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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Monday, March 31, 2008

I’m glad March is ending. Last week we played 4 gigs in 3 days, which is only slightly crazier than the first three weeks. Just to celebrate, I’m going to make things downright lunatic.

Tomorrow is April Fool’s Day, and, appropriately enough, the beginning of National Poetry Writing Month, or NaPoWriMo — the only really good thing about National Poetry Month. The folks at the Poetry Free For All do it right, and I’m in, too. My thread is here, and I’ll be posting the poems here as well. Last time (2006) I wrote in a different form every day, but my inclination at the moment is to write 30 sonnets.

Lunatic.


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Friday, March 21, 2008

Driving back from Carolina two weekends ago I listened to Bob Edwards’ interview with Edward Albee, who said (I paraphrase) that it wasn’t worth writing something if it changed no one’s mind. When last seen on this site, just before leaving on the trip, I wrote “I have a bit more sympathy with suspicion, at least, of poetry with moral or political designs on the reader. But I wouldn’t give up the Aeneid.”

Here’s what’s bothered me ever since: why should poetry be singled out? Anytime anyone, in any manner, tries to persuade us to believe this or that, or to behave in such and such a way, we ought to be on our guard. I don’t care whether it’s a religious figure interpreting some scripture or other, a parent arguing for a particular disciplinary policy at a school board meeting, a friend giving advice about a diet, a doctor prescribing that same diet, a financial advisor recommending an investment, a scientist evaluating the efficacy of biofuels in moderating our global carbon footprint, a political leader making the case for war, or your mother telling you you’ll catch your death without a coat — they’ve all been wrong and many have lied. Hell, I may have been wrong a time or two.

And everything mentioned above, or at least its close analog, has been expressed in verse. It is perhaps true that not everything in verse is poetry (and if it were true, that’s no guarantee that the poetry be good), but Paradise Lost, perhaps the most important poem in the English language, was explicitly written “to justify the ways of God to Man.” Poetry doesn’t get more polemical nor more deliberate in its use of rhetoric than Milton’s epic, so it cannot be true that poetry, polemic, and rhetoric are immiscible, and, even though they may be incommensurable, I’d still say both that incompetence in either rhetoric or polemic damages a given poem and that their absence (can rhetoric be wholly absent from a poem?) diminishes a poet’s body of work.

I’m not sure that those are controversial claims except among the art for art’s sake crowd (if any such still exist). It may not be worth arguing about. Still, I think I’ll spend a little time over the next few weeks on rhetorical and polemical strategies in poems very much smaller than Paradise Lost. Without further comment (for now?), here’s a little masterpiece of both, Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed”:

“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,

We should have sat us down to wet

Right many a nipperkin!

“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,

I shot at him as he at me,

And killed him in his place.

“I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,

Just so: my foe of course he was;

That’s clear enough; although

“He thought he’d ’list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —

Was out of work — had sold his traps —

No other reason why.”


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Friday, March 7, 2008

And a quick note about Bad Poetry. MacDougald’s quite right that most of Blake is very bad, and, with Google’s help, you can prove it for yourself: just try to read his Milton. It's worse for that Blake-maniac I mentioned last night, Allen Ginsberg. “Howl” and “Kaddish” are important poems, especially the former, and “Howl” is still readable (for how long?) but gawdawmighty it‘s impossible to slog through any of his various collecteds unless you’re almost too high to do it.

I do have a small bone to pick with MacDougald when he claims “[t]he design of poetry is fundamentally opposed to the use of rhetoric.“ Rhetoric’s just one more set of tools, and it’s as silly to ban rhetoric as to ban rhyme or meter. I think, from context, that he has momentarily confused ‘rhetoric’ with ‘polemics,’ and I have a bit more sympathy with suspicion, at least, of poetry with moral or political designs on the reader. But I wouldn’t give up the Aeneid.


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Thursday, March 6, 2008

I’ve been trying to get back to bicycling the 27-mile roundtrip to work, and it’s working pretty well except that I’ve been stupidly tired at home while my body adjusts. So stupidly tired that I’ve been unable to write either poems or blog posts. I have been reading.

Amazon US has one copy listed — used, for $79 — so I ordered John Whitworth’s 1999 From the Sonnet History of Modern Poetry from J Harmsworth, a book dealer listed at Amazon UK, for a good price matched by a not-so-good-but-not-unexpected overseas shipping rate. It’s marvelous fun, but I’m glad I didn’t pay $79.

So, as I’m writing this, I’m listening to Allen Ginsberg read “Sunflower Sutra

—I rushed up enchanted—it was my first sunflower,

memories of Blake—my visions

and then I'm interrupted by a good dinner (thanks, Krys!) and I come back to the Violent Femme’s “Good Feeling” and I’m still in Beat-world, really, and Whitworth (remember him?) starts his Ginsberg sonnet by quoting “But what happens if I get old or something?” There are other Americans, as well: Dorothy Parker gets to room with Stevie Smith; Sylvia Plath’s with Tony Hoagland and “a shampoo or a home perm, I forget which” instead of with Ted Hughes, who shows up with the transplanted-to-America Thom Gunn; Uncle Ezra and Old Possum are “The Gods,” and, of course, starting everything, Walt and Emily show up together in one sonnet, followed immediately by William McGonagall*. Their closing sestet duet:

We are the People, following the sun,
We are the Gods, electric with creating,
The Brooklyn bounder and the Amherst nun,
New ways of seeing, being — punctuating —
We are the stars of hope, the stripes of sorrow.
We are America. We are Tomorrow.

And cummings consorts with a cockroach and the feline reincarnation of Cleopatra. The book is a lot of fun.

But wotthehell, who is gonna read the thing? Even Amazon UK only lists a few copies, and, from the current status both of the book and of reading in America ( here and here, for instance), there's not much likelihood of a reprint, and I bet you won’t pay $79, either.

But at least you can buy it, at least for a little while. It’s unlikely you’ll ever find R. S. Gwynn’s Narcissiad, another brillliant sendup of the late 20th century poetry scene, which I’m lucky to have in a xeroxed copy Sam gave to me. There is an excerpt in his wonderful No Word of Farewell, so buy that, at least.

And so much else is going, going, gone but for Project Gutenberg, iBiblio, and Google.

Of course, Google owns YouTube. And, as Patrick Deneen writes in his essay on Kurt Vonnegut,

Today’s students seem seldom to read for pleasure in the way that once was an integral part of the college experience. They latch on to YouTube downloads rather than authors.


*MacGonagall is passionately, and I think effectively, defended here. Not that anyone, including me, will ever call him a great poet.


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