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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Taking a short break for travel and family. Thanks to everyone who has contributed, through email or comments or reactions on their own blogs—you've made this a wonderful year and given me new confidence in my work as a poet. A very special thanks to the 2Blowhards, who gave me an opportunity to spout off at greater lengths than usual and brought me new friends and new relationships with old friends. I'll be back the first week of January. On Monday the sun starts coming back to those of us in the north—I wish everyone safe and happy holidays and a productive new year.


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Monday, December 15, 2003

Elieen Tabios has moved from Corpse Poetics (still online, but for how long?) to The Chatelaine's Poetics. The old links stays through the holidays, anyway—lots of good stuff in the archives.


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Sunday, December 14, 2003

Jonathan Mayhew asks good questions:

  • Isn't poetry a genre of fiction?
  • Was Yeats' problem that he believed [his fictional schemes] literally?
  • Why don't we have serious theological debates about the existence of Osiris?
  • Can I keep Blake?

Well, he didn't really ask to keep Blake; he insisted. Happily, the short answer to that question is "yes." Long answers follow.

Poetry just isn't a kind of fiction, though some poems do imitate the form of actions which no one, including the author, believes to have actually occurred. Milton certainly didn't think he was writing fiction, even though he invented details of his story, and I doubt Yeats would have described his retellings of Irish myth or even his Crazy Jane poems as fiction. Wordsworth wrote autobiography. I have no idea how to describe the relation of Ron Silliman's Sunset Debris to fiction or, for that matter, to poetry, and Marjorie Perloff doesn't help. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is probably fiction, though allegory is an uncomfortable fit with current literary theory—of course, it wouldn't be the first time literary theory was, to be polite, less than adequate.

Yeats' problem wasn't that he held incorrect beliefs which he then expressed in poems: in fact, as a metaphorical structure for what he did in his poetry, they work pretty well. But those same beliefs also severely limited just what he could do. Since they were largely based on a private vision (mostly his wife's construct), they could not be as ample as what was available to Milton, necessarily excluding large parts of our experience, and they required explanation themselves before they could be used to explain anything else. The first part of "The Second Coming" suffers from the latter problem. The former manifests itself in almost every line of his work: the physical world, even sex, is reduced to a collection of signs—"O Solomon, let us try again!"—and despite his lifelong involvement in politics in an age of extraordinary political change, despite living through some of the most exciting developments in our scientific understanding of the world, very little in his poetry would have been out of place a hundred years before his birth.

Belief based on some private or revealed source is a poor way to knowledge precisely because it is not subject to debate or experiment. How can it change except through revelation, and how can revelation be tested? What purpose would be served by debating the existence of Osiris? Or of Allah? Yahweh? Engrams? Cthulthu? Believers point to their private experience or to sacred texts that contradict the sacred texts of other kinds of believers, and afterward nothing has changed—unless they've killed one another.

Now, the core of what Milton believed to be true was based on revelation, but by happy accident a piece of that revelation was that we were made in the image of the creator. A long tradition identified reason as the part so made, and also accepted the world as The Book of Nature, a second revelation available for study and understanding. Of course, we could not know the world perfectly as God knew it, but our reason was a kind of shadow of the mind of God—the debate over angels dancing on the head of a pin was really concerned with how far the difference was in kind rather than degree.

Milton was the last major poet in English to have the faith that we could learn truth about the world through observation of the world more reliably than through introspection. For him, though, it was a matter of faith, and where the Book of Nature appeared to contradict the Bible, he chose the Bible. But now we know that a creature which cannot accurately interpret the world will not place its genes in the next generation. Our descriptions are not perfect and will probably never be complete (neither, for Milton, was the understanding of faith), but they do describe a real and knowable world. Denying that denies our humanity.

Hey, I do remember that I said we poets were just entertainers. I was listening last week to Terri Gross interviewing Colin Quinn. I don't remember the question, but Quinn's answer (paraphrased) was "If I can't tell the truth, what kind of comedian am I? That's our job—to tell the truth—and, you know, make it funny."

Jonathan, do you really want Blake's prophetic poetry?


Update: via the indispensable Arts and Letters Daily, a review in Evolutionary Psychology of Arnold Weinstein's A Scream Goes Through The House, titled "Literature Teaching Us About Life, and vice versa."


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Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Auden gets the first words:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

He was writing, of course, on the occasion of the death of that fool William Butler Yeats. And you know what? Yeats was a fool. He was thrown out of the Theosophical Society for trying to raise the soul of a dead flower. He was unspeakably cruel to his devoted wife (Read A Vision to see how the cruelty and folly sometimes mixed.)

His folly hurt his poetry: there are passages that are almost incomprehensible without knowing his bonzo philosophy of interlocking spirals of incarnation. And yet, and yet:

           somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(from "The Second Coming")

I wish I knew how to cultivate an ear like that, a sense of cultural resonance like that. (Note to self: memorize, recite, read, write, repeat forever) But despite passing the Housman and Dickinson tests, it's still a lesser piece of work than even a relatively minor Milton poem such as "When I Consider How My Light is Spent," and utterly negligible beside Paradise Lost. I thought you'd never ask why.

They're both (the poems and the poets) utterly wrong about the nature of the world and the nature of humanity. Genesis is no more true, as history, than Yeats's potty Vision, and it's only marginally better as psychology. But how Milton and Yeats came to be wrong matters. Milton was familiar with and used the best thinking of his time, which, being pre-scientific, had only a passing shot at being right; Yeats was a (magnificent) crank. For Milton and for his readers, Raphael's conversation with Adam sprang from deep and widely held convictions about our place in the world, and those convictions included the knowability of the world. Milton and his culture believed that we shared in nature of the Creator ("Let us make man in our image"), and therefore could know His creation, even if not completely, by virtue of our essential nature, including the fact of our incarnation. After all, God Himself had become incarnate in Jesus. For Yeats, such knowledge was available only through denial of our illusory physical nature and the equally illusory physical world.

Where to go from here? I give Yeats has the last words for now:

A Stick of Incense

Whence did all that fury come?
From empty tomb or Virgin womb?
Saint Joseph thought the world would melt
But liked the way his finger smelt.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Sick like dog. Even if I feel better soon, the next two nights I'm supposed to be out playing, so it will be Saturday before there's any new content here. In the meantime, if you haven't already, go read Kasey's post on Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty." It's so good I can forgive his subsequent lapse.


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Monday, December 1, 2003

After Thanksgiving my wife took me to the beach, leaving the kids with their respective Amandas. No net access, and I was not sorry.

I've add a few links at left and dropped one no longer active blog. I try to link at least to every poetry blog which links to mine—please let me know if I've left some out. You won't be surprised to learn that I disagree with many of the aesthetic opinions expressed in the blogs linked from here. I've been wrong before.

And with that, I promise more tomorrow on how content matters, even though being wrong isn't necessarily a fault.


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