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.