Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium
||Tuesday, February 25, 2003
It's a risk, posting this before showing it to my wife:
A country waltz, his wife 3 states away,
And Maggie closer than he'd known he'd need
Her just a moment past--
It's hard; she lifts to whisper "It's OK,"
And just like that it's easy, guaranteed
That Maggie's not the last.
As usual, this is the first breathing draft. Anybody want to spank it?
Revision 03 01 03
A slow country waltz, his wife 3 states away,
And Grace is closer than he'd thought to hold
Her just a moment past--
It's hard, and when she whispers, "It's OK,"
He checks a groan as all at once he knows
That she won't be the last.
My wife still hasn't seen this. But she's only 2 states away.
||Friday, February 21, 2003
Half a century today! Because it's my birthday I'm going to be lazy and post this essay I wrote a quarter century ago. It's better than I'd remembered, less good than I'd hoped, and a little surprising in that I remember my interest in versification as being much more recent than it apparently was.
You Must Love Poems, Not Poetry
I don't think it matters why a person begins to write poetry, as long as he or she eventually realizes that only a love for particular poems can sustain a career of making them. I started writing poems as an act of contempt. An English teacher I hated offered one point on the six weeks grade for each poem turned in--I wrote 92 and got a 95. And I found that writing poems made me seem sensitive. I got kissed more, and by more girls, so I kept it up.
But with all the advantages, for a horny teenager, of being a "poet," the poems I wrote then were truly awful--generic lonely teenage blues, screw me now because the world is too much and I'm gonna die tomorrow and you'll be sorry then! I had no idea what poets did besides be sensitive. I didn't read poetry, or rather, I didn't read poems.
I read Khalil Gibran, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, even Allen Ginsberg -- and I thought I was reading poetry. I copied the words from songs and put them on the wall. But all I paid attention to was the emotion, and the only emotions I valued were anger, sorrow, loneliness, and, especially, unrequited love. I was in the position of Byron's Don Juan at 16, who became so absorbed in then mysteries of the woods and the evening sky that he missed his supper. Byron's comment:
If you think 'twas philosophy that this did,
I can't help thinking puberty assisted.
Poor Juan never learned to love particular women, and though Byron never finished his poem, in other versions Juan is finally dragged off to hell by an avenging ghost. The fate of most young poets is less melodramatic, but no less final. They never learn to read and love particular poems, and either they or their friends get bored with eternal sensitivity. End of career.
That would have been my story if my next English teacher, Gary Parker, hadn't let me write a poem instead of an essay in response to T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. I thought I was getting off easy, but I found I didn't know how to write a poem that wasn't about me. I had to discover Eliot's verse play, I had to pay attention to it, in a way I had not tried before. What had he done? Trying to answer that question I read other pieces of his, poems and essays as well as plays, and I learned that Eliot used other people's poems to make his own. I decided to steal his lines, his rhythms, his tone, to make my poem. And I didn't stop for years.
I found other poets, particularly James Wright and Sylvia Plath, and later, Robert Herrick and John Donne (an odd pair of odd pairs), whose poems--"Lying on a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota," "Death & Co.," "Upon Julia's Clothes," "The Anniversarie"--have given my poems what life they may have. Paradise Lost taught me that a poem can make a long, complex, and serious argument. Yeats' "Easter 1916" and Levertov's "Tenebrae" showed me how a poem can be politically engaged. From Richard Wilbur's "First Snow in Alsace" I learned that terza rima can convey the banal horror of war. From Howard Nemerov's "Watching Football on TV" I learned that trivial matter, under the pressure of verse, can become a deep meditation on habit, perseverance, prejudice, and physical beauty.
If I have found a way to make my own poems, it is only because I fell in love with other people's poems to the point that I tried to imitate them, to see if I could do that, too. I don't think there is any other way to keep writing. You have to want to make the damned things, not want to be a poet. You have to read a lot. You have to memorize poems. You have to write passable imitations of your favorite poems, and if you can't, you have to try until you can. You have to love poems, not poetry.
This, and about 80 poems from 1977 to 1998, are at my regular web site. I think the whole thing's coming down soon--I don't update it anymore (except to announce posts here) and I have really mixed feelings about many of the poems there.
||Wednesday, February 19, 2003
Lots more links on the left, and there'll be more soon. Thanks to the Shifted Librarian for the information on how to add dividers and other elements to the Navigator list in Radio Userland--unfortunately I coudln't make it work in the old template because of the dark background.
Obligatory poetry news: sounds like a pretty tepid affair.
||Tuesday, February 18, 2003
A Stanford anthropologist has proposed
that small genetic changes "some time between last Tuesday and 200,000 years ago," perhaps in a single gene, led to truly human creativity. Slashdot has a lively, skeptical, and pretty funny discussion on the subject. Hasn't yet hit talk.origins or sci.anthropology.paleo.
It's got me wondering if my copy of the gene isn't fundamentally different from Ron Silliman's, who lavishes praise ("spare, riveting," "an experience so powerful that I have to ration it judiciously") on this poem by Barret Watten--a poem that, in the 10 2-line sections Silliman copies, seems to me utterly flat and affectless.
wonders if an intelligent, knowledgeable person can be unaware of not having a talent for writing poems. I once showed this poem to Stephen Spender and asked him if he thought it was the work of a reasonably clever grad student or of someone who might one day write real poems. He said I was making a big fuss over not much--that I was right to shoot the cat.
||Monday, February 17, 2003
Paul Goodman's poetry could be astonishingly bad, and his politics worse--though he never toed anyone's line and so was in trouble with nearly everyone from time to time. Still, his sonnets are high among the reasons I've tried to write with meter and rhyme. In his best work there's sweetness, passion, and an unlikely combination of humility and self-absorption. Everything is personal to him, and as a result his occasional poetry--about the launching of Sputnik, Kent State, Justice Black's resignation--is the best I know. Here are three of his poems I have by heart:
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 Shays' 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.
The age of life I am, Beethoven died
unhappier than I and lonelier
than human beings ought to let each other.
He had when he took death for a bride
never known another. Rough and rude
he came in character an awkward lover,
yet she did not rebuff him nor defer
As for me, I have often cried
when he speaks to me. Everything is plain
between us definite and understood,
but what to do with it I cannot guess.
Many hours we have spent we twain
conversing: what he says is very good
but when he leaves off I am at a loss.
Taylor, these unreasonable days
gentle it is how we have been for each
other practical and very sweet
friends. I am not bashful to praise
how we in spite of persons and bad laws
and the envious opinion of the street
enjoyed our simple sex without deceit
that others fear and hide for no good cause.
Exactly of a continent the span
divides us now: you where upon the rocks
the seals play outside the Golden Gate,
I watch the stormier Atlantic that
ceaselessly on Fire Island knocks,
who only yesterday were hand in hand.
None of his poetry is in print, but Amazon lists several copies of the Collected Poems used.
||Tuesday, February 11, 2003
From Kim Addonizio's Tell Me.
Suppose we could see evil with such clarity we wouldn't hesitate
to stamp it out like stray sparks from a fire. Look at those boys
shooting baskets in the park, jostling each other to hook the ball
through the iron circle at the end of the asphalt--what if you knew
a secret about one of them? Shirtless, he stands vibrating
at the edge of an imaginary line, the orange globe trembling
at the tips of his fingers, sweat drawing the light into his skin--
what if he'd done something unspeakable, something I can't
talk about but know you can imagine, to the one
you love most in this world? Your child, maybe,
or the person whose body you know so well you can see it
simply by closing your eyes--What if he'd broken that body;
do you think if I handed you a gun you would walk up
to that shining boy and use it? You might think first
that maybe he couldn't help himself, maybe he was trying
as he stood there concentrating on his shot to stop the noise
of some relentless machine grinding away in his brain,
the same one you hear in yours sometimes, bearing down until
you can't tell what's true anymore, or good. Suppose God
began to have that trouble. Suppose the first man
turned out cruel and stupid, a cartoon creature
that farted and giggled continuously; suppose the woman ripped
saplings from the earth all day and refused to speak
or be grateful for anything. What if they decided to torment
the smaller, weaker beasts, and just as God was about
to strike them dead and start over they turned toward each other
and discovered fucking, and the serpent whispered Look at them
and God's head filled with music while the wild sparks leaped
from their bodies, bright as the new stars in the heavens.
||Friday, February 7, 2003
I'll be fifty two weeks from today, and I've ordered some poetry to celebrate. Henry Gould's Stubborn Grew
is still on its way, but this morning (back in North Carolina with my family for the weekend!) I received Rhina Espaillat's Rehearsing Absence, Edgar Bowers's Collected Poems, and X. J. Kennedy's The Lords of Misrule: Poems 1992-2001.
Here's a poem from each:
Motto Suitable for Embroidery
Failure is always partial: every tense--
future or past or present--is an arc
only, not the full circle, which must work
elsewhere its recompense.
Glutted with weeping of dismantled snow,
streams run disheveled, yielding grace to force;
but bide the season, and each chastened course
remembers how to flow.
Not that all things, concentric for our sakes,
feed us with order, but that order comes
against, around and over us, and hums
while mending what it breaks.
I like believing this unlikely tale,
or should I say believe it out of need,
or need belief, wherever it may lead
or how I partly fail.
The Poet is Reproved for his Complaint
Follow Baudelaire's advice.
Never think to please the nice
Or the sullen or the mob
Feeding like the armored crab
On the rotten or the stale.
Take for model the great whale
Diving in the depth for measure,
Leaping high and free for pleasure,
Skeleton to those who see
Neither joy nor mystery,
Who, too selfish, cross, or zealous,
Will not hear the voice of Eros.
How odd that verse that's song
Should so displease the young.
They are so serious.
They hate all artifice
As standing in the way
Of mind's insistent say.
But to my mind what counts
Is language that surmounts
The message it must bear,
Steps back without a care
And, stone blind, yields the day
To bloodstream's reckless play.
X. J. Kennedy
Gack! I butchered the title of Rhina Espaillat's poem and a line of Edgar Bowers's. Fixed now.
||Thursday, February 6, 2003
First a little business. I meant to include Derek Attridge among the possibly useful prosodists and I plain forgot. Poetic Rhythm : An Introduction is available, Rhythms of English Poetry is a special order, and Well-Weighed Syllables appears to be out of print.
Kasey has left the field, but with a few parting shots. He calls Timothy Steele's All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing "fatuous" and "odiously-titled." I don't know why anyone should care what he thinks of the title, but there is no better discussion in English of iambic pentameter. Steele makes no attempt in this book at a survey, historical or stylistic, of English prosody. His stated purpose is to introduce readers to the way iambic meters, and particularly iambic pentameter, function in English verse. Since our discussion had mostly concerned iambic pentameter, Steele's book is certainly apposite, and probably more useful than the others. Of course it will not impress Kasey that "dead-enders" like Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur also find it good and useful. I wonder if he has read the book. (For the record, I have not read the 2 hard to find books by Attridge, nor David Keppel-Jones's Strict Metrical Tradition.
For the second time, Kasey pointed me to the work of Jennifer Moxley as a poet doing interesting things with traditional metrics, though qualified this time as intentionally "conspicuously dotty." Googling revealed nothing indicating any interest on her part in metrical matters, but that means diddly. I did find this essay, which buries a few interesting ideas in leaden prose and an incoherent argument. In her first paragraph, we learn that poets prefer to classify poems by formal strategies rather than content because "the range of formal devices possible in poetry is finite, and thus easier to break down into categories and preferences, while the range of content or, shall I say, subject matter, is infinite, and there is no argument for limiting it that a good poem cannot defy." So far, so good. But in the second paragraph she contradicts herself by arguing that the "Modernist revolution took place therefore, because a new language, a new content, demanded it," and concludes with a statement that truly is conspicuously dotty: "...poets who adopt the formal devices of a previous generation, inherit not only a particular way to break a line or make a stanza, but an entire stance--historical, geographical, political--towards their materials."
So when I write a sonnet, I'm inheriting the entire stance of Robert Frost. He wrote sonnets. Or is it Elizabeth Barret Browning? She did, too. Or Keats? Or Donne? Or Shakespeare (what was his stance? Is it the Dark Lady or the Young Man who gives me a hardon?) How about Petrarch? That must be it--when I write a sonnet I'm possessed by a 14th century Italian living in France during the Great Schism and in love with a woman married to someone else! That explains everything!
By the way, Kasey, what verbal culture is it that recognizes as "self-evidently appropriate" these conventions? And aren't you nervous about being possessed by John Cage? Or at least being sued by his estate? Should I be inserting smileys? Naah.
||Wednesday, February 5, 2003
They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?
They shall not return to us; the strong men coldly slain
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
Are they too strong and wise to put away?
Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide--
Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?
Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour:
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?
Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
To conform and re-establish each career?
Their lives cannot repay us--their death could not undo--
The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
Shell we leave it unabated in its place?
||Tuesday, February 4, 2003
I really don't like the Bush administration. While I appreciate Copper Canyon Press, I don't think much of the recent actions of its founder Sam Hamill, who, planning to hijack a White House symposium on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes, had this to say: "What idiot thought Sam Hamill would be a good candidate for Laura Bush's tea party? ... Someone's going to get fired over this." And I'll dance when Saddam Hussein is dead.
Besides, perhaps, Laura Bush, about the only admirable person consistently linked with the story is Marilyn Nelson, who planned to attend the now-postponed conference but to wear a scarf with peace signs (well, that might be worth a snicker). Ms. Nelson's father was one of the Tuskegee Airmen, and she has taught at West Point. She's often considered one of the New Formalists (she was in the anthology), but the book I have, The Fields of Praise, probably has more free non-metrical than metrical poetry. Poems selected there from her book The Homeplace tell the story of a family born in slavery. Here's a frightening sonnet from that section:
Diverne wanted to die, that August night
his face hung over hers, a sweating moon.
She wished so hard, she killed part of her heart.
If she had died, her one begotten son,
her life's one light, would never have been born.
Pomp Atwood might have been another man:
born with a single race, another name.
Diverne might not have known the starburst joy
her son would give her. And the man who came
out of a twelve-room house and ran to her
close shack across three yards that night, to leap
onto her cornshuck pallet. Pomp was their
share of the future. And it wasn't rape.
In spite of her raw terror. And his whip.
||Monday, February 3, 2003
Go read Jonathan Mayhew's blog entry here and his comment here, then come back. (Thanks, Kasey, for that tactic.)
I'm also struck by the fact that he and I write almost the same words about meter and rhythm, but hear so differently the work of contemporary poets using traditional meter. I think it's significant that we also hear Donne very differently, and that Jonathan hears Donne the way the early modernists heard him, which is something like the obverse of the way he was heard in the 18th century--as a deliberate rather than a careless flaunter of metrical convention--and that both Eliot and Pope were wrong. Donne's syntax is often difficult, and his tropes violent, but his meter is usually very regular. He does occasionally begin a line of IP with two trochees, which, as far as I remember, never happens in Dryden or Pope (or Shakespeare, despite Sonnet 116), but it's the Satires that really exercised his 18th century readers. Those are the pieces that Pope "improved," and they aren't IP at all. Despite their ten syllables (with conventional elision) and rhyming couplets, they're pure syllabics. 18th century readers, however, attuned to Augustan versification, read them as failed IP (though Thomas Gray got it right) just as the early modernists, attuned to the late Victorians, read them as an adventurous departure from IP.
It is astonishing to hear recordings of Tennyson and Yeats reading their poetry and pounding out their meters. (Are there any recordings of Hardy?) It's no wonder Pound, who worked as a secretary to Yeats, spoke of metronomes; it's nearly impossible to read any of Donne in that manner. I think there was a metrical crisis at the turn of the last century, though Eliot and Pound and Williams misunderstood it, and to them Donne must have sounded just like revolution. Jonathan writes "I like Frost and Hardy. The ideological use to which such poets are put, though, is another matter. As in, 'Let's write like Thomas Hardy so we can forget that modernism ever existed.'" That's a curious pair, since Frost lived through modernism. He didn't write as if modernism never happened; he knew that about meter, Eliot and Pound were mistaken.
I promise I will have something to say about Kasey's complaint that contemporary formalism features "a simultaneously maudlin and journalistic insistence on narrating some wise, poignant, sober ... well, "'truth.'" But maybe not till the weekend. Musical gigs coming up, and it's warm enough to ride my bicycle to work, so I need to get up earlier. And I need to write poems!
Jonathan quoted me accurately here. I changed the sentence, partly because of his quote. But regarding Hecht's attiude towards free verse, see this account on Kasey Mohammad's blog of a New York Times article from January 21. I'd have linked the Times piece, but it costs money to see their archives. Kasey's summary is accurate, if, um, not entirely friendly.
||Sunday, February 2, 2003
Here's what I think's going on: Jonathan Mayhew almost understands the relationship of meter to rhythm, Kasey Mohammad is less clear, and Ron Silliman either doesn't have a clue or pretends he doesn't in the service of his polemics.
Jonathan gets it right when he says iambic verse "can be extraordinarily supple and flexible, almost infinitely variable," and when he remonstrates with Pound that the "metronome is a device for measuring tempo, not rhythm." I suspect he was just being careless when he confused them in the next sentence:
... the tempo of the iambic pentameter is marvelously malleable. It does stiffen up a bit with Dryden and Pope, of course, but is quite free both before and after: from Chaucer to Milton, and from Wordsworth to Browning.
Pope's rhythms are almost absolutely regular, but the canonical example of how tempo can vary in a pentameter line is from Pope's "Essay on Criticism":
When Ajax strives, some Rocks' vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o'er th'unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
Elsewhere Jonathan shows that he knows the difference. But Donne's versification is more regular than he implies, and that of the best metrical poets today (including many of the New Formalists) is more subtle. It's telling that Jonathan doesn't mention, either in his comments here or on his blog (I'm sure he'll tell me if I'm wrong), that the rhythm of pentameter depends on a firmly established meter--just as, in jazz, it's the drummer's steady tap on the high-hat that allows the soloist to play with time, it's speech played across the meter that creates the poem's rhythm. In this sense meter is like a metronome.
Jonathan writes "if [people of the 18th century] were reading John Donne out loud, they would put the stress on syllables that weren't really stressed in ordinary speech ... they had pretty much lost the ability to hear Donne's rhythms." The second part's right, but the first illustrates a confusion Jonathan may share with those 18th century folks: metrical stress is only active within a foot, and a metrically stressed syllable may actually receive less spoken stress than the adjacent metrically unstressed syllable of another foot: "and your / quaint hon/or turn / to dust" (Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress"). I haven't heard Jonathan read Dana Gioia or Sam Gwynn, but I have heard them read, and I suspect he does to their poems what he rightly tells us people of the 18th century did to Donne's: "stress words unnaturally."
And I'm sure that's what happens when Kasey reads them. I don't know any other way to make sense of this (from an email to me quoted by permission):
Hardy's generation exhausted regular iambic measure, and did us all a
big favor. Later poets who worked effectively in iambs or something
like them--Yeats, Auden, Stevens--had some success because they were
able to make their work *allude* to iambic rhythms rather than beat
them out with mallets. Tate, Ransom, Wilbur, Larkin, etc.: basically
skillful in the old forms, but dry as dust. Irrelevant. Dead-enders.
Actually, there is another way to make sense of it, if it had been written by Ron Silliman, who wrote "Like rhyme or the tub-thumping metrics of iambic pentameter, the form insinuates a vision of unmediated & harmonious existence that is patently a lie," and this:
This is where my impatience with the aesthetic passivity of younger post-avant writers &, in this case, editors just starts to boil over. In 2003, with literally hundreds of interesting & accomplished post-avant poets of all stripes actively publishing & reading, why would any journal--& I do mean any--rely on submissions to shape what it will publish?? It's one thing to accept interesting work that does show up when & as it does, but quite another to depend on it to create your own editorial statement. A journal that hasn't gone out & actively solicited a good portion--75 percent or more--of what appears in its pages can hardly speak of having an "aesthetic vision" beyond opening the mail.
Silliman has an agenda (he calls it a "vision"), and he will do what he needs to do to promote it. I'm not a church-going person, and I don't think I'm going to be reading his sermons anymore. The link will stay.
I've added a link to Jonathan's thoughtful blog. Kasey had some very interesting things to say that I wasn't able to address here. If the creek don't rise, I will do so later this week.
© Copyright 2008 Michael Snider.
Last update: 6/26/08; 8:53:05 PM.