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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I didn’t know Michael Donaghy, though I’d met him, twice played a little music with him (he on flute and I on mandolin), and heard him read. It was all in a single week in 2001 at West Chester. Richard Wlbur was there, and he’ll be there again this year, as will I. A year younger than I, Michael died in 2004, and tonight I received in the mail his last book, Safest, literally taken from his computer on instructions from his deathbed.

It’s difficult to look through the book. The opening poem is “Upon a Claude Glass” (I looked it up), which ends this way:

Don’t look so smug. Don’t think you’re any safer
as you blunder forward through your years

squinting to recall some fading pleasure,
or blinded by some private scrim of tears.

I know. My world’s encircled by this prop,
though all my life I’ve tried to force it shut

There really is no period.


Michael’s best-known poem is “Black Ice and Rain,” from Conjure. There’s a remarkable recording of the poem available on the CD which accompanies the 55th anniversary issue of The Hudson Review, and I just found this remarkable video, available for download for about $3 US.

It’s time for some Irish whiskey.


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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The same day I found out via Silliman‘s blog that Billy Collins had come in for an old fashioned thumpin’ from Adam Kirsch, Salon’s Video Dog posted some remarks from Collins: “the theme of poetry is death.” It’s an interesting and surprising set from American poetry’s funnyman—well, surprising if you haven’t read much Collins. He doesn’t make the kind of poems I want to make, but I’ve been very happy to spend the money for several of his books.

The Salon piece points to and is selected from a fairly large collection at Big Think, a site which looks interesting but which I won’t have time to explore for a while. Collins’ Big Think page is here, but there’s lots more. If you get there first, let me know what you think.


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Monday, January 28, 2008

Ron Silliman is American poetry’s Uncle Toby. Just today he reads a review of Adam Kirsch's The Modern Element and summarizes it as ’A new formalist trying to trim the School of Quietude” (because Kirsch doesn’t like Billy Collins?), and the linked article in “The future of Quietude: Who reads George Sterling now?” is about a forgotten follower of Poe, the source of Silliman’s SOQ. For Silliman Robert Creeley is talking about the SOQ when he explains why New England poets aren’t all such “unquiet folk as himself & Emily D” (I think those are Silliman’s words, not Creeley’s) or when Creeley speaks (foolishly) about traditional form as a set of molds into which poems could be poured:

… an idea of form extrinsic to the given instance. Poems were equivalent to cars insofar as many could occur of similar pattern — although each was, of course, ‘singular’. But it was this assumption of a mold, as a means that could be gained beyond the literal fact of the writing here and now, that had authority.

(That latter, quoted from Silliman’s post, may have been a necessary fiction to allow the very fine work which Creeley produced. But as analysis it is nonsense, as Paul Lake shows in “The Shape of Poetry” (parts 1 and 2).

I could cite many more examples. Of course, classification, not his mythical SOQ per se, is Uncle Ron’s hobbyhorse, and he almost knows it. Here, in a post about the Swedish poet Henry Parland, he admits “I’m always arguing location, location, location, and that there is no such thing as a poet, only kinds of poets,” and that Parland doesn’t fit his (Silliman’s) or many other schemes. But the facts don’t lead to doubt:

Yet perhaps by sitting as outside the system as Parland does, he casts it into an ever sharper relief. By revealing all the ways in which this brief wunderkind doesn’t fit, Henry Parland shows us precisely what “fitting” must mean.[my emphasis]

“The exception proves the rule” means “The exception tests the rule”—and if the rule fails the rule is wrong, at least in part or as stated. But not for Silliman. That is the essence of theory as hobbyhorse: exceptions are mere exceptions, interesting perhaps, but of value only in showing the ways “we” were right all along.


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Sunday, January 27, 2008

I’ve got two running drafts, one in ottava and the other in terza rima, of a verse ghost story/murder mystery so far called The Vedanta, after the bar where many of the characters hang out. Anyway, they would be running if I hadn’t let them sit for about a year. It’s time to put up or shut up, and since I’m not good at shutting up I’ve put up a fragment from the terza rima version. Go have a listen. I’m thinking making it a serial will push me into working on the thing. What do you think?

And check out my other recordings at the site. There’ll be more in the next few weeks as I add all (a big word for a small bunch!) my published poems.


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Saturday, January 26, 2008

[a continuation of this discussion]

Both James Fenton and Paul Muldoon, after noting that it’s a very early poem, reprint Marianne Moore’s “I May, I Might, I Must” in its entirety:

If you will tell me why the fen
appears impassable, I then
will tell you why I think that I
can get across it if I try.

Muldoon comments in The End Of the Poem:

I’m certain that Moore’s choice of the word “fen” here is related to the reading of her own name as “marsh,” the sense in which it appears in the OED, and is appropriate to the writer’s attempt to “get across” her own self, particularly when the word “I” appears four times in as many lines. It is also the first word of “Poetry” [the jumping-off poem for Muldoon’s look at Moore], of course, set apart even more by the comma immediately following it.

( It’s contagious. I nearly typed “set apart even moore.” )

And Fenton in The Strength of Poetry:
[S]he seems to have felt the need for a little padding [in a 1959 collection]. … This is something for inscribing in a Victorian photograph album, and is a poor piece of versification.

The two books have very different aims. [A caveat: I have finished neither book, and Muldoon’s, in particular, might yet prove to have a grander scheme that I have so far recognized.] Muldoon looks for the sources of poems, and so every poem becomes a set of clues. Literary judgement has really no place in the work, except perhaps in the initial choice of which poets have produced poems worth treating this way. Fenton looks for the source of the strengths of poems, and literary judgement is at the heart of that enterprise.

Noting that “Picking and Choosing” begins, in Moore’s first collection, by confidently asking “why cloud the fact / … that [Henry] James is all that / has been / said of him but is not profound?", and that subsequent revisions finally result in “that James / is all that has been said of him,” Fenton concludes the “revision has pushed the judgement in the direction of meaninglessness” and goes on:

I mention this not to denigrate her total achievement, but rather to argue that admiration should focus on the admirable, and that, when a line seems to be meaningless or untrue, it is not a bad idea to entertain the possibility that it is indeed meaningless or untrue.

Despite my examples so far, Fenton does indeed focus on the admirable in Moore’s poetry, and, along the way, shows over and over again how much of it was invisible to me simply because the poetry I’ve been able to read is just broken.

So next week Grace Schulman’s edition of Moore’s poetry arrives in Dameron, MD.


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Thursday, January 24, 2008

My fiancée teaches music at an elementary school and has more than a third of the student body in her choruses. When she gives a show, it’s a show—sometimes the band accompanies the kids, and that’s a blast for me and the rest of her boys. I’m very pleased that this time she asked me to write some rhymes for the older kids to recite as introductions to the show and to the individual tunes, and pleased that she’s pleased with results.

For a while, you can read “Rhymes for an Elementary School Choral Concert” at my Occasional Verse page. The link will stay good, but “occasional” is an operative word: on occasion (lately about once a week) the verse there changes. It’s an opportunity to see brand new work, work which may change significantly before it “officially” appears—if it ever does. Maybe one day you can embarrass me with it.

In this particular case it’s also Verse for Hire. Well, Krys didn’t pay actual money, but if you’ve got change burning a hole in your pocket and you need some rhyming done, surf over here.


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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I am truly infatuated with the poems of Paul Muldoon and James Fenton, and I expected to be nearly as enamored of their Oxford Lectures on Poetry. Fenton’s are indeed only a little less marvelous than his poems—but Muldoon’s almost makes me feel I was hoodwinked by mere cleverness in his. (I wrote admiringly about his latest collection; you can find a very different view of the Lectures here and a similar but friendlier account here.)

Marianne Moore, a poet whose reputation has always puzzled me (I have this collection), is treated in both books, and in both linked more or less directly with Sylvia Plath, but it’s hard to imagine more different treatments.

Muldoon’s method in each of the essays I’ve so far read is to take a single poem by an author and obsessively—I’m talking Monk here—obsessively pursue the possible origins and shadows of that poem’s language and phrasing in presumed poetic sources, in other poems by the same author, and in the minutiae of biography, all informed by Harold Bloom’s theory of the Anxiety of Influence. Moore first appears in Muldoon’s approach to Ted Hughes’ “The Literary Life”, a poem from The Birthday Letters. She is there Nemesis, both as the admired older poet who dismissed Plath’s early poems (but she accepted Colossus at Knopf) despite Ted and Sylvia’s Brooklyn pilgrimage, and as the strong master whose influence Hughes must struggle to overcome. Through the lens Muldoon grinds for “The Literary Life”, nearly the whole of Hughes’ ouevre begins to seem a reaction to Moore.

When Muldoon turns directly to the elder poet, he finds a mere mirror of his own obsessive connection-making: the poet’s name with Moorish art, known for its elaborate ornamentation, or fiddling if you will, and so with the opening line of “Poetry”, the 29-line poem she eventually reduced to 3 and about which, as Muldoon repeatedly acknowledges—in his ramble through the zigzag appearance of many of her poems as a kind filigree like that sometimes used in decorative (Moorish!) armor linked to backgammon boards and fern seeds, which goes back to fiddleheads, and from there to tulips, or pansies, which also appear in Wordsworth's poem about which Pessoa said it “could be rehandled to advantage”—that he can’t get past the poem’s first line and when he’s through I’m glad the damned thing’s down to just 3 lines.


Well, there went lunch. When I get back to this, I’ll explain how Fenton persuaded me to order one of Amazon’s few remaining copies of the already-out-of-print 2003 edition of Moore’s poetry. And I’m excited about it. And, god help me, I still love Muldoon’s poetry.


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Monday, January 21, 2008

I’ve moved the links to poetry sites, including zines, collections, workshops, and conferences, to a page at the Sonnetarium’s home. One site formerly (and incorrectly) listed among them, Tad Richards’ Mole Pages, is now among the poets’ sites still here on the left.

Besides link-shifting, there’s a new sample sonnet at 44 Sonnets and the Performances page has changed. Soon (maybe tonight!) there’ll be something more substantive here, as well—two very different views of Marianne Moore.


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Thursday, January 17, 2008

It’s “lamentable, loony verse,” with “dimensional universe”—four syllables of damned-near perfect rhyme spread across first three words and then two, from the sestet of Greg Williamson’s sonnet “The Ten Spacetime Dimensional Universe” in the first issue of Unsplendid. It’s not his best sonnet there: I like “Music”, “Beer”, and “Hands” better, the last possibly because I’ve enjoyed telling people about Alien Hand Syndrome. But the sheer bravura of that rhyme is wonderful, and such bravura is characteristic of Williamson’s work. I wrote about his “Double Exposures” in my fourth post at this blog, back in September 2002 (Spinnakers was taken away by Hurricane Isabelle), and they still impress the hell out of me.

I don’t like navigating Unsplendid—for instance, there’s no convenient way to read all the poems by a given poet: you have to click a poem’s link from the table of contents, read the poem, go back to the table of contents, click the next poem’s link … It gets old, even in broadband. But there’s a lot of great fine poetry in the first two issues. I look for more; I’m sending some.


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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Well, maybe not quite that. But I’ve been wanting to make another mutant roundel for a while—my first and until today only example was written for the 2006 NaPoWriMo and was praised by a dear friend and teacher—and today at lunch the start of one overcame me and I’ve posted it here. Looking for links to formal explanations I ran across Rose Kelleher’s poetry pages, and there found Unsplendid, a new online zine for received and nonce forms, and I’ve added both on the left.

Unsplendid is truly an exciting find for me: among others of my favorites, they’ve published Tony Barnstone (see my review of Sad Jazz) and A. E. Stallings, who is currently blogging at Harriet.


Update: I’ve podcast the roundel.


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Sunday, January 13, 2008

The two poets I’m most interested in these days (meaning the two poets from whose work I want to steal learn geeky poet technical stuff) are James Fenton and Paul Muldoon, so I was very pleased to find both of them had recently published their respective Oxford Lectures on Poetry, The Strength of Poetry and The End of the Poem. I’ve started both, and both keeping me jumping.

Fenton’s first lecture, “A Lesson from Michelango”, offers in its course a contrast between how poets learn their craft as opposed to, well, every other kind of artist:

If I aspire to musicianship, I am at once set on a journey through a series of immensely complicated disciplines. … And it therefore does not happen that even a precocious musician seems pretentious. We feel, however much we envy the success, that it must have been earned. But it is far from clear how we are supposed to earn success in poetry.

Filmmakers, painters, sculptors, pre-digital photographers—any could be substituted for the musician. But what about poets? “The way to learn to write poetry is: to write poetry.” And he’s right about “exercises”:

Don’t try out a sonnet. Try to write a sonnet. Try to write a real sonnet. But that’s the whole aim. That’s not an exercise.

Now I’ve known a lot of pretentious poets in the sense Fenton means, and, though I wouldn’t bet my life on it, I’d wager you have, too. If one has a fair memory, there’s no need even for paper and pencil to pretend to be a poet, and here’s the thing—nowadays, many of the people who’ll still go to a poetry reading expect to be baffled and/or insulted, so that, for a while at least, even a pretentious poet gets laid.

So what about GarageBand? Krys has been visiting sites which allow musicians to upload recordings for comment by other musicians, and you know what she says?

“Way too many people have access to GarageBand.”

We use it, too. It’s a wonderful tool at a great price. But everybody with a Mac—which, admittedly, does cost a great deal more than a pencil and some paper—can stick together professionally done loops and sing over them and call themselves “songwriters” without ever having to go through that “series of immensely complicated disciplines”. They don’t have to be able play anything or read a note of music. Some of them may well end up as fine composers. But they’ll have to do it the way poets do, and, just as with poets, it’s going to be way too easy for the talentless to fool themselves—at least until they stop getting laid.


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Thursday, January 10, 2008

George Wallace sent me a link to new poems by Vikram Seth, who now lives in George Herbert’s house. I’m extremely glad Seth has returned to verse after such a long time—I bought The Golden Gate when it first came out and liked it so much I bought copies to give to friends.

But it’s Philip Larkin I want to write about.

I keep a copy of his Collected Poems in the bathroom, and I have poems of his by heart I’ve never tried to memorize: “The Trees”, “Annus Mirabilis”, “High Windows”, “Toads”, and “Sad Steps” are some of them; I think friends have learned “This Be the Verse” from me. And while browsing the online Times Literary Supplement (which published the Seth poems), I discovered that they had named Larkin the greatest British writer since 1945. George Orwell’s number two.

Now, can you imagine the NYTBR naming any poet even in the top 10 American writers since 1945? Here are the depressing results of a search at that site for the word “poet”.

But Larkin’s number 1, and though Richard Morrison (from whom I stole the title of this post) felt compelled to defend the selection against “surprise, disdain and indignation” from the literary world, readers at the site reacted quite differently. Many applaud the choice, a few quibble about his being ahead of Orwell, and one says “urrgh!”, but the majority of complaints are either that J. K. Rowling is on the list or that Terry Pratchett and/or John Betjeman aren’t—and why the hell aren’t they?

More puzzling to me is Auden’s absence. Are the British still pissed off that he came here in 1939? But even without him and the other two, I’m gonna do a little dance and shout “Hurrah!”


Some of you will have noticed that in this post I’ve abandoned the American practice of including commas within quotation mark whether or not they’re part of the quoted material. I’ve already had to forget that rule while documenting code, since in such a context it’s crucial to exactly reproduce quoted character strings. The absurdity and sheer ugliness of “and one says ‘urrgh!,’ but the majority” convinced me that we are wrong and the Brits are right.

And one more thing: Morrison, in the defence linked above, reports that late one alcohol-soaked evening Leonard Bernstein began reciting “The Whitsun Weddings”. On being asked how he found the time to memorize Larkin, Bernstein replied “What else is there to do at four in the morning?” Maybe I’m not the only one who’s kept Larkin on a very convenient shelf.


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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

I’ve lost two days to viral crap.
No one complained I wasn’t there
To handle this or that ASAP.
I’ve lost two days to viral crap,
But since I got to take a nap
Both days, I’ve just one cause to care:
I’ve lost two days to viral crap,
And none complained I wasn’t there.




Update: I’ve podcast it.


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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Spent the afternoon sneezing and reworking links here. I’ve done down to the end of the ‘m’s in the poet’s sites, removing broken links I couldn’t chase to a new home, redirecting the ones I could, and changing names where I noticed the change. N-Z sometime in the next week. One disturbing thing is the number of poet’s blogs which are now private—what’s the point of that? And Kasey Mohammad now has a (stub) wiki page, but Lime Tree is apparently no more. Even the wiki entry has it wrong.

I did add two new links: one to C. E. Chaffin’s eponymous blog, and one to a new online journal, The Chimaera. The latter I found via a thread started by Sam Gwynn at Eratosphere, “Poem I wish I’d written,” about a piece by John Whitworth, “The Examiners.” Never heard of Whitworth: I’ve ordered 3 of his books from Amazon UK, where books out of print or extremely expensive at the US site are often easily and cheaply obtained. And what’s the point of that?


Update, Jan 7: I’ve finished culling and fixing the links on the left, and I did find Kasey. I’ll be adding some new folks when I have a brain.


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Saturday, January 5, 2008

Once again via the always excellent Arts & Letters Daily, the equally excellent Edge has posted its Annual Question, this time “What Have You Changed Your Mind About?” One fascinating response, “Permanent Reincarnation” from Tor Nørretranders, sent me to Richard Feynman’s 1955 essay “The Value of Science,” and that all led to a new sonnet, “This Morning’s Man,” posted at Occasional Verse at the Sonnetarium and podcast at Listen Up!


Update, Sunday morning: Just fixed the broken link to “Permanent Reincarnation.”


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