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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

About a month ago I came back to my apartment around midnight to find a 68-year-old woman sitting in a chair in front of my drunken neighbor Boomer's door. She had been beaten by her son and dropped off by her daughter, and, since I couldn't persuade her to call the police, I made up the sofa bed in my front room and let her sleep there for the night. She turned up at Boomer's again right after Isabel, with her brutal crack-addicted son, because the storm had destroyed her house. By the end of the day I was driving her to her sister's house. On the way, she told me that God had finally had enough and had taken her house so that her son could no longer steal from her.

Last night she turned up again, very drunk, and I drove her the 40 miles to her sister's again. I got nothing done and no sleep.

It makes me crazy that I can't seem to make a poem from this—I'm jealous of Sam Gwynn. And it bothers me that when she's not around I worry more about the damned poem than about her, and that when she is around I'm irritated at being pulled away from poetry and blogging.


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Sunday, September 28, 2003

Perhaps I flatter myself, but I suspect I am one of the usual suspects, so let me turn Jonathan's rhetorical question and comment on its head.

What's the point of an "experimental" poetics which has given us nothing new since Pound and Stein? Without knowing the particular texts, who could tell which of these passages is Pound, and which Anne Carson, born when Pound was 65?


Rations were hard to get, she stood in line for apples and matches.

        While in their cold apartment he went on translating

        Babylonian texts.

               Petersburg was no longer the capitol (Moscow was).

               Behind

the signboards--damp darkness.

        Hands broke off statues.

               People pillaged even cemeteries.


Kids 8 to 15 in the schools, then higher training

mottoes writ all over walls

        'Use their ways and their music

        Keep form of their charts and banners

        Prepare soldiers in peace time

        All is lost in the night clubs

               that was gained under good rule.'

On the other hand, which of these is Tennyson and which Swinburne, only 18 years younger?


That blush of fifty years ago, my dear, 

  Blooms in the Past, but close to me to-day

As this red rose, which on our terrace here

  Glows in the blue of fifty miles away.


Asleep or waking is it? For her neck,

Kissed over close, wears yet a purple speck

   Wherein the pained blood falters and goes out;

Soft, and stung softly--fairer for a fleck.

Here's a little secret—I had to look for nearly an hour to find passages from Tennyson and Swinburne which were close enough in style to make it interesting; for Pound and Carson, the books fell open to the passages I chose.


Now that's pretty silly, but I don't think less silly than the original. I'm working on a more serious answer, which I thought I'd have time for while I was in North Carolina this weekend. I think it's time to recognize I don't work while I'm with my family. It's not their fault—there's just too much to catch up on, and dancing with my wife is one of the best things in my life.


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Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Since September 16, there have been 185 messages to the New Poetry mailing list, almost all of them provoked by Paul Lake's "Enchanted Loom" essay. There's been some free-verse bashing and mainstream bashing and formalist bashing and avant garde bashing, but there's also been some wonderful prosodic discussion, particularly from R. S. Gwynn and Robin Hamilton, on, for instance, how far we can describe meters as "natural." Dipodics get a lot of attention, so does the sonnet. It's well worth checking out the archives.

Tomorrow's a travel day. I'm working on a poem and hope to have a bloggable draft this weekend, along with some reaction to the New Poetry landslide.


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Sunday, September 21, 2003

The lights were out, but now they're on
Since Isabel has come and gone.
I drove to Raleigh in a rush
Because the toilet wouldn't flush —
Now I'm back, too pooped to pop —
Sleep is calling — here I stop.


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Wednesday, September 17, 2003

I'm quite determinedly not blogging about yet more inane remarks from a certain other poet-blogger, and it leaves me little brain for more productive work. But I live, most of the time, at the mouth of the Potomac, Isabel's coming to visit tomorrow, I have no idea whether I'll have electricity over the next few days, much less an internet connection, and I want to put something up before the lights go out. The form is Welsh, an awdl gywydd.

Arse Poetica

Full of myself as I was
I told a dozen bold lies
About my poems while she
Sat by me. I watched her thighs

Cross and uncross and I thought
"She's really hot for me," dead
Sure when she stood up she'd take
Me, she'd break my back in bed,

And I'd break her yearning heart
With my magic art and deft,
Hard, heavy penis. She yawned,
"I'm not fond of fools." And left.

A man whose critical judgement I trust almost completely once told me I was thinking too hard about my penis to make this poem work, but I've stayed fond of it.


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Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Except this one's from Paul Lake, and it's brilliant.

And Happy Birthday, Li, whoever you are.


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I've mentioned Jenny Factor before, whom I discovered in a review by Sonny Williams at Contemporary Poetry Review (it's in the archives, which are available for a small fee). Here are the last two sections of "Pride Diary," from her Unraveling at the Name:

4. LES NOUVEAUX FROM LA NOUVELLE JUSTINE

I don't love her. She doesn't love me. Neither
does this waiter who may think it strange
when young girls dine with staid dames twice their age
on salade de Bastille and pain de Sade.
I don't like sitting by her like wet cloth.
I don't like restaurants whose queers pawn sex
to the bachelor bunch who want a thrill.
I don't like dining with my, well, not-ex,
both measuring the humid air for signs
of sparks I see by parts will not ignite.
I'd rather have a knock-down, drag-out fight
that cleared the joint than watch another guy
get spanked by Corset Kris, who'd like to grab
a tit, not spend humping hairy thighs.
I'd rather I were twice her age and wise.
I'd spin cruel stories of past days of bliss
then give my own hands covert exercise
and send her home without a kiss.

5. L'ADDITION

30 for the play and 10 for gins,
10 for two cabs and 40 for the eats,
at least the metro home was freezer-cold,
at least the Broadway Local still had seats,
at 96th, the local went express.
I blistered home ten sockless humid blocks
back to my solo digs for solo sex.
I got this poem for my 90 bucks.

Unraveling at the Name was published by Copper Canyon Press, which is run by Sam Hamill, the poet who organized the protest which caused the cancellation of Laura Bush's "little tea-party," at which Dana Gioia was to be introduced as the new head of the NEA. Gioia, about whom Ron Silliman bizarrely wrote today that his "anglophilia takes him out of American literature altogether," is probably the one who suggested inviting Hamill. His first publication as NEA head, timed to appear with the tea party, was a review of Hamill's edition of The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. Here's one of my favorites from Rexroth, a translation from Tu Fu:

TO WEI PA, A RETIRED SCHOLAR

The lives of many men are
Shorter than the years since we have
Seen each other. Aldebaran
And Antares move as we have.
And now, what night is this? We sit
Here together in the candle
Light. How much longer will our prime
Last? Our temples are already
Grey. I visit my old friends.
Half of them have become ghosts.
Fear and sorrow choke me and burn
My bowels. I never dreamed I would
Come this way, after twenty years,
A wayfarer to your parlor.
When we parted years ago,
You were unmarried. Now you have
A row of boys and girls, who smile
And ask me about my travels.
How have I reached this time and place?
Before I can come to the end
Of an endless tale, the children
Have brought out the wine. We go
Out in the night and cut young
Onions in the rainy darkness.
We eat them with hot, steaming,
Yellow millet. You say, "It is
Sad, meeting each other again."
We drink ten toasts rapidly from
The rhinoceros horn cups.
Ten cups, and still we are not drunk.
We still love each other as
We did when we were schoolboys.
Tomorrow morning mountain peaks
Will come between us, and with them
The endless, oblivious
Business of the world.

And here's the same poem, translated by Vikram Seth, from Three Chinese Poets:

To Wei Ba, who has Lived Away from the Court

Like stars that rise when the other has set,
For years we two friends have not met,
How rare it is then that tonight
We once more share the same lamplight.
Our youth has quickly slipped away
And both of us are turning grey.
Old friends have died, and with a start
We hear the sad news, sick at heart.
How could I, twenty years before,
Know that I'd be here at your door?
When last I left, so long ago,
You were unmarried. In a row
Suddenly now your children stand,
Welcome their father's friend, demand
To know his home, his town, his kin, —
Till they're chased out to fetch wine in.
Spring chives are cut in the night rain
And steamed rice mixed with yellow grain.
To mark the occasion, we should drink
Ten cups of wine straight off, you think —
But even ten can't make me high,
So moved by your old love am I.
The mountains will divide our lives,
Each to his world, when day arrives.

I like the Rexroth better. I have no idea which is more faithful to the Chinese; I know that classical Chinese poetry is ferociously formal, but here I think phrases like "Spring chives are cut" and "Our youth has quickly slipped away" mean that Seth, for once, was overwhelmed by form.

Finally, from Dana Gioia, the arch-formalist and anglophile himself:

AFTER A LINE BY CAVAFY

for the poet John Finlay, dead of AIDS

Return and take me, distant afternoon,
Return and take hold of me
When the blue lake is dry white stone,
And the earth reclaims its arch of green.
Remember and repeat some confidence we shared,
Drunk with the promise of our new acquaintance,
Walking on the shore arguing ideas
As only the young can argue—
Passionate, naïve, and nervous with excitement,
Like hands touching for the first time—
We who were neither lovers nor intimates
And never met again.


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Monday, September 15, 2003

What a weekend! Birthday party for our youngest daughter (she'll be 12 tomorrow) and two of her friends sleeping over, along with a friend of our 14-year-old daughter, and an unexpected but long-awaited visit from poet and novelist Robert Allen. Rob left me a copy of his latest book of poems, Ricky Ricardo Suites, and of the Summer 2003 Matrix, which he edits. I haven't had the chance yet to more than skim either—we had about 6 years of catching up to do—but Matrix has a couple of poems by Eileen Tabios. I never did thank Eileen for the copies she sent me of her excellent book of prose poems, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole, and of 100 More Jokes from the Book of the Dead, printed by her Meritage Press. Thank you.

I also received the latest Hudson Review, also yet-unread, but with new poems from Diane Thiel and from Eratosphere's Timothy Murphy and Anthony Lombardy, just to mention those familiar to me. So lots new to read, and tomorrow what I promised for last Saturday: some poems I like.

BTW, Gabriel Gudding has a good post today about the "defense of poetry."


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Tuesday, September 9, 2003

Gary Sullivan channels Ron Silliman, Jim Behrle, Jordan Davis, and Katie Degentesh. Don't read while drinking without protecting your keyboard.


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The poetry blogs are suddenly full of comments about Joan Houlihan's series of essays on the "denaturing" of poetry. It's a little surprising, given how long the series has been running—I noted the sixth installment last March. Jim Behrle wonders about the same thing, and says it's fine that "we might never understand each other"—though later he writes "Our poems will eat their poems." Okey-dokey.

Now Ron Silliman is a smart guy (no, Jim, I'm not saying you're all language poets), and he's thought hard and worked hard in poetry and poetics for a long time—harder and longer than me—and today he gets it right, writing about "isms" in poetry: "The idea of poetry organized in some fashion around a common purpose necessarily implies the possibility of shared motives. That's a concept that comes more directly from French painting (& secondarily French symbolist poetry) than it does the tradition of Anglo-American letters." That's not too different from Friedrich Blowhard's post yesterday, except that Friedrich wants to do a take a do-over. So do I.


Tomorrow night will be a long video-editing session, Thursday I'm playing at a club, and Friday I drive back to North Carolina. Saturday a post about poetry I like. See you then.


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Monday, September 8, 2003

Referrer logs led me to George M. Wallace's Fool in the Forest, the current content of which is an interesting mix of law, California politics, and poetry. He has, perhaps, too high an opinion of Eliot's Four Quartets, but I can forgive that, considering his kind words for me. Do I need a smiley here?

One result of those kind words was a response from Ron Silliman, in which Ron wrote that he considered himself "as being far more formal than the so-called new formalists, who tend to employ pattern & call it form."

Horse-hockey.

While I was in Sweden, John Erhardt called Silliman on his absurd praise of the Grenier "poem" quoted in its entirety here:


       JOE

       

       JOE

Silliman's patronizing reply deserves to be quoted at length:
As a wry jab, it's so very close to the kinds of complaints that one once heard from some art critics towards the work of Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko or Ad Reinhardt or even Andy Warhol's soup cans and Brillo boxes that it gave me a thrill. I have apparently proposed as "essential"—and I won't deny this—a poem so very simple that Erhardt nearly required the Heimlich maneuver.
Which allows me here to give John a good squeeze, at least metaphorically, and to say, loudly, "Yes, exactly! But, but, but…." I did indeed praise a poem that is so very simple as to call into question precisely the literary values implicit in John's rhetorical question. Now I've done this sort of thing before, and with Grenier's Sentences to boot, although usually my example tends to be a different poem,

thumpa

thumpa

thumpa

thump*

But functionally the same principle applies for both works—Grenier's "miniatures" are miniature only in the sense that Pollock's drip paintings are only paint drippings or Rothko's works, painted in fact very rapidly, might be thought of as sketches, or Cage's 4'33" is only silence.
I'll give him Reinhardt and Grenier, and, if 4'33" was typical, I'd give him Cage, too. Then ignore all three. The "form" Silliman admires has no depth and is completely mechanical, a game generated out of an abiological epistemology. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, as a whole, are interested in form only as form, as they are interested in language as an abstract system of references rather than as a way human beings form community.

In contrast, the New Formalists understand that the forms of poetry are tools human beings have found useful in creating memorable and effective speech. That, of course, offends Silliman, who earlier wrote "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." But he's wrong about that, too. Simply realizing that rhyme and meter are tools for affecting the consciousness of others implies that any verbal experience is mediated, and that conflict is possible, perhaps inevitable, perhaps fruitful.


I've added Fool in the Forest to the list of culture blogs. I've found so many new blogs either about or containing poems that I've got to figure out some organization before adding them.


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Friday, September 5, 2003

Louise Glück is the new Poet Laureate of the United States, succeeding Billy Collins.

The second part of my 2Blowhards interview is here. It's more than doubled visits to this site—thanks, Blowhards!


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ON FINDING THE TREE OF LIFE

After Genesis 3: 22-23

If there is an outside out there
one should go out to try to find it.
This I did. There is a garden world
out there, with birds, trees, and the tree
they call The Tree of Life. The birds
avoid it, naturally. The bunches of red
berries are intact except for one bunch. It's
partly eaten. The spoor around the tree
is old, but it would indicate that some
stupid godforsaken human or beast
had staggered around and crawled away
in the first agonies of immortality.
It's too bad for it, whoever it is
and will be: our own deaths are bad enough.

Alan Dugan, 1923-2003

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Thursday, September 4, 2003

Most of you are probably here because you already know about it, but 2Blowhards has posted the first part of a two-part interview with me here. If you haven't visited their site before , check it out for lively discussions of the arts scene and late western culture in general, including thongs! I particularly enjoy Michael Blowhard on architecture and how to survive art-talk, and Friedrich Blowhard on painting.


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Wednesday, September 3, 2003

My referrer log's reminded me that I've been meaning to add Brian Stefans' Free Space Comix to the blog list for a long time now. It's worthwhile wandering his archives, listed by month on the right of his blog.

In other news, Kasey Mohammad and Stephanie Young have moved, and David Hess has been harassed off his blog. AOL appears partly responsible through its inaction.


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It's no secret that I don't like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry or its near relations, but the people who write it are correct about the formal (form is more than meter) and intellectual slackness, even vacancy, of the typical contemporary literary poem. Langpo is at least formally interesting and often witty, and its practitioners understand that poetry is more than just sensitivity, sex, and jokes—and I wonder if I've got that down yet.

But you can't make poems out of theory, either, especially mistaken theory. Despise the memorable line and your lines will be forgotten. This sonnet from Robert Mezey I have by heart:

EVENING WIND

One foot on the floor, one knee in bed,
Bent forward on both hands as if to leap
Into a heaven of silken cloud, or keep
An old appointment—tryst, one almost said—
Some promise, some entanglement that led
In broad daylight to privacy and sleep,
To dreams of love, the rapture of the deep,
Oh, everything, that must be left unsaid—

Why then does she suddenly look aside
At a white window full of empty space
And curtains swaying inward? Does she sense
In darkening air the vast indifference
That enters in and will not be denied,
To breathe unseen upon her nakedness?

after an etching by Edward Hopper

The poem appears in his Collected Poems: 1952-1999


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Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Concerning langpo and Byron, Jonathan Mayhew pointed me to an essay by Jerome McGann in Charles Bernstein's The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. The book is out of print and isn't at the St Mary's College library, and the essay isn't online, so I'm not likely to be able to read it unless someone sends me a copy. (That's not a hint.) I remembered McGann as an important and sensitive Byron scholar, but I had no idea he had any connection to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. He does: a version of his "Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes," which lavishly praises the project of the language poets, appears here, but it looks like a bad OCR job, nearly incoherent in places because of errors in the text. A readable form of the essay is in his Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Work.

McGann makes an attempt to connect langpo's antipathy to narrative to what he calls Byron's "anti-narrative" and to Blake's "non-narrative," but I don't buy it. Byron loved stories and entertainment too much for him to be a model for the language poets. What allows McGann to make this Procrustean argument are the same ideological blinders (his happen to be Marxist) that allow him to praise a literary program in the same essay in which he writes, of one of its practitioners and of the movement, "Darragh produces arrangements of textual forms--they are literally unreadable, as is much other L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry." Byron would have a had a field day with these poets whose theory forces them into incoherence; Blake would have seen langpo's privileging of the bare text for the idolatry it is.


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Monday, September 1, 2003

Earthlink upgraded their DSL service last Thursday and broke my North Carolina internet connection. After nearly 3 hours on two phone calls with tech support, they decided my 2-year-old modem was incompatible with the upgrade and they're going to send me a new one, rebating the time my family can't connect. Both techs were knowedgeable about the service and about Macs—it just took a long time to run through all the tests and to talk to BellSouth, which actually provisions the lines. Still, it made me crazy and I didn't have my books and I couldn't use the net to look up the things I needed so I wouldn't look like a complete idiot talking about Byron and langpo. I'm back in Maryland now, with my books and a net connection, so I'll get that up soon.

I did have with me Barbara Reynolds's translation of the first part of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (Larry Hammer mentioned Ariosto in a comment here) and Charles Johnston's translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. Seth's The Golden Gate is written in the Onegin stanza, but despite having read it three times and the Johnston once before, one of its intricacies had escaped me. I knew the stanza was 14-line iambic (at least in English) tetrameter, rhyming ababccddeffegg, but had never noticed that the a, c, and f rhymes are all feminine. Some close reader, huh?

Update: 09 02

Could I have dug it deeper? It's the e, not the f rhymes, which are feminine.


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