Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Stop all the clocks: John Updike dies at 76

John Updike died last night. He died of lung cancer, he was 76. I was really, really shaken by this, not only because I love Updike's short stories, especially the ones about Richard and Joan Maple, which endow heartbreak with a kind of prismatic quality--the familiar world of the middle-class married couple is at once refracted, by adultery and, ultimately, divorce, and filled with rainbows--out of all of Updike's immense body of work, these stories have a particular, an exquisite, aching beauty. But also because I called Updike an asshole--twice. There really is no good synonym. I certainly did NOT mean cad. I wrote my junior paper about Updike's short fiction and moral criticism, itself a dirty word in some academic circles. I didn't make much effort to distinguish between Updike and the male protagonists of his short stories as Updike doesn't. Updike always wrote best about characters that were most like himself and talked a great deal about "truth" in fiction. When criticized about a lack of violence in his work, Updike said he hadn't seen much violence in his life.

Still it never occurred to me while I was writing that Updike might die, and certainly not in the next four years. I don't for a minute imagine that Updike cared much what undergrads thought or wrote of him, as he didn't care much what established literary critics thought. He said once, something to the effect of--there is no pleasing some critics, and there is no not pleasing others. I also knew when I was writing that Updike's giant talent was so obvious, so well recognized there was nothing I could do to tarnish it. That wasn't the point. But there is something going on in Updike's writing that troubled me, and troubles me, a lack that led James Wood to write, "He is a prose writer of great beauty, but hat prose confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough, and whether beauty always conveys all that a novelist must convey."

Literature is not one dimensional. There is a content portion to all literature. The writing, good writing, matters, but it isn't all writing. Things happen, claims are made, stakes taken. I don't want to mandate content. I don't even want to mandate content always be moral. But I do want my authors to think past the surface of language to the underlying things that words represent. That means physical things--apples, chairs, tablecloths--and ideas--love, equality, justice. Even words in fiction are part surface and part representative of something else. You don't get off the hook just because it isn't "real."

I know that sincerity and language have absolutely no connection, believe me I know. There is bad writing that is sincere, there is good writing that isn't. Still it is hard for me to imagine writing or reading seriously without an eye to both dimensions of language. Reading Updike I could feel like I was skating on a shallow pond. There just seemed to be something missing below the surface. And a lot of critics, I felt, skated over Updike's failings because his prose was so good.

That being said, I read and re-read The Maples stories with frightening regularity. I don't think these stories lack any substance, are missing any dimension. And there is no one whose prose I admire more than Updike. I think his work will always live on. I am very sad he can't write anymore.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

So, I got a question on the blog: if you read, but you don't read poetry, where is a good place to start? This seems to me like a very, very good question. While literary reading is up across the country, poetry reading is down--and a fun (well, actually not-so-fun) fact: poetry reading has declined most among women.

Frankly, I think magazines and anthologies are a bad place to start. Not because the poetry in them is bad, but because the best way to get engrossed in, understand, and come to love poetry is by reading a book. A dog in a poem by Eliot is going to be very different than a dog in a poem by Michael Palmer. All poets have particular words, images, and ideas that they play with over and over. But you won't necessarily understand the particularities of an author if you read a single poem (most magazine formats) or a smattering that spans a lengthy career (anthology format). Poets organize their work in books. I think you get more out of reading a book than you do out of these more scatter-brained formats.

I'd start with "Crush" by Richard Siken. This book is exciting both in the musicality of the lines, and the content. (I know I gave "Praise Song" a good review, but it wasn't a very musical poem). And don't kid yourself, musicality is very, very important. In the days of prose poems and free form poems, the way the line sounds is the only thing that distinguishes "poetry" from a Cuisinart Instruction Manual. When you start reading poetry think about the way the poem sounds--the words, the line breaks, the pauses in the white spaces and between stanzas.

It should sound good.

Siken's book is divided into 3 sections (I, II, and III) and concerns itself with heartbreak--a powerful, if popular theme. But Siken plays with narrative so the cause of the heartbreak keeps changing. The overall arc goes something like this--first section, the speaker's lover has left him. Second section, the lover died. Third section, one lover kills the other. But within each section there is some play, some give-and-take with the absolute narrative. The speaker has been shattered. He can't tell us the narrative of how he got here, or at least he can't tell us with any degree of certainty. All he knows is the raw feeling. Don't worry if you don't understand exactly what happened between the lovers. The speaker doesn't know either, and that gives the book the feel of a mystery novel--you're looking at the corpse of a relationship, picking up the clues, trying to piece together a before and an after.

And Siken plays around with ideas of control: he is an actor in a movie, "We're filming a movie called Planet of Love"; he's a writer, "I'm just a writer. I write things down"; then he's a director, "I have a megaphone and you play along." But ultimately everything spirals out of the speaker's control. As with a great deal of poetry, piecing together a chronology is impossible and unimportant. What you're left with are the pieces of life that don't fit into the superstructure narrative: We met, then we lived happily ever after. That's most of life.

Read the whole book to the end. Enjoy the poems. It's a book where things are constantly breaking or blowing up, and then you get to look down at the glittering pieces. Move forward through it. Read slowly, but don't think too much about what you are doing until you get to the end. Then and only then should you look back.

When I finish a book of poems my first question is always what did I like? Then I ask myself why I liked it. What sounded good? Why? I re-read the poems I liked, often I re-read the whole book. Then I ask myself if there is something I feel confused about. Is there something about the book I don't like? or don't understand?--or don't like because I don't understand? Poems don't rely on narrative and plot the same way novels do. You aren't going to spoil them by knowing what happens next. Poems are meant to be read and re-read in a fairly short-time span. By the time I get to the re-reading I am usually so engrossed in the book I don't worry about much else.

We make demands of poetry we don't make of other art forms. We demand that a poem make sense, that it have a "meaning" below its surface, and that this "meaning" be universally identifiable (often on a first, sloppy reading). We don't demand that paintings have "meaning" in this way. We like the way a painting looks, so we hang it in our kitchen. We are much more willing to just enjoy the brushwork.

And poetry aside, we know how to enjoy and appreciate art. Songs (as Ashley pointed out) don't always make literal sense--"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", anyone? And yet we are able to enjoy songs without worrying about whether or not we are "getting the meaning." Then, through our enjoyment, we find meaning. "Lucy in the Sky" means a great deal to a generation of people. We need to apply more of this type of thinking to poetry.

And this brings me to my most important advice to new poetry readers: DON'T READ ANYTHING YOU DON'T LIKE. Of course it is vital, as I have explained before, to give poems time, and not to rush to judge a lyric you haven't engaged with, but once you've done that--DO NOT READ ANYTHING YOU DON'T LIKE.

Aesthetic appreciation is the easiest way into a poem. I really believe that poetry is FANTASTIC. I don't think enjoyment is a difficult mandate. Enjoy the way the poem sounds, because if you don't ever enjoy yourself, you probably won't read anymore poetry. That would be a shame--for you, and for poetry.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I guess what I was trying to say below is that there is very much an ethical component to the way we encounter poetry. And people who are otherwise very ethical are very quick to dismiss poems out of hand. Poets reading to groups of non-poets (i.e. in public) are almost always set up for failure before they begin. Because listeners aren't engaging and, for the most part, they aren't trying to engage. I mean who are these hundreds and hundreds of people who after the swearing in of the first black president of the United States had nothing better to do but post a video of Elizabeth Alexander on You Tube, then dump on it? 

There were interesting elements in the inaugural poem and I think most people didn't give it the time of day, as most people don't give poetry the time of day. That's wrong. 

In the relationship between poet and reader there is a onus on the reader as well as the poet. Both have gotten a little slack these days. But the work you have to put in to be able to dismiss a poem completely is immense. It can't be done overnight.

To the (many) Detractors of the Inaugural Poem

Words matter. My (poetic) summary of Obama's platform is just that--words matter. Remember when Hillary Clinton accused Obama of plagiarizing MA Governor Deval Patrick? This is not a new idea. I have been saying that words matter in my poetry for years now. And it is not that I think I wasn't listened to exactly, I just don't think anybody cared. Of course a poet would say that. But using words improperly has HUGE repercussions--and I am not talking about grammar. I use double negatives very happily. I ain't no snob. I am talking about meaning. I was in a group of friends--men and women, having drinks--when a straw pole was taken: who has ever said I love you in order to have sex? Several hands went up. That's messed up. But it is not just on a personal level that these things become extremely painful. When the government says there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then there turn out NOT to be weapons of mass destruction that creates suffering on a whole new scale. I like "Praise Song for the Day," the poem Elizabeth Alexander wrote and read at Obama's inauguration. I have yet to meet a poem I didn't like. I like some poems more than others, there are some poems I love, but poems are like people in that I can't think of one I hate. And this is the reason I am so convinced that poetry matters, just as I am convinced that people--and by extension the way we treat other people--matter. If I could read a poem and not find some value there, it would be a lot easier for me to dismiss poetry as a whole. I can't, and I won't. If you are waiting for the post where I trash something, it isn't going to happen. 

I haven't yet met anyone else who likes this poem. The comment under the You Tube video read: "DUUUUUUMB." (Actually, I am paraphrasing, the real comment had more Us). "Praise Song" isn't one of the poems I love, but here is why I think it is FANTASTIC: the poem works in order to be able to use adjectives. "Praise Song" is built on work thus it [re-]affirms the substantiality of language--the idea that you can't just throw words around. The first adjectives are careful: "wooden," "oil," "dirt." They are all also nouns. The poem is careful, unlike politicians, not to suggest anything it can't make material. At first only "words" are assigned adjectives that are not also nouns. Words are "spiny" and "smooth." These adjectives serve not to increase the ethereal nature of words, but to make words tactile. Finally we get to, "Say it plain." Alexander didn't write "Say it plainly" which would have been more correct, she changed the adverb "plainly" to an adjective "plain" which is more natural. This opens the poem up to the possibility of adjectives. Adjectives are necessary, but they have to be "plain" and sturdy, like trustworthy furniture.  

Then we get the pivotal line: "What if the mightiest word is love?" The most important word in this sentence is not "love" but "mightiest." The weight falls on the adjective. This statement would be meaningless if you didn't first believe in the solidity of the poet's adjectives. This line is built on previous toil just as the Unites States is built on the work of the poem's subjects, the "many" (many is a pronoun here, not an adjective as it refers to actual people) who have died for this day. Alexander leaves us with "today's sharp sparkle." Two adjectives make up the thing--but it isn't a thing really. The closest analogy is just "this winter air." It's the future and it's a promise: "any thing can be made, any sentence begun." Alexander is careful to separate "any" and "thing." Anything is ethereal. Any thing is all encompassing and real. Everyone has been lied to. Promises are easy and meaningless. What is difficult and meaningful is convincing someone who has been lied to over and over that you intend to keep your promise, that any future failing on your part with be unanticipated and struggled against. "Praise Song" does this. Solid poem.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Lose Your Innocence Quickly

"In a Station of the Metro" by Ezra Pound

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

That's it: poem done. I am beginning with this poem because it's short--seriously, guys--and that makes it quick, and easy to read in its entirety. But shortness also makes it surprising. What begins "In a Station of the Metro" very rapidly drops into hell, or, at the very least, purgatory--I am going to say purgatory rather than hell because nothing in the poem screams "HOT." Yet traveling can get very, very hot--getting packed into crowded, poorly ventilated places, often underground. Delays happen. You get stuck on a train, or a plane, on a bus, in traffic, in a car, in a tunnel, all around you there are people suffering similarly to you, yet they are strangers and seem completely separate. It can feel like you'll be stuck there forever. You're tired or hungry, maybe you get motion-sick, and that makes you feel like hell. Pound's use of the word "apparition" and his description of a "black bough" are traditionally read as giving the poem an underworld quality. And this--again--is shocking. Even Dante took the reader on a slow (34 Cantos, around 200 pages), winding descent into hell, and Dante brings us up again. With Pound it's a straight plummet. The ground you were standing on when you read the title for the first time has been shattered, you can't go back there, and--and this is the most important part--you can't get back to a state of innocence. Even if you re-read the poem starting with the title, you will always remember where the poem ends, what that looks like, and what it feels like. Years later you'll remember. That is the beauty and the damnation of a really good short poem--there is nowhere to go but down it, and you remember the end forever without ever trying. This poem irrevocably obliterates innocence with knowledge. I think about it every time I enter the subway.

Poetry is Easy (to think about)

Pound himself does not mention the underworld when he talks about how he came to write this poem:

"I got out of a "metro" train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion."

Pound wrote a 30 line poem about the sighting and destroyed it. Six months later he wrote a 15 line poem, also discarded. A year and a half after his experience in the metro, Pound came up with the two lines we read today. These lines are influenced by his reading and translation of Japanese hokku. What Pound took away from the Japanese form was what he called "super-position." The poem is essentially a one-image poem, that image being "faces in the crowd." But Pound overlays this image with another, seemingly separate image "Petals on a wet, black bough" thus merging the two images to give you a sense of the feeling, not just the look, of the crowded train station. The poem is built directly from sensuous experience. It isn't easy to understand, but it is easy to think about.

Poetry and Ugliness

I begin with Pound for one more reason: he is "the poet's poet." Pound ushered in the Modern era when he chopped-up T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland." Eliot dedicated that poem to Pound who he called "il miglior fabbro", or the better maker. Pound was a titan of the literary world of his day. He was friends with both Joyce and Yeats. He exerted his influence on Ernest Hemingway and William Carlos Williams, and he helped establish the reputations of Robert Frost and D.H. Lawrence. 

Pound was also an anti-Semite. During World War II he lived in Italy and began a radio broadcast called "The American Hour." He used the time to rail against the U.S. attacking Italy, monetary policy, and Jews. When Italy was finally defeated Pound was turned over to the American army and held outside Pisa. The detention ruined both his physical and mental health. He was sent back to the U.S. to stand trial and declared insane. He spent more than a decade in a mental hospital.

And here we come to my biggest question about poetry: what good is poetry if you can write it, read it--studying it deeply--and simultaneously conclude that one people is better than another? Poetry has been part and parcel of so much insanity and unequal social policy over the years--am I even wrong to find Pound's hatred incongruous with his work? I do, by the way, utterly and totally. When beauty and ugliness mix in one mind--maybe in all minds--what is poetic insight if it does not equal "real" insight?