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

One More Day …

… I find myself alive …

That’s how the bridge begins in the Grateful Dead’s “Black Peter,” but I think there’s little chance of going beneath the ground tomorrow. And only slightly more chance of my doing NaPoWriMo this year.

Too much rain on the weekends and we’re way behind on the garden, the band’s just getting going, and I’m already exhausted. But there will be lots of action at the Poetry Free For All‘s hootenanny, and probably at the Gazebo as well.

This year I’ll probably just be cheering, but you can get copies of my 2006 (30 Forms in 30 Days) and 2008 (Jack Songs, a revenge tale in the voices of the characters) adventures for free in pdf format or $3 for hand-sewn signed chapbooks. I’ll add PayPal links at the page soon, but for now just send me an email.

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March 30, 2009   1 Comment

Free Verse Is Not Easy, Either

I started to write this in reply to a comment, but it’s important enough that it should be in a post.

I meant it when I said the problem of a lack of working language to describe competence in free verse was greater for poets than for readers. It may be easier to bullshit your way through a poem in free verse than in meter because until you get the hang of meter it can really push you around. But writing a good poem, or god help you, a book of good poems in free verse seems to me to be much harder than it would be in meter, because you don’t have a partner to dance with. I have nothing but admiration — maybe a little wonder and envy — for poets like Denise Levertov, or Robert Creeley, or Stanley Kunitz, or Franz Wright, or Ted Kooser, or Louise Glück, or a dozen others who consistently produced very good poems without the aid of meter or rhyme.

Great poems — well, they’re a mystery however you work.

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March 27, 2009   10 Comments

Why So Many Muffins?

Fractal Folk is live!

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March 27, 2009   No Comments

OMG! Poetry’s Dying!

See? Maybe they surveyed Borges?

Of course he’s not reading anything at all anymore. And just so you know how skewed my reading is, I found that Newsweek article via a blog at the Poetry Foundation.

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March 27, 2009   1 Comment

Asking the Right Question

I saw Borges at the University of Louisville, not long before he died. During the Q&A following the performance, mediated by a translator, someone asked the poet who among his contemporaries had influenced his work. Borges answered, “Nadie.” No one. Dissatisfied, or perhaps thinking that either the question or the answer had been mistranslated, the questioner tried a couple of variations, finally asking “Who among your contemporaries do you read?”

By this time a little exasperated, Borges replied, “I don’t read my contemporaries. Why should I? They have the same problems I do.”

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March 27, 2009   No Comments

Simple Competence

Zapruder was right about one thing: we don’t have a good vocabulary for talking about the choices most recent and contemporary poets make in getting from one line or one word to the next. The thing is, it’s a problem, not for readers, but for folks trying to learn to make poems.

It may be true that some study of technique enriches the experience of an art for a member of its audience, but most people I know have had the experience of falling head over heels in love with some new piece of music, some sculpture, some novel, and partly for its strangeness. Nobody I’ve ever heard of has ever just sat down, with no preparation, and made a significant work of art. Jazz players have to know harmony and modes in their bones; the difference between first and second chair in a major orchestra is several thousand hours of practice; orchestration requires years of difficult study; painters — well, painters, even Picasso, before we learned to love abstract art — painters spend long days all their lives drawing obsessively, studying the lines of their teachers and predecessors. The Beatles played 1200 live shows before their first hit song.

What on earth, besides cultural studies, do all those thousands of MFA students in poetry study?

That’s unfair, I know. But just what is the vocabulary we can use to discuss competence in making, say, line breaks in non-metrical poetry?

It’s not hard to define a competent English-language sonneteer — such a person can consistently manage pentameter and rhyme so as to present something coherent and interesting within the constraints of the form without doing violence to the patterns and rhythms of speech.

There’s nothing at all mysterious in that definition, nothing that itself cannot be clearly defined, except perhaps “interesting.” It’s a fairly low bar, I believe at about the same level intended by such faint praise as “competent landscape painter,” and subject to the same sneers from the School of Phlogiston and whatever is its equivalent in the visual arts. Still, it is something. Here’s J. V. Cunningham’s magnificent answer to those sneers:

For My Contemporaries

How time reverses
The proud in heart!
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.

But I sleep well.
Ambitious boys
Whose big lines swell
With spiritual noise,

Despise me not!
And be not queasy
To praise somewhat:
Verse is not easy.

But rage who will.
Time that procured me
Good sense and skill
Of madness cured me.

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March 26, 2009   3 Comments

Derangement

Matthew Zapruder has written a piece at the Poetry Foundation calling for a new criticism of poetry to guide readers past their resistance to the unfamiliar. Poetry, more than the other arts, suffers from this resistance because “poets take the material that we depend on to operate in and make sense of the world (language), and bend it to other, often seemingly obscure, purposes.”

Now, considering that operating in the world covers pretty much everything, including making sense of the world, just what might those other purposes be? I dunno, but apparently critics can help because without them “we will hold on to the familiar and be unable to accept that there are other uses for language, that there is new and exciting poetry all around us.” And they’ll help by giving us the right terms to use in thinking about and analyzing poetry, just as art critics gave viewers the right terms to use in analyzing non-representational painting: even if we don’t like it, we “know there is a difference between abstraction and representation.”

Never mind the circularity. Let’s accept for a moment that people aren’t buying new kinds of poetry (are they buying any kind of poetry?) because they don’t have the analytical tools to appreciate the new kinds of poetry. Zapruder has some suggestions. The first is a distinction between “lyric” and “narrative” poetry, which he admits is perhaps problematic because, among other things, they aren’t mutually exclusive:

The story and the song go hand in hand. The terms “narrative” and “lyric” sound good, but they don’t really help make actual distinctions between kinds of poems; ultimately, the terms just become ways of describing various social communities. A “conservative” magazine publishes “narrative” poetry, and an “experimental” journal publishes “lyric” poetry, etc., though of course immediately in the course of saying this it becomes clear that those terms, narrative and lyric, no longer refer to the actual mechanisms of the poems, but are mere shorthands for degrees of supposed experimentation and coolness. Which is useless to understanding poetry.

Amen to that last. And it’s good to know that my triolets are experimental, or at least cool, if they eschew narrative.

The last half of the essay explores a distinction he proposes might actually be useful:

Does the poem have a single, particular, specified consciousness, speaking in a relatively identifiable situation? Or does the poem have a less defined consciousness, speaking without need of or reference to a particular situation?

You can see this is something like abstract side of the representational/abstract distinction in the visual arts — words spoken by no one in particular about nothing in particular. But there’s an important difference between visual imagery and language which Zapruder and too many advocates of “the new” in poetry ignore.

We try to make sense of, to recognize visual images; we play games with them (camels in the clouds); we like or dislike them; we find them interesting or boring; they go with the sofa or they don’t — but for most of us they are not tools. Language is a fundamental tool for all of us. It is literally the way we make sense of the world, even of a painting by Jackson Pollock, even, as Zapruder admits, of a poem by Rae Armantrout.

Deranging the senses is different from deranging thought. To like the way a painting looks in a room does not require an understanding of the painting. Word salad is a symptom of brain damage — it’s scary noise, and I suspect that’s the reason so much experimental poetry is jokey. If you can’t laugh at it, it’s time to run away.

Update 23:04: I should have pointed out two other important differences between sight and language. First, a blue patch means nothing until we’ve built an image out of its relation to other patches of color, while words mean something in and of themselves. Second, sight is profoundly nonlinear, with the gaze saccading all over a scene as we take it in to build that image, but language is serial, linear — one word after another as we build up meaning.

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March 25, 2009   1 Comment

What a Week!

Band practice, importing the video from a shoot for band promo packages (I had to buy a new computer!), trying and failing miserably to learn the music to accompany an elementary school choral concert so I had to improvise fills last night, and now off to North Carolina to sign away the house on which I pay the mortgage and then spend a day with my two stepdaughters before driving back here Sunday for band practice — not much poetry if I don’t get up early tomorrow morning at the hotel.

But the band is fabulous and has a name — Fractal Folk — and better recordings soon, and NaPoWriMo is coming, and I’m reading X. J. Kennedy‘s In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus, and I have a draft of a review of Other Summers (my first look here), and I’ve podcast a personal favorite from among my oder old poems, a sonnet about God and grace and sex at church camp.

It’s mostly true.

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March 20, 2009   No Comments

Flow

From an excerpt of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, by Adam Bradley:

Part of the synergy of beats and rhymes is that they protect each other from their own potential excesses. Beats without voices soon become monotonous. Rhymes in isolation expose the frailty of the human voice and the fallibility of the rapper’s vocal rhythms. Together, however, beats and rhymes find strength: the voice gives the beat humanity and variety; the beat gives the rhyme a reason for being and a margin for error. This essential relationship is rap’s greatest contribution to the rhythm of poetry: the dual rhythmic relationship.

Of course I’m not the first to have done so, and Bradley himself quotes Paul Fussell, but that’s what I’ve been saying about metrical poetry for years! The meter — the beat — dancing with the rhythms of speech pointed by rhyme. That’s where the magic is. As Bradley quotes RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, “we hear two and sometimes many more rhythms layered on top of one another. The central rhythmic relationship, though, is always between the beat and the voice.”

I’ve ordered the book.

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March 17, 2009   No Comments

I’ve Got To Read Martin Earl

His post at Harriet and Annie Finch‘s response are powerful evocations of the power of poetic form to create an awareness of other voices, other minds, of another human being embodied in language. “A man speaking to other men” said Wordsworth long ago, and we can forgive him his ignorance of social theory.

Earl invokes António Damásio‘s concept of the “embodied mind,” and this is precisely correct, and also the reason for my one disagreement (happily addressed by Annie Finch) with his essay. His penultimate paragraph:

Seen in the light of cognitive neuroscience it is easier, and less emotionally fraught, to begin to understand why poetry, and by extension, literature and erudite culture in general, is already well along the road to extinction. It is a question of stimulus; the world is changing how we feel about the world, and the aesthetic products which derive from the need to articulate those feelings are changing as a consequence. Since poetry is now written largely without rules (or written with self-invented rules), since the common craft of metrics, rhyming, quantifying are no longer taught, largely dispensed with by the community, the result is a less universal and a more personal poem, a poem that can no longer be “read”, except by the writer and the writer’s closest cohorts – those who know the language. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. There is simply no need in today’s world to write or to read epics composed in ottava rima which tell the life-stories of unlikely heroes.

The lack of “rules” he cites does indeed lead to the result he says it does, but there is something intrinsically wrong with that. I’m not saying there is something wrong with private poetry, or poetry only for one’s “closest cohorts,” but if that is all there is, then too much is lost. And Earl knows this:

Just to hold these books [an 1824 collection of Byron] in my hands delights my whole nervous system and, at times, there seems nothing more perfect in English than Byron’s making the Italian ottava rima his own.

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March 16, 2009   No Comments