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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Slate, on Monday of this week, posted Robert Pinsky’s essay “In Praise of Difficult Poetry,” which, though enjoyable, would have had more heft to it if the poems he quoted were, in fact, examples of the kind of difficulty my musician and engineer friends complain of on encountering, say, Anne Carson, or, god help them, any L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet. Of course, his task would then have been impossible. And on Tuesday appeared Alfred Corn’s “In-Flight Couplets Composed During a Bomb Alert,” which ends with the wonderfully earned lines

Words fade to black if not made memories of.
Love, if it means to live, is spoken love.

A pretty good week—but the best thing I've seen recently about poetry from Slate is a link in last week's scathing review of the TV show Thank God You’re Here. I haven”t seen the show, but I’m glad it provided the occasion for me to read this article on how to be a better improviser.

The first rule, it seems, is “ACCEPT INFORMATION: YES AND”

When you get a piece of information from another actor, first, accept it as fact and second, add a little bit more information to it. If somebody tells you that you're wearing a hula skirt, tell them that yes they are, and that they made it right here at Club Med. Keep doing this long enough, and you'll have a scene full of fascinating facts, objects and relationships. Fail to do this and everyone will hate you, even your parents.

It’s what happens in writing formal verse (though more quickly than most poets manage!): each line invites, with meter and sometimes with rhyme, a response from the following lines. And the following lines, if the poem is to live, must offer that response. They must accept the givens and add to them. The other cardinal rules from the article are ADD HISTORY, ASK “IF THIS IS TRUE, WHAT ELSE IS TRUE?” and DON’T DENY, and all of them apply to making a good formal poem, as do most of the lesser dicta presented.

That’s why formal poetry, as constrained as it is by meter, rhyme, or stanzaic form, is so much more various than free verse, which puts so few restrictions on the poet’s momentary perceptions, thoughts, and whims. Contrary to the popular notion, it is free verse which is the passive container into which a poet pours content, while each sonnet or ballade is a sustained improvisation with language, convention, and history as partners. It is the formal poet who says “Yes, and …,” to the world.


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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

This year's Pulitzer Prize in poetry goes to Natasha Trethewey, who, like nearly every living poet to nearly every other living poet, was previously unknown to me. The three poems linked here are all "identity" poems, a genre I usually have difficulty reading, but one of them, “Flounder,” is genuinely clever from the punning title all the way through to the end, and this 2004 webcast from the Library of Congress here (requires Real Player) is more than interesting. I’m going to buy Native Guard.


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Sometime in the last two weeks I read somewhere something to the effect that painters were able to remake painting all the way to abstraction, while writers were stuck having to mean something (would the latter were so). I’d have sworn the comment came from a review article in the December 2005 (the Exact Editions sample issue) London Review of Books, but it ain’t there, though there's a couple of good poems from Robin Robertson here. Too bad, since a recent article I can find on “The New Abstraction” (linked from Arts & Letters Daily) contains this remarkable sentence:

“It’s the appropriate time to do a dissertation about the 1960s,” [Hammer Museum chief curator Gary] Garrels says.

What’s up with that?


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Sunday, April 8, 2007

Easter this year falls on a traditional date for the Buddha’s birthday. Just because he’s a nicer guy than I am, John Prine has nicer things to say about both sides of that than I do, so I’ll give him the last word:

I heard Allah and Buddha
Were singing at the Savior’s feast
While up the sky an Arabian rabbi
Fed Quaker oats to a priest.
Pretty good, not bad, they can’t complain—
Cause actually, all them gods is just about the same.

Blog Against Theocracy


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It’s a week into National Poetry Month and even the New York Times has a poetry link on its main web page, so it’s time for me to get busy, eh? But unlike the good folks at PFFA, I’m not participating in NaPoWriMo, and I’m not even sure I’ll make it to West Chester—though I’d purely love to take either X. J. Kennedy’s or Molly Peacock’s master classes, and there’s Rhina Espaillat’s on French forms and Sam Gwynn’s on satire and light verse, and Dave Mason, Tim Steele, Dick Davis, Alicia Stallings, Catherine Tufariello, Terri Witek, H. L Hix, Robert Shaw, Rachel Hadas, and, new to me, Eric McHenry. Anybody got $700?

Truth is, though I’m happier than I’ve been in years (thank you, sweetie), getting unmarried is dispiriting and poverty-making. I haven’t been able to write, until recently I’ve barely been able to read, and I’m astonished to find anyone is still visiting this place as barren as it’s been for nearly a year. So, thanks to you, too, for sticking with me.


Did you folks know about World Poetry Day? Pretty neat that it usually falls on an Equinox, and that this year Slate’s daily photo montage from Magnum Photos was of poets and people doing poetry things—one man recites poems at a rally against the Mafia in Sicily; another recites freedom poems in the streets of Hungary in 1956. My favorite, though, is a nerdy-looking James Dean reading James Whitcomb Riley’s Complete.


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