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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Thursday, April 28, 2005

I'm off to Merlefest, and won't even be near a computer till Sunday night. I am taking the latest Poetry with me, and the covder tells me there's new stuff from Wendy Cope and David Yezzi, among others. Crunchy goodness.

And Ron Silliman saying anyone has a tin ear is always good for a belly-laugh.


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Monday, April 25, 2005

The headmaster of the School of Phlogiston is in high dudgeon because Billy Collins, in his introduction to 180 More, uses this opening stanza from Rae Armantrout as an example of inaccessible poetry:

Streamline to instantaneous
voucher in / voucher out
system.

Silliman correctly points out that the rest of the first section does "contextualize" the opening, and it is indeed to possible to make sense of what's going on — which I don't think is all that much, but then I haven't read the complete poem. Armantrout has done some fine work, and it may well be worth the effort of parsing this piece's elliptical references and foreshortened syntax.

But Jesus H. Christ on a Harley Davidson, 180 More is intended to introduce new readers — high school readers — to poetry, to entice and intrigue. In an anthology like this one, and perhaps in any anthology, a poem's got about two seconds to make the reader want to pay attention. Only familiarity with and interest in Armantrout's other work might lead a reader on in this case, and that is just what we have not got in the intended readership of this book.

It isn't a question of the value of "difficult" versus "accessible" poems in any absolute sense, but of developing readers who find sufficient pleasure in poetry of some kind that they become willing to risk a little of their time navigating texts which may not offer immediate rewards — though in my opinion, the rewards must always be commensurate with the effort, and that's seldom the case with the haut avant garde, and that's as it should be. Risk-takers, as valuable as they can be, must usually fail.


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Saturday, April 23, 2005

From Neil Astley's 2005 StAnza lecture:

The bookshops derive 94% of their income from a quarter of their stock. In accountancy terms, three-quarters of their stock is a waste of capital taking up valuable shelf space. That includes all the poetry. Instead of railing against the massive reductions made by the bookshops in their stocking of poetry - the common cry of poets, publishers, reviewers and readers - a more appropriate response might be gratitude that they have seen fit to stock any poetry at all.


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David Yezzi, a fine poet, a pretty fair flatpicker, and to my knowledge the only person mentioned both in this blog and in Entertainment Weekly, has written in The New Criterion on "The fortunes of formalism":

Columbia University's graduate writing division, for example, recently dropped its requirement for the study of versification, and I am told that one can navigate the poetry program there without ever scanning a line.

Well, fair enough. Columbia instructs aspiring professionals. And one can become a successful and even a prominent poet in America today with no grasp of traditional verse forms.

Well, that's right. It's probably an understatement. Yezzi quotes Allen Tate to the effect that it can be traced to Pound and Eliot, "two young men who were convinced that the language of Shakespeare was not merely good enough for them, but far too good." The result of that pair's superb marketing campaign is that, after 2500 years of metrical poetry and only 100 to 150 years of free verse, very few people, even few poets, understand traditional form. Yezzi says, and I agree, that "first-rate poems continue to be written today, in both meter and free verse." But I also agree, and lament, that in the case of poetry it's "as if our culture gave up study of the violin or artists no longer learned to draw."

Many good poets (including a few po-bloggers), on discovering that I write sonnets and triolets and other unfashionable things, have attempted to show me they could write a sonnet if they wanted to. The near-uniform result is barely metrical rhyming tripe with syntactical inversions they think demonstrate the inability of the form to handle the complexities or whatever of this ever-changing world in which we live in.

That, of course, is hogwash. The most complex element of human life is other humans, and we haven't changed at all in the last 150 years. There are other complexities, but we don't have to deal with the mathematics of turbulent airflow when we board a jetliner — nor do we have to know anything about how to find food and avoid being killed by big cats. The nonhuman world, for most of us, is vastly simpler than anything experienced by our ancestors. In that light, Tate's characterization of Pound and Eliot seems singularly appropriate.


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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Rode my bicycle to work today for the first time in months. It's a 35 mile round trip with a half hour lunch and nine hours of meetings and C++ in the middle. I think I'm brain-dead, but don't exercise my living will till after you've read this year's StAnza lecture, which I found via the New Poetry list. It's got something to piss off nearly everybody, and it's therefore almost thrilling (or would be if I weren't in the condition my condition is in).

Which I've realized also has something to do with the fact that fifteen years ago yesterday, two days after my daughter Lee's 6th birthday, I came home from work to find my first wife had taken her and left. A week or so later I found out that my wife, damaged by a pituitary tumor, the drugs prescribed to treat it, and by having been convinced by Duke University Hospital psychologist Susan Roth that she (my wife) had been raised in a murderous Satanic cult, had accused me of molesting my daughter. It was nearly a year before the accusation was dismissed with prejudice, and in the meantime our house was repossessed. Shortly after that my dog died, I lost my job, and my wife and daughter disappeared. The second of these two poems, the quality of neither of which I am in position to judge, led Lee to briefly contact me two years ago.

What I Know


Always, always, always, I know this first —
My dearest girl is gone, my daughter Lee
I loved but not enough to keep with me —
Of all the things I've failed to do, the worst.
Her poet mother's supple brain was cursed
To learn the language of pathology.
When surgery failed they turned to drugs and she
Began to dream of torture, dreams she nursed
To memories of children murdered by
Her father and her mother and her will.
I could not hold her to the truth. She found
At Duke a doctor who decided I
Was fondling Lee. A judge said no, but still
She took my Lee and hid her underground.




Old Songs


When I got home my wife was gone, and so
I bought a mandolin — eight more strings
To tie me to a world I didn't know,
In which my daughter's kept from me by rings
Of law and fear. Almost the only things
Her mother let us share before the end
Were meals and music. Maybe she still sings
"I'll Meet You in the Morning" with a friend,
And thinks of me, and remembers how we'd spend
Those Wednesday afternoons with jugband songs,
Bluegrass, and Scottish airs. I could depend
On her to get them right when I was wrong —
Her ear was better. She was eight years old.
What songs we sang when she was mine to hold!


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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Astonishing. Via Arts & Letters Daily, lost works from Sophocles, Archilochus, Euripides, and others, made readable by satellite imaging technology. Look here and here.

URLs fixed at last. I've cleaned up the mess created by trying to post via email from a Windows machine. Outlook kept modifying the URL, no matter how carefully I tried to protect it. You can't call Windows brain-dead — it's too active. But it's a stupid bully, always deciding for you what you really want to do. I make my living with Bill Gates' crap, and it's made me a Macintosh fanatic.


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Sunday, April 17, 2005

Well, for me, at least, jet lag is worse going west, and I spent the whole time in Yuma disoriented and tired. Here's a sign of how bad it was: the only time I could read with any concentration was on the airplane. But what I read!

I bought Anthony Hecht's The Hard Hours when it was new and lost it to my first wife — though I don't know if she took it or if it was one of the books I sold while I nearly drowned in the aftermath of her leaving. In any case, I wasn't then interested in meter or rhyme and never bought any more of his work until The Darkness and the Light came out in 2001. That book led me to buy his Collected Earlier Poems, which includes the complete texts of The Hard Hours, Millions of Strange Shadows, and The Venetian Vespers, along with a selection from his first book, A Summoning of Stones. I bogged down in the "Shadows" section and didn't finish the book, despite being utterly thrilled by the earliest poems and by Hecht's performance as academic and poet at the 2001 and 2004 West Chester conferences.

I thought this trip would be a good opportunity to try again, so I brought it and the also not-yet-read Collected Later Poems. I must confess that, if transcontinental flight was not so boring and uncomfortable, I would once again have failed to get through the poems of Millions of Strange Shadows. Too many are too mannered, too precious in their vocabulary (in the hotel room I found that even the OED didn't list all of the words which had stumped me on the plane), too pleased with their own cleverness and intricacy. Or maybe I'm an oaf.

But commercial flight is boring and uncomfortable, and the poems of The Hard Hours created substantial momentum, and I finished the book on the plane and read it again that night in the hotel room (where I did skip most of "Shadows"). Utter magic: "It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It," "Three Prompters from the Wings," "The Song of the Flea," "Lizards and Snakes," "The Deodand," "The Venetian Vespers."

I read the second book on the flight back. On a mailing list I subscribe to, someone, I don't remember who, asked about Hecht's work whether a sestina was an appropriate response to the Holocaust. Only a true (though probably temporary) oaf could ask that question after reading "The Book of Yolek." Hecht, in his poetry at least, was a perceptive and stern moralist who didn't spare himself. More unusually, he understood moral failure, and he didn't let his moralism defeat his wit. In "The Ghost in the Martini," from Millions of Strange Shadows, his younger self attempts to interrupt an attempted seduction. These verses are the beginning, the ghost's initial interruption, and the ending:

Over the rim of the glass

Containing a good martini with a twist
I eye her bosom and consider a pass,

Certain we'd not be missed




Her smile is meant to convey

How changed or how modest I am, I can't tell which,
When suddenly I hear someone close to me say,

"You lousy son-of-a-bitch!"


A young man's voice by the sound,

Coming, it seems, from the twist in the martini.
"You arrogant, elderly letch, you broken-down

Brother of Apeneck Sweeney!"




Meanwhile, she babbles on

About men, or whatever, and the juniper juice
Shuts up at last, having sung, I trust, like a swan.

Still given to self-abuse!


Better get out of here;

If he opens his trap again it could get much worse.
I touch her elbow, and, leaning toward her ear,

Tell her to find her purse.

Last week I wrote "[t]he great theme of that conversation [literature] is how we should live with one another in the world." No 20th Century poet in English had a more humane part in that conversation than Anthony Hecht.


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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

I can never sleep nights after driving between North Carolina and Maryland in either direction — the next day is always a loss unless there's some mindless, preferably physical work to do or, even better, kisses. Of course there's none of the latter in Maryland, and so it takes longer to recover. Plans those days are worse than useless, as they only serve to remind of what I should have done.

This week, just as I retrieve my brain from the back seat of the car where it's been hiding, I'm off to Yuma, Arizona, and won't be back till late Saturday. I'm flying, at least, and there's a WiFi network at he hotel, so maybe I'll be able to work on Sonnetarium (or even better, sonnets). But in case it's next Tuesday before I'm moderately functional again and can actually write about Creeley, Paglia, Williams, and accessibility, here are two quotes and some brief disorderly propositions:

  • "His interest in religion … resulted in a feeling for the mystery of the universe that surrounded him almost like a fog. He saw physics clearly … but at the border he tended to feel that there was much more of the mysterious and the novel than there actually was. He was insufficiently confident of the power of the intellectual tools he already possessed and did not drive his thought to the very end." ( I.I. Rabi on J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoted by James Gleick from American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin).
  • "The position of an evolutionist in the literary theory establishment today is rather like that of a Copernican speaking to medieval astronomer-theologians, whose wheels-within-wheels arguments about the nature of the cosmos have become ever more convoluted and specious." (Ellen Dissanayake in Philosophy and Literature 20.1 [1996], reviewing John Carroll's Evolution and Literary Theory— access through Project Muse)
  • The world is given to us, in the sense that it is the ground of all our action.
  • Language, in exactly the same way as seeing and bipedal walking, is an evolved trait of our species which embodies and serves to develop our relationship to that given world.
  • Our principle understanding of the world is through narrative and metaphor. Far from being problems, they are the tools we have evolved to navigate the most complicated and pertinent parts of that given world: other people. If they were not very good tools we'd not be here.
  • I write poems in the hope that I can fruitfully participate in a conversation which began long before my birth and will, if the creek don't rise, continue long after I am dead.
  • The great theme of that conversation is how we should live with one another in the world.
  • Meter and rhyme are neither constraints on that conversation nor aids to invention, but rather tools to make our words more memorable and affective, and therefore more effective.
  • Surface difficulty is an issue only if there is too little beneath the surface to justify the effort of discovering what's there.
  • If you've got nothing to say about the world and how we live with one another in it, no one will listen or read for very long.
  • There's a lot to say.

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Sunday, April 10, 2005

I bought Paglia's Break, Blow, Burn tonight on the way back from NC, and turned, of course, to her essay on Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock as soon as I got here. Nothing Paglia points to is not in the lyric, but I don't think it belongs in the book. Still, if anyone as skilled and passionate as Paglia ever wrote anything like that about one of my poems, I'd be high for a decade.

More about the book, Creeley, Williams, and just what the hell I mean by "accessible" in the next few days. Too wired and tired tonight.


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When the avant garde is passionately engaged, it's almost always engaged in opposition — pointing out failure, puncturing pretension, undermining assumptions — and it's wonderful that this happens. But it's not enough.


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Saturday, April 9, 2005

The April Poetry continues "The View From Here," a feature begun this January which presents short — and sobering, for poets writing today — essays from people outside the pobiz about poetry in their lives. These are people who read and love poetry, some of whom have many poems by heart, but of the eleven whose essays have so far been printed, only three mention living English-language poets, and of those only one cites anyone under 60: the editor of Good Housekeeping(!) writes that Deborah Garrison, Kay Ryan, and Kevin Young cannot win her from George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins, by the way, is also a favorite of the Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, and if you allow Bruce Springsteen into the club, the Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point also mentions an under-60 English language poet: "Ovid to Owen, Spenser to Springsteen."

The correspondents were not asked specifically about their experience of contemporary poetry, so if they were writing for the New York Times or Salon, its conspicuous scarcity might have been mere coincidence, a artifact of poor sampling. But they're writing for Poetry, one of the largest-circulation magazines devoted entirely to the publication and consideration of contemporary poetry in English. It's not coincidence.

Nor is it because contemporary poetry is "difficult" or "obscure," at least concerning the ideas and feelings represented. Compared to Herbert? Hopkins? Ovid? Auden? Eliot? Donne? Is even the surface difficulty of Shakespeare's sonnets really less than that of Silliman's 2197?

I will concede, of course, that the rewards for working your way through the sonnets are rather greater.

Memorability is probably part of it. Meter and rhyme help put a poem — the words of the poem, which are its only real existence — into the mind, making it part of the climate of thought which shapes experience, including the experience of other poetry. But one thing I've seen and heard a good deal of from poets, especially from those who consider themselves avant-garde, is a fundamental distrust of what used to uncontroversial notions: that poetry should "delight and instruct" and that it should offer, especially, insight into the human condition. Poetry's correspondents write a good deal about how poems have comforted them and offered them moral challenge, brought them joy and hope, and helped them to understand both the good and the evil in themselves and others. Poetry is not a language game, or it's not just a language game — even in the avant garde. Consider Kent Johnson's "Baghdad Exceeds Its Object."


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Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Been a lot of free verse here lately, but I ain't changed my mind. Here's Trumbull Stickney:

"You say, Columbus with his argosies"


You say, Columbus with his argosies
Who rash and greedy took the screaming main
And vanished out before the hurricane
Into the sunset after merchandise,
Then under western palms with simple eyes
Trafficked and robbed and triumphed home again:
You say this is the glory of the brain
And human life no other use than this?
I then do answering say to you: The line
Of wizards and of saviours, keeping trust
In that which made them pensive and divine,
Passes before us like a cloud of dust.
What were they? Actors, ill and mad with wine,
And all their language babble and disgust.


Tomorrow work and travel and the funeral of my aunt Mary Ann, which I cannot attend. I loved her.

Back Friday, if the creek don't rise.


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Monday, April 4, 2005

Ted Kooser's having quite a year — first he's named poet laureate of the United States, then I quote three of his poems here, despite the lack of meter and rhyme, and now he's won the Pulitzer, for Delights and Shadows (which I have not got).


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Little, dear reader, would delight me more
Than claiming industry, a brand new poem —
Or six! — explained my blog's four-day-long snore.
The trouble is, I know you'd have me show'em.
The truth is, friend, I have no just defense,
Unless your mercy grant me indolence.


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