Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium :
poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poets, poetry, and the po-biz

 

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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

I've been jonesing hard to play music because the Thursday jam has been on hold for a while, and I just found out there's a Wednesday open mic not far from here. So I'll be back tomorrow with (I think) a new poem. Maybe two.


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Tuesday, March 30, 2004

but I do like this one by Martha Grimes (yes, that Martha Grimes) from her Send Bygraves:

MURDERPANTOUM

Down the wrong paths to the wrong answers lie
Clues that are planted to mislead the eye.
On Spectre Hill, a coach is passing by.
It will stop in your courtyard presently.

Clues that are planted to mislead the eye:
The gun, the knife, the bloodstain on the floor.
It will stop in your courtyard presently,
The driver will step down and try the door.

The gun, the knife, the bloodstain on the floor,
They are not what they seem to be at first.
The driver will step down and try the door.
As in an ending cleverly reversed,

They are not what they seem to be at first.
In silence sometimes lies the only hope.
As in an ending cleverly reversed,
Beware. Be Still. Be Patient. Let him grope.

In silence sometimes lies the only hope.
Some say there is an answer in the sky.
Beware. Be Still. Be Patient. Let him grope
Down the wrong paths to the wrong answers. Lie.


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Monday, March 29, 2004

Thanks to the IRS and my own laziness, I come late to the discussion of trobar clus started last week by Ron Silliman. The comments (no way to link to a javascript at another blog) are pretty good, and Henry Gould points out the major flaw in Ron's thesis that writing for a closed elite is the way to excellence. Still, there are a few outrageous claims in that post that have yet to be addressed, and once every two months or so I just can't resist my own tilt at the windmill. I'll be brief, because it's late.

  • It is nonsense to claim that one form of art can relieve another of the some part of its responsibilities. Just what responsibility can a form of art possibly have? Artists may have responsibilities—to their children, their partners, their jobs, their nation, the human race (stop me before I get to the planet)—but not to their art and not to any function that art may perform in a culture. They don't even have the responsibility to try to communicate with the rest of us. But the rest of us have no responsiblity to pay attention, either, and any artist who chooses to create only for the elite, whether poet or music video director, ought not to be surprised when ignored.
  • It is spectacular nonsense to claim that a poet who chooses to use already developed forms wants "the world [or poetry] to be made as it 'always' seemed to be." Did writing sonnets mean that Milton wanted the world to be as it was when Shakespeare wrote? How about Wordsworth and Milton? Robinson and Wordsworth? Hacker and Robinson? It's true that Antler seems like Ginsberg reheated in a microwave, but that could be just Antler's personal failure, or, more likely, it could be that the structures Ginsberg developed simply don't have the formal depth to support the great variety possible in a sonnet. Villanelles, for instance, don't have that depth.
  • It is willful nonsense to continue to claim that there is any direct connection between a poet's politics and poetics. If his friends Marylin Hacker and Annie Finch aren't sufficient evidence, he could look at those old radicals Eliot and Pound and Rimbaud. But the evidence doesn't fit the politics, so to hell with the evidence. It reminds me of George W. Bush.

And as for Ron's post today:

"Behold the School of Quietude!"
Cries Silliman, but nothing's there
To front his fiery attitude—
A name is sometimes just hot air.
And what conclusion might be drawn?
He leads the School of Phlogiston.

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Thursday, March 25, 2004

Jim Behrle has left his monkey behind.


I've put 3 poems from John Dancy-Jones at Poems from Readers. I earlier gave the wrong URL for his link page—this one is correct.


Jonathan Mayhew is working on a sonnet generator, and asks "Why, when working under oulipian constraint, does my language inevitably drift toward a particular disembodied tone? Is there another possible style for such writing?"

Actually, there's not. People use language to make sense of the world through metaphor and story based on our bodily experience. Oulipo and other aleatory techniques subvert the human use of language—they are literally inhuman, though they can be briefly amusing, because they deny the body's role in thought.


Jean Vengua's left her blue kangaroo (is Kasey's squirrel next?) and settled at OKIR.


Nick Piombimo is really moving. 40 boxes of books sold or given away! My best wishes for a long, happy, and productive stay at the new digs.


Henry, I hear the claim made all the time, but I don't hear it in the poems. Ted Hughes, or the formalist Don Paterson, just don't fit "English euphony." Of course, one's a Yorkshireman and the other a Scot.


I leave for North Carolina in the morning, where taxes await me. I don't expect to get much else done there. Have a good weekend, everybody.


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I didn't know, before reading about it at grapez, either that Frazer was going off the air or that on the final episode Dr. Crane would recite lines from Tennyson's "Ulysses." I don't even have a television here at my Maryland bachelor pad (as my wife calls it). I had one, until Buffy the Vampire Slayer was cancelled, and then I gave it away. Even at home in North Carolina, where there are two TVs, for seven years I watched practically nothing but Buffy, an occasional Angel, and the odd movie with my wife. You can see from what I did watch that I don't consider TV beneath me: the truth is, without a strict rule, I'd turn the thing on and watch all night and never do anything else. It's more like cocaine than penny dreadfuls.

Television writers are, in fact, damned good. Once a week, more than 20 weeks a year, they produce half-hour or hour-long scripts that entertain, challenge, and move millions of people. There's never been anything like it, and if they've done nothing to rival Shakespeare, what of it? Has anyone else? Dozens of episodes from many different shows are at least comparable to all but a few of the best works of the best playwrights in English, and it's no surprise: talent goes where the money is.*

Now that I've convinced even the more generous of you I that am just a Philistine in lime polyester slacks, I ask you to consider why Frazer's writers chose to end their show's run with lines from a poem written more than 160 years ago.

Someone remembered those lines.

There's been a lot of talk in the poetic blogosphere, by me and others, about how traditional prosodies and forms affect the poet's choices for good or ill, but that misses the point: they're really tools to help get the poet's words into someone else's mind and keep them there.

Meter and rhyme and set forms are not the only such tools. Of the three, "Ulysses" uses only meter, and depends for some of its power and memorability on classical rhetorical technique. And of course poems can be memorable without using any of them. I'm only mildly surprised to find I remember, word for word, the end of Denise Levertov's "Eros at Temple Stream":

quiet and slow in the midst of
the quick of the
sounding river

our hands were
flames
stealing upon quickened flesh until

no part of us but was
sleek and
on fire

and almost all (I thought it was "big goddamn car") of Robert Creeley's "I Know a Man" except the title:

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.

But those are short, I'd never have reproduced the line breaks except by accident, and the Levertov piece is crammed with various sorts of rhyme. I've quoted Tim Steele on the subject before, from his Missing Measures, p. 290:

… meter is neutral. It is a means by which poets can make what they say more forceful and memorable. … If we care about what we say, if we want to communicate it to others, if we want them to consider it as having more than ephemeral interest, we should aim to make what we say as memorable as possible.

*That's not true for poetry, of course, since there's no money at all in poetry. One day when I feel more ambitious I'll try to explain why that's a problem for the quality of poetry and not just for the quality of the poet's life. Gary Norris on poetry as a gift-economy is a starting place.


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Wednesday, March 24, 2004

There's been a small and badly-named discussion of hip-hop and poetry at the New Poetry mailing list (click here and scroll near the bottom), which reminds me I never said anything about how it went at this month's Stammer, a monthly poetry reading and open mic in Raleigh, usually at ArtSpace. And usually I'm out of town, but I snuck in to this one through the grace of MC Mz Julee.

The Murray Street Band, from Greensboro, opened up with some very sweet piano-guitar jazz. The bass player, especially, was lots of fun to hear and to watch—she really got into the music. I was a little nervous for us poor poets to have to follow them.

They helped the transition, actually, playing behind Sean Ingram, the night's first featured poet. Well, it didn't help me, because my old man's hearing had a hard time picking out the words, but my wife could hear clearly enough. Sean's a hip hop style performer, and the band did a good job following his pacing and cues.

The rest of us read a cappella (I wonder if they could play in 5/4 time?). I wasn't taking notes and can't remember everyone who was there, but the two right before me, Tanya Olson and Langston Fuze, are formidable performers. Tanya's first piece was a cut up of news reports about a Lumbee Indian who defied a Carolina Klan rally with Gertrude Stein's "as a wife has a cow, a love story." Very funny, very pointed. She read two other pieces, one she'd done for two friend's "commitment" ceremony (and joked about whether that was a good name for a joyful occasion), and a hilarious fantasy of breaking up with Priscilla Presley because she couldn't become a Scientologist.

Langston performed next (he memorizes his long performance poems) with his usual excellent pacing and dynamics. He's won several local slams and he deserves to. His last piece (and the only one he read from a text), about "being comfortable making a movement" in all of the possible senses, was from his first book (why didn't I take notes so I could tell you the name?).

Then it was me before the break and the open mic (Langston doesn't like to go last.). I read all new sonnets (not all of them) from my Jan-Feb binge and they went very well. I'm used to the stage, and I'm big and loud and confident, and that goes a long way, but I'm still always pleased to be able to pull off IP in such venues. I invited people to send me requests by email, and about a half-dozen people asked for cards. You can use the Request a Poem link at left.

At the open mic, it was great to hear John Dancy-Jones, an old friend of mine who for years ran a weekly poetry reading at his hand-laid papermaking business. Check out his links page. Getting up with John again was probably the best thing about the evening for me.

The next Stammer is April 9th, at the Bickett Gallery, and this time I'm officially in the showcase. There's apparently going to be a band, too, since the gallery calendar lists it as an EP release party for Schooner.


Also upcoming in the Triangle is the Carrboro Poetry Festival, June 5th and 6th. Blogland's Chris Murray and Kasey Mohammad will be reading there, and I'll be around for at least the Saturday part of the show. It's free, and Carrboro/Chapel Hill has lots to do on weekends if you need a break from poets.


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Tuesday, March 23, 2004

My wife asked me who "Who's that woman on your blog?" and I had no idea what she was talking about.

"You put her picture on your blog!"

"Oh. Oh! That's me!"

So after being reminded that quizzila says I'm really Christine Hamm, I decided I'd better find out who I was, and google tells me I—I mean she—has a blog, this is all your fault. It's been around 2 years! Infrequently but recently updated, it's now over there on the left in that looong list.


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If you haven't already, go read Tim Yu's reply to my email. I think most of us understand each other rather better now, even if we don't agree: an unusual outcome for someone used to list-serves and Usenet. Maybe Nick Piombino really is on to something about blogs.

One last thing (yeah I said that before): Tim says "what isn't unpredictable is the past use of that form, its history, which guarantees that if a form does 'make a comeback,' it will never be precisely the same as it was before." The second half of that is surely correct, but I'd argue that the high modernists were wrong about the use and nature of meter and form, and that some of the work necessary is in understanding their mistakes so that we can see that history more clearly, or at least differently. Sounds almost pomo, don't it?


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I've added a request link under "Me & Mine" and I've got a spiffy new slogan up in the banner, thanks to Jonathan Mayhew:

"Making Poetry Safe For Lime Polyester Slacks Since September, 2002"

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Monday, March 22, 2004

Still crazy busy, so I'll just be lazy and add some links to the email I wrote to Tim Yu.

Thank you for that thoughtful post in reply to my rant. It's strange how we can say almost the same words and mean something so different.

Your reading of the Warren poem, for instance, is wonderful and a near-twin of my own, except that I wouldn't call it "post-rhetorical" at all (sorry I wasn't clearer about that) but rather a little gem of rhetorical technique—the very techniques you notice and praise.

When I complained that you and Josh and Jonathan "refuse to read a contemporary sonnet in the same way they would read a sonnet written even 50 years ago" it wasn't because I believe that nothing has changed which might affect the reading, but that you seem to believe that free verse and modernism and their children have made meter and form problematic in and of themselves, instead of just in that modernist tradition. Contemporary formalism largely rejects modernism because it was modernism that rejected history and fundamentally misunderstood human nature. In or about December, 1910, human character didn't change at all.

I actually think that formalists today face a task very similar to the one Wordsworth set for himself—to write about the actual world and to do it, except for the meter, in the language of good prose, and thereby reclaim poetry from the errors of excess of the dominant style.

It's what Pound and Ford and Eliot wanted to do, too, but I think they made deep and disastrous errors. Tim Steele's Missing Measures gives a thorough and well-documented account of those errors and of other sources of meter's decline in the last century, so I'll just note here that Pound's famous statement about the metronome really just shows that he understood neither music nor meter.


Blogged from webmail, so there's no title.


Update: There is far too much variety in both poems and poets to justify my statement above that "Contemporary formalism largely rejects modernism." I should have said "Some contemporary formalists reject modernism." Rejecting it doesn't mean pretending it didn't happen.

But I'm done with this debate for now: when otherwise intelligent people claim that writing sonnets today is like trying to write music like Chopin, there's nothing left of this horse to flog. I'll just keep writing in meter, and pointing out other poets who do the same and do it well.


Sneaking in a title and another update: Henry Gould has more sense than the pack of us: here, here, and here


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Sunday, March 21, 2004

I'm juggling several projects right now, some on deadlines, and I lost a day yesterday to a dying (and now dead) external hard drive. It was a backup drive and I've been able to verify that the only files were lost were video clips still on digital tape, but the time's a different story. I can't write the rather long essay (lucky you!) I'd planned, addressing the issues raised by Josh Corey (here and here) and Tim Yu (here): fortunately for me, Chris Lott has been doing a bang up job on most of them (here, here, and here), and I can just point you to the picture caption on this page.

One thing Chris can't do is explain what I mean when I say that many opponents of contemporary formalism don't kow how to read a sonnet by Rhina Espaillat. Tim Yu responds by writing "you can't defend Rhina Espaillat--or, for that matter, Ted Berrigan--by saying that reading their sonnets is just different than reading Shakespeare's," and he's right. His next sentence is just as unexceptionable: "No one can write a sonnet in English without having that weight on their shoulders; Milton and Wordsworth knew it too." But putting them together begs the question of just why Milton and Wordsworth could nevertheless write sonnets and readers could read them without that "healthy dose of irony" Tim says is necessary for a contemporary sonnet. What happened, and when? Whatever it was, did it happen before Frost wrote the "The Silken Tent," which Jonathan Mayhew rightly praises? Before Larkin's "The Card Players"? Before Donald Justice wrote "The Artist Orpheus"? Is Rosanna Warren's 1993 "Noon" "post-rhetorical" because its pentameter is pretty loose?

High Summer. Plenitude. The granite knoll
thrusts through gray soil at the hill crest. Drought:
spring is fulfilled. I crouch on the warm skull
of New Hampshire. Spikes of parched grass jut
through the anthill at my feet, and the whole field
grates with small oracles the cicadas
scrape between thigh and wing. What do I hold
at bay? The idea of harvest, days that ooze …
From the valley rises the interstate's purr,
the whine of outboards from the lake, a child's voice
quarreling. Someone's hammer raps the air,
duet with its own knocked echo. Here is the precise
dead heart of the living day, the hollow core, the pit
around which light thickens, and we eat.

Of course, there's plenty of irony to go around in that poem, but does it have anything to do with "the task of adapting [or opposing] the slack, free-verse, post-confessional style"? Haven't sonnet-writers, since at least "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," employed irony as one of their chief rhetorical techniques?

The real problem, as I see it, is that Jonathan and Tim and Josh refuse to read a contemporary sonnet in the same way they would read a sonnet written even 50 years ago. They assume there are insuperable difficulties in writing a traditionally constructed contemporary sonnet and read expecting the writer to be crushed, and they're not disappointed: Jonathan reads watching to see how the poet can possibly get to the end of the line without breaking the meter, pouncing on imagined solecisms; Josh wants to see work, especially political work, extraneous to the question of whether the sonnet is a good poem; Tim places the poem in a tradition including Ted Berrigan and Bernadette Mayer and asks why doesn't Snider do it that way?, as mistaken a question as asking why doesn't Mayer do it like R. S. Gwynn? Changes in the art of poetry do not display a linear progression, or any progression at all except that it gets bushier.


A footnote, of sorts. Of course the world has changed in significant ways since Wordsworth wrote, thanks in large part to democracy and relatively free markets: literacy is nearly universal; despite our horrific powers of destruction, two world wars, and the attempted genocides in the former Yugoslavia, a vastly smaller percentage of male deaths resulted from violence in 20th century Europe and the US than in any other time and place for which we have data (Pinker, The Blank Slate, 2002, pp. 56-57); most of our children, in all but the poorest parts of the world, live to adulthood. Is this the "dominant ideology" from which Josh would have poetry try to free us? At least he has to courage to admit that Marxism can't "point the way toward a viable polis, in poetry or elsewhere"—but only after praising it as a "nigh-irrefutable critique" of whatever that dominant ideology might be, and what does Marxism criticize but market economies?

I only wish the title Poet's Market weren't a joke. Gary Norris appears to wish the same: "I know what is different, though; from then to now, poetry has gone missing from the market." I'm not so sure poetry was ever a market commodity, but if it was, it wasn't "capitalist publishing houses" that sent it packing: what else could create such a market? I prefer his second explanation:

No wonder many folks leave poetry to Academia; many poets and academics are requiring pre-knowledge of poetics that the majority of readers don't have everyday access to because of the demands put on them just to earn a living. Such demands allow the majority of readers to excuse themselves from participation in poetry, which suits Academics just fine because it makes the competition less intense.

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Friday, March 19, 2004

via Poetry Hut Blog:


You are Christine Hamm. No one's ever heard of
you.

Which 20th Century Poet Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla


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I, for one, am grateful that contemporary formalism isn't shy about light verse. But several commenters here and elsewhere have raised the canard about there being nothing else to it. They need to read more. Here are few short ones, since it's already late for me.

From Thom Gunn, The Man with Night Sweats

The Reassurance


About ten days or so
After we saw you dead
You came back in a dream.
I'm all right now you said.

And it was you, although
You were fleshed out again:
You hugged us all round then,
And gave your welcoming beam.

How like you to be kind,
Seeking to reassure.
And, yes, how like my mind
To make itself secure.


From Dick Davis, Devices and Desires:

Ja'afar

The exiles' newspaper; plots, squabble; I
See nothing here for an outsider's eye

Until '… and the late Ja'afar Modaress."
How did you come by death? But I can guess.

I heard your thin, harsh voice excoriate
The lies of literature and of the state.

Then you laughed, shrugged; and what could laughter do?
You were not thirty when they murdered you.

I take your one book down; its flimsy cover
Reads Short Stories: The Children's Games are Over.


From Jenny Factor, Unraveling at the Name:

Swing Time

Ten crazy minutes when it almost worked:
from bedtime crackers Sam and I segued
to playing, singing terse Cole Porter songs
(Cole smiling cross-legged on the frontispiece,
queer and dapper; married, as I am),
and Ben, who can't bear eighth notes badly swung—
an amateur musician, nearly pro—
laid off his book and sat down at the keys.
I swept and scooped our son across the floor
While gender-bending lyrics, sotto voiced.
Then Ben stopped playing, taught me how to lead
left foot, right foot, til our feet agreed,
"Night and Day," "I Happen To Like New York."


Two from me, because it's my blog and I don't have to type them:

The Fall

When we'd pile in my great-aunt's Chevrolet
And drive to see the trees turned red and gold,
Grandma would scowl. "Reminds me of death," she'd say.
"It means that everything is getting old."
"Now, Helen, 'after winter comes the spring.'"
But she'd have none of that. "It came and went
For you and me, Sister." And then she'd sing
"Go, tell Aunt Rhody, " just for devilment.
I have her picture, 19, sure to break
The heart of every man she ever met—
Another from her fifties, in a fake
Nun's habit sucking on a cigarette,
And both are faithful. Grandma, you were right.
There's nothing grows in Fall except the night.



A Little Grace

Episcopalian kids at camp, we sought
And found God's revelation manifest
In brand-new pubic hair, and rounding breast,
And deep-tongued kiss, and fear of being caught—
For God was love, they taught, but also taught
That His was jealous love, so obsessed
With faithfulness that we could not be blessed
While soul, to us, seemed body's afterthought.
We lay together by the river side
Sorting out which truth would lead astray,
And almost missed the snake curled in the roots
Below the bank as if to be our guide,
Till unconcerned with us it slipped away;
We turned to taste each other's offered fruits.


From Rhina Espaillat, Where Horizons Go:

Reservation

As if he has decided on a nap
but feels too pressed for time to find his bed
or even shift the napkin from his lap,
the man across the table drops his head
mid-anecdote, just managing to clear
a basket of warm rolls and butter stacked
like little golden dice beside his ear.
The lady seems embarrassed to attract
Such swift attention from the formal stranger
who leaves his dinner, bends as if to wake
the sleeper, seeks a pulse. Others arrange her
coat about her, gather round to take
the plates, the quiet form, her name, her hand.
Now slowly she begins to understand.


From R. S. Gwynn, No Word of Farewell:

At Rose's Range

Old Gladys, in lime polyester slacks,
Might rate a laugh until she puts her weight
Squarely behind the snubnosed .38,
Draws down and pulls. The bulldog muzzle cracks
And barks six times, and six black daisies flower
Dead in teh heart of Saddam's silhouette.
She turns aside, empties, reloads, gets set
And fires again. This goes on for an hour.

Later, we pass the time at the front door
Where she sits smoking, waiting for the friend
Who drives her places after dark: You know,
Earl's free next month. He says he wants some more
Of what she's got, and she's my daughter so
I reckon there's just one way this can end.


From Rafael Campos, Diva:

The Mental Status Exam

What is the color of the mind? Beneath
The cranium it's pinkish grey, with flecks
Of white mixed in. What is the mind's motif?
Depends on what you mean: its either sex
Or it's a box, release or pessimism.
Remember these three things: ball, sorrow, red.
Count backwards, from one-hundred down by sevens.
What is the color of the mind? It's said
That love can conquer all—interpret. please.
And who's the President? What year is it?
The mind is timeless, dizzy, unscrupulous;
The mind is sometimes only dimly lit.
Just two more silly questions: Can you sing
For us? Do you remember those three things?


And since it's bedtime, one last from Charles Martin, What the Darkness Proposes:

Modernism: The Short Course

1/

In the beginning, it was a thin wedge that divided
      Us all along the fault line of approval,
So that we either gave our assent and applauded,
      Or else wrote letters demanding its removal.

2/

The young defended it in practice and in theory
      (In theory the more important of the two)
Until they themselves were ancient celebrities, weary
      Of having always to look back at the new.

3/

It had but one aim: to baffle all expectations
      And do whatever it intended to:
When you agreed with it, it snorted with impatience,
      And when you despised it, it agreed with you.

4/

And we, in its wake, cling to whatever keeps us afloat,
      Diminished by our having missed it, though
Man Ray's a consolation: "They say that I missed the boat,
      But all of the boats I missed sank years ago."


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I'm grateful to Kasey Mohammad for pointing out that the version of "Haunted House" I linked to was incomplete. I should have known: even though I (obviously) didn't know this particular poem well, Robinson is one of my favorite 20th century poets and extremely skillful, and I was amazed to see that dangling conjunction. As an explanation (not an excuse!) I was so surprised that I went to another site and settled because it had the same version. I could have counted lines; I should have checked Robert Mezey's selected Robinson, which sits on a shelf about 2 feet to the left of my desk at home. Here's the full poem:

Haunted House

Here was a place where none would ever come
For shelter, save as we did from the rain.
We saw no ghost, yet once outside again
Each wondered why the other should be dumb;
For we had fronted nothing worse than gloom
And ruin, and to our vision it was plain
Where thrift, outshivering fear, had let remain

Some chairs that were like skeletons of home.
There were no trackless footsteps on the floor
Above us, and there were no sounds elsewhere.
But there was more than sound; and there was more
Than just an axe that once was in the air
Between us and the chimney, long before
Our time. So townsmen said who found her there.

That's much mo betta, though still not the equal of "Reuben Bright" or any number of Robinson's best poems. And Espaillat's sonnet? Both poems are too slight to be called "great"; both, I think, are excellent of their kind. She has better poems, too.


A technical aside: Kasey had trouble getting line breaks to work in the comments. You have to use the <br> tag. I've been trying to think of a graceful way to put that information on my main page—any ideas?


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Thursday, March 18, 2004

Rhina Espaillat needs no defense from me, but Jonathan Mayhew has posted some contentious observations on a poem of hers which I may have brought to his attention, so I feel obliged to answer.

First of all, I told Jonathan, in email, that I considered the poem to be excellent, and I do. But "excellent" is a long way from the "great" he attributes to me. There are very few great poems, and I'm not sure that even a dozen of them are sonnets: in any case, we can only guess which contemporary poems are great. So we can forget from the start any comparison with "That time of year thou mayst in me behold," or "The World is too much with us," or even Arlington's "Reuben Bright"—though I think Espaillat's poem is far better than "Haunted House," with its indecipherable syntax in line 5. Just what is on the other side of "And" from "ruin"?

Anyway, here are Jonathan's comments on the poem, in italics, followed by my reply to each:

1) The story told is completely unoriginal. Haven't we all heard it before? What is added in the retelling / that makes it so compelling?

Can there be an "original" story in the sense Jonathan seems to require? We've been managing plot twists for thousands of years now, and so well and so ingeniously that some (misguided) literary folk think that story itself is outmoded, "done to death," and we have to figure out something else to hang our fictions on. Good luck to them! They, and perhaps Jonathan, forget that it's always the particulars of the story that matter, and the particulars are well chosen and managed here. Yeah, it's "Tell Laura I love her," but in just 8 lines we learn a good deal about the main character: he's a romantic, captivated by just a look, not even a night dancing; he's a little shy; and he's embarrassed rather than annoyed or angry when he's disappointed. Then the plausible flurry of activity in the 3rd quatrain, and that extraordinary couplet, rhyming "beers" with "years" while writing of a dead daughter, and the host's almost casual, almost callous, heart-breaking explanation. The host's heart.

2) The language is not very exciting or interesting. The turns of phrase are no more distinguished than you would find in the average "New Yorker story." The language is colloquial, yet somehow "off." ("dead these 18 years").

Ah, The New Yorker! I propose a literary equivalent to Godwin's Law: the first person to mention The New Yorker effectively ends, and loses, any argument about literary style. But since it's only a proposal, I'll carry on at least briefly.

I've already called the couplet extraordinary. ("That's exciting language!" "No it's not!" Maybe he was right to say "New Yorker." Or is it "Ni!"? or "'Ecky- ecky- ecky- ecky- pikang- zoop- boing- goodem- zoo- owli- zhiv'!"?) But the phrase Jonathan calls "somehow off" sounds so pitch-perfect to me that I suspect the speech we each heard as children differed in significant ways. There is a less charitable explanation, which I'll get to in number 4 below.

3) It makes me think of Browning. That's where this particular poetic mode comes from, I would hazard. Didn't Browning already do this sort of thing much better, more than a hundred years ago? Browning wasn't reproducing a 100-year old style, but forging his own.

It's a terrible thing for one's verse to remind other people of Browning, and that the verse that does the reminding is not as good as Browning's best (or is everything Browning wrote better than this poem?) is enough to make a poet throw away the computer. Sarcasm aside, this isn't very much like Browning, except that it tells a story in verse with colloquial language. And if it were, what of it? What is outmoded about the style? Could anyone possibly mistake it for a poem written in 1880 or from any time when metrical verse dominated English-language poetry? If not, isn't it something new? I've said before that if there's a poetic avant garde at all these days, it springs from the New Formalism.

But whatever the merits of that proposition, there's just no intrinsic value in the new. Chris Lott addressed that issue better than I can do without doubling this already long post, so I'll just point you here.

4) There is no music in the verse. It's competent at best, but dull. There are no extraordinary lines or images. I could quibble about some specific metrical choices as well, but what would be the point?

Here's the less charitable explanation I mentioned above: I'm almost convinced—and I've told him so in email—that Jonathan just doesn't know how to read contemporary metrical verse, and he's told me that he isn't a "very fair reader of contemporary formalism." I don't think he wants to be. I suspect he's pretty near offended that anyone would want to write a sonnet at all, and he's not alone in that.

5)The mediocre is the enemy of the great. This doesn't hold up well to great poems in the metrical tradition of the past. What to make of a diminished thing?

No, the mediocre is not the enemy of the great, it's the enemy of the good. But I never claimed the poem to be great, and it's far better than mediocre. What poem, from any recent literary magazine, can stand next to the Pisan Cantos?

6)I don't feel "haunted" after reading it. I don't have a sense of the uncanny, although that's what I think she's trying to convey. The poem fails to communicate this sense (to at least one reader.) Compare it to that great Edward Arlington Robinson poem about the haunted house if you want to see what I mean.

Getting chills or not is an entirely private experience, so I've given the links above so that you can scare yourselves (or not). But "Reuben Bright" is better.


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Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Already two thoughtful responses to last night's post! I don't have much to say about Chris Lott's at Ruminate because he seems to have been able to read my mind better than Jeff Ward at This Public Address. That's not a deficiency on Jeff's part—it makes me think maybe Chris can write Petrarchan sonnets in Klingon.

Jeff picks up the two key phrases, "So I don't expect poems, even great poems, to surprise me intellectually" and "Poets don't, as a rule, have the training or think rigorously enough to do anything original [in phlosophy, linguistics, science, etc], and when they try, it's usually embarrassing" and points, as well he should, at the English Romantics. Now, I did get up late last night—well, very early this morning—and add "Oh yeah, Coleridge, mumble mumble." But Jeff had probably already written his response, and, anyway, it's not enough.

I did write that, like other artists, poets are good at " paying attention to the feeling of being human," and the Romantics were as good at that as anyone since Shakespeare, and not just in their poetry. Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, influenced by David Hartley, would have been a far more productive foundation for psychology than Freud's The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. They were also deeply involved in the revolutionary politics of the time, connected with William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (Coleridge's friends and Mary Shelley's parents). Their poetry, particularly Wordsworth's and Shelley's, is full of ideas and full of the liveliness of thought—but, except in the case of Coleridge, it's not original thought. Even the Shelley of Mont Blanc, which Jeff movingly and rightly praises, doesn't really break any ground. Still, the poem was my first serious introduction to thinking about responsibility and God and failure and the work of becoming human, and I am forever indebted to Shelley for that.

Poets may not be "economists or philosophers or scientists or theologians or linguists" (and I'll stand by my claim that they're often merely embarrassing when they try to be: look at Yeats' mystic gyres, Pound's economic and political philosophy, and langpo linguistics and epistemology, for a start), but I should have said they must be damned good folk psychologists instead of only weakly hinting at it in that bit about the feeling of being human. The best poets are also interested in, and explore in at least some of their poems, the exciting ideas and arguments of their time, and the best poetry often thinks hard and shows the shape of thought better than almost anything else. My favorite form, the sonnet, is a little exercise in dialectics. Of course there is intellectual excitement and intellectual surprise in poetry and I was careless to say otherwise. I just don't require or expect poets to be the ones who come up with the ideas.


Blogged from webmail, so there's no title.


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Tuesday, March 16, 2004

I've had an interesting correspondence with another blogger whose opinions I respect despite how seldom we agree on anything to do with poetry. My correspondent had two complaints about modern formalism: one, that when reading metrical verse, it was difficult to avoid the feeling of being in the poet's mind, looking for a way to make the line scan and just settling for something far from the best option, and two, that the poems treated the reader as a "blithering idiot," particularly when compared to poems from the avant garde. What follows is an edited version of my reply:

My experience is that metrical poets, once past the first hundred or so poems (almost all failures for most of us) stop thinking much about meter until after a first draft is done, and that that first draft is usually too regular. I certainly don't (anymore) look for ways to make a line scan—usually there's an embarrassingly large number of ways to do that and my job is to pick the best from a number of alternatives, and then, in revision, to rough it up. So that mind you're within is the mind of an inexperienced formalist—which isn't surprising unless you've written a hundred sonnets yourself. Note that I'm not claiming that I or anyone else, however experienced, always makes the right choices. It's just that searching for an way out of a line is a desperate kind of activity, very different from looking over the choices and trying to distinguish the best one.

(Rhyme's a little harder. I aspire to the skill of Richard Wilbur, who says he never uses a rhyming dictionary, and I've noticed that these days I seldom use the rhymes I find that way—they just remind me there are riches available.)

I suspect your second complaint exposes a more fundamental difference between us. I doubt you'd endorse Pope's "what oft' was thought but ne'er so well expressed"—but I also doubt even Pope would have been happy with that as a sufficient definition of poetry. Still, it's no small achievement to express a common experience in such a way as to make that way the one people remember. It can be better, though it isn't necessarily, when a poet can expose some usually neglected part of experience to consciousness. But poets are not economists or philosophers or scientists or theologians or linguists. Poets don't, as a rule, have the training or think rigorously enough to do anything original on those lines, and when they try, it's usually embarrassing: Goethe and perhaps Milton are the only exceptions I can think of, and not in their poetry. The only thing about which poets have privileged information is making poems, and, in common with all artists, paying attention to the feeling of being human.

So I don't expect poems, even great poems, to surprise me intellectually—the Stevens Gould, Hawking, and Pinker can do that. I do expect great poems to help me pay attention in ways I hadn't before, to help me recognize and feel and empathize with the humanity of others—including of, course, the humanity of their intellect and wit.

Here are a couple of poems from The Formalist I think do just that: Howard Nemerov's "At the Airport" and Rhina Espaillat's "The Story-Teller's Hour: VI."


If you're looking for someplace to go now, you could do much worse than Kasey Mohammad's "Morning Thoughts."


Update: I forgot Coleridge, of course, probably the most important of the English language poets who made a significant contribution to philosophy.


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Monday, March 15, 2004

It appears that Gary Norris and I may have been talking past each other, as is all too common in this disembodied world. The content of his latest post is largely something I might have written.


Blogged from webmail, so there's no title.


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Sunday, March 14, 2004

Norris at Dagzine responded to my last post, saying "Talking of readers not schooled in poetics and their potential reading experiences is at best guess-work and at worst a fetish exercise creating an object-place for an ideal class of people who do not exist in relation to a group of poetry-folk who supposedly do." I thought I'd let him know just why it's neither guesswork nor a fetish exercise.

I spent 7 years in graduate programs in English, but for the 4 years immediately after my BA (Spanish), and for the 21 years now since I left graduate school, I've lived in a very different world, where I've had almost no contact with other poets or with anyone who read poetry except by accident or on a greeting card or when I wouldn't shut up.

That naked poem is the one read by the eighth graders and the college freshman I taught, and by the framing carpenters, drummers, chemists, painters, tool-and-die-makers, sheetrockers, engineers, cashiers, middle-school teachers, programmers, cooks, and Chief Petty Officers I've worked with. It's the poem read by my banjo-playing Civil War history buff brother, who works on an assembly line but can certainly write a better sentence than "Whether a poem or poetics emerges as eruption or irruption that emergence is active going over or going under; such active writing does not betray a resistance." It's the poem read by my wife, a wonderfully intelligent and capable woman who went straight from high school into the Army, who can't spell but who trained horses, and who started as a bagger at her current company and now leads a team of 40 people.

And these people—my friends, students, colleagues, and family—expect from poets what they expect from any writer who asks for their time or money: to treat them with respect, to have something to say which is insightful, beautiful, amusing, moving, or better, all of that, and to say it as clearly as possible. What earthly justification is there for insulting them by doing less?

None but arrogance—the risible notion that poets have some privileged understanding of human society and the world. And that leads to real fetish exercises.


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Thursday, March 11, 2004

One last set of thoughts on Ron Silliman's test, which is predicated on the assumption that for most readers, the experience of a poem is shaped by the name attached to it or by the journal in which it appears or both. That may often be true for those of us actively involved in the pobiz, but for almost everyone else it is barking nonsense.

Most people don't know Barrett Watten from Rhina Espaillat, or Fence from Ploughshares. When most people encounter a poem—even in school, unless the teacher is extraordinary—there's nothing but a text and a name and the general category "poem." A few may notice whether or not the thing rhymes, and fewer will care. Almost no one will attempt to scan, and no one will compare the number of sentences in successive groups to the Fibonacci series.

For almost everyone, a poem in a textbook or a magazine or an anthology or a website is naked. The normal encounter with a poem is what Ron tried to approximate with his experiment. And though readers of his blog are likely to have more sophisticated tools for recognizing poetic strategies, those of us who care about ionic minors or the referentiality of language also encounter a new poet or a new style in this same way—we use our hard-won tools, of course, but only what is in the bare poem can teach us whether to seek out or to avoid others of its kind.


Blogged from webmail, so there's no title.


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I've added stacks of new links in the last few days and just been too lazy to list them. I've got a little time right now, though, waiting for a meeting to start, so here they are (or at least as many as I can remember are new), in order of appearance on the left.

Poetry Sites: The Formalist and the West Chester University Poetry Conference.

Blogs of Poems: Awake at Dawn -- Writing Journal.

Blogs on Poetry: Carbonator, DagZine: Positions, Poetics, Populations, Flowers that Glide, Mappemunde, The Philly Sound, Poetic Inhalation, Porthole Redux, P(u)we-tics ni Tatang, Ruby Street, Ruminate (Yay! Chris Lott's back!), transdada, tympan, Unpleasant Event, and Watermark.


Sent from webmail, so there's no title.


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David Flood, a local singer/songwriter, has invited me to play with him Thursday night at Scheibles. If you're in southern Maryland come on by.

For those of you in the Triangle area in North Carolina, Friday night I'm reading with Langston Fuze, Tanya Olson, Sista Rhonda Reese, and others at the Stammer, held in Raleigh's ArtSpace. The Murray Street Band is playing, too. Cover is $4 and there's always time reserved for an open mic.

Between that and driving the 300 miles home, I'm not likely to post anything more before Saturday.


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Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Well, the cats are out of the bag, but I never cared much about Ron Silliman's little test, which was much less interesting than Kasey Mohammad's response. He begins with the image, out of Lacan, of finding a stone covered with unfamiliar hieroglyphics, unreadable but clearly (how? why?) a message to people who are not you. Kasey suggests that Ron has presented us with a less drastic but similar situation because "as a consequence of not knowing who wrote them" we "don't have access to an entire set of implied cultural instructions for reading." [emphasis added] Further, even those stylistic habits which we can identify as characteristic of certain schools are "dauntingly dull … because they are by themselves, rather than accompanied by their interesting human inscribers." [emphasis in the original]

But some poems, Kasey notes, don't depend so much on context or on knowing the author. He mentions Frost's "Mending Wall," which can be read "not knowing who Frost was, or when or where the poem was written" but which nevertheless is a richer poem if set in its web of influence (both to and from) and in the context of the 20th century US transition from a rural to an urban nation. He's glad that there are poems like "O Western wind, when wilt thou blow" which "work in a relative social vacuum." Up to this point, I'm with him almost completely.

Now for the promised information theory. In the late 1940s Claude Shannon, working on the problem of transmitting information reliably over a noisy channel, demonstrated that the equations describing that problem have exactly the same form as the Boltzman entropy equations (a clear explanation and lots of links here). The important result for my purposes is that any message ("Oh, happy day!" is a message, and so are "I'm confused" and "Remember me!") can be conveyed with arbitrary (though not necessarily complete) accuracy over any medium—if you're willing to do enough work by increasing signal strength or redundancy or both.

To some extent, that is implicit in Kasey's recognition that some poems ("Mending Wall") provide enough internal context (redundancy) to be understood without looking very far outside the poem. But I'd argue that any poem which doesn't provide sufficient context to be understood pretty clearly without personal acquaintance with the author is a poem which needs more work, at least if its author is going to complain about being excluded from the mainstream. I'll go a little further: a poem is a failure if understanding it requires an effort on the part of the reader incommensurate with the complexity of its message.

Of course poems must do more than be understood: they aren't instruction manuals. Poems must elicit a response from readers, emotional or intellectual or both, that encourages those readers to buy them, remember them, and share them with other readers. That means shouting and near-endless repetition are strategies of limited usefulness for poets, but there are other things we can do.

Let's look at "O western wind." The message here is really very simple: "I miss the warm winds and gentle rains of spring, and, even more, I miss my absent love." Unlike Kasey, I don't think the power of the poem has anything to do with persona or a "dream of identity"—in fact, its message depends on its near-universal application to human experience, on its separation from particular identity. Beyond that, its power (compared to my affectless paraphrase) derives from its musical qualities: in this case, alliteration, meter, and rhyme.

At last I'm getting to the little poems from Thom Gunn, and Wordsworth's not far behind. I told you that "JVC" was J. V. Cunningham, and knowing that Cunningham himself wrote many rhyming, metrical epigrams probably increases a reader's pleasure in the poem. But does the poem depend on that knowledge in any way? Doesn't it embody in its own structure a description of the type of poet it praises, so that, even not knowing Cunningham's verse, we know a good deal about it? Here's one of Cunningham's:

Jack and Jill

She said he was a man who cheated.
He said she didn't play the game.
She said an expletive deleted.
He said the undeleted same.
And so they ended their relation
With meaningful communication.

Are you surprised? Has Gunn has done the necessary work?

Finally, here's the whole sentence which Gunn quotes from Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads:

For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.

And, from the same source: "What is a poet? He is a man speaking to men."

It's important that Wordsworth didn't say "a man speaking to his friends," or "a man speaking to those in his circle" (what some would now call his "scene"). The poet must speak, as much as possible, to those who aren't clued in, aren't hip, who disagree, who even disapprove. And he or she does that by doing the work necessary both to free the poem from the poet's particular circumstances (without necessarily ignoring or hiding those circumstances and sometimes, in fact, by explaining those circumstances) and to make it memorable, moving, and even beautiful.


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Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Another good reaction to Ron Silliman's Test of Poetry, this time from Josh Corey. Josh mentions Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry—an instructive comparison is to W. D. Snodgrass's De/Compositions, in which he demonstrates the craft in many vastly different kinds of poetry by showing how disastrously wrong it can go.


Blogged from email, so there's no title.


Update: Tim Yu also weighs in. Tomorrow I join them. And since I did this on my computer, there's a title now.


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Monday, March 8, 2004

Kasey Mohammad has some very good things to say about Ron Silliman's Test of Poetry. After some sleep and thought—mostly sleep—I'd like to explore a little further some of the ideas there. For an glimpse of the direction in which I'm thinking, here are a couple of pieces from Thom Gunn's The Man with Night Sweats (JVC is J. V. Cunningham):

JVC

He concentrated, as he ought,
On fitting language to his thought
And getting all the rhymes correct,
Thus exercising intellect
In such a space, in such a fashion,
He concentrated into passion.



Barren Leaves

Spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling:
Wet dreams, wet dreams, in libraries congealing.

It may be the weekend before I get to it, as it involves information theory and the rest of the quote from Wordsworth.


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Sunday, March 7, 2004

Thanks to Janet Holmes at Humanophone for introducing me to the poetry of Devin Johnston. Besides the sample she presents, there are more poems of his here, here, here, and here, for starters. Unusual venues for a poet as traditional as he is—lots of dimeter and tetrameter, and rhyme's not scarce. Holmes compares him to "John Betjeman (of all people)," and remarks on his "subtle use of metrics & formalities that I'd thought disappeared from current usage." Heh.

Betjeman, by the way, was a damned good poet (though decidedly not a great poet) and is very unfairly neglected. There's a brief discussion of his poetry at Eratosphere's "Musing on Mastery" forum.


Loren Webster has heroically read all 1,775 of Emily Dickinson's poems in the last 3 weeks and has, as usual, interesting things to say. The easiest way to read all of it is probably to read In a Dark Time's February and March archives. One thing sensibly not mentioned is her punctuation, so often cited as evidence of her originality and non-conformity. It ain't. For most of the 19th century punctuation was a matter of "house style," meaning the publishers determined how it would be done. Authors had little say in it and usually didn't care. Even so, here's part of the first stanza of Poe's "Romance" as it was published:

To me a painted paroquet
Hath been—a most familiar bird—
Taught me my alphabet to say—
To lisp my very earliest word
While in the wild wood I did lie,
A child—with a most knowing eye.

There—I just proposed a new convention: italicize blog titles.


Jonathan Mayhew has also been doing a lot of reading: a book of poems a day. One last week was Frost's early A Boy's Will. In that day's post he disparages—no, belittles— a poem from another book, the wonderful "Mending Wall," remarking "That moralizing tendency in Frost is hard to take."

Just what is "moralizing" about that poem? The speaker tells how he tried and failed to convince his neighbor that there's no use doing something just because we've always done it. If there's a moral there, I'd have thought it's one the avant garde would embrace.


Update: In the comments below Jonathan clarified his objection, and I withdraw my objection to his objection. I don't think the speaker's a shit, though.


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Saturday, March 6, 2004

Just a test of email posting—
Later, guests may well try hosting.


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A more depressing version of the poetry in an island ecosystem story (and it is just a story) is that written poetry, at least, was always on an island with little competition, and that the advent of near-universal literacy was the coming of Polynesians or Europeans or snakes or rats or whatever it was that ended the centuries of isolation on that particular island.


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Friday, March 5, 2004

Might be the lack of sleep, but a mention on the BufPo list of Darwinian interactions between poets got me thinking—I'm trying not to let the smoke out. The literary world is littered with half-assed attempts to enlist poorly understood scientific theory to explain or justify one's own practice or understanding, so don't take this too seriously. I don't.

Selection depends on there being inheritable characteristics which contribute to differential fitness and on consequences for being less fit than other things in your niche—in biological systems, the more fit have, on the average, more descendants than the less fit. Now sonnets can't have little sonnets to compete against other little sonnets or against L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poems or against Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but you could argue that the sonnet meme has been pretty successful for 500 years or so, because throughout that time readers got so excited about reading sonnets that they became poets in order to make more of the things. Sonnet as virus, hijacking something about how way we're made interacts with the world we experience in order to make more sonnets.

Things can change for the sonnet. We can change through evolution to be less susceptible to its charms (not likely in 20 generations without some pretty oddly directed selective pressure) or the environment can change—and boy howdy has it ever. Buffy's here, or she was. The conventional wisdom is that no kind of poetry is likely to ever have the kind of popularity once enjoyed by Sonnets from the Portuguese. I'd like to see some numbers, though, not for Elizabeth Barrett Browning's rank on the best seller lists of the time, but for what percentage of the people bought books and magazines of any kind. I'd bet that percentage is higher now.

But readers don't buy poems now; they did then. Are poems really competing against the WB? Or are they competing against (and losing to) legal thrillers and historical romances? If the latter, poets have done something wrong, because there have been historical romances for a very long time. Some of them were even in verse.

One more bit of pseudo-scientific musing, about island ecosystems and poetry. Every now and then some organism finds itself in an isolated and nearly empty ecosystem where its descendants have the opportunity to diversify and fill niches which, in the place it came from, were filled by already extremely well-adapted competitors. As long as the ecosystem stays isolated and resources last, that organism's progeny will do very well indeed. But when the isolation ends or resources are used up, the party's over.

Now, here comes the real speculation. When poets first abandoned meter and narrative and the stance of a person speaking to other people, it was like discovering an empty island, and all kinds of possibilities were suddenly open. But it turned out to be a small island, with few resources, and no one to write for except the other pioneers, who, as they diversified, lost contact even with each other.


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Thursday, March 4, 2004

Congratulations to Jonathan Mayhew: Robert Creeley really likes Bemsha Swing


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I couldn't hardly put this triolet, a reworking of this sonnet, in the same post with Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler.

Mysterious Ways


Kenny just took and took from me till God
Said That's enough! and washed away my house.
I reckon it's because I spared the rod
Kenny just took and took from me till God
Had had enough of him and gave His nod
To the hurricane to stop the thieving louse.
Kenny just took and took from me till God
Said That's enough, and washed away my house.

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On the way home from work I heard this piece from NPR, on Owen Gingerich's The Book Nobody Read. Gingerich has tracked down about 250 copies of Copernicus's On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, including those read and annotated by Galileo and Kepler. I am at a loss for words—but I learned from the interview that the bookworm is the larva of the death-watch beetle. There's a poem there, when I get over the awe.


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Wednesday, March 3, 2004

It looks like I'll have the time and money to go to the West Chester University Poetry Conference, so I'm starting to get my application together. The problem is which seminar to put as my first choice: among others, Glynn Maxwell is teaching "The Poetic Line," Mark Jarman "Narrative," Kim Addonizio "Experimental Form," and Sam Gwynn "Forms of Repetition." I'd really like to work with Sam, but I'm not good with those things, and I can prove it: here's a sestina, a villanelle, and a double ballade, all metrical only by charity.

Maybe I should try to write a triolet a day … nah.


I've added Rebel Edit as a singleton in the link list: anybody know a Cuban glose I could translate?


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Tuesday, March 2, 2004

I failed to include John Latta and Crag Hill among the indefatigable bloggers. I did include Jonathan Mayhew, but he certainly didn't display any wit or insight with this formerly inane post.

First, neither Wilbur nor Hecht are even remotely New Formalists, having already achieved reputations before most of the Newbies were out of diapers. Wilbur and Hecht belong to the generation of Donald Justice, Edgar Bowers, and X. J. Kennedy, only a little younger than Louise Bogan, J. V. Cunningham, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Frederick Nims, and only slightly older than Robert Mezey, who, pace Silliman, was born in 1935. Does Jonathan mean to suggest that none of these poets, all significant formalists, ever wrote a good poem?

But even being charitable and assuming he meant to say merely (merely!) that none of the New Formalists have ever written a good poem ("show me a good poem from this tendency"), I can only say such a display of arrogance and apparent ignorance is appalling and breathtaking. It's a good thing, I suppose, that he discounted the effect of politics on poetics. Good for the avant garde, that is, many of whose heroes have supported murderous tyrannies of either the left or the right.

I really hope Jonathan was just having a bad day, and he's better now.


Update: Even though it's true, that was cheap shot at the avant garde, which has also included many people who labored tirelessly and risked their lives for human rights. Both statements are also true of formalist poets. Being a poet doesn't give one any special insight into liberty, no matter what kind of poetry one writes.

Another Update: Jonathan does feel better. He's edited his post, so I've added the word "formerly" to the above link.


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I try to keep politics out of this blog, except as it directly affects writers. This does. Kudos to Chris Murray and, especially, Shanna Compton for pushing this issue.

Understand me—as far as I'm concerned, the governments of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Libya, and the other proscribed countries are odious in the extreme, and no US administration has ever begun to approximate the evil those governments have done to their own people and to others. But this preposterous stance by the US Department of the Treasury significantly erodes our own freedom and makes it more difficult, not less, to aid the victims of oppression and those who work to free them.

This New York Times article will soon disappear into their archives, but I have a copy if you want one.


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Thanks to Chris Murray for suggesting this theme. The request lines—a comment or an email—are still open.

Faithless Anyhow


If all goes well, the first to go is the heart.
A moment then, then nothing anymore.
Others may grieve, if that's their chosen part,
But not for long—their own hearts shut that door.
They've better things to do, or better have.
That long-legged boy just took a second look,
And now a third, and oh, his look could salve
More grief than fills the saddest storybook—
At least until his own heart fails, or yours,
Or worse, chorea shakes those legs, a cancer
Boils in your blood, stroke snaps the ligatures
Of thought and when you call there is no answer,
Only his heart's relentless pantomime,
Since no one's there to know it's closing time.

6:29:31 PM    comment: use html tags for formatting []  trackback []

Monday, March 1, 2004

For the last two months I've been blogging nearly every day, and I've gained a new respect for the energy, wit, and much more than occasional insight of Laura Willey, Jim Behrle, Shanna Compton, Jordan Davis, Jilly Dybka, Jonathan Mayhew, Greg Perry, Henry Gould, Chris Murray, Nick Piombino, Eileen Tabios, and even Ron Silliman—whose work I read daily if only to admire his clear and passionate advocacy for nearly everything I think went wrong in late-twentieth century poetry. These folks, especially the last four, make the rest of us po-bloggers look like pikers.

Me, I drove 5 hours this morning and worked 6 this afternoon. I'm going to bed.


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