out means I've been drinking less, and when I get home there's nothing to drink after I get to bed. I feel better in the morning and I've started to get some real work done.

When I'm not playing music (my other reason for going to bars) I usually take a book of poems with me. To my great surprise, there's almost always some more or less drunk person who wants to talk about the book, and, when he (it usually is a man--women are understandably more cautious about approaching strangers, or maybe I'm just too old and ugly) discovers it's poetry, he wants to read some of it, or tells me about some relative who reads or writes poetry, or recites some piece he has by heart: Robert Service is most common, but there's Frost and Tennyson and Keats, and, once, Homer. Maybe there'd be different poets in a city.

Two books in particular made large impressions on my new friends: Tim Murphy's Very Far North and Hayden Carruth's Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey. Here are the title poems from each:

It Is Very Far North ...

Four giddy days are all that spring allows
the drunken bumblings of our honey bees
before a south wind, stripping petalled boughs,
turns apple into ordinary trees.
Ours have weathered blizzards, freezing rain,
a record flood crest, and a May snow squall.
Now only scab, inchworms, and hail remain
to rob us of an ample apple fall,
a brief lifting of limbs before the snow
grips them with such reluctance to let go.


Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey

Scrambled eggs and whiskey
in the false-dawn light. Chicago,
a sweet town, bleak, God knows,
but sweet. Sometimes. And
weren't we fine tonight?
When Hank set up that limping
treble roll behind me
my horn just growled and I
thought my heart would burst.
And Brad M. pressing with the
soft stick, and Joe-Anne
singing low. Here we are now
in the White Tower, leaning
on one another, too tired
to go home. But don't say a word,
don't tell a soul, they wouldn't
understand, they couldn't, never
in a million years, how fine,
how magnificent we were
in that old club tonight.

I'll have more to say about these poems later this week--but ain't they grand?


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I should have said "mostly wrong-headed" about the discussion at Silliman's Blog: Kasey Silem Mohammad's part is pretty sensible. But the whole thing began here, with a discussion of Barbara Guest, whose poems Silliman describes as being "as closed as a sonnet" and who he claims "has become the single most powerful influence on new writing by women in the U.S.":

At her best, as in the poem "Defensive Rapture," Guests paints a tonal language that tends toward aural pastels, constructed around points of contrast. Each stanza is exactly one sentence, in that it is bounded by a terminal period. Consider:

stilled grain of equinox
turbulence the domicile
host robed arm white
crackled motives.

What organizes this quatrain is how that third line deploys only one-syllable words, three of which end with a consonant of closure. It is precisely the prosodic complexity of the multi-syllabic terms elsewhere that generates the stanza's "turbulence," felt precisely because of their contrast with this penultimate line. Guest accentuates the difference with the marvelous crackled, which does in fact characterize exactly this strophe's "motives."

"Defensive Rapture" consists of 12 such quatrains, each with its own internal demands and resolution. A lot of where Guest is heading and focuses can be analyzed by counting syllables. Thus

commends internal habitude
bush the roof
day stare gliding
double measures.

could be schematized as

2-3-3
1-1-1
1-1-2
2-2

The busy-ness of that first line, accentuated visually by its length, is offset by the stillness of the second--not one single-syllable word in the stanza ends on a hard consonant--which expands in the third line with its two alternate "a" sounds in the first two words, aurally "gliding" into that last term, which returns us to two-syllable words, the last line almost physically demonstrating how strong Guest's instinct for balance & closure are.

Well. I think the only response to that may be from Auden's Letter to Lord Byron:

So started what I'll call the Poet's Party:
      (Most of the guests were painters, never mind)--
The first few hours the atmosphere was hearty,
      With fireworks, fun, and games of every kind;
      All were enjoying it, no one was blind;
Brilliant the speeches improvised, the dances,
And brilliant, too, the technical advances.

How nice at first to watch the passers-by
      Out of the upper window, and to say
'How glad I am that though I have to die
      Like all those cattle, I'm less base than they!'
      How we all roared when Baudelaire went fey.
'See this cigar,' he said, 'it's Baudelaire's.
What happens to perception? Ah, who cares.?"

Today, alas, that happy crowded floor
      Looks very different: many are in tears:
Some have retired to bed and looked the door;
      And some swing madly from the chandeliers;
      Some have passed out entirely in the rears;
Some have been sick in the corners; the sobering few
Are trying hard to think of something new.


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Saturday, November 16, 2002

Bar Music

I'm not as good as what they hear--
The difference mostly due to beer,
But partly to the rule they've taught--
Finish strong, no matter what.

Not much but a little something. Later tonight, maybe tomorrow, I'm going to put up something about reading poetry in bars--I mean taking a book of poems with you to a bar, sitting down, and reading it.

There's an interesting and wrong-headed discussion of lyric poetry at Silliman's Blog.


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Sunday, November 3, 2002

I guess the creek rose a little, but it's only a day late and a few dollars short. I've been trying for a few years now to get a poem from this passage:

Meanwhile the moon has drawn clear of the chimneys. How ungrateful we have been to call her inconstant when she is the only body in the heavens to have remained faithful to us in spite of our intelligence, the only body that still revolves about us.

Jacquetta Hawkes, A Land. Intro by Robert Finch. Boston, Beacon Press, 1991, p. 14

I think this might do it:

Inconstant Moon

Of all that heavenly train,
None but you remain
In orbit round the home
We've learned is doomed to roam
Through nearly endless space
And leave behind no trace--
Is it you or me that lies
Each time you climb the skies?


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