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

Saturday, December 31, 2005

… the MLA is finally catching up with me: "When Darwin Meets Dickens."

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

It's been a strange couple of months for my family. We're OK, but for this years' solstice dinner (my 33rd) I wrote this very unpublishable triolet:

Winter Solstice 2005

Whatever's lost, just let it go!
The sun turns back to us tonight.
What might have been we'll never know;
Whatever's lost, just let it go
With the cold and dark and drifting snow
And share this meal with shared delight.
Whatever's lost, just let it go,
For the sun turns back to us tonight.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

In the last few days there's been a discussion at New Poetry about the impression some of us have that musicians are more open than poets to influence from work unlike their own and are more willing to acknowledge the excellence of such work. I've combined and edited two or three of my own contributions to that discussion in order to make this post.

One thing that I've mentioned before is that the web (along with some MFA programs) has made it possible to find lots of poets "just like you," so you never have to be confronted with any other practice. That's unthinkable in the music world, where instruments costs a lot of money and just to make a living (or even just to play) you've got to work with people of widely varying tastes and backgrounds. But I think there's more to it than that.

Western musicians, with the exception of serial and aleatory composers, work with a common set of rhythmic and harmonic structures. Melodies and chords are built (mostly) on standard intervals of time and pitch endlessly recombined. When composers like Bartok or Ellington or Simon hear something new to them—an unusual chord progression, a new rhythm, a new timbre from a previously unheard instrument or combination of instruments, whatever—they want to learn how to use that in their own music. It's the same when a rock bassist hears a nifty riff in a jazz piece, when a folk guitarist listening to blues starts to understand the expressive value of bent notes, or when a mandolinist wonders "can I do something like a banjo roll on this thing?" For a musician, other kinds of music are resources, sources of technique.

That doesn't usually translate into proficiency at many different kinds of music. At the highest professional levels technique is simply too demanding for any but a handful of performers to excel in more than one kind of music, and the same is true of composition, at least in jazz and, for want of a better term, classical music. It's probably also true for poets: it may be hard to be a really good sonneteer and a really good L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet.

But there's almost nothing like that kind of opportunistic foraging for poets of different schools. As a metrical poet, I can learn something about expressively used line breaks from a good free verse poet, how enjambment can create a suspension of meaning resolved in the second line. But the effect isn't nearly as strong in metrical verse since there enjambment rhythmically joins the lines while in free verse it separates them. It's not at all the same as the realization for a musician that you can delay tonic resolution by moving from the IV chord to the II7 before the V7, and that it works because the II chord in a given key is the V chord for the key based on the root of the V chord in the key you started in.

I could be wrong, but I don't think there's any analog in spoken (or silently read) poetry to chord progressions in music. But the blues as lyric/stanza form is a good example of the kind of cross-fertilization possible from one formal tradition to another. For another, Victor Hugo thought the pantoum, a Malaysian form, could be adapted to French verse, and by golly we now assign it as an exercise in Creative Writing classes. All those fabulous structures of the troubadours, the Italian sonnet, all have made English formal verse much richer because, I think, the structures are at a scale similar to the scale of chord progression in music.

Free verse seems to me to be much harder to learn from—the structural scale is either far too fine, so that every word, line break, whitespace, punctuation, capitalization and everything is deliberately chosen and it becomes overwhelming, or else it's just unjustified text and no choice really matters. Those are caricatures, but not too far off, I think. Free verse is damned hard to do well, because you get no help at the scale meter and stanza give you in formal/metrical verse. Paul Lake's essay (parts one and two) on fractal structure in formal verse addresses some of this; a few weeks ago, Kasey Mohammad talked about the difficulty of addressing craft in a discussion of a not-so-good poem by Mary Oliver.

Beyond that, according to Helen Vendler, these days one can get an MFA in poetry without ever learning to scan (imagine a performance or composition degree from Berklee or the Juilliard without basic harmony), a result of the general disparagement of technique, including not just prosody but logic, rhetoric, and narrative structure. What is a young poet taught to learn from other poets? Attitude? Politics? Bad linguistics? Worse epistemology?

Really I guess I think that there is a rich vocabulary, something like the musical vocabulary, for poets working in a formal tradition, and that vocabulary crosses cultures and languages to other formal traditions. But it doesn't cross, or only partly crosses, the lines between free verse and trad form and between the various kinds of free verse. All that may be just a way of saying I find free verse extremely hard to write. I think I've written a few decent free verse poems, but they seem to me like accidents.

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

There's another nifty exchange in that interview with Dawkins:

Speaking of artists, your field, some might say, is somewhat left-brain: science and math. Yet you often quote Yeats, for example. Who are your favorite right-brain people—poets, artists, musicians?

I love Yeats, Housman, Keats, Shakespeare, Mozart, Schubert above all, Beethoven.

Housman's pretty pessimistic.

I'm not a pessimistic person myself, but I just love his verse.

Yeats, on the other hand, is very into mysticism and the supernatural.

Quite. I sort of have to apologize for Yeats [laughs].

And another in the interview linked from Arts & Letters Daily that led me to the above:

What are your thoughts about the despair some people feel when they ponder natural selection and random mutation? …

… My book, "Unweaving the Rainbow," is an attempt to elevate science to the level of poetry and to show how one can be—in a funny sort of way—rather spiritual about science. [emphasis added]

If you had to name top sources for optimism and hope in a naturalistic or materialistic worldview, what would they be?

Obviously, there are other things having nothing to do with science—music, poetry, sex, love. These are all things that make life, to me, extremely worth living.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Just a brief note again, since I've got only two more days to work (at software!) this year, and I've been insanely busy trying to get things in order before I leave for home Friday afternoon. I still find time for Arts & Letters Daily, which leads me to sites I'd never visit on my own. Today it took me to beliefnet and through links there to an interview with biologist Richard Dawkins. When asked, he said he couldn't think of anything good, however minor, to have come from religion, and there followed this exchange:

Not even something like the Sistine Chapel?

That's not religion; it's just because the church had the money. Great artists like Michelangelo or Bach and Beethoven would have done whatever they were told to do. Michelangelo painted what his sponsors told him to paint.

I thought I was a hardliner on money and the arts.

Interestingly enough, another article linked recently at Arts & Letters Daily claims that Western Christianity is responsible for the European technical and economic explosion during the Middle Ages, but not for the reasons you might expect to be behind such a claim: the Church was instrumental in the development of technology and capitalism, Rodney Stark argues, because of its insistence that reason was the principal path to truth and because it had the money.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Heartfelt congratulations to poet-blogger (and one-time collaborator with Matt Shindell and me) Reb Livingston! I'll let her tell you about it.

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Over on the left a new address for John Latta (Rue Hazard), a new name at the old address for Shanna Compton (shannacompton.com), and new blogs on the list from a group which includes me though I haven't yet posted (cafe' cafe'), Rob Mackenzie (Surroundings), and Matt Shindell (maximum go in the resulting hoghead)—I thought Matt was already listed but I was wrong. I plead CRS.

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Last August I had a discussion with Kasey Mohammad on "sonneticity." Can you guess which one of us wanted more exclusivity for the use of the term? My own sonnets, while not always strictly in one of the three major English forms, have all so far been pentameter with few substitutions, and there are few, if any, slant rhymes. In my younger, dumber days, (all of three years ago, at the tender age of 49) I even argued on this site that pentameter had become a mandatory feature of a "real" sonnet in English. Younger, dumber, and besotted with the discovery that I could say what I wanted to say in a full-rhymed pentameter sonnet without too much difficulty. To be truly honest, at the time that was the only way I could make poems at all.

I still think frequent metrical substitutions destabilize the pentameter, but other meters are less fragile, and the sonnet doesn't really depend on any particular meter or rhyme scheme. It's a kind of poetic gesture, or, better, a family of gestures. Some are love poems, some are meditations, some worship, some tell tales: all wrestle, whether they turn or not. Almost every poem in Jill Alexander Essbaum's Oh Forbidden goes to the mat.

OK, that pun was bad even for me. But it stays.

Essbaum's sonnets are marvelous, sexy, simultaneously joyful and anguished, and I can't resist quoting in full the poem from which the title's taken:

Oh we are dancing. Oh we undress, Oh
how your hands handle my breasts. I open
like a door, I unhinge. Oh your moistened
lips climbing up the well-traveled road
of my thighbone. Oh the reddening rose
and her mystery bliss. She groans, she glistens.
Oh she listens. Speak tongues, Thou Great Physician,
heal my deepening need. Oh memento,
remember this: not for my skin and all
its sinning shall I ever dare repent.

Oh forbidden, I am wicked but prohibit my taboo.
Oh swollen, I'm engorged. Oh waterfall,
I'm drenched. Oh Father, forgive. I know not
who I do. Oh beast. Oh bastard. Oh you.

Slant-rhymed Petrarchan just begins to describe the rich sonic structure of this poem, with its internal and cross-rhymes, its alliteration, the changes it rings on its opening phrase, its propulsive rhythm built from scraps of every prosody in English. It's not pentameter, though there are lines which could be scanned that way—scanning is irrelevant in a poem like this.

Ms. Essbaum claims "no actual relationships were harmed in the making of this book"—but it just might have been worth such a price.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2005

I'm exhausted, and tomorrow after work I drive home to North Carolina, so just a couple of brief bits of self-puffery tonight:

Why can't they pay me to write poems and blog?

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Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Arts & Letters Daily (again! you've guessed by now I set it as the home page on every browser on every machine I control) linked a review by Joy Connolly, of Peter Green's new translation of Catullus, which says something important:

Poems are not diaries … and Catullus did not dash off his metrical virtuosities in an afternoon, but this is the aesthetic of the shorter lyrics: craft masked as first-person spontaneity. If his habit of direct address invites readers to identify naively with the poem's narrator, the formalist challenge of fitting Latin into meters originally designed for Greek and the accumulation of literary references—to Sappho, Callimachus, and earlier Roman poets—draw attention to the eternally self-conscious aspect of the experience of passion, the way our strongest, most "natural" passions are shaped in part by literary art. Saying "I am in love!" or "I feel . . ." are acts of self-dramatized authenticity, as Roland Barthes observes: Catullus catches both the rawness of emotion and the theatrical quality of its expression.

That (especially at the end) might sound dangerously close to the literary theory I said I wasn't interested in. But is it so different from

  1. [today I'd add empathetic] acute, even obsessive, observation of how people (including the poet) live with each other in the world,
  2. a love for the particularities of particular poems,
  3. and a willingness to do real work on poem after poem.

Unfortunately, there's no indication in the quotes from the translation that Green even attempted to represent Catullus's metrical virtuosity. I recommend Charles Martin's translation.

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Monday, December 5, 2005

I could not possibly care less about poetics or literary theory. I am fascinated by the technical aspects of how poets make poems, but half a sentence about the structure or politics of literary discourse sends me either to sleep or, better, out the door. Such talk does nothing to get poems made and less to help us understand any poem worth reading in the first place; even when, like Freudian psychology, it's interesting for its own sake, it's just wrong. I can make marginal exceptions for Darwinian literary theory because there is at least a chance that it will tell us something about why we make and like the kinds of stories we make and like, and for neuroscience-based theory because, along with Darwinian theory, it's shown that narrative and metaphor, far from being an obstruction to our understanding of each other and each other's stories, are central to our kind of mind — but I don't think either will ever tell us why particular poems or novels or plays or TV shows are treasures and others are trash.

I started thinking about this (this time) a few days ago because of a post by Amy King in which she proposed there were three types of theorizers on listservs. She calls them simplifications; here are my simplifications of hers:

  1. those trying to prove their intellectual dominance,
  2. those trying to be helpful, and
  3. those trying to learn by thinking out loud.

I used to have some sympathy for the last two, but now only the last seems to me an honest position. Even the helpful have stopped thinking about poems as opposed to about poetry, and poetry just isn't very interesting except as embodied in particular poems.

I decided to write here about it (instead of about a poem!) because of Theodore Dalrymple's "Truth vs. Theory " in the current City Journal (link via Arts & Letters Daily). Dalrymple notes that at least one group fascinated by Shakespeare's useful knowledge of their own field doesn't think he needed an aristocratic education to acquire that knowledge: medical doctors. In fact, a university education like that of Shakespeare's son-in-law Dr. John Hall would have been a positive hindrance: "A contemporary medical man can learn something from Shakespeare; he can learn nothing from Hall." The accompanying quotes from both men amply prove the point.

Dalrymple concludes by quoting and commenting on a passage from T.S. Eliot:

Half the harm that is done in the world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't want to do harm—but the harm does not interest them … or they do not see it … because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.

Eliot might have added: the endless struggle to look well in the eyes of their fellow intellectuals and the fear of losing caste. But as a result of their efforts, as Orwell also famously said, "We have sunk to a depth in which re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men."

That's numbers one and two, no? And the obvious is that three things help a poet to make poems:

  1. acute, even obsessive, observation of how people (including the poet) live with each other in the world,
  2. a love for the particularities of particular poems,
  3. and a willingness to do real work on poem after poem.

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Sunday, December 4, 2005

I'm really bad at submitting poems. Most of the two dozen or so poems I've published appeared only because an editor, sometimes a friend or acquaintance, asked for submissions, sometimes of particular poems, and one was published because a friend of mine read it aloud to an editor. I've got a list of 54 poems (out of several hundred unpublished) marked as ready, and only 10 are in the mail. I sent them in June, the first unsolicited submissions I've made in years. My first two times at West Chester the leader of the workshop in which I was enrolled made specific suggestions for markets and offered to speak to the editors, and I did nothing. This time I had a partial excuse: when Christian Wiman made it abundantly clear he likes at least some of my work and singled out two poems in particular, those two were among the 10 already in the mail. But I didn't send anything else, either. I told myself it would be an imposition on our brief acquaintance if I didn't wait at least six months.

Now it's been six months, and I've got stamps, envelopes, poems, a printer, addresses, and a post office in easy walking distance. So what's up? It's not as if I'm shy or easily hurt, and I posted just recently about the "great conversation" I want to be part of, and how that depended on getting in the marketplace. Here's what I think it is: in poetry, as in music and job hunting and even dating, I'm extremely diffident about initiating contact. It's stupid and I know it. This blog is something of an attempt at an end run around the problem, and it's been partially successful. People reading here have asked me to submit work. But those 44 ready, unpublished, and unmailed poems tell me it hasn't been enough.

So by this time next week I intend to have all 44 in the mail. Wasn't there something about new postal rates that might affect the SASEs?

Tim Murphy has been leading in interesting discussion at Eratosphere on publishing poems, and there's a good back-and-forth at ScopLaw, too. Ivy Alvarez and Mary Agner (whose website I've finally realized has a new name, Pantoums and Persistence), among others, do a wonderful job of reminding me how lazy I am.

Addendum 2005/12/05: Let me tell you just how silly I was to believe a prompt submission to Poetry would be an imposition — one of the poems submitted to that workshop is in the November issue.

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