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

Sunday, January 30, 2005

After fours days in the chaos of teenaged life, two posts from Michael Wells and Gerard Van der Leun on the question of just how poems get made in the midst of all the other things we have to do seem particularly pertinent. I've never experienced the "Arrival" that Gerard Van der Leun writes about (though others have told me similar things), but this passage describes my method pretty succinctly:

To make poems, I've found that it is possible to put yourself into a 'composing' state just by going to the work on a daily basis for three to six weeks. It's a dogged way of kickstarting the process and you'll waste a lot of ink, paper and time along the way.

Actually, I've found that I can almost always write a poem worth revising once I stop cat-vacuuming (visit rec.arts.sf.composition, but follow Usenet etiquette there) as long as a TV isn't on where I can hear it. Which brings me back to teenaged chaos.

And here is the most bizarre search ever to lead to this site. Web research is silly if you don't already have a good sense of what you're looking for.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

All right, here's most of the setup for the first scene of an urban fantasy/murder mystery:

Rachel was showing Hank her brand new tat —
Emerald scaled, sapphire-clawed and ruby-eyed,
A dragon curling from her ass, its bat

Wings slicing moon and comet, stretching wide
Across her shoulders, shiny with ointment spread
Wherever new gold gleamed. "You satisfied?"

"You kidding, Rachel? That's the day I'm dead.
I've got to know if you can shake that thing."
For Hank she did, then blew a kiss and said,

"I can't sit down. Go give your ex a ring —
She's drunk enough by now — or pour some beer
On your right hand and have yourself a fling

With Rosie and her sisters. I'm out of here."
She pulled her clothes together, waved to her friends —
The usual Wednesday crowd gave her a cheer —

Put on her coat and left. "See how it ends,"
Hank mourned, and kissed his hand. "Babe, I'm afraid
It's you and me, and if your love depends

On beer, we're out of luck. I don't get paid
Till Friday and Newt's already called my cab;
It's been three weeks since poor old Hank got laid …"

Outside a taxi honked. He turned to grab
His coat but froze, astonished, to hear Newt,
The barkeep, saying "Hank, how about that tab?

I'll make it fifty, even." "Don't get cute
With me, old buddy. How would I get home?"
"Don't you get cute with me. I know your route —

It ain't too far to walk — not sober. Come
Across with cash or learn to live that way."
"Goddamnit Newt, I ain't no drunken bum.

I'll pay you Friday." "Hank, I've heard you say
That twice too often." "Calling me a liar?"

A draft, of course. More installments coming as fast as I can write them, unless you tell me give it up.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Last night I again started reading Antonio Damasio's Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. I don't know why I stopped reading the last time: I'm learning a lot and enjoying myself immensely, just as I did with his Descartes Error and The Feeling of What Happens. The new book extends his earlier work on the intricate and intimate relationship between mind and the entire body, not just the brain. In a much too simple paraphrase, here he argues that emotions are body states tied to homeostatic processes and that feelings are the representations of these states generated by sufficiently complex brains. He presents a great deal of evidence for the evolutionary priority of emotion as well as for its priority in brain-body interaction in both healthy and neurologically damaged people, and he argues convincingly that feelings, the maps of bodily emotion, are guides to behavior in the world.

His argument dovetails neatly with that presented in Denis Dutton's review of Joseph Carroll's, Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature (a book I've not yet read) and in Mark Turner's The Literary Mind: that literature, and especially storytelling, are in their origin ways of organizing one's relationship with others through vicarious experience: "It helps us to regulate our complex psychological organization, and it helps us cultivate our socially adaptive capacity for entering mentally into the experience of other people." [Carroll, quoted by Dutton] This is far from the "art as drug" view sometimes expressed by, for instance, Steven Pinker (who quotes a lot of poetry himself), and it is not a narrow, utilitarian view. It grounds the making of literary art deep in our very nature.

I started thinking about this last night when I saw the title of one the sections in chapter 3 — "Mixing Memory and Desire: An Aside." Not a coincidence. He quotes approvingly from "Tintern Abbey": "sensation sweet felt in the blood and felt along the heart … passing even into [your] purer mind in tranquil restoration." Chapter One ends "It must be that Emily Dickinson was right" about the brain being wider than the sky. But the real impetus for this post was yet another article I found via Arts & Letters Daily, on Helen Vendler, and some comments there from Marjorie Perloff on how she agrees with Vendler:

Ms. Perloff objects to the tendency to treat poetic form as an expendable distraction from analyzing ideas or historical context. "I'm always shocked," she says, "when I see that people who are supposed to be in literature can't analyze a simple poem." She describes talking to a young scholar who had written on Keats and asking about the poet's use of terza rima. He could not answer because he didn't really know anything about verse form.

"There are specific things to be learned about literature," says Ms. Perloff. "Just like economics or history or any other field, you have to learn the vocabulary.

and how she disagrees:

"She has much more of a moral view of literature than I do," says Ms. Perloff. "The literature she likes, say, Robert Lowell, she likes because it dramatizes suffering and teaches you certain moral lessons. I don't think art makes one a better person, that literature teaches you the meaning of life. But the sheer pleasure of the text -- the sheer joy in all the different values of literature, fictive or poetic -- these are the greatest things. The more you can learn about it, the better."

Evidently the avant garde-friendly Perloff would disagree with Carroll, and probably with Damasio, preferring to think of literature as a self-referential game (Josh, is that organicism or inorganicism?), a kind of add-on for the knowledgeable. But then I thought I remembered that Perloff herself had recently committed a strange gaffe concerning literary terminology, and that I had written about it — yup. She'd called some acephalous anapestic tetrameter "chug-chug pentameter." Well, I thought, everyone makes mistakes, and here, at least, she seems to be making one sensible argument. So I looked further. It turns out Perloff was called on the IP thing and defended herself this way [You need access to Project Muse to use the link. The quote appears in the journal symploke 9.1-2 (2001) p. 191]:

The anapest is merely a variation on the iamb, and although many of the lines do have four primary stresses and primarily anapestic feet, the meter, in keeping with that of the nursery rhyme or folk ballad, is not consistent. … Many nursery rhymes have exactly this mix of spondees, iambs, and anapests in rhyming stanzas, which is why I called its rhythm "chug-chug."

But she didn't. She called it "chug-chug iambic pentameter." And the anapest is not "merely a variation on the iamb."

You won't be surprised that I believe literature, including poetry, must address the basic issues of how we live with one another and our world, and I think I can be pardoned a little schadenfreude when one of the principle exponents of the opposing view — that it is a game for "the sheer pleasure of the text" — can't manage what she herself acknowledges as basic: "you have to learn the vocabulary."

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Monday, January 24, 2005

My attention span is about forty milliseconds, so quickies today.

  • Jilly Dybka is at the No Tell Motel this week, starting off with the shaman's song "I have married a crow." While you're there check out the archives for work by po-bloggers Laura Carter, Shanna Compton, and Catherine Daly (there may be others I don't recognize).
  • I don't have a TV here in Maryland, but back home in North Carolina I think there'd be revolution without one. A week ago I finally got to see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on pay-per-view, and felt really stupid when I learned the title came from Alexander Pope. Salon has a review (for subscribers or for watching a 30-second ad) of a new book on Heloise and Abelard, based on newly discovered letters between the pair, which makes Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard" seem even more appropriate for the movie and for the unlucky lovers. I'm going to resist asking the obvious question about mass-media nearly 300 years from now.
  • Greg Perry's grapez has been wonderful all month long.
  • Re-reading a few books of poetry that successfully penetrate my incoherent state: Alicia Stalling's Archaic Smile, Sam Gwynn's No Word of Farewell, Thom Gunn's The Man With Night Sweats, Kim Addonizio's what is this thing called love, and Michael Donaghy's Conjure are all open on the bed beside me. Conjure has truly wonderful opening lines:

         The Excuse

         Please hang up. I try again.
         'My father's sudden death has shocked us all'
         Even me, and I've just made it up, ...

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Sunday, January 23, 2005

… or does anyone else out there, after a day spent throwing up everything you've swallowed, turn away from poetry to read about truly weird creatures?

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Saturday, January 22, 2005

Just two brief notes while a few chaps are printing to be sewn and sent. First, Thursday's mail brought me Elieen Tabios's MÉNAGE À TROIS WITH THE 21ST CENTURY. It is gorgeous. Order it.

Second, you may remember I spent a good deal of time last month on linebreaks — soon we'll see what good it did me, since this year at West Chester I'll be in the workshop on Poetic Line taught by Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry. You'll have to visit the site to see who's teaching the Free Verse workshop. All I'll say is "teehee!," and that, if I had any longer any interest in writing free verse, I'd have been there.

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I've been so properly tongue-lashed.

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Friday, January 21, 2005

I'm always a little cranky about having to go work and earn money instead of reading and writing all day, and this morning I got all the way to high dudgeon at what appeared to me a deliberate misrepresentation by Jonathan Mayhew of my last night's post. I sent a most unfriendly email, Jonathan replied, and after things calmed down a real exchange occurred (I must say that Jonathan did more than I to defuse things). Here, with Jonathan's permission, is that exchange. Only the first message is edited, presenting the context for what follows without referring back to the meanness I started. Part of what I say is obviously paraphrased from the Christian Wiman essay I quoted a few days ago, and the phrase "Dead as Queen Anne" came from a blog I was reading yesterday: alas! I don't remember which.

Jonathan: that's the function of criticism: to provide that context and preparation, that little nudge in the right direction.

Me: Jonathan, think for a moment about the trap you've set for poetry. In what other art form would you say the intervention of a critic is required for even surface enjoyment of the best work? I can think of one -- serial music. As dead as Queen Anne.

Like artists in every other field, poets must seduce and charm to reach an audience other than their friends or school or internet circle or hip coterie. If they can't or won't, well, they will be forever at the margins. There's nothing wrong with that, and you are consistent at least to the point of saying that that's where poets belong.

But the poets who can and will have at least a chance to be heard by the larger culture when they go on to say hard things, hard in form and matter. I don't admire his work as you do, but Frank O'Hara knew that. There's a good essay on him by Stephen Burt posted today.

Jonathan: I'd say any art in which the products are numerous and the good stuff is hard to sort out needs more criticism, someone to nudge the reader in the right direction. I'm always grateful when a critic points out a writer I would have otherwise overlooked. There's a sea of crap out there, and poets are so chummy and afraid of offending their peers that nobody will point this out. The good stuff doesn't just magically land in my lap. It's hard work seeking it out. The reader in the bookstore coming on Anne Carson will be extremely lucky: he or she will have chanced on something worthwhile, a one in a hundred chance. I'm not at all assuming that poetry needs explication for surface enjoyment. What it needs is someone to say: "hey, look at this, it's good!" Or, "if you think it's dull it's because it is dull," as with my comments on Cole Swensen. Criticism is discrimination.

Me: Music and visual art critics are not generally themselves musicians or visual artists, and can be disinterested in their opinions. Even novels generally get reviewed by non-novelists. In addition, there's a sizable audience of people who have no professional connection at all to the arts who spend their money on and talk to their friends about music and novels and even painting. There's a pretty good chance, in such an environment, that the sorting out you wish for will in fact occur. Ideologues, frauds, and the talentless will be quickly exposed.

Even so, critics only become useful as guides when one has formed one's own tastes sufficiently, through non-specialist education and exposure to the general culture, to know that such-and-such a critic usually praises work one has oneself enjoyed, so that a recommendation from that critic means some investment of time and energy is likely be repaid. It becomes worthwhile to take chances on more esoteric work.

But, for whatever reasons, serious poetry is no longer part of the general culture. Poetry is read by, reviewed by, published by, and awarded prizes by other poets. There are no disinterested critics, and there is no general audience. The result is that there is indeed a sea of crap out there -- I'd say there are many seas of crap, each with its particular stench sincerely promoted by the sailors sinking in it. Is Pinsky or Silliman a reliable guide? Burt? Wiman? Kasey? Me? You? How can anyone know?

People value that for which they've paid dearly. Fraternities with the most rigorous hazings have the most loyal members, least likely to question group motivations and actions. The same is true of outsider, shunned groups -- they pay a price for each other's loyalty. I don't think the New Formalists or the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets or the flarfists are any different. The only way to find out whether the price was really worth it is to try to reach people outside the charmed prison.

Jonathan: I agree with what you say here. Poetry reviewing is awful for this very reason. I'm a pretty reliable guide to poetry, if only everyone knew it!

For what it's worth, I like Anne Carson's poetry, and even the poem quoted isn't bad — I just think it's a horrific choice for the first poem in a book.

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Thursday, January 20, 2005

I've never been concerned with the absolute numbers of people who read poems. It's obvious, that with a third of a billion native English speakers and many more who speak English as a second language, Milton has a audience orders of magnitude bigger now than when he lived. What matters is that readers, serious readers who buy enough of the likes of Steven Hawking, Douglas Hofstadter, Richard Wright, Philip Roth, A. S. Byatt, Stephen Jay Gould, Chinua Achebe, Salmon Rushdie, Umberto Eco, and Steven Pinker to make them bestsellers, do not buy or read contemporary poetry in English. That is an unprecedented situation.

Whatever the ultimate cause of that may be, the proximate cause is easy find. When an educated man or woman walks into a bookstore thinking it would be nice to know something more about evolution, there are many serious books from which to choose, books whose authors have taken great pains in writing and organizing so that a general reader can follow the evidence and arguments. The same is true in physics, philosophy, and even mathematics. That they aren't the books specialists in their fields write for each other is irrelevant: poetry has never been written for specialists.

Closer to home, when that same educated man or woman wants to read a novel or a short story, one can be sure that the authors of nearly every book in the store will have tried to write an opening that excites the reader's interest and will have worked hard to make sure that the remainder of the story keeps that interest through clear writing and strong characters or plot or both.

In bitter contrast, that same reader pulling a book of contemporary poetry from the shelves is not unlikely to be confronted with something like this beginning:

Look at this picture then describe it
as areas of the body at which
whatever is sensed is vibration
during singing, tell me

do you feel it do you
feel it here or here and now
what does it feel like does it
feel real good to you?

(first two stanzas of Garret Kalleberg's "From a Psychological Atlas")

or this one:

Murderous little world once our objects had gazes. Our lives

Were fragile, the wind

Could dash them away. Here lies the refugee breather

Who drank a bowl of elsewhere.

(all of Anne Carson's "EPITAPH: ZION")

Not every time. But whatever the merits of those particular poems or poets, do you think that educated, interested reader will be encouraged to look further on the poetry shelves? Or will it be just another reminder that poetry is unfathomable and dull?

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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Not all poets turned their back on readers, of course, and I'd certainly count Rhina Espaillat, Richard Wilbur, Frank O'Hara, and Allen Ginsberg among those who didn't. But Pound and company started a hole that in the last 25 years has gotten pretty damned deep.

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Jonathan, I got your point, and you're wrong. With the exception of the courtier poets of the 16th century, poetry never was for a small audience until the latter part of the 20th century: Tennyson joked that people would sell his nail-clippings if they could get hold of them. So what changed? It's not TV, because readers don't buy poetry, and they once did — it's poets who have largely turned their back on readers, perhaps because their success now depends on semi-academic careerism rather than reaching out to the world.

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I really wish Bemsha Swing had a comments section, so I could answer there, instead of appearing to obsess over such small beer. The key sentence of Jonathan's latest post is "[t]hat Ron outsells Rhina proves absolutely nothing, and if the reverse were the case it would prove absolutely nothing either." Sales ranks at Amazon are current sales (for how long a period I don't know) and are strongly driven by publicity and current events and fashions. But there are some interesting factoids to be gleaned:

  • Of the current top one hundred selling books, number 6 and number 35 are long arguments with lots of evidence by the biologist Jared Diamond.
  • The current top one hundred selling books in the Literature & Fiction category includes 1984, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Siddhartha, and Will in the World.
  • Neither the general list nor the Literature & Fiction lists include a single volume of poetry.
  • Of living poets, only Ted Kooser (30), Mary Oliver (68 & 81), and Jean Valentine (78) have books of new, original poetry for adults in the top one hundred poetry list, and only Seamus Heaney, with his translation of Beowulf (10), appears in the top 25. Unless you count Alicia Keys.
  • Paradise Lost outsells every living poet.

There is challenging and important material in the bestseller lists, but no living poet can outsell Ken Follet(379), and Laurell K. Hamilton's Vampire Hunter series has 5 books with sales currently comparable to the currently best-selling book of original poetry by a 20th century poet. No living poet has original material in the top 25 of the freaking poetry list. Tell me again how poets are reaching an audience.

Posted from webmail, so there's no title. And, BTW, Richard Wilbur's Collected outranks Allen Ginsberg's Collected, 14,779 to 57,030, and Robert Frost has two editions of Collecteds which rank at 11,503 and 12,194. John Ashbery's best rank is 59,120, for a reprint of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Some long-inactive blogs have been removed. Tom Beckett has left Unprotected Texts and moved to e-x-c-h-a-n-g-e-v-a-l-u-e-s. New to me are A Scottish Poet's Blogzine, scoplaw , Comment Me No Comments, and The Reading Experience. They're not new to me, but there are two blogs, poems, and a poetry wiki at The Poetry Place, and I finally decided to link to the portico. Philosopical Poetry is hosting a Poetry Carnival. The Page presents poetry and daily updated links to cultural news of all sorts.

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The January Poetry presents an extraordinarily moving collection of essays on the experience of poetry, solicited from people not professionally involved in poetry: a music critic, a musician, a teacher and writer of nonfiction, an art museum director, and a war correspondent. They were not asked to write about contemporary poetry, so it probably means nothing in particular that only the museum director mentioned living poets, but editor Christian Wiman, in his introduction to the essays, makes it clear that concern for the audience for contemporary poetry is at the center of what he promises to be a regular feature:

First, we would like the borders of the poetry world to be more permeable, so that poetry is not simply accessible to people outside of its institutions, but subject to their judgment. Second we hope to make poets more aware of and responsive to potential readers outside the confines of the poetry world. [emphasis added]

I wrote a few days ago that contemporary poetry suffers because too many poets no longer recognize that they're working for an audience that's very different from the poets themselves. I realize now I was wrong. Wiman paraphrases Louis Menand's definition in The Metaphysical Club, saying poets are now professionals, "no longer answerable to those outside of their field but only to their peers. … Poets determine what gets published. Poets review other poets. Poets give each other prizes."

Well, engineers give each other prizes, too. But engineers haven't forgotten that their customers are not likely to be engineers, and that they have grave responsibilities to those outside their profession. I had a thermodynamics teacher who used to say that the difference between a bad doctor and a bad engineer is that a bad doctor only kills one person at a time. No one's likely to die from bad poetry, but that just means that the rest of the world — including literate, mainstream magazines — is pretty safe ignoring poets who write mainly for each other.

BTW, another reason I left my English doctoral program was Samuel Florman's The Existential Pleasures Of Engineering. For a year, I sat in freshman calculus beside my freshman comp students.

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Monday, January 17, 2005

Last December Josh Corey posted an account of Peter Bürger's attempt to distinguish avant garde from other art by using a polarity between organic and inorganic structure.* The idea has spread rapidly from blog to blog, being mentioned almost everywhere and treated at some length at several places. It's an odd, and, I think, misleading use of the words, since by "organic" Bürger seems to mean self-referential, self-enclosed: Josh writes

Organic or symbolist works are recognizable by the unity of the parts with the whole: each part is subordinated to that wholeness and is only comprehensible through/in it. The notion of art being a mirror to nature is one of the premises of organic art.

In contrast, "Inorganic" art pushes the audience's attention outward:

the parts do not form a unity: it is an assemblage of pieces between which cracks are visible, and the pieces have some degree of independence from the unity of the total work … [Bürger says] 'In the avant-gardiste work, the individual sign does not refer primarily to the work as a whole but to reality.'

It's odd, and, at first, intriguing because usually "organic" is the term used to indicate value and relevance to a well-lived life. But it's misleading because it fundamentally distorts what it means to be organic, whether in the natural world or in the world of art. Organic things — living things — certainly have an internal structure in which various parts are dependent on each other for their continued existence, but those internal relations have evolved in relation to an external world.

First, that set of dependencies in a living thing only exists because its ancestors were able to interact successfully with their organic and inorganic environments, with other creatures and the utterly indifferent rock and water and sun and air. It is utter nonsense to speak of a living thing as self-contained.

Second, those relations are fragile. We see this most dramatically in cancer, when some set of cells, by ignoring their relationship to the whole creature, dooms that creature's relationship to the world, except perhaps as food for other creatures. But blind cave fish illustrate another point: all things in that set of relations, even eyes, have a price, and when that price is not repaid by value to the rest of the organism through relations to the outside world, not even eyes, which have evolved independently many times and in many lineages, can maintain themselves however beautifully and intricately they are connected to other parts of the creature.

As Laura Carter has noted, this more accurate understanding of organic structure — one which is found through exploration and balance of both internal and external relations — has been used polemically by free verse poets such as Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov in opposition to the metrical tradition. Their argument is effectively demolished in Paul Lake's essay "The Shape of Poetry" (parts 1 and 2).

*The same post contains an excellent short analysis of the Bruce Andrews poem from BAP. We agree entirely on the description — I just think it's an antique method which has proven incapable of conveying any significant range of experience or variety of stance toward that experience. Unlike, say, sonnets, which are even more antique, but which have repeatedly enabled poets and readers to engage whole new worlds of experience. They are a form in which internal structure supports external relations: they ought to be an emblem of truly organic structure as defined above.

Clarification: I don't mean to imply, through my brief description of Paul Lake's essay, that free verse cannot be organic in the sense that I mean, only that Duncan and Levertov, among others, were wrong in thinking that free verse is organic in a more essential way than is metrical poetry.

Further Clarification: Laura Carter quoted Levertov and paraphrased Duncan, but didn't make the claims I may have inadvertantly attributed to her.

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Sunday, January 16, 2005

The last couple of years I taught comp — lo, these many years ago — the program's focus changed to "Writing Across the Curriculum" with the laudable goal of providing our students with the rhetorical skills they needed to write papers in their business, econ, education, history, biology or whatever classes. Practically, it meant we were to assign our students writing tasks which we ourselves understood only poorly. We were, after all, graduate students in English, most of us with BAs in English, and we were there because we liked litrachure. Few of us had any formal rhetorical training, and even fewer had ever written a policy proposal or a business case or a lab report beyond the few as possible we'd written in the course of getting those BAs. And the one subject we were explicitly told not to assign was literary criticism, the one subject almost all of us did understand. After all, how could we expect students from terrible high schools (and aren't they always terrible?) to do something as difficult and demanding as that? God knows we knew it took years of study to be able to say anything consequential about Coleridge, or even Anne Sexton.

It was unconscionable arrogance and stupidity, and one of the reasons I left ABD.

Of course, we all do the same thing to some degree. We're naturally more inclined to tolerate (if we're even able to recognize) ordinary work in fields where we're not alive to history and nuance and skill. Less charitably, perhaps we know how hard we worked to get the skills and knowledge we have, whether it's iambic pentameter or cabinet-making, but we don't try very hard to imagine the work other people have done. I'm lucky to have lived long and fecklessly enough to have acquired at least the rudiments of skill in widely disparate fields: tool-and-die-making, speaking and briefly teaching a second language, residential renovation, playing fretted instruments (except the 5-string banjo!), programming, and making poems. It's taught me humility concerning those things about which I know little or nothing, and a generous respect for the intelligence and ability of nearly everyone I've worked with.

It's one of the reasons I get seriously annoyed when poets or other artists attribute their lack of audience to the nature of the people in that potential audience, whether the claim is that they're doped with religion and sex and TV or that they're ignorant or stupid or that they're being kept ignorant by powerful forces inimical to art — that's all horse-hockey. Artists reach or create an audience through respect for that audience and through hard work, through going a lot more than halfway, especially if the artist has not yet earned a reputation for good work, and most especially if the work in question is new or difficult.

I don't mind at all when poets frankly create work intended for a specific audience. But the self-styled avant garde is no different from the cowboy poets, except I've never heard a cowboy poet complain about not being published in The New Yorker.

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Thursday, January 13, 2005

Look here, here, and here.

Can it be true both that students are "readers unused to any poetic writing at all, for whom any such writing would be equally opaque" and that Shelley is "soothing and familiar"?

Can it be true both that, to read Andrews, you need "[c]ontext that a critic might provide, that being the critic's job." and that reading Andews is "not difficult in the least once you shed a few prejudices"? If so, is that all critics do? Would getting high work just as well?

And if Jonathan can teach a chimpanzee to read Andrews, why not teach me? I've got 95% chimpanzee DNA. Come on, Jonathan, tell me something I don't know about about that "poem." Tell me what it says beyond what Duchamp said when he signed that urinal — and he said a lot that day, including "This game's done. Put a fork in it." Oh, and tell your students about your contempt for their abilities.

The real problem with poets like Silliman and Andrews is that their chosen forms so curtail the complexity of what they can say that, after a few minutes, everybody who's willing to wade through the surface crap gets it. And the joke's over. It's boring. After about 10 pages it's stupefying. Even if "crawlspatiality" is a wonderful word.

Posted from webmail, so there's no title.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Music tonight and tomorrow night. Briefs again, and not many of 'em.

  • Greg Perry tried to be charitable, but now it's clear that Jonathan Mayhew is not pulling anyone's leg, and he's been joined by Kasey Mohammad in not doing that.
  • Two good posts from Henry Gould, here and here. Or just go to HGPoetics and browse around. It's worth the time.
  • I almost missed this fine post from George Wallace on married love and Richard Wilbur. Not necessarily in that order.
  • Three trades and two orders for 44 Sonnets. Woohoo!

Late Update — gig canceled:

This is the big lie. Poetry does not require the intervention of critics, and you can't have it both ways. You can't claim that Shelley is just as incomprehensible as Andrews's drivel and at the same time claim that if only that carpenter who enjoys Shelley had read L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E theory she'd enjoy Andrews, too. I'll guarantee she never read M. H. Abrams or Harold Bloom. A poet speaks to his or her chosen audience; a great poet, through work and spirit and talent, creates an audience. Now we see who believes in gatekeepers.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Ye gods and newts! Jonathan thinks the average college student would find the poetry of Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews no more opaque than that of Tennyson and Shelley — either he's delusional or the students he knows are functional illiterates to whom all writing is equally opaque. Lemme show you.

I don't own a line by Andrews, so I'll just borrow the passage Joan Houlihan quoted from BAP (hyphens in that copy, anyway):

No, dirt aliens: don't waste good mascara, fiber gives you confi-
dence. Spin doctors vs. gravity, do you spandex wooden leg plus spaz
hemp tempi seize the fey crawlspatiality creatures peel off. Barbie pro-
tons slobber the manual seedling wrapped in human skin. Happy puppy
preconscious vouchers don't brownnose your pal's girlfriend, a swagger
unanointed affect in its gob phase. Automated preparation H—a non-
goosing, a midriff melody—stir the rack up…mere child has her permit.

from "Dang Me"

Because I don't know the context of the above (if "context" has any meaning with such stuff) here's some fairly random (I didn't want anything too easy) lines from Tennyson:

Then spake, to whom thro' those black walls of yew
Their talk had pierced, her father, "Ay, a flash,
I fear me, that will strike my blossom dead.
Too courteous are you, fair Lord Lancelot.
I pray you, use some rough discourtesy
To blunt or break her passion." Lancelot said,
"That were against me; what I can I will."

from Idylls of the King

Not wishing to vary the protocol of our little experiment, I've picked a little equally random (except I didn't have to look for difficulty) Silliman:

A stone crowd and chose the mime.

Is this a spray or cat of poor.

This universe, really in its personal.

The garbage is never glad bags.

As if a circus, the cruel riders saw

through the park.

Action based on idea is inevitable

for any who hedged with what they con-

ditions to be the thing.

The porridge, more, are a form of eat.

We advanced house by house, block by



And finally a strip from Shelley:

But, should we stay to speak, noontide would come,
And thwart Silenus find his goats undrawn,
And grudge to sing those wise and lovely songs
Of Fate, and Chance, and God, and Chaos old,
And Love, and the chained Titan's woful doom,
And how he shall be loosed, and make the earth
One brotherhood: delightful strains which cheer
Our solitary twilights, and which charm
To silence the unenvying nightingales.

from Prometheus Unbound

What difficulties there are in the Tennyson and Shelley can be quickly overcome with a dictionary. What aid is there for the hapless reader of the other two passages?

Here's a little story from last night, connected with the article on working class literacy I cited yesterday.

I went to the bar next door for a shot of Irish whiskey, carrying Charles Martin's wonderful translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses with me. While I read and sipped, the cook, a man about my age (fifty-something) was sitting near me, waiting for his ride home. He asked "Are you studying?"

I told him no, that I was just enjoying a translation by a man I'd met a few years ago, and showed him the cover.

"Ovid!" he said, clearly recognizing the name and the work. "You really know the guy who did that book? That's so cool."

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Monday, January 10, 2005

I'm really beat because I was up too late last night reading A Tale of Two Cities, which I refused to read in high school because I was stupid. Anyway, the result is that tonight — again — I've only got a short link fest for you.

At Eratosphere I found a link to a marvelous essay on Richard Wilbur by David Mason, one of my favorite poets. His Arrivals is particularly fine.

At Arts & Letters Daily there's a link to an intriguing article on working class literacy which makes me even more furious at the damage done to English-language poetry in the 20th century. My great-grandmother, born shortly after the Civil War, never went to college, and I remember her reciting Whitman, Longfellow, and Tennyson. Maybe she wasn't quite so unusual in that regard.

Another blog added on the left: Michael Hoerman's Pornfeld.

Ivy will be here soon (New Hampshire, anyway) — and she's got a chap to sell. Ivy, do you want to trade? No color in mine, but it's 44 sonnets. And the rest of ya — mine is 3 bucks, including postage, or a trade. Just ask.

For those of you anywhere near Raleigh, NC, this Friday is the monthly poetry Stammer and I'm one of the featured readers. Email for info.

Reen has finished her giant religious poem, and I wanna read it. Even though I don't believe in any kind of spooks.

Does anybody even look at the Draft House? If you do, let me know, OK?

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Sunday, January 9, 2005

Henry Gould's got a great list of 20th century hokum.

Joan Houlihan says the problem with what she calls "the church of new writing" is "having an 'outsider' try to 'see' how their poem works immediately invalidates the results. You get it, or you don't." And Jonathan Mayhew says she doesn't get it, later complaining she doesn't try. Thanks, Jonathan, for proving her right. It's the writer's job to make things clear to the reader, damnit.

Laura Carter's Blue Revisions has translated both its server and its name: écritures bleues. I still haven't bought Beth Gylys's new book.

There's a new blog on Asian-American Poetry. Added on the left.

Via Reb Livingston: at the Academy of American Poets site, Poetry Debates, Manifestos & Criticism

At the Draft House you can find my first stumbling attempts to get a terza rima murder mystery going. It's about a quarter of the first scene. There may be leprechauns later.

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Saturday, January 8, 2005

I don't read Boston Comment much, though I agree with much of what Joan Houlihan has had to say in her series "How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem." For one thing, there's usually not much new to me in her commentary and I'd rather read how people respond to her; for another, I wish her own poetry was better so she could speak with more authority. If she's aware of me at all, no doubt she feels the same about my poems.

Besides, I can count on Denis Dutton at Arts & Letters Daily to let me know when there's something particularly interesting in the series, as he did with her column on the 2004 Best American Poetry, edited by Lyn Hejinian. Both Jonathan Mayhew and Chris Lott blogged their reactions to the poems in the book, and neither tempted me in the least to buy it. Houlihan's comments connect that reaction to what I wrote Thursday:

Alarming, not so much for their lack of meaning as for their critical immunity, such poems are immune not because of any so-called "difficulty," or because the poem can only be evaluated in a "historical context" devised and/or approved under the terms of one or another literary canon; their critical immunity exists because poetry is the only field where its practitioners can openly claim that their products are not to be evaluated by others in the same field. As with any highly subjective, paranormal enterprise, having an "outsider" try to "see" how their poem works immediately invalidates the results. You get it, or you don't. Thus, only a true believer can "read" a poem from the church of new writing.

That's it exactly. When poets no longer believe they must convince a disinterested buyer — whether, as it once was, a wealthy patron at court or, as it is today, an engineer browsing the web at lunch or a tired secretary at a bookstore — that their poetry is worth some tangible investment; when poets don't expect anyone but their friends and their aesthetic, educational, and political clones to understand the poems; in short, when poets expect the poem, the thing itself, out of any relation to anything outside itself, to be an end to itself, it bloody well will be an end.

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Thursday, January 6, 2005

Today PoemHunter sent Kipling's "A Child's Garden," a rather vicious parody of R. L. Stevenson, which will seem to readers unfamiliar with his poetry as unKiplingesque as his "Mesopotamia." Unfortunately, and thanks in part to Eliot's ridiculous assertion that Kipling wrote verse and not poetry, those deprived readers include many poets. There are other reasons, especially the common and nearly equally ridiculous characterization of Kipling as a jingoistic propagandist for empire — but what of Pound's truly abhorrent politics? I suspect the Kipling problem, for the School of Phlogiston and the Children of Jorie and other post-modern rear guard movements, is largely that he thought of poetry as a way in which one said something to other people in an attempt to convince, to teach, to entertain, to make a little money, or maybe all four, but not as something done for its own sake. I know that's not entirely fair to the SOP (I do love those initials), since many of them, including Ron Silliman, seem to think of their poetry as in some arcane way political, but until they start making poems for cooks and engineers and housekeepers and carpenters and Ted Kooser's woman who needs her raincoat cleaned, I'm not going to feel guilty about it.

That any art should be made for its own sake is a very peculiar notion, and before the 19th century rise of aesthetic theory its peculiarity was obvious. Samuel Johnson had forgotten fame and influence, but he was not being cynical when he said "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." Trouble is, the thing that purveyors of that peculiar notion have most successfully done is convince ordinary people (and artists) that artists don't need them. Or want them. It's no surprise the feeling is mostly mutual except in pop music, TV, and the movies, where artists still work for the money.

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Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Back from the land of shared dialup! I hadn't realized how dependent I've become on a fast, accessible connection for my work as well as my entertainment. I did read a lot, but got almost no writing done.

Even better than my own DSL connection, though, is that the latest issue of Matrix was waiting in my PO Box with 4 of my poems, one illustrated — and a check! Woohoo! Haven't yet had a chance to read even my own work in the magazine, but after a quick glance-through I think mine are the only ones that rhyme, and I noticed a review that begins "I am such a poet groupie whore." Don't mean nothing. This weekend I'll give a fuller report.

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