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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Monday, March 31, 2003

Slate's been busy while I've been slacking, posting a poem by Peter Campion on Tuesday, a piece on Dante by Adam Kirsch on Wednesday, and a review of the Pope's poetry by Dan Chiasson on Friday. Unfortunately for my mood last week, the poem was the least interesting of the three.

Dan Chiasson writes about the Pope's poems that they are "rather good, in the way most celebrity poetry is rather good," because "Celebrities dare to risk sentimentality, a lesson many contemporary poets, with their studied aridities, could learn." That pretty much sums up the problem with Peter Campion's "Other People," written in mostly 5-beat, meterless, unrhymed tercets. It begins with the dead coming up the lawn "in a dream" and ends with the speaker brushing his teeth--at least I think that's what's meant by "pulling the chalky paste across my teeth." Everything is distanced; nothing has consequence. It was only a dream. I wish. But Chiasson himself, despite great lines in the review like "Jimmy Stewart's [poetry] sounded, in places, like the T.S. Eliot of 'Burnt Norton,'" doesn't have anything googlable worth writing home about. I'm still in a bitchy mood, aren't I?

On the other hand, Adam Kirsch, who writes for the New York Sun and used to write for The New Republic, is a fine poet. I haven't bought his The Thousand Wells only because the impulse and the money have not yet coincided. But I was disapppointed (still bitchy) in the article. Kirsch says poets love "a postmodern Dante, a text that each reader collaborates in writing," a Dante who has "power but not authority," who is "a great artist but not a commanding model, and certainly not a compelling religious example," a Dante who "fits perfectly with the eclectic spirit of contemporary poetry, in which no one style is dominant and each poet must invent his own language and idiom." We ordinary folk, says Kirsch, read Dante because we are "accustomed to thinking in images almost more than in words" and Dante had a "curiously modern sense of violent spectacle" and because "Dante could imagine vivid bodily tortures because he believed completely in the soul; our world inflicts those tortures because it doesn't believe in the soul at all."

More interesting is Kirsch's brief summary of Eliot's essay "Dante." The essay's online--go read it.


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First let me apologize for not posting anything here in the last week or so, partly because I've just been offered a new job (still far from home) and the preparations, interviews, and consultations with my wife have eaten up what little free time I had. But the main thing is that the poetry mailing lists and other internet poetry sources have been so full of unreasoning hatred for President Bush and for coalition troops that I've been unable to think about poetry and poets without feeling nearly nauseous.

I'm a lifelong Democrat. I marched against the war in Viet Nam. I think the ineptitude and arrogance of Bush and Chirac have made a war which might have been avoided inevitable, and I think that, if Gore had been elected, we would either not be fighting or we would be fighting with UN approval. But I also think that, after it became clear the Security Council would not approve military action under any circumstances, the US, UK, and other coalition forces had no choice but to go ahead on their own. And I do not understand the hatred many liberals have for Bush, any more than I understand the hatred many conservatives have for Clinton. Both are blinded by their passion.

I promise that's the last politics you'll get from me here. You're welcome to post comments, but I won't answer.


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Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Gabriel Gudding's got a new poetry blog, Conchology, and I've added it to the blogroll on the left. He's posted a long essay (with footnotes!), "From Petit to Langpo: A History of Solipsism and Experience In Mainstream American Poetics Since the Rise of Creative Writing," which I'll read this weekend, when I've recovered from war jitters (hah!) and 4 gigs in a row. Hey, they paid for new strings for everything--2 mandolins, a fiddle, a guitar, a bouzouki, and a mandola.


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Monday, March 17, 2003

As Kasey Mohammad says, we've sparred a few times about which tradition, which structures, are the best foundation for serious contemporary poetry, but his description of the miserable goings-on in a typical Creative Writing workshop is spot on, and it makes me as crazy as it does him. As much as I disagree with him, I bet his students learn something about writing.

Robert Pinsky, last Friday, had a pretty good, mostly non-polemical piece at Slate about poets and war. I'm not a particular fan of his poetry--which also seems pretty good and non-polemical--and Jonathan Mayhew likes it less than that. But Jonathan, what in the world do you see in Ron Padgett?

Ron Silliman says langpo isn't hard, and he points approvingly to his half-sibling's description of Ron's own work as "structured like a walk on a path: "You see one thing, then you see another.'" Well, yeah. It isn't hard. But just why, Ron, is it "invariably a sign of deprivation" when it's Philip Larkin's work that "may be apprehended on some level at a single sitting"?


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Saturday, March 15, 2003

When Milton asked his heav'nly Muse (and Sainstbury's flat wrong about elision) to help him justify the ways of God to men, he didn't think he was on a fool's errand. He knew nothing flesh could entirely comprehend the infinite mind of God, but he also knew that he was made in God's image and that God intended people to understand His works and mind sufficiently to win salvation. For Milton, poetry was about, not the mysterious and ineffable, but the quite serious business of eternity. He was wrong in detail--ain't no eternity--but right that there is a real and consequential world out there; that human nature imposes limits on our knowledge and understanding of that world; that, nevertheless, we can know the world in ways that matter, both intellectually and morally; that one of the purposes of poetry (though not of every poem) is to explore and teach that knowledge; and that delight is a both a way and a sign of knowing.

Science, which was just beginning in Milton's time, also stems from delight in understanding. (I heartily recommend Gerald Holton's Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein.) Postmodernism, which inherited from Marx a belief both in the nearly infinite malleability (read nonexistence) of human nature and in the primacy of political-economic forces in shaping any particular version of that nature, including the things that please us, deeply distrusts both knowledge and delight as socially constructed, as symptoms of "false-consciousness" in any society other than that socialist paradise which somehow awaits us. It's amazing how Christian it is, except that most Christianities (and certainly Milton's) hold that the created world as it is, though fallen, is still essentially good. It isn't a trick.

For postmodernists, it is a trick. That's why Ron Silliman could write "Like rhyme or the tub-thumping metrics of iambic pentameter, the form [the clean line] insinuates a vision of unmediated & harmonious existence that is patently a lie"; it's why Kasey Mohammad complained that contemporary formalism features "a simultaneously maudlin and journalistic insistence on narrating some wise, poignant, sober ... well, "'truth.'"

Of course there are reasons to distrust delight. Cocaine is delightful for a while. But science, born of delight and wonder, is also an organized way to keep from being permanently fooled. We may not be made in God's image, but we are beginning to learn just how we are made. We are learning that there are rather strict limits to the malleability of human nature. We are learning that there is a biological basis for the relationship between knowledge and delight, and that though fallible, it is in fact a way and a sign of knowing. That we can be wrong is no reason not to delight our readers. It just means we have to be willing to change our minds from time to time, find delight in the change, and delight our readers again.


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Tuesday, March 11, 2003

While I'm making up for the last week of dismal sickness with no brain, here's what I think is the final of the poem I posted at the end of February. Thanks to the Eratosphere for help on this one.

Dancing Lesson

A slow country waltz, his wife 3 states away,
And Grace is closer than he'd meant 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
             She won't be the last.

And no, my wife hasn't seen it yet. So I'm a coward.


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This piece on blurbs by Joan Houlihan generated a lot of comment on one of the poetry mailing lists a few weeks ago, and once again I'm grateful to Arts & Letters Daily for bringing it back to my attention. I haven't been reading at Web del Sol lately, so I didn't know it was the sixth part of a series on "How Contemporary American Poets are Denaturing the Poem." She sounds like me when I'm feeling cranky.


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By way of Arts & Letters Daily, Daniel Dennett's "Postmodernism and Truth" at Butterflies and Wheels reminds me that last week I meant to declare myself a Rhodian (except I'm not sure that I might like to live on the Island of Rhodes). How's that for links? And how did an essay on epistemology remind me of Henry Gould?

Here's the basic Rhodian credo:

  • Of Minimalism. The Rhodians accept a simple definition of poetry, ie.: Poetry = rhythmic/measured language.
  • Of Continuity. The Rhodians believe that poetry as an art form is distinguished by its continuity. "Poetry is avant-garde because it doesn't change much."
  • Of Purpose. The Rhodians maintain that there is no particular "correct" way to make poetry. But this does not preclude the Rhodians from choosing certain principles and orientations.

The last item is the connection to Dennett, and it's worth quoting in full (but just because I put this bit here doesn't mean you shouldn't go right over to Henry's blog and read everything he's written there):

One such principle is that poetry-making involves a limited, but sufficient - and self-sufficient - autonomy. If the process is not valuable for its own sake it is not worth doing at all, since it makes no claim to be valuable for any other reason. (Here the Rhodians follow the orientation of fellow Rhodian, and former Cranston native, Ted Berrigan.) Another such principle is that poetic autonomy is linked with a realist approach. Rhodians reject sceptical trends which question our ability to posit the existence of a real world outside our verbal formulations (even though Rhodians would like to reside on an island). Rhodians assert their ability to make true statements about the real world, and assent to the influence of that capability on their poetry. In fact Rhodians believe that the human impulse to respond to reality, in all its consciousness and specificity, is something of an artistic opportunity for which they can be grateful. Finally, the Rhodians reject theories of poetics which devalue the communicative function, reifying denatured words upon the page. For the Rhodians, language is essentially communicative - the propositional, interrogatory, evaluative, expressive making of signs. Within the continuum of such gestures, words play a combinatory and supportive role. So, while recognizing the special quality of language in art and poetry - the "focus on message" or reflexive aspect described by Jakobson - Rhodians acknowledge the fundamental semaphoric aspect of the medium.

Dennett puts this fundamental insight into evolutionary perspective, noting that getting it right was literally life or death for our ancestors for billions of years, and goes on to say "bridging of the gap between appearance and reality is a wrinkle that we human beings alone have mastered." Which brings me to this poem of Richard Wilbur, nearly perfect except the "senseless wit":

Mind

Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.

It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles ore there,
And so may weave and flutter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.

And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the veriest happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.

I don't know that I could have passed up "senseless wit" either.


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Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Sick like dog and no brain.

Dick Davis has a book, Belonging: Poems, which I didn't know about and consequently don't have, but I've ordered it. Here's a short poem from his chapbook Just a Small One:

Sweet Pleasure . . .

Sweet pleasure my dear I haven't forgotten
         The vows you delectably made
To stay with me always, come summer, come winter --
         But it was your sister who stayed:

She winked at me, elbowed me, shoved me aside,
         Then trashed every plan I had laid --
A permanent lodger who calls herself Duty,
         A raucous and boorish old maid.


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Monday, March 3, 2003

My copy of Henry Gould's Stubborn Grew came in the mail last week, along with 3 books I hadn't ordered: Norman Finkelstein's Track and Columns (Track II) and Garrett Kalleberg's Psychological Corporations. I haven't had time to do more than page through any of them (I had to write six lines of poetry and revise them!), but so far, unless it was just a mistake, this bundling's got me baffled. Some random passages from each of the poets:

Or like the old pain of a lie broken open suddenly
shattering the fixed order of a routine world;
into the rotten hollow of an oak tree poured
your heartbeat, everything sullenly

leaden, dropping fast, breathing slowly,
the full weight of it coming on only gradually,
the black stone held at arm's length barely
visible--an arm lifting you carefully

back onto the desolate sand at Horseneck beach.
Or like the sound of your husband's poetry
becoming more implausible and petty--
like shells crushed underfoot, a moldy peach.

Henry Gould

Proposing fiction
("plot or fate")

Proposing repetition
("I've been here before")

Proposing a space
("put them in a drawer")

Bric-a-brac
in the House of Language

Clues
or souvenirs?

Norman Finkelstein (Track)

As It Is

She is the one lying in bed.
He is the one lying in bed.
They are the ones that do
anything you tell then to.
His hand pressed hard against her mouth
until she stopped screaming--

it's funny how we both came
to this, that we had lost our charm.
Now I will make them sleep
a very deep sleep.
Was he dead? (this is the second dream).
Was it an accident? (this was the first dream).

The world is
as it is
I said. Human in almost
every abstract
the least of these being love

 

you

 

you are crying

Garrett Kalleberg

The last is the only complete poem, I think. It's hard to tell with Track. These probably aren't fair or representative samples, but I want to read Stubborn Grew. At six lines a week, I don't have time for the other 3.


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