Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium :
poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poets, poetry, and the po-biz



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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

I'm playing out the next three nights, so there'll be a lull here after the last few days' frenzy. BTW, feel free to beat up on any poems of mine I post here. Most are early drafts, and I'm looking for some reaction. This, one, for example, though it is "about" things that happened more than a year ago, didn't reach this form till a few minutes ago:

Financial Analysis

It seems I have the kind of tic
That fascinated Freud,
For once again I've bought a house,
Then joined the unemployed.

He'd claim these walls that shelter me
Must mean my Mother's womb
From which my Father's banned by Death,
That I'm her guilty groom.

But I'm not blind--no matter how
Engrossingly complex,
Self-knowledge is no substitute
For earning steady checks.

That old ballad meter again. Better duck.

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In emails and in comments, some readers of this blog have said things like I love the work of metrical masters like Anthony Hecht or Richard Wilbur or X. J. Kennedy or Donald Justice, but the New Formalists are stiff, uninspired, incompetent, blah, blah, blah... It's curious that Hecht and Wilbur and Justice and Kennedy themselves do not share this opinion. Here's a short collection from book jackets and prefaces:

Wilbur on Tim Murphy's Very Far North: "When he published his first collection, The Deed of Gift, Timothy Murphy was already a mature and greatly accomplished poet; but in Very Far North he has gone from strength to strength." Hecht wrote the preface.

Hecht on Charles Martin's Starting from Sleep: "Deft, witty, intelligent, and richly colloquial, this is a poetry of technical mastery and an easy freedom founded on well-earned assurance."

Kennedy on Rhina Espaillat's Where Horizon's Go: "Such developed skill and such mastery of rhyme and meter are certainly rare anymore; so is plainspeaking."

Justice on Greg Williamson's Errors in the Script: "I know of no one who writes with more wit and invention.... Verse turns to poetry before one's eyes--and in one's ears."

Wilbur on Sam Gwynn's No Word of Farewell: "His poems are based in the vernacular, yet haunted by the whole tradition of verse. This is a richly varied, highly accomplished collection from one of our best."

Maybe I've been picking bad examples--or maybe some of those comments are from folks who have a bias, perhaps unconscious, against contemporary metrical poetry. Try reading more of it. Jenny Factor's Unraveling at the Name might be a good place to start--or any of the books linked above. There's a review of Factor's book here.

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Here's Sam Gwynn's poem as it appeared in the Evansville Review:


He says: My daughter cries and asks last night
What she should do. I tell her, "Baby, look,
Your mom's from Panama, your friends are white
And black, we're baked potatoes--and that book
You dropped there says we all belong here too.
I've been here longer than the kids who buy
Their beer and smokes from me. And someday you
May have to tell your daughter not to cry.

Your papa was a student when the Shah
Went under, and they called me 'camel jock.'
Some of them were my friends. I don't know whether
They ever think of that. Pick up that sock
And do your homework. This is America.
This is our country. We're in this together."

Here are links to some others of his poems as they appear on the web:

Three Poems

Make Us an Offer

Two Poems

And here is a review with generous quotes from No Word of Farewell.

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Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Here's Sam Gwynn's reply to my apology:

In a message dated 1/28/2003 6:31:44 PM Central Standard Time, mandolin@mikesnider.org writes:

Worse, I posted it to make political rather than poetic points, knowing you had made at least one major revision which I couldn't put my hands on in my stupid hurry, and I called it to the attention of the blogger  with whom I was irritated, and now there are people arguing about it.

Well, the poem was intended primarily to make a political point.  I was at Lamar in the late 70s during the Iran-hostage crisis, and at the time we had a lot of Iranian students who came under considerable duress from members of the student body; at the same time, almost anyone with suspiciously dark-colored skin suffered some of the same insults.  I have two friends (one Iranian and one Syrian) who remember that time, and I wanted to say something about how I hoped there wouldn't be a similar backlash after 9/11.  Mercifully there wasn't--some isolated incidents around the country but no burning and looting of stores owned by Middle Easterners, etc.  It's true that the poem was a sonnet, but it wasn't much more than a versified account of a blend of two conversations with the guys I mentioned above.  I don't think it's much of a poem; the last line is just a flat-out cliche, but sometimes the cliche holds a lot of truth.

So, I have no trouble with your having posted the poem (and any others), and I encourage you (if you're willing) to restore the poem (not "September 13, 2001" as originally titled but in its present version known as "9/12." It was published in the Evansville Review last year.  I'd also be interested in hearing about the comments it received.

It is true, by the way, that I am a member of the NRA, as well as of the Democratic Party.  I see serious flaws in the policies of both, but I prefer to work from the inside rather than the outside.  I support the rights of responsible citizens to bear arms, and I honor the paradox of those who vote, as I do, straight ticket,  while still resisting many things that we find abhorrent.  Do I contradict myself?  Very well, I contradict myself.  A formalist poet who reveres Walt Whitman as the best we have produced is bound to have a few contradictions.

You may post this reply if you wish.  Thanks for letting me know about your blog.

I'm looking for a good copy of the poem in order to repost it.

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I almost feel like picking another fight, this time with Ron Silliman over his remarks today and here, but I think I'll just point you here and let Wendy Cope have a word.
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Kasey Mohammad has posted a polite reply to my rant. Go read it. I can hardly argue with his characterization of a poem which I have since pulled from this site, but I'm going to reply to him privately on that subject. About Eratosphere: there's some silliness everywhere, and Kasey found some. But I'd direct his and your attention to these threads (here and here) where there is a good deal of very intelligent and learned wrestling (and some bumbling by me) with the relationship of meter to rhythm and with loose iambics, respectively.

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Monday, January 27, 2003

Abstract lyric appears again, this time at K. Silem Mohammad's Lime Tree. (He was a participant in the discussion at Ron Silliman's blog.) After some comments defining the uses of the term--"conspicuous opacity of reference in marked distinction to other poems written by other poets in and before its historical period," for instance, or "a fundamental approach to linguistic reference, within the deep structure of the utterance"--he adds this final remark:

There is still plenty of "non-abstract" lyric out there, of course. But the tables have turned to a great extent, so that now that is the work that looks least "like poetry." There is currently no visibly thriving tradition, for example, of discursive satiric verse in the tradition of Pope or Swift* against which one might mark the departure of lyrics with floating signifiers and unhinged periods; everything is disjunctive or opaque in some way, or if it's not, it's not in either a or unconscious (e.g., Billy Collins?) way. This, as far as I can see, is the extent of how form can take on social meanings: by designating broad political/aesthetic camps, with very broad strokes. And even here the designation can and does fail at times.

This all seems deeply wrong to me. To whom do these "non-abstract" works (I love the definition by negation of what has always been at the center of English language poetry) appear least like poetry? I'm not a particular fan of Billy Collins's work--but he's the closest thing to a best-seller American poetry has, and he is Poet Laureate. Both the public and at least a significant part of the arts establishment think his work is very much like poetry. Poetry Daily posts at least as much metrical verse (New Formalist or old) as langpo or utterances from the children of Ashberry. It may be that I am the only New Formalist blogger, but, for poets interested in how to make "abstract lyrics," there is nothing on the web remotely resembling the mainly formalist Eratosphere, where novices can ask serious questions of and get advice from masters like Richard Wilbur, Sam Gwynn, Alicia Stallings, Annie Finch, Robert Mezey, and Tim Steele. Just who is this community of people for whom the "abstract lyric" defines poetry?

There are clues in the last 2 sentences quoted above: "reactionary (e.g., New Formalist)," and "form can take on social meanings: by designating broad political/aesthetic camps." Even though "the designation can and does fail at times," it seems clear where he's coming from.** The "non-abstract" lyric ain't on the side of the Engels.

It's true that some of the New Formalists I've met are Republicans, and some are libertarians, and some may be to the right of Newt Gingrich. But what about these poems from Sam Gwynn?

I had no right to post the poem which was here. My copy came from a private mailing list. I have apologized to Sam Gwynn by email (he didn't ask for the apology or the removal of the poem--he probably won't know the poem was here until he gets my email), and I apologize here. And buy his book, No Word of Farewell.

He may well belong to the NRA (he's a founding member of the Gun and Couplet Club), but reactionary he ain't.

*He ought to take a look at the formalists for this, especially Charles Martin, Wendy Cope, J. V. Cunningham, and Sam Gwynn. Here's a quickie from Martin's Starting from Sleep:

Deconstructing the Zebra

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

**I've sent a copy of this to K. Silem Mohammad, and he may have a different story. If he does, I'll tell it here in a future post. BTW, my own politics are complicated. My problem with Clinton was that he was only barely (and not always) to the left of Richard Nixon, but it seems to me that was a result of Marxist hijacking of liberalism.

9:38:09 PM  
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Sunday, January 26, 2003

2Blowhards gave me a nice plug, and in the same post introduced me to two wonderful blogs I've added to the link list: Aaron Haspel's God of the Machine in Culture Blogs and Alice Bachini's Rational Parenting in a category of its own, Nifty Blogs. I'll write later about this excellent discussion (here and here on God of the Machine; here's a sonnet of mine for Rational Parenting:


My daughter's learning how the planets dance,
How curtseys to an unseen partner's bow
Are clues that tell an ardent watcher how
To find new worlds in heaven's bleak expanse,
How even flaws in this numerical romance
Are fruitful: patient thought and work allow
Mistakes to carry meaning. She writes now
That Tombaugh spotting Pluto wasn't chance.
Beside her, I write, too. Should I do more
Than nudge her at her homework while I try
To master patterns made so long before
My birth that since then stars have left the sky?
I'll never know. But what I try to teach
Is trying. She may find what I can't reach.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Some notes from the blogosphere:

Henry Gould has been wonderful the last couple of weeks, posting old poems, talking about his practice, and generally being sensible and exciting--an unusual combination.

Ron Silliman has blogged about poetry blogs, and mentioned mine--seems I'm the only New Formalist blogger around. Can that be true? And am I really a New Formalist? I did go to Westchester once, and 30 years ago I travelled with Fred Turner--but we were in the Canadian poet Robert Allen's car, and anyway Fred was writing free verse in those days. So was I, and so I still occasionally do. Anyway, he's provided an annotated lists of poetry blogs which I am anxious to check out.

At 2blowhards Michael has posted a survival guide to art chats with some advice about the canon that poeple at New Poetry should be reading. So should you!

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Monday, January 20, 2003

I posted this to a PoetryEtc mailing list discussion concerning the nature and whereabouts of the current avant garde:

There can be advances in the technical underpinnings of an art, as a better understanding of perspective may allow more realism in certain kinds of painting, or better metallurgy may lead to a louder and more balanced flute, but it is not a retreat to abandon perspective or to write music for a Renaissance flute. "Experiment" and "avant garde" are both misleading in that they imply direction and progress in the arts when no such things are possible, but an army's avant garde, at least, can fail, and, in opposing causes, there are multiple avant gardes. An avant garde at least acknowledges the partisan nature of its claims.

Experiment is more problematic, as it borrows from the language of science, implying an objective, systematic, asymptotic approach to something very like truth, or at least to what works best. There are several problems with this. First, objective truth and effectiveness have very little to do with art. Even when I argue that using traditional meters means I don't have to teach my readers how to hear the rhythms of my poems, I don't mean that therefore the poems were more effective--effective at what? conveying my emotional state? telling a story? making money? What is the purpose of art, that some particular form may better fulfill that purpose? It just means that I have less work to do at some levels and more at others and that I have chosen where I want to put my effort, and that I hope I have made a good choice for me in terms of letting the tradition do some of the work where I am weak so that I can use my strengths. To what end? Making poems that satisfy me and that, as far as I can tell, are a source of pleasure and an occasional kick in the ass for those who read or hear them. It's not such a grand thing.

I didn't make that choice by way of experiment. None of us do experiments. None of us makes a hypothesis that a particular affect can best be produced in an audience in manner A rather than in manner B, tries to think of all the contingent variables that may affect the production of that affect, designs a protocol which controls for each of those variables so that any result we see will be solely the consequence of using manner A or B, repeats that effort many times and applies statistical analysis to determine whether the differences we see are beyond expected chance variations, submits the work to peer review, waits for duplication of the results by other poets, refines the hypothesis or the protocol in light of the results from experiment and the work of other poets, tentatively accepts the hypothesis as either confirmed or rejected, and then goes on to examine the effect of manner C.

"What if I do it this way?" does not constitute an experiment. We play around. We find what we like to do. We find the areas where we feel we have talent. What we mean by experiment is more like tinkering.

There's nothing wrong with tinkering--it's absolutely necessary at every level in making art--but when we call it an experiment, even those of us who distrust the scientific enterprise (I'm not one) are too often seduced into thinking we're working on some more than personal frontier, that in some fashion we're helping the art to progress. I'm not saying that any particular person here [at PoetryEtc] has made that claim--but why else does "experimental poetry" always come up in discussions of the avant garde? Why are both terms nearly always used as honorifics if not because we tend to think of the new as in and of itself good?

Why haven't we learned that it ain't necessarily so?

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Wednesday, January 15, 2003

an old poem--

First Revelation

At school they beat me up, a skinny fart
Who'd shit his pants and tried to hide the turds
Inside his desk, and even worse, was smart.
No good with feet or fists, I fought with words --
And magic words were what I found at church.
I still remember how to change the wine
To blood, know the words to make God search
My soul for sin or cast demons from swine.
Most magical of all, I learned that girls
At church would listen to the words I made
With loosening hearts and thighs and give me pearls
Of great price, thinking it to be fair trade.
God knows I was a wicked boy. A beast.
And I decided to become a priest.
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Monday, January 13, 2003

Jim Shell, a friend of mine, a painter and musician, died of a heart attack last week. He was 53, just 3 years older than I'll be next month. My wife and my youngest daughter went with me to the wake, held at his house. There were hundreds of people there to remember a man who had given away more paintings than he had sold. We walked slowly, in alternate tears and laughter, through rooms where dozens and dozens of gorgeous paintings lined the walls and floors and sat propped on the furniture, even on the kitchen counter and the refrigerator.

I hadn't seen much of him in the last couple of years, and I was astonished at how much work he'd done, at how his painting seemed to have exploded in quality as well as quantity. Of course there's a relationship between the two: when you work at something, you get better at doing it.

After the wake we went to the Stammer, a monthly poetry reading and open mic held at ArtSpace in Raleigh (Jim's late paintings made everything there look either too cautious or unskilled). I'm only in North Carolina every other weekend, and hadn't known when I left Maryland that I'd be going either to a wake or the Stammer. I had my laptop with me--I can't read my handwriting--and thought I might read one or two poems in the open mic portion, something for Jim, but Amy Nolan, who runs it, recognized me and invited me to take a 15 minute slot.

Like most open poetry readings, the Stammer is a mixture of the very good and the painfully bad, not much just OK. Most of the good performers--they are performers--are young and black, hip hop poets, everything by heart, everything passionate, full of sex and glory and indignation and laughter and furious beat. I love to watch them work. A gorgeous dreadlocked giant who calls himself Langston Fuze, many with one name: Aqua, Saqid, Ishmael.

Well, here I come, with my pentameters and sonnets. You know who liked them? Those hip hop poets. They heard the beat in what I did, they heard the same connection of poetry and song they worked at. And I'm not bragging, because they and Jim made me ashamed at how little I've done.

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I don't know how to delete a mistakenly made post except by replacing it with an admission of incompetence.

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Tuesday, January 7, 2003

Beside my ex's photographs,
A decent telescope lies boxed
Where you can find it. There's a cost
To happiness, I know, but ask
Must all she touched be sacrificed?
Did you mean her to have the sky?

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Sunday, January 5, 2003

Two new (one really new) poetry blogs, from Henry Gould and K. Silem Mohammad, added to the link list

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A while back I wondered what John Palattella could have meant by "duty to language," especially as he contrasted that duty with duty to audience. I'm actually not happy with the word "duty" in any case"--but I recently found this article by Philip Pullman about the writer's responsibilities. It's interesting what he says first:

...whether or not responsibility begins at home, it feels as if it does. Our first responsibilities are financial: the need to look after our families and those who depend on us. What this means is that we should sell our work for as much as we can decently get for it, and we shouldn't be embarrassed to say so.

Perhaps many poets have trouble with the rest because the first, in the sense of making a living at poetry, is impossible. But later he talks about responsibility to the writer's medium, that is, language. And the things he mentions wouldn't come high on the list of, say, Jorie Graham or John Ashberry: "making sure of the meaning of words by looking them up in a good dictionary"; "developing the faculty of sensing when we're not sure about a point of grammar"; "if the water is murky, the bottom might be only an inch below the surface - you just can't tell. It's much better to write in such a way that the readers can see all the way down; but that's not the end of it, because you then have to provide interesting things down there for them to look at." One thing might make those other lists: "the pleasures of the subtle and the complex."

While I'm on the subject, having just spent a week re-reading Tim Steele, here is a passage from the end of Missing Measures, p. 290:

To reiterate a point made earlier, meter is neutral. It is a means by which poets can make what they say more forceful and memorable. Indeed, if poets care about an issue, they should want to give it the best possible treatment. The poet who says his subject is too urgent for meter may be deceiving himself. If we care about what we say, if we want to communicate it to others, if we want them to consider it as having more than ephemeral interest, we should aim to make what we say as memorable as possible.

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As I pointed out last time (last month, last year!), Carl Estabrook's notion of the difference between poetry and verse--"Poetry is a matter of tropes, and verse, of word-schemes"--is pretty silly. But it's not his fault. Though there certainly is a difference, exactly what it is has never been clear, and in the last century it became more obscure than ever because, for the first time, it became generally accepted that one could write poetry without writing verse.

Now, I'm a long way from most of my books, and a long way from a library, so what I have to say in answer to the inevitable question "What about Blake, Whitman, the King James Psalms, and 'For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry'?" is primarily based on the third chapter of a book I do happen to have with me, Timothy Steele's Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter. It would be based on that excellent book if I were sitting in the Reading Room of the Library at the British Museum. My few following paragraphs cannot possibly convey the force and learning of his 60 pages of clear, finely argued, and densely referenced text. Buy the book, if you're at all interested in what happened to English-language poetry in the 20th century.

Steele convincingly demonstrates that while for the ancients poetry is something more than verse, the idea that poetry is something distinct from verse first appeared among the Renaissance Aristotelians. It seems an odd distinction to us: the essential quality of poetry, they claimed, is mimesis, the imitation rather than the reporting of action. In other words, poets weren't allowed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. They had to make something up: poetry had to be fiction, and the best fictions, whether in prose or verse, were poetry, and Dante, because he did not "imitate," was, for some, no poet.

There things stood for nearly four centuries, with different writers excluded or included in the ranks of poets by virtue of whether or not they "imitated": Du Bartas put out by Jonson, Crashaw by Pope, and all the metaphysicals by Johnson; Herodutus (whom Aristotle had excluded) included by Shelley, Burnet by Coleridge. Poets, nevertheless, continued writing verse, with occasional but uninfluential exceptions. No one but Christopher Smart imitated the Psalms, and no one imitated Jubilate Deo before the 20th century.

Then everything changed. In other chapters, Steele examines the mostly baleful influence on metrical poetry of French vers libre, aesthetic philosophy, misunderstood scientific method (just what are the controls in a poetic experiment?), and the rise of the novel. Here he concentrates on Eliot's essay on Kipling, which argues that, for the most part, Kipling wrote verse and not poetry. Eliot advances several distinctions between verse and poetry to support this opinion:

-verse is craft; poetry is art

-verse is straightforward in purpose; poetry is indirect

-verse has a clearly articulated structure; that of poetry is intuitive and musical

-verse does not "revolutionize"; poetry does

All but the first of these is new. Incredibly, at least to me, they have become so conventional that almost no one thinks about them and they seem to have been always true. They are certainly part of the background of Mr. Estabrooks's confusion. However, as Steele points out, if these new criteria are applied consistently, most of English poetry before Eliot becomes "mere" verse. Bully for Eliot, eh?

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