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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Another Nemerov, just because:


Along Route Two I saw a sign
Standing out in a swamp. One line
It spoke that might epitomize
The ambition of Free Enterprise:
Save While You Spend, is what it said
Across the swamp and to the road,
Save While You Spend. As if one saw
A way to beat the Second Law
By pouring money down the drain
As long as it was one's own drain.

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Well, gosh, you don't often see a real dog fight over a poem. Looky here, here, here, and here! And then I got dragged into it! Well, actually, I stepped in it—I love Nemerov even when he writes about football—and now I'm going to wade deeper. Holy mixed metaphors!

First, from my godlike perspective, Michaela Cooper's right about nearly everything in this little dustup (though it is pretty damned hard to trace those antecedents), and I'm not just saying that because I don't want her mad at me. It's what she's wrong about that interests me and that I'm going to twist to my own purposes. You see, as gorgeous as the poem is, even when (properly) tricked out in Liberty's robes, Aaron Haspel's right about this much: it's just another version of the Wheel of Fortune. Boethius, not Vanna White, but still cliché.

And that's not a problem, anymore than it's a problem that Milton intended to teach what seems to me a repugnant religion, or that Yeats was a fool. I upset some people a few weeks ago claiming that poets (me included) are just entertainers: "Of course we can choose whom we entertain, and while the more ambitious of us try to mix some instruction into the delight we try to give, but who of us has done the hard work to actually develop the knowledge and wisdom behind that instruction?" Should have left out that "but." Or the "while." Good thing it's just a blog, huh?

And it's a good thing most poets are just poets. We don't, by virtue of the work we do as poets, have any special insight into much of anything besides verbal music. In fact, if we work hard enough to be worth a damn at that, it's unlikely that any but the most exceptional of us will be particularly good at anything else. What poet, other than Goethe and maybe Milton (Areopagitica), has made any significant contribution to natural science, philosophy, political thought, economics, painting, mathematics, music, architecture, or even other verbal fictions such as the novel?

So why—and how—does it matter what a poem says? Too late tonight to try to answer that, but here's the last two sections of Howard Nemerov's "Watching Football on TV":


Passing and catching overcome the world,
The hard condition of the world, they do
Human intention honor in the world.
A football wants to wobble, that's its shape
And nature, and to make it spiral true
's a triumph in itself, to make it hit
The patterning receiver on the hands
The instant he looks back, well, that's to be
For the time being in a state of grace,
And move the viewers in their living rooms
To lost nostalgic visions of themselves
As in an earlier, other world where grim
Fate in the form of gravity may be
Not merely overcome, but overcome
Casually and with style, and that is grace.



Each year brings rookies and makes veterans,
The have their dead by now, their wounded as well,
They have Immortals in a Hall of Fame,
They have the stories of the tribe, the plays
And instant replays many times replayed.
But even fame will tire of its fame,
And immortality itself will fall asleep.
It's taken many years, but yet in time,
To old men crouched before the ikon's changes,
Changes become reminders, all the games
Are blended in one vast remembered game
Of similar images simultaneous
And superposed; nothing surprises us
Nor can delight, though we see the tight end
Stagger into the end zone again again.

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Thursday, November 20, 2003

I was afraid Joseph Duemer's Reading and Writing was gone, but he's just moved.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Does what a poem says matter? That is, assuming that it's possible to paraphrase a given poem, does the meaning of that paraphrase matter at all to the value of the poem as a poem? We can ignore the (possibly) related question of whether there are meanings so abhorrent that, in and of themselves, they disqualify a text from being called a poem by virtue of their expression in that text: a verse text written in praise of Pol Pot, for instance, or advocating that Jews be required to wear a yellow star. But just raising those possibilities makes it clear that the paraphrasable meaning of a poem does matter.

Taking a real example, is there any reason not to believe Milton when he declared his purpose was to "justifie the wayes of God to men"? If that was his purpose, was it his primary purpose? Was it mere convention, or did he mean it when he invoked the "Heav'nly Muse" to aid him in that project? When Raphael warned Adam against thinking too much about the how the planets move, was Milton really saying there are questions about the created world which might interfere with salvation, and therefore should not be asked? Does your opinion of Paradise Lost depend in any way on the answers to those questions? Does the answer to that question depend on your own religious beliefs?

I'm as committed an atheist as you're ever likely to meet. I despise the very idea of revelation. I think Milton wrote in order to convince his readers that the awful story of Genesis is true and that understanding our fallen state is the first key to salvation, and that he chose poetry as the most effective way to achieve that aim. And I think Paradise Lost is, without any rivals, the greatest poem in the English language. I read it twice a year.

How does what a poem says matter? More to come.

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Monday, November 17, 2003

I'm beat—3 nights playing music and a great night of poetry in the last 5 days. Good thing it's pretty quiet out there …

But Michaela Cooper has posted a fine piece on "Ozymandias." Along the way she visits Poe, who's also been on Henry Gould's mind.

Did you ever notice what an odd rhyme sheme Shelley uses?

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Saturday, November 15, 2003

A few days ago I noted that I'd be going to yesterday's discussion and poetry reading "Women in the Avant Garde" at St. Mary's College. All 5 of the invited poets (Laura Elrick, Heather Fuller, Carol Mirakove, Kristin Prevallet, and Deborah Richards)1, were terrific performers (especially Laura Elrick, who has astonishing control over the pace and intonation of her voice), and they were all impressive in the Q&A presented to Kaia Sand's class.

Each poet (presented in alphabetical order) did a twenty minute set, with a short break after the third reader. Two hours, 8:15 to 10:30 on a Friday night, is a long time to listen to poetry (it would be a long action flick!), but the 150+ people in the audience were attentive, even, at times, rapt, and only a very few left during the break. As I said, these were terrific performers.

All of them pushed hard against ordinary syntax, but technically, they worked very differently. Heather Fuller had more narrative and more place, perhaps coming from her work in animal rescue and in political advocacy for the rural poor. Carol Mirakove, Kristin Prevallet, and Deborah Richards all read (among other things) cut ups, but Carol's were longer, identifiably separate pieces juxtaposed in ironic and sometimes savage comment on each other, while Kristin's appeared to be shorter fragments, hardly enough to establish themselves, used to create a more cohesive emotional tone, and Deborah's were, again, longer and identifiable to the ear, but rather than commenting on each other, they were used, through the repetition of the banal language of technical journalism, to document and make emotionally real the horrific treatment of Saarti Baartman, the "Hottentot Venus." (I loved the moment when she interrupted herself after a line saying that Baartman's remains were on exhibit in a museum: "That's not true. She's been buried now.") Laura Elrick and Kristin Prevallet read shorter pieces than the others and so had a little more time to show other sides of their work. Laura, as I said at the top, has amazing control of her voice, seeming to be able to stop and start mid-phoneme, generating rhythms out of air—a particularly effective piece included only words from a list of 200? "sight words" used to teach reading. Kristin sang a beautiful, surreal mountain lullaby, and read a wonderful poem about a woman who ran to keep her sanity, running in circles around her tank battalion in the Iraqi desert during GW1, dropping as she ran the medication supposed to protect her from the "chemical warfare of the enemy and the chemical warfare of the Army."

I had a wonderful time. I was invited, by Kaia Sands and her husband Jules Boykoff, to a party afterwards where I met and talked briefly with all the poets (a little more with Carol Mirakove, who works as I do in the software biz), and finally got to read some of Kasey Mohammad's Deer Head Nation. I spent most of my time talking with Deborah Richards' friend Camilli (maybe he'll let me know how to spell that), since he and I had both been up since 5 in the morning and weren't so good at standing and mingling by then. The only jarring note for me was the politics. I'm politically closer to these folks than I am to Our Dear Leader, but not by a whole lot. (But I loved Jules Boykoff's Reagan boxes.)

I was impressed. And I was reminded of one of the big reasons I turned to meter: I'm a pretty impressive performer, too, judging by audience reactions at my readings back in the 70s and 80s, but when I heard other people read my poems—even other poets—they too often fell flat, affectless. You had to get the poem in order to be able to read it. Similarly, Laura Elrick opened with a magical reading of "Sleep," but there is nothing I can see in the text to help a reader do what she did. In fact, the printed form seems almost to work against the marvelously varied rhythmic effects she managed. Hers is, perhaps, the most extreme example, but the same is true of other pieces by the other poets. Deborah Richards read her long piece backwards, page by page.

Meter guides the reader, even to point of subtly promoting or discounting a word or a part of a word just because that's how the meter goes in that place. Some claim that meter, for the same reason, is too rhythmically restrictive, and too slavish a reader will hear only "tub-thumping," but a reader willing to be guided can discover complexity through the tension between ordinary speech and the demands of meter. That tension disappears when meter disappears. Here's an example of how meter can help a reader, a poem of mine chosen not because I think it's wonderful but because there happen to be two readily available recordings of it at the same site, one by me and one by a man I've never met except through Usenet, who had not heard my recording when he did his. His version is better than mine.

It's entirely possible that, if I spent more time with these kinds of poetry, I'd find a key, a clue, which would help me read the printed texts just as meter does. But that brings me round to audience, the subject of most of the questions in the class earlier in the day. All the poets were acutely aware of the problem of audience (and a little stunned by the turnout that night). Kristin Prevallet said "None of us will ever be published by Random House, if we keep writing the way we do," and no one objected. But the avant garde once hoped to become or to replace Random House. It is, after all, a military metaphor. These talented writers and marvelous performers seem content (not quite the right word) to remain at the margins. One person asked "How do you write for those who just don't get it?" and the only answer was to "just keep scratching at the surface."

Well, I'm glad they're doing it. I learn from them, I hope, and in fact I got several ideas last night for new pieces. And these five poets certainly have a larger audience than I do, so what do I know.

1Googling the poet's names returns lots of links, some of which I mentioned here.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Jonathan Mayhew takes on some of the more curious assertions in Ron Silliman's post on William Carlos Williams; I left my own comment at Ron's blog.

Eileen Tabios's Kelsey Street Press is going to publish a new book by Carol Mirakove, winner of Kelsey Street's Frances Jaffer First Book Award and one of the poets I'll be seeing this Friday. I hope you find that poem, Eileen.

Nada Gordon has posted part one of the interview/performance she did last week with Marianne Shaneen. It's a wonderful piece, championing unfashionable rhetorical forms in poetry—but Nada, what about meter, surely unfashionable and one of the few formal devices peculiar to poetry?

Yesterday George Wallace posted a creditable sonnet of his own (be careful of those early caesuras), and today he posts John Ciardi's "A Box Comes Home" for Veteran's Day. Thank you for remembering, George, and thank you for reminding me of John Ciardi, a poet I once read obsessively. I need to reread.

Last week Aaron Haspel wrote an interesting and provocative post about W. B. Yeats. It's one of the few times I think he's got it wrong about poetry, but I'm saving comments for my own "Instruct and Delight" post, which is slowly taking shape. There's been a controversy at New Poetry over a version of the same question: What is the relationship of the content of a poem to its aesthetic value?

Henry Gould's also been wrestling with the same thing:

Art & poetry are always being marshalled into somebody's scheme for world improvement. But to create an original work of art is a different & more difficult undertaking, because the work is a kind of end in itself : and AS AN END IN ITSELF it makes a statement about the nature of experience which jars with programmatic or politically-correct (in anybody's system) this-leads-to-that projects for world improvement.

As he says later, we "never get it right." (Maybe that's why my intended post is slowly growing.) Be sure to read the generous samples of his own poetry at HG Poetics.

Update: Thanks to Kasey Mohammad for reminding me to add Shanna Compton's Brand New Insects to the blog roll. And a little bird told me that my comments at Sillman's Blog don't show up on at least some Windows machines, so go read the post and then read my comment here:

Unless there's a typo in "thus poetic form comprises the words and its structural uses," there's no equation structure + words = form. If "its" should be "their" (there are only two nouns to refer to) then the equation is just words + structural use of words = form, which has no particular application to poetry. And if there is no typo, then "its" refers to "poetic form," and we have the nonsensical equation structural uses of poetic form + words = poetic form. It's typical of Williams's wooly-headedness when he tried to write about poetry. You'll need to find stronger thinkers and critics than Poe or Williams to support your supposed division of the poetic world.

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Monday, November 10, 2003

Here in the southern tail of St. Mary's County, MD, it's mostly soybeans, crab-pots, and F-18s. I do get to play a surprising amount of music—I don't make any money, but I'm usually in front of a live audience at least once a week. Poetry's another story. Lucille Clifton's at St. Mary's College (and I've got a library card there which lets me remotely access Project Muse from my apartment), but I see the readings listed at, say, Silliman's Blog, and I despair.

Until this weekend:

Women in the Avant-Garde
a discussion & poetry reading
with Laura Elrick, Heather Fuller, Carol Mirakove,
Kristin Prevallet, & Deborah Richards
Friday, November 14
at St. Mary's College of Maryland

I don't know any of their work, but I'm taking off from my work to hear the lunch time discussion and missing one of my favorite local bands for the reading. Any tips from folks who are familiar with these poets?

The wonders of Google! A short sample from a quick search on the names above:

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Thursday, November 6, 2003

Another Story Normalized


Why should it bother me that no one cares
How hard it was to lug my ex-wife's stuff
From our new house and up three flights of stairs
To Marianne's? Who hasn't had it rough?

Besides, I got to keep the cat and plants
And sometimes see my daughter—till they moved—
And mow the grass and look for new romance—
There's nothing like it! Nothing! It's been proved!

The only things like anything are things
Too small to pet or whisper to at night
"O little quark your strangeness weaves the strings
Of everything but leptons and the light!"

What mulitudes I am, still incomplete.
My mother claims my father's breath was sweet.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Jonathan Mayhew and Josh Corey have been blogging about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, starting here and here. Each has had more to say since, but if Henry Gould doesn't have the last word, then There Ain't No Justice.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2003

Kent Johnson, Robert Flach, Jonathan Mayhew, and Nick Piombino Nick Lolordo are discussing scansion in the comments at Kasey Mohammmad's Limetree. Kasey got things going a while ago with this post; when I replied, he, Robert, and then I each had something to say here, here, and here before the comments got going. Whew!

I guess I'm somewhere between Kent and Jonathan—that is, I think any of the mimetic effects of rhythm peculiar to metrical poetry are probably the result of the tension between the nominal meter and the actual stress pattern of the line (perhaps that's what Kent means by saying that the meter can never be objectively determined), but that most of the rhythmic mimesis in poetry comes from other factors: Pope's examples of mimetic rhythm in the Essay on Criticism are all very regular IP, and their distinguishing features could be employed nearly as well in free verse. I say "nearly as well" because that tension, that difference within sameness, helps highlight what's going on.

How much does scansion help a reader recognize rhythmic mimesis? Doesn't it depend on the reader and the reader's purpose? Poets, reading as poets, might well want to explore every technical aspect of a poem in the hopes of extending their own practice, and critics or teachers should be able to point out how the poem's effects are achieved, but is poetry diminished for ordinary readers (whatever that means) if they don't scan?

About that "objectively determined" meter—well, sure, sometimes it's impossible, especially for single lines. Take a line like this:

 /  -     /   -    /   -   /

Walking down the road one day

Headless iambic or tailless trochaic? Only the context of surrounding lines can help determine that, and the meter of a whole poem in which every line had that same stress structure would remain indeterminate. (I'd lean toward iambs, because to me endings matter more than beginnings.) But I think that despite numerous substitutions and other liberties it's safe to say that Paradise Lost is written in iambic pentameter.

I admit I'm taken aback by Nick Piombino Lolordo's comment. I haven't read the David Antin essay he mentions, and though I remember the remark by Pound, I don't remember the context. It's certainly true that "slapping an ictus on every other syllable" doesn't impose order on a poem, but that's not scansion, and it's not what scansion is intended to do. Scansion is a technical tool to help describe a particular kind of pre-existing order in certain kinds of poem: unlike Aaron Haspel, and, apparently, Kent and Nick, I think it's a mistake to apply scansion to free verse, which has its own ideas of order. Of course scansion cannot justify line breaks in free verse poetry. Even in metrical poetry, it can only describe, not justify.

Maybe there are people for whom form = meter. I'm not one of them, though I do think meter is one of the most powerful tools available to the poet. And I left the Anglican Church long ago.

Update: I assumed that "Nick" at Kasey's comments was Nick Piombino. I was wrong, as Nick Lolordo has kindly informed me. He's also added his last name in the comments there. My apologies.

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Sunday, November 2, 2003

Kasey Mohammad wrote a good and interesting comment on my last post, pointing out places where we agree and places where discussion might be useful. I agree with a great deal of what he said, and, not surprisingly, disagree from time to time. Kasey's remarks also appear on his own blog, slightly edited to provide context to his readers there, and when I quote Kasey here, it will be from that second, more public response.

My original post, more than anything, was an just exasperated attempt to explain something I've often noticed, most recently on a particular mailing list: unless the writer has asked for critique, even poets don't ordinarily have much specific to say about how some particular free verse poem goes wrong, but the same people, both metricists and others, will jump all over a metrical glitch in an otherwise pretty good poem. I didn't intend to make a general statement about the relative difficulty or value of free verse vs. metrical verse. But I'll take the opportunity to try to clarify my attempted explanation and, perhaps, to push it a little farther than its original scope.

I'll start off by agreeing with Kasey's first caveat: "… the competence which is easier to recognize and discuss is nothing more than competence in writing metrically, which is not necessarily the same thing as competence in writing good poetry." In fact, as Kasey himself notes, I said the same thing a little later on in my own post. But when he goes on to say the "obverse would be to say 'It's harder to recognize and discuss basic [metrical] competence in free [non-metrical] verse,' which is true, but only absurdly so," I see that I failed to make myself clear.

A metrical poem necessarily embodies an implied contract between the poet and the reader: the poem will not significantly deviate from a certain rhythmic structure without some compelling reason to do so. We can argue till the cows come home (and there ain't no cows here) about just what constitutes a significant deviation or a compelling reason, but the point is that there is not, of necessity, such an implied contract in a free verse poem. Even when there is one, its terms are looser and easier to evade without calling attention to the evasion; it's more like what used to called a gentleman's agreement. Nevertheless, many free verse poets do honor that agreement, and it's probably harder for them than for metricists because free verse poets have to be more scrupulously honest with themselves and the poem. They have to supply their own jots and tittles.

That is why meter is a better filter against self-indulgence, at least for ordinary mortals like me. Kasey says the only vice meter guards against is "that of pretending one is able to compose metrically when one isn't," but just what is the equivalent external constraint in free verse? It's certainly not the reader. Readers of metrical poems can consult the same metrical principles the poet used; readers of free verse have to be much more sensitive to the poet's structural intentions for the lines of a poem.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. We all want sensitive readers! But what happens when different readers perceive different intentions? How do they go about reconciling the differences without seeming to call one other insensitive? Of course it can be done, but mailing lists—the original context for my argument—are notorious for emotional explosions resulting from misapprehended intentions. It's safer, in such an environment, just to let it go. In contrast, nearly everyone on a poetry mailing list can recognize a broken meter.

I wasn't writing about mailing lists when I wrote, in a second post Kasey references, "a critic who cannot sensitively scan a line of verse—and I don't mean just name the meter—is unlikely to be a very good critic of any kind of poetry … and won't understand what has been traded away when reading free verse." He says I imply "that such a 'trade' has always taken place, that all poetry justifies its existence either directly through meter or through a negative relation to it," and he's half right. I do believe that choosing not to write in meter trades away one tool set in favor of some different one (there's not a single "free verse tool set"), but Kasey is right to say that there are fine free verse poets who never made that choice. Meter was never an option for them, never a consideration in their development as artists. I think that's a pity, and it's equally a pity when a (contemporary) metrical poet has never considered or worked in any of the many ways available in free verse.

However, I wasn't really thinking about individual poets, or poets at all, when I wrote that. Free verse, of one kind or another, so dominates US literary markets and writing programs that it sometimes appears our entire intellectual culture has turned away from meter as a serious possibility. And what have we chosen instead? I'm being monstrously unfair, and his blog is excellent evidence of just how unfair, but here's Kasey's quick list: "arresting imagery, unusual syntax, funny-looking fonts, lots of dirty words, never using the letters L or R or S, etc."

What in that list has particular application to poetry, in the way that meter does? What in that list, even "arresting imagery," wouldn't quickly become annoying if used structurally in any but the shortest poems?

Just to clear away one red herring, I don't believe it should always be hard work to write a poem. Some are gifts, and I'm always grateful. However, I do believe that no one can consistently produce good poems without having done a lot of hard work at making poems.

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