Monday, December 28, 2009

This is the time of the year when I reread Hamlet and get very, very upset that I--and the people around me--are not the authors of our own destiny; that outside forces act on me, and that's called reality.

My plan was to figure out what the use of representation is to reality, then write it down for this blog-post. I think it's a little bit more complicated than a mirror up to nature (whatever nature is), but I haven't gotten there yet.

I care a great deal about representation in art and poetry inexplicably, I'm still not sure it's worth a damn.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Of course writing distorts all things

Of course writing distorts all things--be they physical objects or ideas. The apple on your counter is singular and complete, while any written description of that apple will be lengthy, multiple, and incomplete. Similarly goodness exists--(Yes! I really believe this!)--simply and indestructibly. Yet any attempt to define goodness in words inevitably becomes couch-y, contingent, amorphous, and thus prone to destruction.

Still, we cannot live without words. What writing is really good at is holding a multiplicity in mind. Just as you have difficulty remembering to get eggs, milk, and soap when you go to the grocery store, but have no trouble if you write a list. This is important because things are not just themselves but exist visible from many angles, surrounded by other things, in an ether which is feeling and imagination. Writing helps us to combat the loneliness of discreet objects in the mind. And to better represent the brick, which is as much a building as it is a brick, in the mind.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Blog Was Sleepy, Not Dead

There seem to be two overriding sentiments about American poetry

1) there is a lot of it
2) it is all crappy

Now I certainly don't want to be the apologist for putrid verse, but it seems to me that both these things cannot be true at once.

In December I interviewed a professor of English at Columbia University who said that modern poetry had swelled to such a size, with so many different pooets writing; and, simultaneously, become so fractured, with so many different schools and styles, that it had become a sublime object--utterly impossible to wrap ones mind around in full. Imagine a shiny ball so large you can't see the edges--can't determine, indeed, that it is a ball. Now imagine this ball to be made up entirely of twinkly splinters--splinters just large enough to feel in your foot, but not large enough to pluck out with tweezers. That's more or less what he thought modern poety was. (One further analogy to a big ball of splinters, he also seemed to think that most of it was annoyingly painful.)

A month later Daivd Orr published his epic "On (Great)ness" in the New York Times where he said more people were writing than ever before and none of them were great, with the exception of, possibly, John Ashbery.

This kind of talk makes me so mad, it makes me so mad. Now I just don't see how anyone can make such broad and pompous claims with a straight face. "Great" artists (whatever that means) have died in obscurity. It's the nature of art that you don't always know what you are looking at, and, often, you get more on a re-visitation than you did at the first pass. Moreover, if modern poetry is so large and nebulous that you can spend all day everyday reading it--and still have more to read--then how could anyone possibly know it is all bad?

"What if the next great poet is laboring away in obscurity?"

I asked this of a former teacher (and prize winning poet). He said it couldn't happen. "We are more self-aware now than ever before," he said. Couldn't happen. But, he added one caveat.

"If," he said, "they were submitting"--to magazines, publishers, etc.

"If they were submitting?!? If they were submitting!?!" You mean this recluse crazy genius has regular lucid correspondence with Knopf? Yeah, I know, the crazy-genius is an idiotic stereotype, possibly just as unlikely as the idea that no modern poetry is good--writing well takes work, it takes time, and, often, it takes talking to other writers. The next great poet isn't going to come out of thin air. Poets, despite what Plato might have told you, are people, too.

But even if a poet was submitting their work, I just don't buy the arguement that they couldn't get missed. We could miss them. We could totally miss them.

And that's okay.

Life is like that--it's large, it's messy, it's complicated. To the point of incomprehensibility. Sublime things (in Burke's defention of the sublime) are, so overriding that they can't be analyze. They fill the mind and wipe away thought all at once, like the moment a drill bit hits a cavity in your mouth. Your only thought is the pain--you have no thoughts. That pain is sublime.

One of the pleasures of art and poetry is escaping to these prescribed little worlds where everything is orchestrated and controlled--where we can see everything. It may take a long time to read Homer's Odyssey, but you can do it, you can see the edges. You may get more on a second reading than you did on a first, you may get even more on a third, but the borders are always going to be there. Art expands in depth into understanding. Art doesn't circle ever more diffusely outwards into incomprehensibility--it can't. Because we are always going to be able to see the edges, be they the borders of a book, or a painting, the last bar of the song. Thus everything within those borders will seem to have a reason, even if the only reason is to create a simulacrum of disorder and outward expansion. The real world, however, expands outwards into incomprehensibility. It's the difference between the cliff face that inspired Wordsworth to write a poem, and Wordsworth's poem about a cliff face.

Thus the American poetry scence has come to resemble life, not art. The world is more populous than ever before, and more people are literate than ever before. In the United States women are taught to read and write, minorities are taught to read and write, poor people are taught to read and write. Those are three groups big groups were never taught to read and write before. That's great.

So what American poetry has gotten a lot harder to keep track of, and sift the good from the bad? Tough. That's life.

Monday, April 6, 2009

By Heart

Article in the New York Times Sunday about memorizing poetry [linked at right]. Says 1) memorizing poetry is easy 2) it's pleasurable 3) it's cheaper than an i-pod. It also says that memorizing poetry might not help you do anything better, except of course, recite poetry from memory. I only had to memorize poetry once, for one class in college. We each picked a poet and every week we would begin class by going around and reciting a poem by our poet. The poet I memorized and recited was Leslie Scalapino. At first I didn't like Scalapino--I think because I didn't understand her. Then, slowly, I changed my mind. It isn't simply that I became more involved, but memorizing a poem forces you to understand them in a way that simply reading doesn't (or at least it did for me). And that's because to get from word to word and line to line you have come up with a reason why one should follow the other, even if it is just a superficial reason like we talked about clouds, so now we'll talk about ground. I have most of my own poetry memorized, but that is because I wrote it. I know the reason for every word and every line. Certainly right after I have written a poem I know it in complete. When it is someone else's work, that type of familiarity takes work, but it's worth it. I recommend if you think you don't understand a poem, memorize it, be able to conjure it in a context that isn't inside the pages of a book, then see how you feel about it.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Indeed, Byron. You guys are good!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wednesday was of course Emily Dickinson. I've been trying to think of something to say about Dickinson and having a devil of a time. She is just too mysterious. But it is comforting to me that these authors we have canonized have a recognizable style.

Thursday was Spencer Reece. A young author, but one I really like. He wrote The Clerk's Tale. I highly recommend it.

I want to write more and am sorry not to have posted yesterday but I got caught up trying to find some one to talk to me about the FDA taking over cigarettes, another subject entirely.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Mr. Tuesday

Mr. Tuesday was James Joyce from Ulysses. This is the chapter set in the library, where Stephen lays out his theory of Hamlet. A lot of discussion of literature. This is the kind of chapter that Nabokov said was more fun for the writer to write than the reader to read. Despite my deep love for Nabokov, I still think this chapter is fun.  

The ghost in Hamlet's father features prominently, but is also a stand in for what literature does--a kind of intangible thing that hovers in this world and also connects to another. But it is all kind of a joke, too, as we see that Stephen doesn't quite believe his own theory anyway. The ghost of Hamlet's father may not have a sense of humor, but Joyce does. 

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mr. Monday

Mr. Monday is indeed Stephen King, whose real masterpiece, in my opinion, is a non-fiction book he wrote called On Writing. One half vignettes about King's life and the events that led him to write, and one half advice to young writers.

There is, of course, an art to writing--or, at least, to writing well. And art requires architecture, or planning. But there is also an inspirational element to art. Inspiration is always a little bit desperate because no one knows where it comes from, or, once it leaves, how to retrieve it. And there is also a dogged, stubborn persistence to creating art. If inspiration is the ether, then persistence is the dirt.

Both inspiration and persistence have been written about (again, in my opinion,) ad nauseum, but to put them together, and call it flailing, I think is kind of fun.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Letter

I have not yet got your Prometheus, which I long to see. I have heard nothing of mine, and do not know that it is yet published. I have published a pamphlet on the Pope controversy, which you will not like. Had I know that Keats was dead--or that he was alive and so sensitive--I should have omitted some remarks upon his poetry, to which I was provoked by his attack upon Pope, and my disapprobation of his own style of writing.

You want me to undertake a great Poem--I have not the inclination nor the power. As I grow older, the indifference--not to life, for we love it by instinct--but to the stimuli of life, increases. Besides, this late failure of the Italians has latterly disappointed me for many reasons,--some public, some personal. My respects to Mrs. [omitted].
Yours ever,
P.S.--Could not you and I contrive to meet this summer? Could not you take a run alone?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hours clot. Birds flap like passports.
Fields explode with temper tantrums. Here comes trouble.

My soul has drifted too long like a cloud, so come and heal me,
bring me to the dirt, let my pores ooze with the brine of discotheques.

Hey you! Come unto me! Let the meadow march into my mouth!
I'm due for a moist trembling emotion, don't you think? Well, don't you?

Yesterday evening the daffodil shoots swallowed the horizon like butter;
now we wait all day for the color of yellow to bubble in their throats.

Ouch! Enough with the arrows! I know spring is coming.
Still, I've had my fill of target practice, I've had my fill of flying babies.

Everywhere mouth worship the tickings of dangerous strangers.
All night the resurrected grasses are suitcased by cow-kisses.

Last fall the lilac bushes wrote very convincing suicide notes, however now
they appear to be staging a bawdy leg-kicking comeback: what to make of this?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Heavens and Prisons

Is Heaven then a prison?

That Bells should ring till all should know
A Soul had gone to Heaven
Would seem to me the more the way
A Good News should be given.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Urban to Comfort Them

[This one I have omitted the name of a character--I fear too easy if I left the name. Everything else is the same, but the name is now X. And .... indicates where I skipped some lines. Happy Tuesday!]

Urbane, to comfort them, the quaker librarian purred:
--And we have, have we not, those priceless pages of Wilhelm Meister? A great poet on a great brother poet. A hesitating soul taking arms against a sea of troubles, torn by conflicting doubts, as one sees in real life....

--Upon my word, it makes my blood boil to hear anyone compare Aristotle with Plato.
--Which of the two, X asked, would have banished me from his commonwealth?
Unsheathe your dagger definitions. Horseness is the whatness of allhorse. Streams of tendency and eons they worship. God: noise in the street: very peripatetic. Space: what you damn well have to see. Through spaces smaller than the red globules of man's blood they creepycrawl after Blake's buttocks into eternity of which this vegetable world is but a shadow. Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Game

I want to do something a little different this week--instead of me just talking until I've finished my thought (as I do most weeks), everyday I'm going to post a quote by a writer. The quote will be from somewhere where (I think) that writer was talking about writing. Then, next week, I will reveal each writer on the day I posted their quote. Monday will be revealed on Monday, Tuesday will be revealed on Tuesday, and so on. Feel free to take a guess at the mystery author, or post a comment about what they said, what kind of writer you think they are, from what time period, or just whatever pops into your head--BUT NO GOOGLING THE QUOTES that is obviously cheating. This game you may be able to cheat at (I admit to a few design flaws) but writing and reading are two things you can never cheat at, so just get in the habit of playing it straight. 

I will have something to say about the similar mysteries in writing and reading, but, for now, I am going to kick it off with my first quote--and oh, this won't be true of every quote, but this first one happens to rhyme with the author's name. 

"I don't take notes; I don't outline, I don't do anything like that. I just flail away at the goddamn thing."

See you tomorrow--


Monday, March 16, 2009

Poets and Painters

Oh yeah, and one more thing I wanted to say about that high-school poetry class I sat in on last week--the teacher said he tries to steer his students away from using what he called "emotion words" in their poetry. Rather, he encourages them to use images. Because, he said, images can bypass certain portions of the brain--like the analytical portion of your brain and "just pull on the heart strings." Now, the neuroscience of all this gets a little fuzzy once we get to the bit about pulling on the heart strings, but I think he's right.

Actually, it sounds a lot like T.S. Eliot's essay on the "objective correlative," except this teacher didn't trash Shakespeare's Hamlet. The teacher--his name is Alex Bleecker, by the way,--also said that he sees this happening in the visual arts. And in painting. Which I also think is true. I think the visual arts (and painting is a good example) are in general much better understood and appreciated for their esthetics and emotion than poetry is. For example, paintings sell for millions of dollars. Even in this economic downturn, painting still sell for millions of dollars. No one has EVER paid that much for a poem, and more and more it looks like no one ever will. 

The mechanics of this disparity were, however, prior to today, a complete mystery to me. It's still a bit of a mystery, but the power of the visual to bypass certain portions of cognition really does make some sense to me. I also think analyzing poetry is important--ideally you bring both your right and your left brain to the reading of poetry--but analyzing might not be the best first approach. 

Finally, Alex Bleecker said, and I quote, "A poem is more than a math problem, you're not always trying to solve it."  I don't actually think there is a qualitative difference between math and poetry, but I do think that poems ask us to balance the right and left sides of our brain in a way that is peculiar. 

Here is the lovely, the enigmatic, yet relentlessly physical, Frank O'Hara. The poem is called 

Why I am Not a Painter:

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Playful title, not at all playful

It's snowing in New York. It was a snow-day for NYC public schools, the first in 5 years. I am feeling blank and hurried. So I am going to turn it over to Wallace Stevens' snow man who is both and neither.

The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Snow is at once esthetic and threatening. It's beautiful, but bad things can happen to a man out in the snow and cold. It's also only temporary, and therefore tinged with death. We don't often think of pristine, white things a tinged with death, but that is what this is. The "January sun" hints at the sunnier seasons ahead that will eventually free the spruces and junipers, but crack and melt the snow, the esthetic field of the poem. The "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is" is death, which at every [living] moment is inching closer, like a speck (or a season) on the horizon--it's there, but it hasn't met you yet. It's what ends the poem, and what ends the post tonight.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

What is so Great about Poetry?

I know I run the risk of not being taken seriously when I use certain language and turns of phrase. I want to be taken seriously. But more importantly I want to talk in a way that seems natural to me. Words are urgent. 

I'm just going to say it: I feel like so many people are on drugs when they talk about poetry--drugs, drugs, drugs. The New York Times published an article saying we have more poets today, thanks to a proliferation of MFA programs, but we don't actually have more great poets, and once John Ashbery dies--morbid thought imbedded there--we might not have any great poets. This whole category of an established--and therefore defined--greatness, seems nuts to me. That critics are able to act like Ashbery--or any other "great" poet--writes in a void of greatness is insane. Great poets don't come out of nowhere. Ashbery would not be the poet he is without the other poets around him. Ashbery may have read the greats--Shakespeare, Eliot, Bishop and whoever else you want to shove into that elusive, yet rigid and dry category--but he also admitted to, when he was stuck, reading minor poets, poets he thought weren't very good. He thought about what these poets were doing, he thought about why he thought they failed, and it freed him up. Having fewer poets writing might make a critic's life easier, but I don't buy the argument that it would actually lead to more "great" poets. The place where it seems to me this argument is headed is--you shouldn't write poetry unless you know you're going to be great. That's ridiculous.  (Link to the Times article in top right hand corner).

The article in the Times says that Lowell wasn't a great poet, but Bishop was. Now, I'm a bigger fan of Bishop than I am of Lowell, but Lowell has several poems that I love. I think the world would be worse off without his poetry. What's more, Lowell and Bishop may never have had a romantic relationship (as the article points out), but they did have a poetic relationship--they wrote to each other, they discussed their poetry, and they dedicated poems to each other. Bishop would not be the poet she is if it wasn't for Lowell. Their friendship had an effect on her, and on her poetry. All poets have some kind of dialogue with other poets. This dialogue is important to producing good work. 

Poetry has a long and rich history. Now, there are more literate people than ever before, and there are more poets than ever before, writing away. It makes a critic's job a lot harder. It makes a reader's job a lot harder. I am sorry it is hard to wrap your head around the poetic canon as a whole. Maybe the poetic canon has gotten so big it's impossible. Tough. But it is one canon, not two--great and not great. "Great" poems don't get produced without other poems--and not just the other "great" poems--they aren't separable that way.

Poetry defies easy categories, and all easy measures. THAT is what is so great about it. We've gotten so bad at talking about things we can't quantify--in dollars, in percentages, in graphs. Poems ask us to talk about them without quantifying, and that is what gives us so much trouble. Categories (such as great and not great) are a lame end-run around this problem. Don't get me wrong--greatness does exist in poems, in poets, but letting someone else, or even a group of someone elses, assign it for you is dangerous. 

Interactions with poems should fire your imagination. The imagination is what we use to peer into the future and problem solve--big problems and small problems. What am I going to have for dinner today? You use your imagination making that choice. How am I going to get a better job? You use your imagination. How do we stop genocide? No one has answered that one yet, but if they do it will be an act of the imagination. This is how we bring things into the world before they are there, in the world--we imagine them, then we see what we can do about it. You read a poem and it does something for you, or it doesn't; it excites your imagination, or it doesn't. I know it is more difficult, but that is what we should be talking about. The word great is trivial compared to the discussions we could be having. 

Monday, February 16, 2009

On "Christmas Tree" by James Merrill

James Merrill, the son of the Merrill who founded Merrill Lynch, never worked a day in his life, but he wrote poetry. He wrote "Christmas Tree" near the end of his life. Not only is the title "Christmas Tree" and the sustaining metaphor compares a man on his deathbed in the hospital to a christmas tree, but the poem is shaped like a christmas tree as well. Merrill does this with a few short lines with choice spaces (to make the top of the tree in the beginning and the trunk near the end). And then by alternating the length of the lines subtly. The lines get longer as the poem goes on and we near the fuller, base of the tree, but it isn't a perfect progression. We have a line, then a shorter line, a line that stretches longer, a line the same length as the one above it, a line that stretches a bit longer, and then a shorter line again. In this way Merrill constructs the piny edges of the tree out of words. 

(The irony is that it is actually, really, really hard to explain what Merrill does in words, but it isn't a difficult concept. If you look at the poem in the post below you will get it immediately.) 

I think this is really, really nice and subtle. It isn't kitchy. There are poems written in the shape of swans, and poems written entirely in spirals. In my opinion less successful. But "Christmas Tree" reminds us that part of what we love about every poem is the text of it. Poems aren't one dimensional--they have sound, and content, and then they have text. The form the poem takes on the page is what the poem "looks" like. 

Where the line breaks are placed is often related to the content of the lines, and just as often related to the sound of the poem--or the meter--but I think it is rare that a poet thinks quite so deeply about the text as a body, as a casing for the insides of the poem--and then makes that body reflect the insides of the poem as Merrill has here.

Christmas Tree by James Merrill

          To be
     Brought down at last
From the cold sighing mountain
Where I and the others
Had been fed, looked after, kept still,
Meant, I knew--of course I knew--
That it would be only a matter of weeks,
That there was nothing more to do.
Warmly they took me in, made much of me,
The point from the start was to keep  my spirits up.
I could assent to that. For honestly,
It did help to be wound in jewels, to send
Their colors flashing forth from vents in the deep
Fragrant sable that cloaked me head to foot.
Over me then they wove a spell of shining--
Purple and silver chains, eavesdripping tinsel,
Amulets, milagros: software of silver,
A heart, a little girl, a Model T,
Two staring eyes. The angels, trumpets, BUD and BEA
(The children's names) in clownlike capitals,
Somewhere a music box whose tiny song
Played and replayed I ended before long
By loving. And in shadow behind me, a primitive IV
To keep the show going. Yes, yes, what lay ahead
Was clear: the stripping, the cold street, my chemicals
Plowed back into Earth for lives to come--
No doubt a blessing, a harvest, but one that doesn't bear,
Now or ever, dwelling upon. To have grown so thin.
Needles and bone. The little boy's hands meeting 
About my spine. The mother's voice: Holding up wonderfully!
No dread. No bitterness. The end beginning. Today's
    Dusk room aglow
    For the last time
    With candlelight.
    Faces love lit,
    Gifts underfoot.
Still to be so poised, so
Receptive. Still to recall, to praise.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Poem Read at Joan Mitchell's by Frank O'Hara (audio in post below)

This poem is raw and sweet and gets away with a sentimentality most poems don't. I love it.

Maybe it is not really a good occasion to celebrate--but Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!

Poem Read at Joan Mitchell's

by Frank O'Hara "in case the heart gets thirsty en route"

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Bugs and Sex

Please believe I am immune to the poetry-as-pick-up, but that is only because I write the stuff--ick. 

Anyway, I think there is a very real way in which art is supposed to serve as a lubricant in our relations with other people. I mean what do you do on a first date?--you go to a movie. But even larger than that, the lessons we learn from art are (somehow) supposed to enrich our interactions with the world around us and--and most dearly and importantly--other people. 

That being said there has been a lot of poetry explicitly concerned with getting women into bed. Here is John Donne's three-stanza poem "The Flea." 

The Flea

Mark but this flea, and mark in this
How little that which thou deny'st me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
    And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met
And cloistered in these living wall of jet.
    Though use make you apt to kill me,
    Let not to that, self-murder added be,
    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself, nor me, the weaker now;
    'Tis true; then learn how false, fears be;
    Just so much honor, when thou yield'st to me,
    Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

In the first stanza Donne argues that the blood the flea sucked is insignificant. In the second stanza he completely abandons this argument and elevates the flea to dizzying heights. Then in the third stanza he returns to his original argument. Donne doesn't care about the logic, he only cares about the end result--you, me, sex. In many ways this is a very good poem. It's crafted, it sounds good. But let's not let form let us forget: he's comparing her hymen to a flea--gross. 

Since the dawn of poetry women have been used as symbols or stand-ins for Beauty. Sex has been used as a metaphor for living fully. Carpe Diem. We might be dead tomorrow, so let's get it on today. To quote a contemporary of Donne, Andrew Marvell:

Thy beauty shall no more be found
Nor, in they marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity

This poem "To his Coy Mistress" is also very well crafted. In many ways a stunning poem. Still, worms probing between a dead virgin's legs?--BIG ick factor. 

Despite being raised in New England and everything I have said on this blog thus far, I am not a Puritan at heart. I have no moral problems with pre-marital sex, sex between stranger, or bugs. I think sex, fleas, and worms are all fine subjects for poetry. I do, however, have a little bit of a problem with insincerity. And the uneven power dynamics patriarchal society creates between the genders. I think that, partially through poetry, hopping into bed quickly has become a trope of living fully--an absolute necessity in a passionate, poetic life. The problem is--and this is especially true at the time when Donne and Marvel were writing--that having casual sex is very different for a man than it is for a woman. Society still views promiscuous women differently from promiscuous men. It's crazy. It shouldn't be, but it is. Men are still much freer to behave as they like sexually. I'm not saying these things haven't changed since Donne and Marvell were writing, I'm not saying they aren't changing--I'm saying they haven't changed enough. And some of the residual inequality we are stuck with is very connected to poetry like this. I wrote a paper as an undergrad where I compare Donne's poetry to Nelly's song "Get Down Get Your Eagle On" and--and I want to be taken seriously about this--the imagery is strikingly similar. 

I think if women had been writing poetry in the 17th century the poetic trope for a full, free, passionate life would look a little different.  But, of course, women were not writing a great deal of poetry in the 17th century because, by in large, women were not being taught to read and write. 

Jessica asked on the blog if I read older, more formal verse, or if I only read modern poetry. I read it all. The older poems are part of the tradition our modern poetry is built on. I don't even see the two as all that separate. Older, structured verse is FANTASTIC. I love it. This verse is taught, however, as a kind of Bible for English majors, a gold standard. In many ways it is. I aspire to the beauty and intricacy of the unknown author of "Beowulf", Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Wordsworth, Yeats. I could list all night. All the way back and all the way forward through the history of poetry. But discussing some of this stuff--even the poems I love--frustrates me. If this stuff is going to be taught as a Bible, I guess I'd just like to see a little more justice there. It is hard for me to gush about a poem I find unsettling in its attitude towards women. It is hard for me to hear other people gush. I am left with these recalcitrant objections.

Poetry as a Tool to Pick-up Chicks

So, as you will very quickly see, I could never have written the post below. It is an article my uncle Ned wrote and published over year ago in the China Daily weekly the Shanghai Star. I send it out again in honor of the approaching, the looming, the imminent Valentine's Day. 

The Purpose of Poetry
by Ned Boudreau

So what is the purpose of all this art stuff? This is no idle question. Most of my students roll their eyes or groan aloud when I introduce poetry in English class. Many of my acquaintances simply do not believe me when, quoting, T.S. Eliot, I say "Life without poetry would be a mistake", or that I could not live in a world without the like of Bach, Mozart or Dylan Thomas. They want a practical reason for why I value art above all things.

Well, I have a practical use for art. Consider this: I once spent Christmas with friends in Los Angeles. The son of the family, Dylan, was infatuated with a beautiful, refined young German American lass of 19 years, Ashleigh, who played the piano. He was and still is a true SoCal (South-California) Dude: surfer, biker, fitness freak. He was frustrated: "What can I do, man? I need the perfect gift!" I used to change his nappies, so I told him the truth: "Buy her poetry."

Dylan looked at me with great disbelief in his eyes: "Poetry? You're kidding." His tattoos all but vibrated with contempt. I was not kidding. It took some time to convince him, but then we raced to a bookstore where he purchased Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese and Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies. That was on Christmas Eve. He took the volumes of poetry to his young Lady Love the next morning, as his parents, my Lady (a musician) and I celebrated around the Christmas Tree; Bach cantatas and Mozart arias played in the background. 

Dylan arrived back in time for Christmas dinner with a huge grin on his face: "She kissed me! Her mother kissed me, too! Thanks, man!" It turned out that he had completely surprised his Ashleigh, who had never expected such gifts from him.

So there it is: A practical reason for studying poetry, music or other arts. They help even Righteous Dudes to romance and win beautiful women. It may be a humble, perhaps even a base, reason. But it might move a few people (especially, guys) to discover how all true Song can help us--more than anything else--to live our lives intensely and fully. Plus, from personal experience, I know it works.

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?