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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Saturday, October 30, 2004

I don't think poets, as poets, have any particular insight into good and evil, but I think poetry can and should be persuasive, and there is no reason to exclude current events and politics from its scope — so I've been trying to write poems for this election. I can't. I'm ashamed that everything I write is overwhelmed by the depth of my outrage against this arrogant and incompetent administration. I feel a doubly a fool since I was taken in by their fear-mongering before the invasion of Iraq.

I've already voted for Kerry, and, for the first time in my life, a straight Democratic party ticket. Please vote for hope and tolerance and against fear and bigotry.


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Tuesday, October 26, 2004

I used to think it very odd that Ben Jonson first wrote out his poems in prose and then "versified" them, but I've realized lately that it's not far from my own practice. In fact, I think a case could be made that nearly all poets do something like that nearly all the time — otherwise, why revise? — but I won't argue that here, not now.

It's not that when I sit down to write that I make a little paragraph and then off I go. Usually I spend far more time than I can afford just typing nonsense or fairly random observations about the people and things around me, the books I'm reading, how horny I am — I do live three hundred miles from my wife. But something catches my attention, and I stop doodling because I know what I want to do, whether it's tell a particular story, make a particular argument, or just evoke a particular mood. Being a rhymer and a metrist, I'm supposed by the common wisdom to find the challenges of rhyme and meter leading my poems into unexpected territory, and it does sometimes happen. But not often. The rhyme and meter are for the reader, whom I want to remember what I wrote in the words I wrote.

Three things have led to this revelation. One, fairly obviously, is translation, about which Douglas Hofstadter has a wonderful book, Le Ton beau de Marot, which explains and explores far better than I can what choices and responsibilities are involved. But surely it's one's job when translating to make the best possible poem in one's own language which remains essentially faithful to the sense and the sound of the original, and the riddle is why people who think Jonson's practice odd and artificial will praise translation as a way of writing through dry periods, when the poems won't come.

The second is an odd habit I've acquired recently, very like translation, of rewriting my own poems in different forms. One sonnet became first a triolet and then a rondeau redouble; a long blank verse monologue shrank to a sonnet; a free verse rant became rhyming anapestic tetrameter quatrains. It's wonderful fun, and I sometimes like each of the versions equally. I call them Transformer Poems.

The third thing is writing on the computer, being careful not to erase anything, and posting all my drafts of the poems posted here at the Draft House, where they forcibly remind me of the process I described three paragraphs ago. It astonishes me how quickly the poems take on nearly their finished forms, despite my gnawing at particular lines and the way those changes propagate through the poems.


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Monday, October 25, 2004

I don't speak or read a word of Greek, but for twenty years I've been fascinated by the poetry of C. P. Cavafy, which I know chiefly through an old paperback Collected Poems translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard and edited by George Savidis. The translations are entirely in free verse, though the notes occasionally speak of rhymes schemes and syllable counts. Meters are never mentioned, and I regret that I have never even tried to discover whether modern Greek metrical verse uses the classical meters or is, in fact, syllabic — or perhaps this is an idiosyncrasy of Cafavy's? If my Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics were not in North Carolina I'd look it up now.

In any case, I've often tried to make metrical versions of the texts, finishing maybe a dozen over the years. Last weekend I worked on "In the Tavernas." Here is Keeley and Sherrard's translation:

In the Tavernas


I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut.
I didn't want to stay
in Alexandria. Tamides left me;
he went off with the Prefect's son to earn himself
a villa on the Nile, a mansion in the city.
It wouldn't have been right for me to stay in Alexandria.
I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut.
I live a vile life, devoted to cheap debauchery.
The one thing that saves me,
like durable beauty, like perfume
that goes on clinging to my flesh, is this: Tamides,
most exquisite of young men, was mine for two years,
and mine not for a house or a villa on the Nile.

Savidis's note: "Each line really consists of two lines of either six or seven syllables, sporadically rhymed." My version, below, is accentual dimeter and (so far) a line short of two for one. Perhaps, including the alliterations and internal rhymes, it achieves "sporadic" rhyming:

In the Tavernas


Left alone
In Alexandria,
I left for Beirut's
Bars and brothels.
Tamides left me
For a Prefect's son,
For a Nile villa,
And a city mansion.
I couldn't stay
In Alexandria.
I left for Beirut's
Bars and brothels
And a vile life,
The cheapest boys
And cheaper whiskey.
But I'm not lost.
This stays with me,
Like lasting beauty,
Or dearest scents
Still on my skin —
Two years Tamides,
Most exquisite boy,
Was mine and not
For a Nile villa
Or a city mansion.


I've put the drafts at the Draft House, though there's really not much. I don't know whether this is any good, but it came easily.


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Friday, October 22, 2004

Hecht's opening essays on the sonnet are brilliant, though they may repeat each other a little too much to be placed sequentially. Both are principally concerned with Shakespeare's sonnets: close readings in the first and thoughts about form and sex in the second. About the latter in the former, Hecht invokes Auden:

In the process of composition, as every poet knows, the relation between experience and language is always dialectical, but in the finished product it must always appear to the reader to be a one-way relationship. In serious poetry thought, emotion, event, must always appear to dictate the diction, meter, and rhyme in which they are embodied; vice versa, in comic poetry it is the words, meter, rhyme, which must appear to create the thoughts emotions, and events they require.

Hecht says it "almost indisputable" that Auden is right in that passage, and it accords with my own experience reworking a whole boatload of sonnets just recently — and in reading George Starbuck and Don Paterson. More on that later.

Hecht quotes Auden frequently in what I've read of the book, and not always to agree — he convincingly demolishes Auden's high opinion of Falstaff. But it's this, mentioned in the introduction, that I think I most need to learn for this blog: "Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered." It's no secret who I think will be forgotten. I'm going to concentrate on those I think should be remembered.


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Thursday, October 21, 2004

Yesterday Anthony Hecht died. Last week I bought what turns out to be his final collection of essays, Melodies Unheard, and today, while the light lasted on my drive from Maryland, I read the Introduction and the first two essays,"Shakespeare and the Sonnet" and "The Sonnet: Ruminations on Form, Sex, and History." More tomorrow on that, when I'm not wired and tired from the drive.

When the light failed I plugged a transmitter into my iPod and listened to poems. As I parked in front of my house Hecht's "The End of the Weekend" ended:

A great black presence beats its wings in wrath.

Above the boneyard burn its golden eyes,

Some small grey fur is pulsing in its grip.


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Thursday, October 7, 2004

When I started trying to write poetry in traditional forms, I was often praised with something like "That's so cool! I didn't even notice it rhymed until I reread it!" And then, as suspicions were confirmed by counting the lines, "Hey, it's a sonnet!" I was an idiot and I was pleased. That led to monstrosities like this piece:

Broken Pastoral



Fred, who dug our well, lived on the hill
Out back. He kept his banty roosters chained
To keep them from each other's bellies. Still
They screamed all night and day unless it rained.
He married Carolyn just to get the land,
Then kicked her out for Peaches. Everyone
Except for Carolyn knew it's what he'd planned.
When she'd drive by, he'd get out his gun.
Of course, we didn't know. My wife had kin
Nearby, but only James would stop to talk
And he was Carolyn's brother. He'd bring
His photographs to show us, folks who'd been
To college. After we hired Fred, he'd walk
By less. We moved away before the spring.

Iambic pentameter is fragile: we hear singles, doubles, triples, and even quadruples pretty well, but quintuples push the limits of our attention. How many tunes in 5/4 time besides Paul Desmond's "Take Five" can you name? Can you count that one some other way than "1 2 3 - 1 2" and still get the accents right? In the thing above, the relentless enjambments and the full stops near the beginnings and endings of lines make it impossible for even me to hear a pentameter. It just isn't there, despite the fact that foot by foot there are only four substitutions and three of those are "x CAR / olyn X."

Perhaps it's true that many people, even educated people, even people who can scan a little, no longer know how to read or hear pentameter. I've cited before the evidence that Charles Bernstein, Helen Vendler Marjorie Perloff (corrected 4/08/09), and Ron Silliman have trouble with it, but so does anyone who will tell you that prose or natural speech sometimes approximates anything as highly wrought as IP. It goes the other way — in skilled hands, IP can play across natural speech to produce rhythmic effects otherwise impossible in English. Here's Robert Frost, with a single sentence, as many metrical substitutions as I used above, and not much more end-line punctuation, making absolute magic:

The Silken Tent



She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.


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Tuesday, October 5, 2004

I've been trying for months to get some exercise by riding my bicycle the 34 mile roundtrip to the base for work every day, but I've mostly failed miserably. The last few days, though, I've done pretty well. This morning there was about a 12 mph headwind the whole way, adding 20 minutes to the trip, and that meant I got to listen to a lot of Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens — I've got both of their Random House Voice of the Poet CDs ripped and on my iPod, along with a couple of Caedmon miscellanies and the 55th anniversary CD from The Hudson Review.

Until this morning I was just about ready to take the Stevens off. It's been years since I really enjoyed reading him. He lies about "not ideas about the thing but the thing itself" — his poetry seems to me almost allegory, with people and objects presented only to demonstrate the working out of an idea. But I've been reading Chaucer a lot lately, trying to find a way in to a requested poem, and making forays into a few other other medieval poets, and this morning that seemed to have opened something in Stevens for me. But he's not in the same league with Frost. Frost can compete with traffic.

BTW, Greg Perry has posted a good deal lately about Frost. Greg and Henry Gould are the two bloggers that have mattered most to me these last few months, when I've come close to deciding poetry takes a poor second to hard-boiled vampire detective stories.


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Sunday, October 3, 2004

Next Friday, Oct 8, I'm one of the featured readers at Stammer, a monthly Raleigh NC poetry reading and open mic hosted by the always wonderful Mz Julee. This time Stammer's at The Company Store & Espresso Bar located at 517 West Jones Street on Glenwood South (email for directions if you need them). Along with poetry, there's usually music and sometimes a short film, and I've printed up and sewn together 20 copies of 44 Sonnets, which I'll be selling there for the incredibly cheap price of 2 American dollars. So y'all come! And if anyone out there in the blogosphere wants a copy of 44 Sonnets, let me know. I can always make more.

I've also got 4 poems in the upcoming Matrix, but I don't know which of the poems I sent they are. A pretty good week!


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