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

Sunday, July 29, 2007

After my semi-tantrum last May, it’s a little embarrassing to begin this blog with a linkfest to the New York Review of Books—but hey, I’m not proud, and I like Brad Leithauser’s poetry and criticism, especially The Odd Last Thing She Did and two previous NYRB pieces, one on Richard Wilbur’s book Mayflies and the other an obituary for Anthony Hecht. His current piece on Louis Macniece is good, too, but there are a couple of very curious passages. Here’s the first:

Although MacNeice was a more dependable modernist than Auden (it’s impossible to imagine him composing, as Auden did, reams of sonnets in conventional rhyme and meter), his work has spiritual affiliations with one of the quaintest poetic tools imaginable: the refrain. Today, few devices look more old-fashioned than the line or lines that return at each stanza’s close.

And here’s the second:

But it seems to me that nowhere else is MacNeice's influence potentially so salutary than in his prosody—or let's call it his restless urge to create singular, weird-looking objects. A hundred years after MacNeice's birth, ours seems an era where much formal verse (all those blank-verse narratives, those earnest quatrains) has a wayworn feel, and where various once-recherché forms have been done to death. (Are there any readers of contemporary poetry left in America who don't shudder on turning a page and discovering yet one more sestina?) Contemporary poets of a prosodic bent—those in whom the creative impulse is indissolubly tied to an impulse to fabricate patterns—might well look to MacNeice as a replenisher.

By my lights, the second gets two things right—I find most non-metrical sestinas unreadable (I’ve written a dreadful free-verse sestina myself), and I also find Macniece’s prosody extremely interesting and suggestive, and potentially useful—but can this be the same man who so eloquently praised the practice of Wilbur and Hecht, including Hecht’s sestina “The Book of Yolek,” of which he wrote “If I could keep only one Hecht poem, it might be this one”? Does he really mean to toss away villanelles and triolets and ballades and rondeaux?

Today I listened to a woman read 4 sestinas in a row, beginning with Hecht’s “Book of Yolek” and going on through Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina” and then two of her own. She was nearly unable to finish the Hecht: it is that powerful. Poets make art from the forms that they can use. Leithauser’s failings are neither the language’s nor the form’s but his own.

As for my own failings, it’s free verse that seems quaint to me.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

I’ve been bothered and puzzled by my silence here, and even more by the fact that I’ve written no more than 10 lines of verse in the last year. Hell, I’ve barely read 10 lines of verse. I can give lots of excuses: most of my books are in boxes in the attic; I don’t have a settled workspace; my second 12-year marriage ended about a year ago; there’s a TV in my life; the Martian rovers are in trouble; Pluto is no longer a planet; George Bush has not yet been impeached and Dick Cheney is a free man—you get the picture. I have no excuse.

But Krys has been setting poems of mine to music—here, here, and here for the texts (the last an early draft)—and we’ve been performing them in an interlude to the band’s acoustic sets and at Stammer this month. Her arrangement is to have me read the poems first, and then we perform them on guitar and mandolin, Krys singing, of course—I attempt a few sparse harmonies. It seems to go over well. It’s been a very long time since I’ve regularly read my poems to strangers, and it’s been an awakening, I hope.

Clive James, in the Overture to his magnificent Cultural Amnesia, writes of the benefit to the rest of us resulting from the exclusion of Jewish literati from the academic culture of early twentieth century Austria. They were, he says,

denied the opportunity of wasting their energies on compiling abstruse doctoral. They were driven instead to journalism, plain speech, direct observation and the necessity to entertain.

Theirs was a cafe culture, a culture of conversation. James, and Krys through her care, have reminded me that I’ve long believed the best opportunity in the arts is to join a long conversation with the artists of the past and to bring others into that conversation. It’s one of the reasons I started this blog nearly five years ago; it’s part of why I was able to continue writing poetry after adolescence. I hope my rediscovery will help me keep up my end of the conversation. Thanks, Krys.

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