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

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

A quick response to a bad meme spreading in the poetic blogosphere: Aristotle never wrote, in any surviving text, that meter was unnecessary in poetry, only that it was insufficient to make something poetry. And what was missing in the texts he cites as examples of metrical non-poetry was mimesis, the presentation of a unified human action.

Blogged from webmail

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Monday, August 23, 2004

A few weeks ago Bruce Gowans, a guitar-playing friend of mine, was beaten and left unconscious by someone who got away with it. A week in the ICU, rehab, the works, and no insurance. So nearly the whole lot of Southern Maryland musicians (some of them here: notably missing is Dave Houghton, who did a magnificent job putting things together) threw a benefit yesterday, hosted by Bowens Inn — no web site or I'd add a permanent link — which donated food for more 300 people in addition to the space. Many other local businesses supported the event with items donated for raffles. We raised almost six thousand dollars, which is amazing but which barely nibbles at the medical bills.

I was asked to write a poem for the event. I said I'd try. Occasional poetry used to be part of the job description, but it's not much done anymore. Oh, there was that dreadful Poets Against the War and the equally dreadful responses to it — even Fred Turner, one of my favorite writers, managed only to demonstrate how much he'd been taken in by the "honest officers of the state." (But I trusted Colin Powell, too.) The only fairly recent poet I can name who consistently managed to make good poems on the most unlikely public occasions was Paul Goodman (Collected Poems out of print but available here):

Adlai Stevenson

We told the old ambassador to quit:
"These brutal lies you have to tell defame
us and you." "No, I am on the team,"
he said, and was unhappy saying it.
Now he has dropped down in a London street
and every one is weeping over him.
He said, "It's not the way we play the game,
to quit to make a point."
                    The flag is at
half-mast in Springfield. A bombardier reasons
loudly for us in Asia. Our sons
will be commanded to the senseless war
—but many will not go—that does not cease
generation after generation: this
has been no worse, but there may be no more.

October 4, 1957

A new thing with heavenly motion made by us
flies in the sky, it is passing every hour
signalling in our language. What a power
of thought and skill has launched this marvelous
man-made moon! and from this day the gorgeous
abyss lies open, as you spring a door
to enter and visit where no man before
ever came.
          It is a mysterious
moment that one crosses a threshold
and "Have I been invited?" is my doubt.
Yes, for our wish and wonder from of old
and how we patiently have puzzled out
the laws of entry warrant we have come
into the great hall as a man comes home.

I'm no Goodman, and even he can seem a little uncomfortable with that public voice. But here's the thing: people do turn to poetry when the world gets especially awful or wonderful, and if I can't write a piece to comfort my friends, then what the hell good is my poetry? I wrote the poem, printed it, made 20 copies on very good paper and 30 on not-so-good paper, read it at the benefit, and gave the good paper copies for a dollar donation and the not-so-good paper copies for whatever was offered. I have no idea if it's litrachure, but Bruce (his girlfriend had to read it to him) liked it, and nearly all the copies were gone by the end of the night.

I won't post it here, but drafts are at the Draft House.

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Sunday, August 22, 2004

New links, to Kim Addonizio's and Daniel Nester's blogs, and new double dactyls from RMY and Ben Scott. I've meant to add both blogs for a long time, and was finally prodded into it by Daniel's fab new look (designed by Katey Nicosia) and by rereading Kim's The Philosopher's Club, Tell Me, and What Is This Thing Called Love? back to back yesterday. They are astonishingly good. Even better than her blues harmonica playing, and that's no small beer.

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Saturday, August 21, 2004

A week and a half! At least I'm about equally behind at everything — email, real mail, garden-work, reading, exercise — everything but drinking and what I get paid for. And since I am so far behind, let me point you to the July archives of A New Broom for a series of interesting posts on novelty and, especially, this poem, built of two hay(na)ku surrounding a reverse hay(na)ku.

It's a masterful piece of rhetoric, though I wonder how many people under 50 or so know why a bikini has that name:

Etymology: French, from Bikini, atoll of the Marshall islands in the northern Pacific, site of atomic bomb tests of 1946; from the comparison of the effects wrought by a scantily clad woman to the effects of an atomic bomb
: a woman's abbreviated two-piece bathing suit

"bikini." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (21 Aug. 2004).

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Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Perseids are back, though it's cloudy here. An old poem of mine:

Watching the Sky

After half my human life, 36
Years, more than a billion heartbeats,
And before me, 200 thousand
Generations since we first stood and walked
And held the things of this world in our hands,
67 million years since the sky
Broke open and out of the darkness crawled
And flew the small feathered and furred survivors,
3 billion years after the catastrophic
Oxygen poisoning of this planet
Lost in the spiral arm of a galaxy
Whose central black hole swallows stars by thousands,
15 billion years since the vacuum sang
Light and light and more light and from nothing
There came this space,
                    I lie down on a cot
At night, with you, and wait for clouds to clear,
So we can watch 5 billion year old rocks
Burn. We call them the Perseids, because
Most seem to fall from a patch of sky
Where people, 3 thousand years ago,
Saw the shape of Perseus, whose polished shield
Killed Medusa, whose severed head petrified
The serpent who would have killed Andromeda,
And they are figured in the stars nearby.

But when the clouds do clear, I can't see them.
I can find the patterns, matching each star
With the guide I've xeroxed from the News and Observer,
But no hero. No terrible snake-haired woman,
No sign of that story I can't believe,
One of the thousand stories telling us
That gods made the world for their pleasure
And our pain, that Woman and Serpent are One
And Man must tame them with the Sword
Or die -- No. I see stars. Just stars. Ancient light,
Thousands of years old, light from other suns.

I turn to you, beside me, to say something
Of all this, and find you crying, too,
For the beauty and terror of the real,
For what we've lost by telling the wrong stories,
Wanting to find the lost water, the lost
Breath of night, the light of star after star,
Light screaming as it shifts red and darkens,
Light of iron burning through the sky
August after August, finding this night,
Wanting to rest, wanting to sleep, wanting
To wake into a life made human, a life
Of things given by the sun and made human --
The oak and pine woods, this field, this city,
Human work and speech and our own bodies,
Your breath on my neck when I'm inside you,
Life's water passing between us,
And light at dawn. Wanting to make the world,
And live in it.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Two good articles I found via the invaluable Arts & Letters Daily: " Style: a Pleasure for the Reader, or the Writer?," by Ben Yagoda, and "In Defense of Memorization" by Michael Knox Beran. Yagoda takes on the very general issue of style as expressive vs style as instrumental. I think of my poetry as being very reader-centered — meter, for me, means less as a way of inventing than as a way of affecting the reader. But I'm not much interested in convincing readers or conveying a message. I lie a lot, and I don't believe much more than half of the things my poems' people say, at least after their poems are finished. What I want is for readers to remember the poem, to learn it by heart.

A Plea to Boys and Girls

Your learned Lear's Nonsense Rhymes by heart, not rote;
   You learned Pope's Iliad by rote, not heart;
These terms should be distinguished if you quote
   My verses, children—keep them poles apart—
And call the man a liar who says I wrote
   All that I wrote in love, for love of art.

Robert Graves

But as Beran points out in the second essay, learning by things by rote (even, perhaps, Pope's Iliad), is a powerful way of increasing the flexibility of one's own thoughts and styles. The plurals are mine and quite deliberate. Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur each have, even in their eighties, literally thousands of poems by heart, and Hecht says he's seldom enjoyed the poetry of anyone who didn't. I thought my own stock of memorized poems not so bad before this last time at West Chester, listening to Hecht, Lewis Turco, Mark Jarman, and David Mason. Here's one I do know, from Graves again, for Nada:

Flying Crooked

The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has—who knows so well as I?—
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

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Monday, August 9, 2004

The latest Poetry is a gas. I like most of the poetry, some of it a lot: Tim Murphy's "Mortal Stakes," Sherod Santo's sonnet translation "Star-Crossed Bride" of two thousand year-old poem by Antiphanes, Neisha Tweed's "Skin Teeth," Barbara De Cesare's "O, Anna," Geoffrey Brock's "Forever Street," and the way his sonnet and that of Jill Alexander Essbaum somehow converge in their last lines. The prose is good, too. Donald Hall's remembrance of Thom Gunn is truly moving, Danielle Chapman convinced me to order Samuel Menashe's The Niche Narrows, and one line in David Orr's set of quick reviews had me laughing all weekend: "This is what John Ashberry's poetry might sound like if it were translated into Polish and then translated back into English by someone who was trying, simultaneously, to peel carrots."

But it was Adam Kirsch's review of Twentieth Century American Poetics and of Classic Writings on Poetry (together with a comment a few posts ago from Nada Gordon) which made me realize I was in mortal peril of fuddy-duddy-dom. Here's the relevant passage from Kirsch:

… the American generation that came after modernism could most accurately be called the Authentic poets. Not to falsify one's personal experience, even or especially in the name of art, is their great principle. The poem is only a means of synchronizing the reader's experience with the writer's: "The poem," O'Hara writes, "is at last between two persons instead of two pages."

It is in the pursuit of such authenticity that these poets made the great refusal about which the romantics only speculated: the immolation of meter, rhyme, and form. … Here is the aggressive egotism of authenticity, … [and] here too is its puritanism, its hostility to pleasure. For meter, like all artifice, finds pleasure in the gratuitous, and the gratuitous is the enemy of accuracy.

I'd have been happier with "the authentic" or even "earnestness" than I am with "accuracy" in that last sentence, but what the hell. Tim Steele has more in common with flarf than either side imagines. His handbook on (primarily iambic) meter is called All the Fun's In How You Say a Thing.

Donald Justice died last Friday. His essay "Meters and Memory" is perhaps my favorite piece in Twentieth Century American Poetics, and it's certainly the sanest and most humane.

Vague Memory from Childhood

   It was the end of day—
Vast far clouds
In the zenith darkening
   At the end of day.

   The voices of my aunts
Sounded through an open window.
Bird-speech cantankerous in a high tree mingled
   With the voices of my aunts.

   I was playing alone,
Caught up in a sort of dream,
With sticks and twigs pretending,
   Playing there alone

   In the dust.
And a lamp came on indoors,
Printing a frail gold geometry
   On the dust.

   Shadows came engulfing
The great charmed sycamore.
It was the end of day.
   Shadows came engulfing.

Donald Justice, 1925-2004

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Tuesday, August 3, 2004

I don't think I can explain my attitude toward free verse any more clearly than I did here. My complaints are not about free verse, but about poetry and theory that deny or deliberately frustrate narrative and the sharing of knowledge and feeling. An epistemological poem from earlier this year, slightly revised:

We Are A Kind Of Map

A buzzer-beating 3-point shot reveals
We're born to know our truths about this world,
But so is everything: a fly conceals
Itself till it's grown wings and they've unfurled;
A virus has the key for just the cell
Where it can flourish; that same cell, in dying,
Creates an army ready to repel
Precisely that invader or die while trying.
Of course that's metaphor, but not a lie,
Not just a way of trying to impose
Some sense on senselessness, a useless "Why?"
We answer till we like what we suppose.
We'll make mistakes — but make them unafraid:
We see the world with eyes the world has made.

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