poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poets, poetry, and the po-biz (with 8-string stuff)
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Posts from — February 2009

More Broken Lines

So what happens when you do write a long narrative in verse and someone else tries to read it?

The key question, it seems to me, is what happens at the line breaks. If you looked a little at the miscellany at the bottom of yesterday’s post, you’ll know I think line breaks in free verse must be acknowledged by a pause when reading, while line breaks in metrical verse shouldn’t be.

In free verse, the line break is either a purely visual artifact to organize a silent reading (viewing?), or else it’s a rhythmic marker to organize a performance. In either case, it forces the reader to experience language differently than in prose: the rhythm of the sentence is broken; the forward thrust of argument and narrative are diminished. That’s not a bad thing, at least in lyric verse. It may and I think does allow and encourage sideways epiphany and even glimpses of mystery, and it can be very beautiful.

It’s very hard to take in 200 page doses.

But meter makes the line part of the forward thrust of the poem, and, as A E Stallings noted in her “Presto Manifesto,” rhyme allows even verse without fixed line lengths (whether het-met or free verse) to be heard as lines. In this mode, however, it’s the line which is backgrounded, a pulse at the edge of awareness instead of a directive the reader must choose either to ignore or to obey.

You won’t be surprised to read that I’ve chosen to tell my ghost story murder mystery in rhymed metrical verse. But in what form? I’ve previously podcast terza rima versions of the “Invocation” and an opening fragment of “Canto I,” and I did rewrite a fragment of that fragment into ottava rima. Today, I’ve podcast the latter, as well — why not give a listen and tell me what you think?

It’s OK to think I’m crazy and tell me that, too.

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February 28, 2009   5 Comments

Broken Lines and Narrative

The two subjects come up fairly frequently on poetry boards, blogs, and mailing lists, but perhaps not usually in the same month, or at least not with a timeframe short enough that I can be simultaneously aware of both. This last month they came up in such a way that I begin to think of them as related.

First came “Why Narrative Poetry Is So Damn Hard to Write” at Allen Taylor’s World Class Poetry Blog, and then a message to a mailing list asking whether most contemporary English-language poetry is just “chopped-up prose” which was first answered with a defense of the use of prose techniques in poetry — at least that’s how I read it before nodding off after two post-midnight snifters of cheap brandy. But whether I read that response correctly or not, the next day I thought “Of course every prose technique is also available to the poet. That’s what Pound meant by ‘poetry should be written at least as well as prose.’ The real question is what poetry can bring to the table that prose can’t.”

Let’s pause a moment and consider that I just quoted Ezra Pound approvingly, and that in the same paragraph which contains that quote, Pound praised Swinburne.

OK. We can go on, after murmuring “praise Google book search.”


The most obvious resource available to poetry and not to prose is the line break — hence chopped-up prose — about which I have written at length on this blog in relation to free verse*, so I won’t blather on today. Then there’s rhyme and meter. and then …

Leaving out the various visual schools as productive of interesting, moving, and profound art but not poetry (forgive me, Bob Grumman), there’s just not much else.

And given that a good long narrative is hard enough on its own, given the additional difficulty of making effective use of rhyme and meter (or at least line breaks), and given the common reader’s reaction when he or she sees poetry (you know it’s not “Oh, Goody!”), why the hell does anyone want to write a verse novel?

Why do I want to?

I started one several years ago, and didn’t get far, but I’ve taken it up again. More tomorrow. (Is that a teaser or what?)

*A chronological miscellany for those with time on their hands: 5/15/2003, 2/22/2004, 12/5/2004, 12/6/2004, 12/7/2004, 12/11/2004, 12/13/2004, 6/14/2005, and 8/15/2008.

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February 27, 2009   3 Comments

I Screwed Up

When last month I switched everything, including my PayPal account, from mac.com to mikesnider.org addresses, I failed to update the PayPal buttons on my web pages. So, if you tried to use those buttons to buy 44 Sonnets or anything else, I didn’t know about it, and your money is sitting in PayPal limbo — but not lost. You just need to login to your PayPal account and cancel those payments and, if you are very kind and forgiving, try again.

I have fixed all the buttons except those at my old radio blog, and they will be fixed this evening.

I am truly sorry for any inconvenience.

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February 23, 2009   No Comments

So You Need a Poem …

In the sidebar under “Me & Mine” there’s a link, “Commission a Poem,” which leads to page named “Verse for Hire.” Here’s what that’s about.

I don’t believe (much) in inspiration. It doesn’t seem to me that artists are anything special except insofar as they have done the hard work it takes to be good at making the kinds of things they make. Musicians study musical form and practice for hours every day; painters learn to mix paints, to draw, and to handle brushes, and then they sketch and paint endlessly; writers need to be able to vary their sentences effectively, quickly sketch character, and pace and structure a scene in an interesting story, and they need to sit down, every day, and write. Of course some will be better than others. Maybe they’re smarter or maybe they’re more talented, or maybe luckier — but mostly they just work harder.

All of them, like any craftworker, ought to be able to do their work on commission, in various styles and forms, to a deadline. Poets included.

I know I haven’t (yet) done the work, and at 56 it’s getting kind of late to get down to it, but one of the most valuable things I have done is write poems either directly for other people or at least on themes and in forms suggested by others. I’ve learned to solve problems I might never have otherwise encountered. It’s made me study rhetoric. I’ve learned that I can do things I did not think possible.

And that’s why I’ll write your poem for so little money — basically, $2/line, unless you want something like a terzanelle, and then we may talk about hourly wages — it makes me a better poet.

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February 22, 2009   1 Comment

A Traveller from an Antique Land

Of course that’s from Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” and I quote it in the post heading because the pop-sci book on human genetics I’ve just started, Bryan Sykes’ The Seven Daughters of Eve, quotes it without acknowledgement in the second paragraph of the prologue:

Our DNA does not fade like an ancient parchment; it does not rust in the ground like the sword of a warrior long dead. It is not eroded by wind or rain, nor reduced to ruin by fire and earthquake. It is the traveller from an antique land who lives within us all.

It’s not that Shelley’s copyrights have long expired and the author knows he can quote the poem with impunity: Sykes expects his readers to know exactly where the phrase came from, to appreciate its appropriateness in the context of rusted swords and faded parchments, and to be moved by the associations created by the memory of Shelley’s poem.

There may be no one writing now in English snippets of whose verse will be instantly recognizable 200 years from now, but if there are such poets, you may be certain their work will share with Shelley’s, at the very least, techniques for remaining in the memory of its audience. Meter and rhyme are among the most effective of such techniques. They do not, of course, guarantee the quality of the poem, which is something perhaps forever mysterious. But however fine a poem may be, if it is forgotten it is gone. And Uncle Wystan taught us that “no work of art is unjustly remembered.”

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February 19, 2009   8 Comments

Lunchtime Sonneteering

Sometimes it’s good to go back through the failed poems, the ones that seemed finished, just not very good. I think I fixed one while I ate my apple and two oranges today, and I had time to podcast it: what do you think?

If you have a better title, tell me in the comments. I’d be forever grateful to you.

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February 18, 2009   No Comments

Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House

Tin House started publishing in 1999, when I was writing home security software and playing mandolin in Raleigh, NC. I wasn’t writing much poetry, and I was reading even less, especially in the literary rags, which bored me to tears. When, three years later, I did start writing and reading again, I was in St Mary’s County MD, writing software for the Navy and living in an efficiency apartment in a bar parking lot, the nearest Borders 50 miles away, Barnes & Noble even further, and no major universities anywhere near. Not much chance of browsing the racks even if I’d wanted to.

I’ve since moved three miles north, and my life is much better, but I’m still in St Mary’s County. It didn’t seem altogether strange that I’d never heard of Tin House until I got an email asking if I’d like a review copy of Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House — yes, blogging has its privileges. Of course I said yes.

But when it arrived, I was more than a bit taken aback to see listed on the cover Billy Collins and Rae Armantrout, Sharon Olds and Seamus Heaney, James Tate and Charles Simic: it seems I may have been more isolated than I had thought, and what in the world were those people doing in the same book, unless it were a classroom survey anthology of recent poetry — and those are dreadful things, governed either by ideology or a commitment to demonstrate the stinking breadth of contemporary verse. But though Tin House may well get academic or government grants (I don’t know one way or the other), it depends at least partly on subscriptions and advertising, which is to say it depends on readers, who put up money in expectation that Tin House’s editors will delight them. And they have delighted me.

Most of that delight comes from delightful poems. In the Foreword, Associate editor CJ Evans claims “Poetry can be as sexy as any scantily clad youth,” and Olena Kalytiak Davis proves it in the four Francesca sonnets reprinted here, especially “(And More)” and “Francesca Says Too Much.” Another of the four, with a title even longer than this apology for not typing it out, is available online from Tin House # 26. I don’t know where the hell I’ve been that I didn’t read Davis before (oh yeah — St Mary’s County) but I want more. Satellite Convulsions would have been worth the cover price for nothing more than such a discovery.

And she’s not the only one. Here’s the second of Victoria Chang‘s “Seven Infidelities”:

After ten years. He must known
her body, that she shaved up to
the thigh only. He spent five hours
at the gym each day recruiting
his neck muscles, lifting riverbeds in sets,
as they flowed past her house, like muddy
veins. Where she stood every day to see
if he drove by.

I love unsaid and half-said things here, the gym-rat’s obsession with cleanliness and exhibition implied by her shaving “to the thigh only,” his stiff-necked pride, neither seeing the other except as absent.

Mark Doty‘s “To the Engraver of My Skin” ends “I’m here / for revision, discoloration; here to fade / and last, ineradicable, blue. Write me! / The ink lasts longer than I do.” I typed out a copy to send to my tattooed step-daughter, and I’m almost afraid to send it.

I read the title of Sharon Old’s “On the Hearth of the Broken Home” and almost didn’t read the poem — but I did and it reminded me of the power she has at her best: “If I ever / dreamed, as a child, of everlasting / love, these were its shoes: one dew-licked / kicked-off slipper of a being now flying, one / sunrise-milk-green boot of the dead, / which I wore, as I dreamed.” These were its shoes!

I don’t want to go on just quoting striking snippets (though the temptation is there), and I don’t want to give the impression I liked everything in the book. I didn’t — but almost without exception even the poems I didn’t like did something, they moved, they had a real voice. I’m disappointed but not surprised that there’s so little formal verse, but Tin House is hardly unusual in that.

Indeed, perhaps the best thing, for me, about reading Satellite Convulsions is how the collection challenged some of my own prejudices:

  • Surrealism leaves me cold, but the title poem, by Ben Doller, just knocked me out.
  • The cleverness of conceits extended beyond the length of, say, a sonnet, often wear my patience, but Wislawa’s Szymborska‘s “Love At First Sight” manages 44 lines of increasing depth.
  • Erin Belieu‘s “In the Red Dress I Wear to Your Funeral #8″ ought to be the kind of poem I most dislike, but though it’s built of scraps of political manifesto and “consciousness-raising” rhetoric and its syntax is as fractured as that of the most stereotypical post-modern texts, somehow an authentic voice emerges. I don’t know how: I want to know how.
  • Epiphany after meandering is one of the worst clichés of contemporary free verse, yet Jill Bialosky seems to earn hers in “Pumpkin Picking,” perhaps because of the striking metaphor of the pumpkin stem as umbilical cord just before the end.

The editors had nine years of poetry to choose from (Charles Simic’s wonderful “Interrogating Mr. Worm” appeared in the first issue), so perhaps it’s not surprising there’s so much good poetry. But they had to pick them for publication in the magazine, and editor Brenda Shaughnessy recalls editor-in-chief Win McCormack asking “But can’t poetry also be effable?”

It certainly can.

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February 16, 2009   No Comments

A Podcast and a Promise

After buying a new headset microphone I’ve podcastLove’s Exchange — A Valentine.”

The Satellite Convulsions review will be posted tomorrow.

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February 15, 2009   No Comments

Happy Valentine’s Day

I’m a lucky man, so I’m glad to do my duty. Part of that is poems for my darling on days like today, and I’ve posted a Valentine’s ovillejo at Occasional Verse. I’d have podcast it, but my microphone appears to have died. Later, after shopping.

I’m also working on a villanelle for Darwin’s 200th birthday (so I’m late). Seems to me the form, with the changing functions of the repetends as the poem develops, is a fairly good way to celebrate what is arguably the most important scientific insight in all our history.

And the promised review is almost done.

And I am done.

For now.

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February 14, 2009   No Comments

A Good Walk

The car wouldn’t start this morning, after strange behavior yesterday. Hey, it’s got 215,000 miles on it and gets 30 mpg: it’s entitled.

So I took a day’s leave and called AAA and the tow-truck driver told his dispatcher “That’s Mike!” (remember the car’s entitled). After a few hours my mechanic called to say there was a loose ground wire to the computer (probably) and a bad negative battery cable and he’d fixed it and it was only $142.65 (no monthly payment, you know) and I walked the three and a half miles to his shop, carrying Satellite Convulsions: Poems From Tin House (which I’ve enjoyed a good deal) and finishing the it on the walk. Don’t know whether it’s coincidence or relief the car’s not wholly dead or enhanced circulation, but I seemed to enjoy the poems more while I was walking than I had been earlier this morning. I even shouted “Hooray for Charles Simic” to the empty road.

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February 10, 2009   2 Comments