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

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

  • A lawyering Fool, Batman (via FLUXBLOG), and John Gardner's On Moral Fiction — what more do you want? How about Edith Wharton's poetry?
  • Via 2BLowhards, a free online seminar on playwriting for those of us who've been bit by the theater bug but, like me, remain clueless. And an interview by Michael Blowhard with playwright George Hunka here and here. Other interviews, including one with me, are linked here. Sadly (or not), my story about Fred Turner turns out to be based on a misinterpretation. Buy his Paradise anyway.
  • Via Arts & Letters Daily, Michael Coveney on the decline of theatrical criticism. It reminds me too much of too many of the "8 Takes" columns in Poetry.
  • One more thing — after yesterday's post it's a little embarrassing, but I'm the featured poet for December at The Hypertexts. I knew I'd probably have poems there in the not-too-distant future, but not this. And you know what? Hooray!

I'm gigging the next couple of nights (if you're in Southern Maryland, send me an email), so I won't be blogging before Saturday.

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Monday, November 28, 2005

There's some formal-friendly (and some sex-friendly!) opportunities for submitting poems listed at The Hypertexts' Current & Back Issues. If you don't know The Hypertexts and you're not hopelessly stuck in Silliman's post avant (or maybe especially if you're hopelessly stuck in the post avant), you owe it to yourself to spend some time there — among other things, it's one of the best online anthologies of contemporary poetry.

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I just found out that the second issue of Composite: Multiple Translations is in the world, and one of the translations of Juana de Ibarbourou's "Fusión" is mine. Thanks to Liz Henry (now at long last on the left) for putting it together!

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Friday, November 25, 2005

Daniel Barkowitz's Talking to Myself, Amy Unsworth's Small Branches Poetry, Kevin Andre Elliot's Slant Truth, and Amy King's Amy King's Blog. And Stephanie Young's Well-Nourished Moon has moved here.

Updated 11/26/2005

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I still remember Whitman's "When lilac's last in the dooryard bloomed" because my great-grandmother recited it long before I could read; I learned to read with Dr. Seuss's McElligot's Pool; my favorite volume in the Children's Classic series was poetry, and my favorite poem in it was Vachel Lindsay's "The Ghosts of the Buffaloes." I started making poems myself in high school, partly because of a wonderful Spanish teacher (Susan Dunlap), partly because of a terrible English teacher (no name necessary), and partly because I got involved in a church theater production of Archibald MacLeish's JB. But the first book of poems that absolutely blew me away was Ted Hughes's Crow. For years I bought everything of his, including the 1976 book of children's poetry, Moon-Whales. It's a very curious book about how ordinary things here are on the moon transformed into mysteries, sometimes sinister and dangerous. Here is "Foxgloves":

Foxgloves on the moon keep to dark caves,
They come out at the dark of the moon only and in waves
Swarm through the moon-towns and wherever there's a chink
Slip into the houses and spill all the money, clink-clink,
And crumple the notes and rearrange the silver dishes,
And dip hands into the goldfish bowls and stir the goldfishes,
And thumb the edges of mirrors, and touch the sleepers
Then at once vanish into the far distance with a wild

laugh leaving the house smelling faintly of

Virginia creepers.

I've done the linebreaks exactly as in my 1st edition copy, though I think it's clear from the rhyme that the last three are really but one long line, indented because it won't fit on the page. It's hard for me to imagine these rhymed couplets having been written without Dr. Seuss — the foxgloves are The Cat in the Hat (1957) complete with bothered goldfish but without his sense of play or his recursive helpers, and with only a suggestion of Seuss's jaunty meter.

But the book is even more curious than I had at first realized. While searching for a topic in a graduate course in bibliography I came across this in the July 27 1963 New Yorker (p. 28):

Foxgloves on the

moon keep

to dark

caves, they come

out at the dark of

the moon only and, in

waves, swarm

through the

moon-towns and,


there's a chink, slip

into the houses and

spill all

the money, clink-

clink, and crumple the

notes and

rearrange the silver

dishes and dip


into the gold-

fish bowls and stir

the gold-

fishes and thumb



of mirrors and


the sleepers





the far

distance with a wild



the house

smelling faintly

of Virginia


It's The New Yorker, so commas appear more regularly, but only one word changed in 13 years: The New Yorker's "instantly" became Moon-Whales's "at once." Oh, and the layout is different, and as a result all of the rhymes except the last, sleepers/creepers, are completely buried, and whatever vestige of meter there is in the children's poem is missing here. Lest you suspect that maybe, just maybe, years later, Hughes realized he had some buried rhymes in semiregular lines and decided to excavate them for a children's book, you should know that on August 27 1963 The New Yorker printed a similarly handled version of "Music on the Moon," another set of rhyming couplets from Moon-Whales. Sylvia Plath was five months dead when "Foxgloves" came out, and Hughes was raising their children alone. The children's versions came first, despite not having been published until 13 years later.

I still love Crow, and Gaudete, and The Hawk in the Rain. I think it's possible that Hughes will be remembered as a major poet of the last century. But I'm more than a little puzzled how two fairly decent poems for children ended up as extremely bad period-pieces in The New Yorker. Who did the editing, and why? Was it a cynical (and successful) effort by Hughes to 'put one over'? Did he or some editor think it would be difficult to publish rhyming poetry? Plath sometimes worked on Hughes's manuscripts: given the lead time for publication, is it possible that she did it? Would it have been at all possible, in the immediate aftermath of her suicide, to publish these as children's poems anywhere? I don't have any answers.

I've read Moon-Whales to my own children and to others'. They preferred Seuss (and not because Hughes is scary), but now that the kids have grown, I've kept only the Hughes. Maybe it's because my discovery occasioned one of my first insights into politics, craft, and craft-failure in poetry.

I took that bibliography course and wrote the paper for Dr. Robert Miller at the University of Louisville more than 20 years ago. I'm writing this now because I just received my The Complete New Yorker, 8 searchable DVDs with all half-a-million pages of the first 80 years of The New Yorker, from February 21 1925 to February 21 2005. I was born on The New Yorker's 28th birthday.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

It's not often the New York Times runs two simultaneous reviews of poetry, but it happened yesterday: Dana Goodyear reviewed Jane Kenyon's of Collected Poems, and Kay Ryan, one of my favorite poets, reviewed Dan Chiasson's Natural History. Before I read the review, I was more interested in it than in Chiasson's poetry, and it's the same afterward. I'm not sure what I think about that, and I'm not really sure what Ryan thinks about Chiasson. Hannah Craig seems to have had a more definite reaction, but then she already knows the poetry, and all I know is that I think his opinions on other people's poetry are suspect. Who's the pot? Who's the kettle?

I am almost comforted by Auden: "Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered." But then all I have is a homemade chap.

Ryan wrote a hilarious piece for Poetry (where Chiasson reviews) a few months ago on her visit to the AWP, and I tried to find it online and failed miserably, though the search was not fruitless: here's a wonderful interview with another favorite poet of mine, Samuel Menashe, whose poems are no bigger and contain no less than Ryan's.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Sites new to list on the left: Bob Grumman's po-X-cetera, Carly Sach's Five Feet Above Water, Emily Lloyd's Poesy Galore, David Anthony's Poetry for All, novelist Richard Lawrence Cohen's Richard Lawrence Cohen, Chris Stroffolino's Continuous Peasant, Jill Alexander Essbaum's Too Late for Fruit, Too Soon for Flowers, Jim Behrle's new address AL-JIMZEERA, Robert Archambeau's samizdat blog, Randall Williams's and on the table, a dictionary, John's uTopianTurtleTop, and the group blog Poetisphere. More link changes still to come.

Update 2005/11/20—s'more, y'all: Hannah Craig's Awake at Dawn on Someone's Couch is back online, and new to the list are Janet Kenny, Ken Springtail's The Nacreous Oughts, Russell Ragsdale's Yuckelbel's Canon, Martyn Clayton's The Shrine of Blind-Winger Jones, and Billy the Blogging Poet. Eclecticity, man.

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Reading over Rhina Espaillat's books in the last few days I was reminded of a curious form, the ovillejo, which she introduced to Eratosphere a few years ago. I did this today, a draft of the closest I've come to making one work:

Ovillejo: Forever

Your love for me's forever?


That's always been your way,

You say.

I've no desire to fight


So just leave on the light
So I can know your face
Forever, just in case—
Whatever you say tonight.

Rhina has two, "Ostinato" and "In Stone," in her Rehearsing Absence.

Working drafts of this one are at the Draft House.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

I get my mail when I see my family, once every two weeks, so until this last weekend I hadn't seen Dan Chiasson's curious review in Poetry, twice mentioned by Jeffrey Bahr, of Rhina Espaillat's Playing at Stillness. As it happens, the current Hudson Review was also waiting for me with Paul Makuck's review of the same book. If ever there were evidence that readers create the text, these two reviews are it.

After a few remarks about a controversy between himself and Adam Kirsch over the "conditions of modernity," Chiasson begins his review this way:

That an American person can write a poem about Queen Anne's lace without some acknowledgment, at some level of syntax, diction, tone, rhetoric, or form, that William Carlos Williams also wrote such a poem, and further that his poem is one of the seminal short lyrics of Modernism—this seems to me very peculiar.

But Chiasson's reaction seems even more peculiar to me. Here is the poem from Williams:


Her body is not so white as
anemone petals nor so smooth—nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand's span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—
or nothing.

It's a conventional comparison of a woman's body to a flower, beginning with an equally conventional denial of a comparison to a barely more conventional flower (what is modernist about this poem, other than the lack of meter and a line break after an indefinite article?), in which her body either responds with desire to "his touch" with a purple blemish (a bruise!) or is nothing. In fact, it's a pretty awful piece of work once past line six. Williams wrote some wonderful poems: this ain't among 'em.

But supposing it were, what beyond the title—and there are good reasons one can't copywrite a title—does the above poem share with Espaillat's?

Queen Anne's Lace

You rise, angelic, from green
meadows where the sun
beats its brass drum and shadows fall
like small change
out of the wind's pockets.

The noonday bird leans earthward
from his cloudy perch,
but you, whose feet are nailed with stones
to the brown
grain of the meadow, you

rise with clean upturned faces,
you levitate on
the scorching breath of summer, white
flightless wings
moving in place like prayer.

Once again, it's not really a poem about wildflowers, but Chiasson seems to think that it is. For him it's "images of 'angelic' flowers and 'prayerful' wings," and if we like it, then "by all means, have it." But these are very peculiar angels, their feet "nailed with stones," and they, the flowers, and the prayers only rise so far, since they're like "flightless wings / moving in place." Not much comfort there, in the "scorching breath of summer." I think there could be a lively argument over which of the two poems better reflects "the conditions of modernity."

Peter Makuck (editor of Tar River Poetry), seems to have read the book I read. One paragraph of his review begins "Her ambiguous attitude thowards the natural world reminds me of Frost more than anyone else," and he quotes lines from the sestina "Primitive Landscape":

Perhaps we were not meant to love a world
that fattens us for death, like greedy children.

Rhina Espaillat is indeed, as Chiasson surmises, "a delightful person," but though she clearly loves the world she portrays in her "Queen Anne's Lace," she has fewer illusions about it than Williams displayed in his.

This isn't the first time it's seemed to me that Chiasson is formally blinkered by his infatuation with the modernists, and it's amusing that the current Hudson also prints Charles Martin's terza rima "After 9/11."

To be fair, Chiasson's much more sensible here.

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Friday, November 11, 2005

My last two posts have been seen by some as attacks on poetry weblogs, or on poetry written primarily for personal satisfaction, or on both. They certainly were not meant to be.

I've been blogging for more than three years, and it has proved immensely valuable to me as a poet for several reasons:

  • I've written a good deal more poetry than my history suggests I would otherwise have done.
  • I've had to think harder and write more clearly about metrical matters than I had before.
  • It has forced me to be more articulate about why I like the poetry I like, whether metrical or not.
  • In some cases it has helped me discover whether or not I do in fact like certain poems and kinds of poetry — it's really hard to spend time writing about things I don't much like.
  • Through comments and referrals, it has introduced me to interesting thinkers and poets and a few new friends.
  • Because I'm a non-academic who lives hours from any urban center, I don't have any practical alternatives beyond blogging, listservs, and discussion boards if I want to participate in a serious conversation about poetry.

As for the second possible target, the value of "personal" poetry, I can answer that I've had so little in the way of public recognition over the last 35 years that only personal satisfaction could possibly have kept me going.

But I started making poems, at least after I got past the advantages of being a sensitive guy, in order to participate in a very grand conversation which includes the verses of Homer, Sappho, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Whitman, Eliot, and Frost — and the Earl of Wilmot, George Crabbe, Leigh Hunt, Gertrude Stein, Theodore Roethke, Billie Collins, and Jorie Graham. My point in the last couple of posts is to wonder if that's any longer possible, regardless of what talent I may or may not have. Who reads Fence with approval and also looks forward to The Hudson Review, or vice versa? What does it mean that the monstrously large Poems for the Millennium doesn't contain a single poem by Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, Sylvia Plath, or Richard Wilbur? Is anyone surprised that I think it's not only monstrously large, but monstrous? Should I be happy that there's a new journal devoted to metrical poetry, where the work of some of my favorite poets will not be welcome but where I may have a better than average chance of acceptance?

I thought — and I guess I still think — that blogs, and the web in general, have the potential to re-open the lines of communication between the isolated poetry worlds that have grown since the Second World War (members of avant gardes once thought they were opening new territory for the rest of us, but now they try to maintain their separateness for its own sake), but what I've seen so far is also an ability to find enough people who think just like me to create the illusion of a grand conversation.

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Monday, November 7, 2005

Andrew at Philosophical Poetry took up my gauntlet and named one: Emily Dickinson, an unquestionably great poet who published almost nothing in her lifetime. By golly she really is an exception that proves the rule — "proves" in its old sense of "tests."

And the rule passes, I think.

Dickinson wrote a lot of poetry, and a lot of it is damned bad, no better than the Mary Oliver poem Kasey almost defended. Here are a couple found by opening her Complete Poems roughly in the middle:


Out of sight? What of that?
See the Bird — reach it!
Curve by Curve — Sweep by Sweep —
Round the Steep Air —
Danger! What is that to Her?
Better ’tis to fail — there —
Than debate — here —

Blue is Blue — the World through—
Amber — Amber — Dew — Dew —
Seek — Friend — and see —
Heaven is shy of Earth — that’s all —
Bashful Heaven — thy Lovers small —
Hide — too — from thee —


Life, and Death, and Giants —
Such as These — are still —
Minor — Apparatus — Hopper of the Mill —
Beetle at the Candle —
Or a Fife's Fame —
Maintain — by Accident that they proclaim —

Neither I nor anyone else knows whether she considered either of that pair to be a finished poem, but I offer in evidence that you can't sing them to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." It may be the case that we wouldn't have some of her great, nearly miraculous poems if she had worked harder at getting published, and my life would be the poorer for that, but Christ that book's a slog. It's a wonderful thing that there are good selected editions of her work, and I think better editors than Higginson might well have induced more of the miracles, and would certainly have spared us many of the failures.

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Sunday, November 6, 2005

Alan Kellogg wrote interesting comments (here and here) on my last two posts, pointing the way for me to attempt to clarify what I'd tried to say.

I've got a long list of poet's blogs over on the left. I'm not going to pretend I look at each of them every day, or even every week or month. Quite a few I visit only when I'm revising the list (later tonight if the stars are auspicious) to see if they've gone dark, making room for new items. My referrer logs tell me I'm not unusual in that respect. The poetry blogosphere is not like one of Ron Silliman's scenes, where certain people make themselves so indispensable, so shape the discourse, that everyone near has to pay attention. I no longer read Silliman, despite his 2 billionth visitor*. When I or anyone else posts a poem, for the most part only those people who already want to see what I'm doing will actually see it — only people already in the conversation. Even on the rare occasions when someone like Kasey Mohammad mentions something here, the spike in traffic brings very few new readers and virtually no new regular readers, and I doubt that that mention will bring new readers to Kasey.

Unless those readers were first brought here from 2Blowhards, or Pharyngula, or ErosBlog, or some other site which doesn't ordinarily deal with poetry at all.

Inside the poetry world there are no costs, no risks (except being ignored), and therefore almost no chance of making any difference. Online that's even more true, since neither I nor any other blogger has to persuade anyone else to put resources at our disposal. Being middle class, we've all got computers and a net connection and we can pretend we're publishing. We can even pretend we're doing something new, making progress.


There is no significant market for poetry, and that means that poets can't tell whether what they're doing is any good. The amazing costless connectivity of the net means it's too easy to hook up with people just like you. If you're one in a million, there are eight of you in New York City, but they're still hard to find. Google means you can easily find the 300 like you in the US, and that makes for a damned good daily hit count for a poetry site.

It's a cliché that poets aren't recognized till after their deaths, but that doesn't make it true. Name one. Even Blake had patrons. The fact is that none of our great poets were ignored in their lifetimes. Many, maybe most, either had private means or made their livings doing something besides poetry, but their poetry was talked about and patrons, magazines, and book publishers put real money on the line. Maybe the fact that they did make their livings doing something else made their poetry interesting enough for people to put money on the line.

I've said that I don't believe in progress in the arts, but that's perhaps misleading — I don't believe, for instance, that the Impressionists as a group were an improvement over predecessors, or that accentual-syllabic verse is an improvement over Anglo-Saxon prosody. But changes in the arts do reflect and take advantage of changed technical and economic opportunities, which may or may not be the result of real progress. I haven't read Tyler Cowen's In Praise of Commercial Culture, but the reviews linked here suggest some of what I mean: Ray Sawhill's piece notes that the invention of metal tubes for paint (progress) made Impressionism possible. I was depressed when I wrote about failing to make Anglo-Saxon verse, but the the shift from an inflected to a syntactic structure (mere change) made strong-stress alliterative verse in English very difficult — even the king of the cats, Richard Wilbur, struggles in "Lilacs" and "Junk."

Perhaps more important than changes in technical opportunity is the role of the artist as entrepreneur suggested in the reviews. As both of the linked articles note, that idea is anathema to both the left and the right, but really, in the absence of a market, in which people prove by their willingness to exchange something of value that particular poems are indeed valuable to them, how can any poet, any of us, be sure we're reaching anyone but freaks like us?

* Clearly Silliman's doing something better than the rest of us, but consider that the audience for a failing TV show on the Fox network is bigger on any given night than the total number of visitors to Silliman's blog in 3 years. Poetry is truly small beer.

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Saturday, November 5, 2005

In "Writing," part 2 of the Prologue to The Dyer's Hand, W. H. Auden wrote

Rhymes, meters, stanza forms, etc., are like servants. If the master is fair enough to win their affection and firm enough to command their respect, the result is an orderly happy household. If he is too tyrannical, they give notice; if he lacks authority, they become slovenly, impertinent, drunk and dishonest.

After two months of frustration, it's become clear I lack authority over Anglo-Saxon prosody, and so ends my project of writing a poem in every named from Lewis Turco's original The Book of Forms (out of print; revised and expanded edition here). I suppose I could just skip the form and go on to the awdl gywydd, but it feels like cheating, especially since I've already written one that Turco himself liked.

I think my principal problem with Anglo-Saxon meter stems from the years of hard work I've done to achieve at least a simulacrum of conversational tone in my poetry. That relentless 4-beat multiply alliterated line sounds like shouting to me—as does much spoken word and rap, and I am not the first to have have noted a prosodic and thematic relation between the two. Here is Beowulf bragging, from Alan Sullivan and Timothy Murphy's excellent translation:

I am no weaker      in works of war,
no less a grappler      than Grendel himself.
Soon I shall sink him      into his death-sleep,
Not with my sword      but solely by strength.

And here is the opening of Ice-T's "Colors":

I am a nightmare walking, psychopath talking
King of my jungle just a gangster stalking
Living life like a firecracker quick is my fuse
Then dead as a deathpack the colors I choose

I like both a great deal (and in this particular comparison, I like Ice-T's lines better), but they're just not what I do.

On the other hand (was there a first hand?), I'm a firm believer in skill, in the notion that an accomplished poet should be able to some considerable degree to write to order. I'm envious of Janet Kenny's occasional poems, of the seemingly casual virtuosity of Greg Williamson, of any poet who, like Sam Gwynn, can write assuredly in many different voices (watch him here start a reading at the Library of Congress, surrounded by Laura Bush's name, with three anti-war poems.)

In light of all this, I hope Auden's first hypothetical above applies to my accentual-syllabic poetry, and that I'm not deluded in the way he describes a little earlier in the same piece:

Slavery is so intolerable a condition that the slave can hardly escape deluding himself into thinking that he is choosing to obey his master's commands when, in fact, he is obliged to. Most slaves of habit suffer from this delusion and so do some writers, enslaved by an all too "personal" style.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2005

I've been reading poetry, but not online. Online I've been reading or downloading to read offline literally megabytes of text, but none of it's poetry. If there're any of you left out there reading this here, you've noticed that I pretty much missed October.

Last weekend I did return, after nearly a year, to reading and posting (but no poetry yet, except a suggested epigram in a private message) at Eratosphere, and a couple of days ago I started reading poetry blogs in a most desultory fashion, so perhaps there's a verse or fourteen brewing somewhere in my backbrain. I'll be glad if it's true. If it is, it will be because of things like these:

  • The Dover Intelligent Design trial transcripts. Wonderful lawyerly maneuvering by the plaintiffs, Keystone Cops work by the defense, and, along the way, lots of truly fascinating evolutionary biology.
  • Samuel Pepys' diary. One week the guy can't pay his debts, and the next he has £640 and is meeting Charles II at the Hague before he returns to England.
  • The New York Times science section. Someone told me how to make permanent links to their stuff, but I've forgotten. Recent articles have titles like "On Gravity, Oreos and a Theory of Everything" and "Closer to the Bone."
  • I can't live without Arts & Letters Daily. Make it your home page.
  • Bernd Heinrich's Why We Run, because it's the most recent thing I've read. But anything by Bernd Heinrich, and at least Ravens in Winter
  • The Origin of Species. I haven't read it in 20 years. I've been stupid.
  • Jane Austen.
  • Kevin Young's Jelly Roll. He's got some rhythmic tricks I haven't quite sussed out, but even if I never do, it's already changed the way I read poetry.
  • Gibbon. Yes, that Gibbon.

This weekend I've got lots of sites to add to that list on the left, and tomorrow I'll maybe have a new poem. So there.

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