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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Friday, November 30, 2007

Only two poems in the December 2006 Poetry seriously engaged my attention. The first is Mary Ruefle's “The Bunny Gives Us a Lesson in Eternity,” which wonderfully begins “We are a sad people, without hats.” The entire poem sounds at least as good and sometimes better, as in this pair of lines about the bunny the sad people are watching read the sad people’s ancestor’s tombstones while around him other bunnies are, as the poet says, “screwing”:

Look how his mouth moves mouthing the words
While the others are busy making more of him.
Soon the more will ask of him to write their love
Letters …

But I’m not convinced, or at least not enough to think it worth the effort to decide whether it’s worth the effort of deciding whether there’s anything here beyond cleverness and a good ear. The short selection of Ruefle’s poems here is not encouraging.

But perhaps I’m just tired (or even old!) since I feel even more formally indifferent about the second, Charles O. Hartman’s “The Strange,” a sometimes haunting poem which seems to me to be about the loss of a grown daughter, first mentioned in the 4th of 9 stanzas:

Times change by rungs and you bring

a child to an altered world.

Then woman. Then gone. I’m so

big beside the trusting bird—

slope patiently trodden up


by a populace of gifts.

Witness the blue, decrepit,

greasy cat in the guest room,

marking time. Witness catnip

gone to such prodigal seed


in the fallen flowerbox.

She would have said, the catnip,

your catnip, with a mocking

eye. It isn’t that I don’t

remember, only that things


grow well beyond me. Alone,

the dead oak whitens daily.

Beetles in the winter cord

multiply like dragonflies

over grass, like wishes. Look,

I break off there because that’s enough to show the visual conceit of the poem: 5-line stanzas, but a 3-line pattern of indentation, so that every third stanza has the same shape. Why? Once again, I just don’t even want to think about the work involved in discovering why.

Now, does this lesson my enjoyment of these two poems? Not in the last couple of days, as I’ve returned to them many times. But I doubt I’ll seek out other poems by Ruefle or Hartman, and I doubt that I’ll return to these two next year, or even next week. Clive James’s brilliant set of meditations, ”Listening for the Flavor: A Notebook“ (the best thing in this issue), makes a stab at, among other things, separating “poetry” from “a poem.” Poetry (losing the quotes) may live by moments, as Pound wished to have it, but a poem joins the moments up. James doesn’t quite argue (“plausible,” he says) that formal poems are more likely to contain their moments, to make themselves more memorable than their memorable parts. Whatever their larger work is like, the devices employed by Hartman and Ruefle in these poems seem either too local or too arbitrary to support a poem as opposed to poetry—I’ll remember "We are a sad people, without hats" and that 5 X 3 long after I've forgotten where they come from. I might very well be missing wonderful poetry, but there’s only so much time.

Tomorrow I’ll take the time to write about Paul Muldoon’s Horse Latitudes, and my excuse is that it’s reviewed by Brian Phillips in this same issue of Poetry. I wasted a year not reading this book, which I only bought about a month ago. Hey, and Muldoon is now the poetry editor of The New Yorker!


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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

       so I’m going back to last December’s volume of Poetry to see what I can see and what I might have to say about it.

Actually, it’s been a fairly good year for making poems, a wonderful year for making music, and one of the happiest years of my adult life—it’s this blog that’s suffered, and I apologize to my few remaining readers for my sloth.

Though sloth's’s not really it.

I used to teach Creative Writing at the University of Louisville. I was dreadfully bad at it, and I think we all were, even the director (a fine novelist), at least when it came to teaching how to make poems. I couldn't have carried a meter if it were stapled to my palm. I did, at least, meet Lewis Turco there and buy his little Book of Forms, which isn’t so little these days—and frabjious day Lew’s got a blog! Years later, that book helped me begin to discover what meter could do for poems—for a poet—and part of the original impetus for the blog was to share my excitement.

I wrote a lot about meter here, and posted a lot of my poetry along with I hope illustrative examples from other poets, and argued with nearly everybody—I nearly named names there, but if you'’e interested the archives are available on the right. After 5 years it got old. Well, it didn't really take that long, but inertia is a dreadful thing

Now it seems to me that it’s better to concentrate on making my own poems and writing here about the poems and poets I think are doing exciting work. Since arbitrary challenges to myself are the way I get the most work out of me, I'm gonna get the ball rolling by doing a year and month of Poetry, one or two posts on things I like from each issue, along with a new poem somehow or other connected to something in the issue. And I’m not interested in discussing whether I should have picked some [cooler, more relevant, hipper, lively, whatever somebody thinks Poetry might be lacking] rag. Arbitrary, right? I've got a sub I need to catch up on before the New Year, and I'm just about a year behind.


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