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

Monday, May 31, 2004

Kipling was a much more complicated man and poet than most since Jarrell have realized. Go read his "Epitaphs of the War: 1914-1918" here.

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Sunday, May 30, 2004

I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the biggest city in which I've spent more than a week at a time. For most of the last twenty years I've either been writing software or framing houses. I've never been at the center of anything. Sometimes even small centers moved when I got near: when I went to Kenyon College because it was an Episcopal school (heh!), The Kenyon Review was on hiatus, and Robert Lowell came back to read the year after I graduated. I read Boston, New York, and Bay area blogs and feel like a hick.

So don't be surprised that, despite intermittent subscriptions to the New York Review of Books and The Boston Review, I'd never heard of Stephen Metcalf before reading his review of the new Larkin Collected Poems in the online May 30 New York Times (no link because the fiends swallow content into their for-pay-only archives). I went looking for more of his work after reading this:

If one starts with "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album," from 1953, and reads through the famous ditties from "High Windows" (1974), the conclusion becomes inescapable: he belongs in the company of Yeats, Frost and Auden as one of the finest poets of the 20th century.

Damn right. And look who—and by implication what—is missing from that list.

Was it a lucky hit by Metcalf? This is from his New York Observer review of Geoffrey O'Brien's Sonata for Jukebox: Pop Music, Memory, and the Imagined Life:

But the heart and soul of Sonata for Jukebox is autobiography. After all, in an age of recording devices and mass commercial exchange, people don't ask of a piece of music "Is this beautiful?" based on, say, its proportion and harmony. They say "This is me" or "This is mine," because it evokes intense feelings of personal allegiance. About our favorite music, we're essentially saying, "This reminds me of me"—which isn't as vacant as it sounds. The burden of good taste is simply thrown back onto the lives of listeners, about which we can ask the traditional questions: Are they unique, self-examined, full? Or common and unreflecting?

The question is only more vexed in a culture in which every sound can be preserved, high and low hopelessly jumbled, genius and detritus lying so close together.

There's more than one edge to that, and I'm not yet sure where they all cut.

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Saturday, May 29, 2004

"Light blogging" turned out to be "no blogging," a seriously backlog of email, and not much sleep. I'm not used to being out almost every night. But, to make a much longer list, this time with links, the gig went well, I got my copy of Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the art of Poetry (which Greg Perry has been intermittently reviewing, next week I meet Chris Murray and Kasey Mohammad (and possibly Tony Tost and Clayton Couch) at the Carrboro Poetry Festival, and the week after that I'll be at the West Chester University Poetry Conference, where I'll be learning from Timothy Steele and meeting Jilly Dybka.

When I didn't really think I'd be able to go to West Chester this year I was working on verse forms with repetends (hence triolets, refrains, and rondeaux redouble) so that, if a financial miracle happened, I could take Sam Gwynn's workshop. Then, when the miracle occurred (thanks to my wife), I signed up for Steele's. Now I'm excited about studying meter, even briefly, with the man who is possibly our foremost scholar on the subject, but I'm still not sure how that happened. I think maybe it's the same kind of thing that's kept me from seriously reading Yeats for a long while, or, perhaps, the baser motive of career networking. It sounds better to say making new contacts, doesn't it?

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Tuesday, May 25, 2004

I'm extremely pleased to learn that some of my poetry will appear in the next issue of Plum Ruby Review, which is co-edited by blogger Crystal King. It's quite a different feeling to have had different poems rejected by The Formalist, but they wrote a note on the rejection slip, so hey! And back in the mail they go.

Light blogging the rest of the week—I'm playing a rock and roll gig with my electric wah-wah mandolin this Friday and I've got to learn the songs. For my sins, lots of Skynyrd.

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Monday, May 24, 2004

Triolet: It's Harder Every Time

It's harder every time to leave my wife
And work or To work and talk with friends she's never met,
Who only know me in this seeming life.
It's harder every time to leave my wife,
The girls, the cat, the birds — it's like a knife.
You'd think two years could teach me patience, yet
It's harder every time to leave my wife
And work or To work and talk with friends she's never met.

Forgot to mention that you can read the drafts for this here. If you're obsessed, that is.

Edit 5/25/2004

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Thursday, May 20, 2004

Mandolin tonight,
Travel tomorrow
To bed my wife—
A fig for sorrow!

Note 5/21:

I pronounce 'mandolin' in what is, I suppose, the Bluegrass and more Monroeish way, so that the first line contains but two beats.
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Embarassed Lunch Blogging

Um, clearly I didn't take enough samples, nor did I count the syllables in the verses I presented. Or maybe I don't have enough fingers.

Blogged from webmail.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Taking a break from Yeats and the Vampire Slayer, I reread a very odd and beautiful poem tonight.

Henri Coulette lived almost his entire life in California, dying in 1988 not far from where he was born 60 years before. He wrote metrical poetry, free verse, and syllabics. There's very little, if any, evidence that English-speakers can hear syllabics, and it is certainly difficult to write them so that the line breaks seem structural rather than arbitrary, but Coulette's best known poem, The War of the Secret Agents, consists of 119 6-line syllabic stanzas, every one with syllable counts by line of 11, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 7. That includes the Dramatis Personae (which ends "THE ABBÉ OF ARDON, a scholar. T. S. / ELIOT, an editor."!), three footnotes, and this gem:

XI. Orphan Annie: The Broken Code

15-18-11 …

The poem tells the story, "in different voices," of a compromised ring of Allied agents in German-occupied Paris. It's funny, heart-breaking, terrifying, and technically brilliant. Not every stanza rhymes, but just before the broken code above, Archambault, radio operator for the captured Prosper, speaks:

X. Archambault: A Suspicious Poem

The lost addresses of the soul are these:
the great estate
with mermaids at the gate
or the cold-water flat with wolves—
wherever loneliness like a disease
or a wildflower evolves—

or where like alabaster in the dark
she lies in wait
whom you would celebrate
in the exclusion of the mind,
whom you, in dreams, inchoate, know as ark,
crucible, and rind—

or where, powerful, irresponsible,
you turn away
from what the others say,
and—like a mirror come to life—
make of duplicity the single rule,
and use it like a knife.

The War of the Secret Agents was Coulette's first book; you can find it now in The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette, edited and with an introduction by Donald Justice and Robert Mezey.

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Interesting misplaced modifier in the last sentence of Tuesday's post, huh?

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Monday, May 17, 2004

As I said a week or so back, I've been reading Yeats after years of avoiding him. He's so good at what I almost want to do I get sucked into doing that instead of what I really want to do, like an strange attractor in the solution-space of a chaotic function—you can see it, or at least I'm afraid you can, in that last poem I posted here.

He really was a lunatic, and his cracked philosophy ruins many poems: "The Phases of the Moon" is plain awful. And beyond that, it's hard to tell exactly what's going on technically in his poems. For example, here's the first stanza of "Remorse for Intemperate Speech":

I ranted to the knave and fool,
But outgrew that school,
Would transform the part,
Fit audience found, but cannot rule
My fanatic heart.

That last line is a refrain, and Yeats remarks "I pronounce 'fanatic' in what is, I suppose, the older and more Irish way, so that the last line of each stanza contains but two beats." Where else is apparent prosodic looseness just an artifact of dialect? How many half-rhymes for me were full-rhymes for him?

But "Words for Music Perhaps," which includes the Crazy Jane poems, and "Among School Children," and "Lapis Lazuli" … oh my heart.

I think tonight I'll watch the episode where they bury Buffy's mother instead of reading any more.

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Sunday, May 16, 2004

Mike Alexander, who along with K. A. Thomas maintains "Houston's longest running, weekly all-poetry open-mic" and Abused Muse, where you can find fine poems by each of them, reminds me that I'm not the only one obsessed with sonnets. Their site and Sonnet Central are now in that long list over on the left. Abused Muse isn't exactly a blog, but I've put it under BLOGS OF POEMS until I devise a better method of organizing links. Sonnet Central is in POETRY SITES.

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A new poem (or at least a readable draft of a new poem), and with it a new blog: Mike Snider's Draft House. The new Blogger-native comments seem to require a Blogger account for non-anonymous commenting, and I've been wanting off-site storage for drafts of my poems, so I put the two together and now you can watch me floundering around as I try to make poems. The first set of drafts is here, and the result is right here:

Song: Memento Mori

Two men I know deserve to die,
But they and I
And all of us are mortal.

The first binds children to the rack
With junk and crack.
They learn they aren't immortal —

But not before they've been defiled
And borne his child,
Another mewling mortal.

The second drinks and beats his mother.
He calls me brother,
Since both of us are mortal.

When once I helped her to escape
She shouted "rape!"
Reminding me I'm mortal,

Like her, like both those men, like you,
Those children, too —
Denying that we're mortal.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2004



They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?

They shall not return to us; the strong men coldly slain
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
Are they too strong and wise to put away?

Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide—
Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour:
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
To conform and re-establish each career?

Their lives cannot repay us—their death could not undo—
The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
Shall we leave it unabated in its place?

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Lunch Blogging

No crew, no work. But the ceiling's (badly) painted so I put my things back where I can use them. They've taken more than a month to replace three sheets of drywall, and they can work around my stuff to finish.

Referer logs are wonderful things. Today mine led me to A New Broom, where N. Downing offers well-written, provocative commentary on poetics along with original poetry which, while generally not to my taste, is obviously the product of talent, intelligence, and work. And I really like the site motto: AND IF LUST EQUALS KNOWLEDGE, THEN I SIDE WITH THE SNAKE.

The referral was to my remark that langpo was a "retreat into a tiny, tidy formal world," and Downing's not happy with me about it, rightly pointing out that meter is also a set of formal constraints, and that no art is possible without such constraints. Here's the final paragraph:

Why should I be so partisan as to approve one form of structure and self-imposed limitation over another? Pentameter but not lipograms? Please. I may not particularly like backgammon, either, but I don't deny its value, charm, or existence. It's just a game. And life's too short.

Indeed, just as there is no intrinsic reason for spectators to prefer soccer to baseball, there is no reason, other than personal taste, for a reader to prefer pentameter to lipograms. However, if only because one may have a talent for kicking or for meter rather than for batting or for, um, avoiding the letter e, it's different for those who play games or make poems. And I argue that that's not the only difference.

It simply isn't true that "art begins with a 'tiny, tidy formal world' and contracts from there," and, from the evidence of the following paragragh ("I learn about one, and apply lessons to the other."), Downing knows that, too. If we didn't want our poems, songs, and paintings to extend our reach, to enable us to affect the thoughts and feelings of other people, we wouldn't share them. Meter (not necessarily accentual-syllabic meter) is peculiarly suited to that task, as Plato recognized, and it is, in one form or another, universal in human cultures. One source of its power is its lack of tidiness: just making the meter work is doggerel. To be successful, a metrical poem must simultaneously maintain the meter and imitate natural speech, and the rhythm of the poem comes from the interplay of the two.

BTW, that second requirement, that metrical poetry imitate natural speech, is an important reason for the shift from the alliterative/accentual meter of Old English to the accentual-syllabic meters of Middle and Modern English. Structural changes in our language led to structural changes in our poetry. Nothing of the sort happened in the last 150 years to motivate the dominance (at least in the academy) of free verse in the 20th century. Tim Steele's Missing Measures, as I've said before, gives a thorough account and critique of that change.

Blogged from webmail.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Lunch Blogging

Still a pile under plastic, and I'm getting more than annoyed. I haven't been able to do serious work for a month. I've barely been able to cook. Almost worse, since I've retreated to the bedroom my drunk neighbor has gotten back in the habit of blasting his music way past the capacity of his speakers and of the wall dividing our living rooms.

In a comment below, Graywyvern compared langpo to abstract painting, saying (I think) that both move toward a systematic attempt close off reference beyond the work of art. Because our use of language is intrinsically referential (no matter what cat is or isn't on the putative mat), painters can be more successful at this, though it's an odd kind of success: when paintings really are just two-dimensional arrangements of colors, there's no reason one shouldn't pick them to complement the sofa. I'm rather glad it can't be done with poems.

Blogged from webmail.

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Monday, May 10, 2004

My first attempt at posting by mail has apparently gone to the bit-bucket.

The living room at my apartment is painted, but the trim's not up and everything I couldn't cram into the bedroom is in a pile under a sheet of plastic. I can't possibly work there tonight unless they finish before I get home, and then I'd just be rearranging furniture. Even that's unlikely, since work on these apartments is a second job for everyone on the crew.

Just in case the first post shows up, here's a little new content. I used to really like Merwin's poetry, and I worked hard to be able to do what he does. I think I succeeded, at least partially, but the result was imitation Merwin and getting better at it would have meant making better imitations. I think similar experiences might be behind some of the statements from anti-formalists to the effect that wanting to write in meter is wanting to write like, for instance, Tennyson, and behind that odd notion of "finding one's own voice."

But the last 700 years have amply demonstrated that accentual-syllabic verse in English can support any voice and any personality. If I may mangle terminology here on my lunch-break, learning to handle meter, a means of expression, is not like learning Merwin's or even Whitman's line, which are modes of expression for particular voices.

Blogged from webmail, so there's no title.

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The living room's painted at my apartment, but the trim's not up, and all the stuff I couldn't cram into the bedroom is in a pile under a piece of plastic. I can't possibly do any work there tonight except, if I'm lucky and they're done, rearrange the furniture. That's not likely, since the work crews have day jobs (Think they write sonnets for the local newspaper?). I don't even think I can cook there.

Blogged from webmail, so there's no title.

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Sunday, May 9, 2004

A quick note on yesterday's post before I hit the road back to Maryland: the mostly fruitless and sometimes dangerous lessons one can learn from reading Merwin, Shapiro, Olds, Wright, or Glück—even Collins—are that poems and poets require a cultivation of strangeness, or at least quirkiness, and that a poem, like the poet, is autonomous, with no responsibility to communicate outside a restricted artificial world. It's his carefully constructed personality, not his skill, that separates Merwin from McKuen, and two proofs are Merwin's dreadful translation of Dante and his worse Green Knight.

The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and certain other avant garde groups also realized this, and their solution was to retreat into a tiny, tidy formal world where personality could not matter. But we are still human beings who live in a real and imperfectly knowable world by communicating that imperfect knowledge. Poems must have referents outside the poem and outside the poet. Meter, and other traditional formal devices (traditional because effective over centuries and in wildly disparate cultures), allow a place for personality, for human difference, without allowing it to overwhelm our shared world.

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Saturday, May 8, 2004

Congratulations and thanks to Jonathan Mayhew at Bemsha Swing last week: Jonathan pointed the way to a fine article by Dana Gioia on the reasons for Elizabeth Bishop's current reputation, received a research grant that will let him travel this summer, learned that he'd had an article accepted at Diacritics, and realized that in important ways it's hard to tell W. S. Merwin's poetry from Rod McKuen's. I'm not being snarky about that last item. It's an important insight into the dominant free verse mode of poetry in the second half of the last century, one I share, and one of the principal reasons I turned to metrical poetry.

I don't think it would be difficult to accurately assign whole poems to either Merwin or McKuen. McKuen's are never as strange nor as disturbing as Merwin's often are, and even Merwin's least adventurous poems usually display more comfort with uncertainty and doubt than one can find in all McKuen's together. But those aren't necessarily value judgments, and line by line, there's damned little to distinguish them. There's no difference in their technique: I'm not sure technique is ever a serious consideration in any of their poems, or, indeed, in the vast majority of the free verse wr itten in the last 50 years. I think that's behind much of the resentment so-called serious poets felt toward's McKuen's popular success.

What besides sensibility or personality or voice or take-your-pick of vague non-explanations distinguishes the technical choices—the line breaks, the kinds of sonic effects, the structure—of Sharon Olds' poetry from Alan Shapiro's? What can a young poet learn about making poems from reading Franz Wright or Louise Glück or Billie Collins?

You can't learn genius or personality or inspiration. But you can learn competence if you acknowledge there are practical skills to be learned. You can, for instance, learn rhetoric and meter. And then you can work hard so that should the muse come calling you won't be tongue-tied.

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Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Can't deal with this apartment tonight, not after spending the last few days moving at work. I'm tired of unfinished rooms.

That means you may not hear from me for a few days, since tomorrow I'm out playing music and Friday it's back to North Carolina to spend some time with my darlings. But before I go I want to point you to this moving tribute to Thom Gunn as a teacher.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2004

Long Distance Blues

My little girl is grown, but I don't know where she is
My body's only child is grown, and I don't know where she lives
She once called me from Savannah, but I've been years without her kiss

Alabama's got my mother, youngest brother, and my sister, too
I call my mother in Decatur, my brother and my sister, too
But one brother's in Kentucky, living lonely like I do

Twice a month I see my darlings, and the weekend goes so fast
Just twice a month my wife and children, lord, the weekend goes too fast
Then my sweetheart shows she loves me—how long can this life last?

I'm so tired of living with my baby three hundred miles away
Can't sleep when I know she's sleeping so many, many miles away
I'd call and wake her every morning, if I just knew what to say.

A few Quick Notes:

  • As he requested, I've removed the links to Antonio Savoradin's blogs. Come back soon, Antonio. I've also added two links I've meant to add for months: Possum Pouch (where there's a new baby!) and Never Neutral.
  • Congratulations to Eileen Tabios, and everyone she's worked with, on the imminent publication of Pinoy Poetics.
  • Belated congratulations to Joshua Corey on his forthcoming book, his second prizewinner.
  • Reen at starnosedmole wrote a poem a day for NaPoWriMo (you can find the archives here in the April entries), which was a good part of the impetus for me to start these May Poems so soon after my January-February sonnets. Joseph Duemer is also posting daily poems, and, of course, Jordan Davis continues his Million Poems.
  • I still don't have a living room.

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Monday, May 3, 2004

Exasperated Triolet

Three weeks ago the ceiling fell at dawn,
And I have had to live in one room, since
There are only two rooms here and one is gone.
Three weeks ago the ceiling fell at dawn.
The landlord's daily lies just make me yawn—
I don't know who he's trying to convince.
Three weeks ago the ceiling fell at dawn
And I have had to live in one room since.

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A crew came back to work on the ceiling yesterday afternoon, and today they're painting (I hope) so that tonight I can put the apartment back together. But I doubt I'll be able to write or blog until it's all finished. Wish me luck!

Blogged from webmail, so there's no title.

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Saturday, May 1, 2004

Crossed Lines

No one was home, the ringer rolled
He left a message at the tone.
To voice-mail—her voice, then a tone.
He couldn't remember if he'd been told
     No one was home.

It didn't matter what he'd known,
Of course, or how, but he was cold
And for a week three weeks months now he'd been alone,

Which mattered less. No one could hold
Her to the promise he had thrown
Back in her face and called fool's gold.
    No one was home.

5/2/04: That one line just keeps getting longer as the fellow spends more time alone. I tell myself it's so she has an opportunity to rearrange a world.

Later that same day: "Ringer rolled" wasn't clear without something to roll to. Now I get "voice" on the beat and off the beat in the same line, and I get in a dolorous pun. ¿Qué piensan ustedes?

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