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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Well, it’s Thursday, though not the one I meant, and I still want to write about some of Barnstone’s formal bewitchery, especially with rhyme, and then move on to what I think are the best poems in the book—those in which the forsaken husband once again begins to interact with people outside the marriage.

Take “death” and “breath.” Richard Wilbur is supposed to have enjoined poets from ever using the same rhyme twice (can anyone give me a citation?), but what do you do about that pair? Robert Frost supposedly called them a “gift” (again, a cite?); Robert Mezey found an alternative when he rhymed “death” with “crystal meth,” but even that gives one only three distinct pairs; and Barnstone uses the original pair three times in this book: in “Antonyms,” “Suicide Road,” and “Zero at the Bone.” Working backwards, let’s see how.

In “Zero at the Bone,” she’s

… gone. No force

can fetch her back like Lazarus from death.
She’s in the undiscovered country where
she’s free of him. And now there’s only love
to love, invisible as God, as breath
siphoning from a hole. What’s left of her
for him? An absence in which to believe.

They’re the only perfect rhyme in the sestet (as are “knife” and “life” in the octave), so he hasn’t been boxed in to the rhyme. “Where” rhymes with “her” two sentences later, and “love,” which is a invisible as God and breath, with “believe”—and the breath is siphoning from a hole, and death is where Lazarus used to be, and the “undiscovered country” is for her as different from death as her state is for him, at least in his imagination. There’s reversal after reversal in here, layers of reference turned upside down and folded and rolled out and turning on that rhyme.

In “Suicide Road” they’re one of three pairs of perfect rhymes, the other two inner rhymes “light” and fight” in the octave and then “he” and “she” surrounded by our pair in the first four lines of the sestet:

… He thinks he is surviving death

by suicide, since she assumes that she
must die out of his life to live. Now he
is losing it and cannot catch his breath.
And here’s the worst: she’s made him understand.
Damn, damn, damn. God fucking damn.

It’s not as densely allusive as the previous poem, but just as witty, until that hammering final line.

“Antonyms” is the most technically interesting of the death/breath poems. It’s built like Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” starting with a pair of four feet per line and decreasing by a foot per pair to the central “forever, / one,” and then expanding back out to a final four feet pair—and that “forever” is by golly an amphibrach. Every pair of rhymes is also a pair of opposites: incline/decline, here/somewhere, away/stay (the only couplet), never/forever, one/no one, retract/give him back, and ending death/breath.

Only one other poem (“Insects”) has a shape something like “Suicide Road,” and there are three which begin with pairs of 7-feet lines and decrease by a foot. (Are they sonnets? They rhyme like sonnets; they turn; they’re in a book of sonnets.) Another (“Laughing Poem”) finishes the first 12 lines with “laugh” and ends “and then collapse onto the couch, a ha / all teeth and tear and gasping ah, ha, ha.”

All this technical bravura really comes to life as the husband starts to reconnect with other people, especially in the section “End of the Vacation,” a mostly drunken solo tour through Europe. “Heart Sushi” and the wonderfully titled “The Truth Is He Never Was Good at Flirting, But His Friends Did Their Best to Set Him Up” are particularly good: the latter ends with a bee sting on “lovely ass” and

… Patricia pouts,

“It hurts. It isn’t coming out” then smiles,
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to suck it harder.”

As I said in part 1, I’ve had my own recent marital train-wreck, and that may have colored my reading of Sad Jazz: Sonnets—it certainly made it harder write about—but I love this book for its casual-seeming technical audacity and capability, for its refusal to treat the sonnet as a template, for its unflinching examination of some of the most wrenching aspects of marital failure, for the tentative optimism explicitly expressed in some of the later poems, and for the ferocious optimism implied in having made the book at all.

Now I’m going to read what Tony Barnstone has to say about the contemporary sonnet.


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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Do a dance, have sex, write a poem! Two out of three for me!


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  • I’ve just discovered that Tony Barnstone has a long piece on the sonnet at the Cortland Review. I’m refusing to read it before I finish my review. I know it’s already past tomorrow, and tomorrow I’ve got band practice after work, so Thursday I’ll finish.

  • Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia gets reviewed in The Sun and New York Times (I’ll get a permalink for the latter as soon as it’s available) and it reminds me of a moment in Meghan O’Rourke’s interview with him:

    Slate: What do you think of contemporary American poetry?

    James: I’m the American classicist. I love writing pot-stirring pieces about the necessity of reading Robert Frost, and Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur. Richard Wilbur was my man. Hecht’s poem “Japan” is one of the great poems of the 20th century. It’s ridiculously good; it’s got the intricate stanza form, incredibly intense perceptions, the works. That’s the tradition in American that I love. The other tradition that comes out of William Carlos Williams through [Charles] Olson and [Louis] Zukofsky scarcely interests me. Because you can’t tell when it’s bad. I forget who said that about abstract art: The trouble with it is that I can’t tell when it is bad! Incidentally—there is certainly such a thing as a formal poem that meets all the requirements and is dead. So, there is probably a permanent revolution going on, but it’s a palace revolution.

    That’s not far from what I’ve argued: that the poets themselves can’t tell when it’s bad; that it can’t be taught, that it can be endlessly analyzed precisely because there is no there there. Thank you Gertrude Stein for that at least.

  • In a previously unpublished essay. Susan Sontag argues forcefully for the importance of story in the novel—traditional beginning middle end story, though not necessarily in that order—claiming that the moral weight of the novel depends on narrative. Hoopla!

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

I should have done this months ago, but as I wrote last week my books are packed and effectively lost in the attic—the end of my own marriage meant my losing a wonderful book about the end of a marriage. I’ve found it, and better late than never.


Tony Barnstone’s Sad Jazz: Sonnets opens with his translation of Petrarch’s Sonnet 196, at once announcing the book’s ambition and scope while demonstrating the kind of formal strategies he deploys to fulfill that ambition: Petrarch begins “L’aura serena” and Barnstone answers “The tranquil aura”; Barnstone rhymes leaves/face/day/deep holds/veils/pearl/gold—envelope rhyme, but two sets and slant as hell, and in the sestet manages to rhyme “knots” with “unknot” in the last three lines and make it work:

The time entangled me inside those knots
and time tied my heart with a sturdy twine
That only Death will know the manner to unknot.

His meter is a loosish pentameter, but capable of sustaining that penultimate line with its two medial trochees. It’s a fine beginning to a fine book.

“Marriage Psalm” follows with a catalog of blessings, including “Blessed the ways / of limbs entwined, a tangle without end / that only lack of love or death or time / can untie,” echoing and expanding the last image from the translation—in fact the poem almost feels like a version of the translation. Others of these poems are similarly connected: “Kabbalah” in the first section with its “arithmetic of love” in which the years “subtract themselves yet strangely add up to / how much, how many, and to how much more” is echoed in the last section’s “The New Math” with its “mathematics of divorce, / how many months alone, how slender is his waste these days ... Problem: her passion didn’t equal his. /Solution: what if he subtracted him?”; “Dark Lord” has the lost lover say “It’s funny seeing how Star Wars / is tacky now .. the quest resolved by the third act” remembered by “Had he but world enough and time / he would mourn all their futures dead / till sci-fi empires failed” in “Refusal to Mourn,” which of course also recalls Marvell—and The Beatles, Shakespeare, George Herbert, zombies, Yeats, The Kiss of the Spider Woman, Charlie Parker, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are all woven into Barnstone’s densely allusive narrative.

Sad Jazz is divided into eight sections, each organized by the changing response of the main character to the end of an eighteen-year-long marriage. That marriage doesn’t formally end—the wife doesn’t leave—until the fifth section, but there are clues even in the first, even in the first poem’s blessings, the last of which is “blessed blind / pink worm that feeds on them like rot in fruit yet gives / them years alive with blessings in their lives.” Before long it’s “I’m going now, she said. Mmh-hmm, he murmured, / studying the screen, and didn’t hear her leave” (“Zombies”) and

What she hopes:

a bomb will drop, all things will die but bugs,
the continent will slip into the sea,
the planet will implode, and she’ll be free.


(“He Pays the Bill at the Sidewalk Café”)

Not that it’s as easy as that. The poems in the sections Driving Away from Her and Aftermath are frightening in their intensity (and frighteningly familiar to me, at the end of a second 12-year marriage). Sometimes they play at the edge of bathos, as in the end of the title poem, “Sad Jazz,” which begins with Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” but continues:

… listening to Parker play “Salt Peanuts,
Salt Peanuts,” snarls a laugh and sings “sad penis,
sad penis” to the slack sack on his thigh.
He rides a borrowed couch, falls into blue
listening to the jazz die. He’d like to, too.

It is still play—bitter, self-aware, and funny, riding internal rhyme and staccato consonance, echoing the jazz—despite the title.

Tomorrow I want to write about the ways Barnstone plays in even the bleakest of these poems: the book is a marvelous manual of rhyme and sonnet structure.


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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Slate and the New York Sun are rapidly becoming my favorite online sources for literary and other art criticism, despite the odious politics of the Sun. Slate, in particular, has been on a roll with David Plotz's Blogging the Bible, the Book Club's discussion during Auden's centenary week, and the excerpts from Clive James's Cultural Amnesia. I wasn't aware James was a poet until I read Meghan O'Rourke's interview last week, and then browsing his site I discovered a poem I knew: “Windows Is Shutting Down.” Well, I am a geek.

Anyway, as impressed as I am by the commentary on poetry provided by Slate, the poetry Robert Pinskie picks for publication in Slate has usually seemed to me uninspired at best—I actually like Pinskie's own poetry, which makes it even more puzzling. Still, there are gems, like this recent poem by Andrew Hudgins, “Lightning Strike in Paradise.” I found there several other poems by Hudgins, including “Piss Christ.” Yeah, you know what it's about.

I remember Richard Wilbur (I think it was him, but I can't google it up) commenting that only Serrano's claim to have used cow's blood and his own urine made the image transgressive, that there was really no evidence the claim was true, and that it was just a piece of exhibitionism without real significance one way or the other. I had agreed with that until reading Hudgin's poem, possibly combined with the influence of an article in The American Scholar ("2 + 2 = 5") about "presence," the wine become blood—or not—and the thousands who died over that issue. I'm also rereading Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, where there's a description of a 14th century fresco in Florence:

… in a scene of extraordinary verve a hunting party of princes and elegant ladies on horseback comes with sudden horror upon three open coffins containing corpses in different stages of composition, one still clothed, one half-rotted, one a skeleton. Vipers crawl over their bones. … a horse catching the stench of death stiffens in fright with outstretched neck and flaring nostrils; his rider clutches a handkerchief to his nose. The hunting dogs recoil, growling in repulsion. In their silks and fashionable hats, the party of vital handsome men and women stare appalled at what they will become.

As Hudgins writes:

We have grown used to beauty without horror


We have grow used to useless beauty.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

  • One of the books I’d been unable to find is Tony Barnstone’s Sad Jazz: Sonnets. That was particularly depressing not only because I really like the book, but because it was a review copy. I should have just ordered another, but every day I thought "I’ll find it today!" and I was always wrong — until yesterday. I’ll have the review up this weekend.

  • Recent reviews by Meghan O’Rourke and Adam Kirsch led me to buy The Notebooks of Robert Frost this last weekend. I’ve only read the introduction, but now I want his letters to Louis Untermeyer because of this passage:
    I found that by thinking they [his students at Amherst] meant stocking up with radical ideas, by learning they meant stocking up with conservative ideas — a harmless distinction, bless their simple hearts.
    It’s a wonderful description of the automatic liberal. The automatic conservative is not quite the exact opposite: for such a person, thinking is stocking up with conservative ideas, but so is learning. For them, radical ideas are just wrong.

  • Last month I had a few words for Dana Goodyear’s rather nasty New Yorker article on the Poetry Foundation. Now David Orr has ably replied in the New York Times. One interesting bit of information from that piece, concerning how the New Yorker selects poems these days:
    … since 2000, Goodyear (who is 30) has appeared in the New Yorker more than Czeslaw Milosz, Jorie Graham, Derek Walcott, Wislawa Szymborska, Kay Ryan and every living American poet laureate except for W. S. Merwin. She’s already equaled Sylvia Plath’s total.
    Last year I noted that from Jan 1998 to Dec 2005, only 6 poets made a debut in the magazine.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Most of my books are in piles or boxes up in the attic I haven’t finished converting to a workspace, and it’s driving me nuts. I’ve got more than 2000 of them — a pitiful remnant of my library just prior to the end of my first marriage — and only about 150 are easily accessible right now. I feel blind and stupid without them, and I think that’s one reason I’ve been so inactive here and as a poet.

Now that I’m semi-connected again, the net is helping some, but when Slate takes the opportunity of Auden’s 100th birthday to carry a wonderful conversation about the poet, I feel I can’t respond adequately without at least rereading some of his poetry and glancing through The Dyer’s Hand and A Commonplace Book. And I can’t. Nevertheless …

“September 1, 1939” is, of course, one of the topics of the conversation, both because Auden repudiated the poem and because after 9/11 it became one of the most widely read and quoted poems in English. The other major talking points are the degree of Auden’s Americanness and his intellectual and pprosodic virtuosity, the latter of which the three correspondents (Stephen Metcalf, Meghan O’Rouke, and Aidan Wasley) seemed to think was almost as much a weakness as it was a strength. Wasley, the only academic of the three, begins the final post this way:

Emily Dickinson said she knew she’d read a real poem when it felt like the top of her head had been taken off. And you both aren’t alone in your sense that sometimes the experience of reading Auden, especially the later Auden, can feel more like an academic seminar than an encounter with the brain-blowing sublime.

But this week Christopher Hitchens began another Slate article (on Ayaan Hirsi Ali) by quoting “September 1, 1939,” saying that recent commentary on her book Infidel had the brought to mind the line “The Enlightenment driven away” — a line he calls “very strong and bitter.”

And it is very strong and bitter, but I wonder how many people are capable of reading it that way, and just how it is one becomes so capable?



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