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

Not a New Poem

But my brain’s still nearly as congested as my lungs were, and I didn’t want to end National Poetry Month without another sonnet podcast. The inspiration for this one came from the February 2006 National Geographic.

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April 30, 2009   No Comments

“Such beauty as hurts to behold …”

The Wikipedia entry for Paul Goodman quotes from what, depending on mood and weather and the usually dreadful news, is sometimes — no — what is often my favorite poem:

FLAGS, 1967

How well they flew together side by side
the Stars and Stripes my red and white and blue
and my Black Flag the sovereignty of no
man or law! They were the flags of pride
and nature and advanced with equal stride
across the age when Jefferson long ago
saluted both and said, “Let Shays’ men go.
If you discourage mutiny and riot
what check is there on government?”
                                                                   Today
The gaudy flag is very grand on earth
and they have sewed on it a golden border,
but I will not salute it. At our rally
I see a small black rag of little worth
and touch it wistfully. Chaos is Order.

Just look at that thing! Everything about it is wrong! It’s a damned sonnet with an explicit moral message; the sentences meander as if they’d pushed around by the exigencies of rhyme and meter — except that “blue” is rhymed with “go” and “ago,” “side” with “riot,” and “Today” with “rally,” so clearly the poet didn’t much mind an off-rhyme, and besides, nearly every line is enjambed, and all but 2 commas are missing: the first introducing Jefferson’s statement ending at the turn, which happens two syllables from the end of line 9 and is marked with a carriage return and lloonngg indentation (exact and careful work, a Petrarchan sonnet written by an anarchist), the second emphasizing that Goodman, unlike Jefferson, will not today salute both flags.

But, oh, how he longs to! Poem after poem laments his alienation from a country and people he cannot help but love. One poem salutes the constitution — provided it is interpreted by Hugo Black; another celebrates how our spacemen on the moon look just as we imagined them; here’s the sestet from another sonnet, “The Americans Resume Bomb-Testing, April 1962″:

“Resign! Resign!” the word rings in my soul
—is it for me? or shall I make a sign
and picket the White House blindly in the rain,
or hold it up on Madison Avenue
a silent vigil, or trudge to and fro
gloomily in front of the public school?

(6 months earlier, the Russians had resumed testing first. That poem begins “My poisoned one, my world!”)

The personal is political, we used to say, and for Goodman it really was, or at least his passion was equal for both, and he did not keep them separate. “Easter 1968″ begins “When young proclaim Make Love Not War / I back them up, I back them up, / and some are brave as they can be. / But they don’t make love to me.” Again, the metrical/syntactic oddity: “When young proclaim” seems as if “the” was left out because the meter wanted it out, but the last line of the quatrain, the first that rhymes (!), abandons the regular tetrameter of the first three. The effect is quite startling, and the meter never reappears in the last two quatrains, which details how one particular young man disappointed him.

Goodman was openly bisexual (this was when even gay folk didn’t like bi folk), and his poems are frequently explicit, and often funny:

BUCOLIC

The dark armpits of my unwashed
honey taste acrid but her crotch
musky and delicious with
its primrose of the field
where in summer cows browse
in the hollow and bees buzz.
Her tiny lice, seen up close,
wildly wave their legs like spikes
of alfalfa in the gale.

SOLSTICE

Leaping my shadow and Prick my dog
I took to walk the park
the streets the bars the wooden dock
      all a hot afternoon.

My shadow had a lively run
and stretched out long he came back home,
but Prick had never a sniff or jump
      the twenty-first of June.

He was always, even in despair, in love with the world. The title of this post is the first line of a poem marked “(MANNER OF SAPPHO),” which ends

This lust that blooms like red the rose
is none of mine but as a song
is given to its author knows
not the next verse yet sings along.

You ask what I am muttering
stupefied, it is a prayer
of thanks that there is such a thing
as you in the world there.

I’ve often written about Goodman, starting way back in 1995, on UseNet. Many of his political books, his work on Gestalt Therapy and his general social commentary are still in print, but only a single ($99!) copy of his poems appears to be available. That is a great pity.

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April 29, 2009   2 Comments

Home Alone Till Late

So I’m leaving a note in the form of a roundel on someone’s desk.

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April 25, 2009   No Comments

Howard Nemerov

I’m fairly careful with books, but my hardback copy of The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov is 31 years old and almost looks like I teethed on it. In a way I did: even before I found Richard Wilbur I was gnawing at how he wrapped casual speech or jokes or social commentary or serious meditation and sometimes all four at once in deftly handled meter and rhyme, at how he moved effortlessly from breathtaking cynicism to equally breathtaking wonder, at how effortlessly he seemed handled every theme that came to his mind, at how endlessly varied were those themes.

I open the book at random to find 3 poems on facing pages. The first is “Pockets,” which begins “Are generally over or around / Erogenous zones.” and notes near the end that “For all they locate close to lust, / No pocket ever sees another …”

“Hero with Girl and Gorgon” follows, an address to Perseus, ending

And now you must go onward through the world
With that great head swung by the serpents held
At lantern height before you, lighting your way
Past living images that mock or curse,
Till paralyzed to silence in the stone
They run unmoved on your undying doom.

And then “The Backward Look” — backward from the moon, to which “Even the immense power / Of being bored we brought with us from home / As we brought all things else, even the golf / Balls and the air.” Its final prayer to the Earth, our “Leve moder”:

Hold us your voyagers safe in the hand
Of mathematics. grant us safe return
To where the food is, and the fertile dung
To generation, death. decay; to war,
Gossip and beer, and bed whether warm or cold,
As from the heaven of technology
We take our dust and rocks and start back down.

Elsewhere there’s a longish poem “Watching Football on TV,” which I wrote about here, and in the same post quoted a few epigrams, of which Nemerov is an absolute master. Here are three I didn’t quote there:

“Creation Myth on a Moebius Band”

This world’s just mad enough to have been made
By the Being his being into Being prayed.

“The God of This World”

He smiles to see his children, born to sin,
Digging those foxholes there are no atheists in.

“Power to the People”

Why are the stamps adorned with kings and presidents?
That we may lick their hinder parts and thump their heads.

I’ll end — arbitrarily, since I’ve got no real stopping place when I get started on Nemerov, with the whole “On Getting Out of Viet Nam,” which is, sadly, all too relevant to our current politics:

Theseus, if he did destroy the Minotaur
(it’s hard to say, that may have been a myth),
Was careful not close the labyrinth.
So After kept on looking like Before:
Back home in Athens still the elders sent
Their quota of kids to Knossos, confident
They would find something to die of, and for.

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April 24, 2009   1 Comment

Everyday I Have the Blues!

Today the inestimable Anny Ballardini (her blog and fieralingue) pointed the New Poetry List to a new site, Poetry through the Ages, which looks like it may be very useful, and it’s lots of fun to navigate. There’s some weirdness: a page on the rondeau claims its structure “was an early precursor to American blues music, with expatriates like Josephine Baker learning about the form in Paris.”

I’d say “Oh my!” were it not for my own presentation a couple of weeks ago at a blues-themed open mic at the Prince Frederick County Library: my first poem was this sonnet saying farewell to booze and coffee (yeah, right), and then I said something like this: “One of the distinguishing features of the blues, at least the standard 12 bar variety, is the repeated line before the rhyme, so I’m gonna read some poetry with refrains.”

And so I did, starting with this rondeau reduoble, and including a pantoum, a triolet, and even a double refrain ballade.

Just like Robert Johnson.

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April 23, 2009   2 Comments

C P Cavafy and My Budget

I was so excited last month that a new translation by Daniel Mendelsohn of C. P. Cavafy‘s poetry is available, along with a companion volume of unfinished poems, that I added both, and a book by Mendelsohn, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays, to my already bloated Amazon wish list. And you know what happened a couple of weeks ago at Amazon. Mark Doty even blogged about Cavafy being a probable victim of Amazon’s new policy. I almost started to search for Amazon links on my sites so I could remove them, but Making Light and Simon Bisson convinced me it actually was a “glitch” — though Amazon grossly mishandled said glitch.

So what does all this have to do with my budget?

A few days ago the New York times published a review by James Longenbach of the new translations. Now, I’ve been happy enough with the Savidis and Keeley edition of the poems because, though like every other edition they ignore meter and rhyme in their translations, at least they note in the back matter just what the rhyme schemes and meters were for the minority of poems which used them, and, as Longenback notes, “Auden maintained that Cavafy’s tone seems always to ‘survive translation.'” But I am no longer happy enough, since Longenbach also says this:

Mendelsohn maintains that, given the translatability of Cavafy’s tone, he has focused his attention on “other aspects of the poetry” — the exquisite care Cavafy took with diction, syntax, meter and rhyme. But in fact this is not exactly the case. It is only through attention to these minute aspects of poetic language that tone is produced. And Mendelsohn is assiduously attentive.

So, says I, I’ve got to buy the books now instead of waiting for my mother or my step-kids or my fiancée to pick the perfect birthday gift for me next February. Not only that, Longenbach himself has a fairly new book on one of my obsessions, The Art of the Poetic Line, and another, The Resistance to Poetry, which has one of the most charming inroductions (available through Amazon’s “look inside”) I’ve read in a long time, complete with political advice from Yeats to Pound.

You see? There goes a hundred bucks.

I’ve tried to translate Cavafy, though I have no Greek at all. These are my loose syllablic, loosely rhymed versions of the first two poems from Keeley/Savidis, with Savidis’s notes:

“Walls”

Without pity or shame, without a thought,
They’ve built these walls around me, thick and high,
And now my every hope has come to naught.
It’s all I know, this fate gnawing my mind —
because I had so much to do out there!
How did I miss it when they built the walls?
The masons never made a sound, I swear,
and cut me off completely from the world.

Savidis: “Couplets of 14-15, 14-15, 15-15, and 15-15 syllables, homophonously rhymed ab ab cd cd.”

“An Old Man”

An old man sits behind his paper,
Bending his head over the table,
alone at the cafe’s noisy end.

In old age’s banal misery
he thinks how few his pleasures were
when he had looks and wit and strength.

He’s so old now — he knows, he feels —
and young just yesterday it seems.
How quickly each day, each year is gone!

And how that cheat Discretion lied:
“Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.”
So stupid to be fooled that way.

Now every chance he lost, each bridled
impulse and joy he sacrificed,
they mock him — such a prudent sheep!

So much thinking and remembering
make the old man dizzy. Resting
his head on the table, he falls asleep.

Savidis: “The line lengths vary from eleven to fourteen syllables, but the second line of each tercet invariably has thirteen syllables; the rhyme scheme is aab ccd ffe ggh iih.”

Copy-Paste FAIL: I missed the last, one sentence paragraph from my text-file draft: “You can see why I want to read other attempts to honor his forms.”

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April 22, 2009   No Comments

Good Advice

Slate‘s Dear Prudence isn’t the first place I look for poetry talk, but today’s advice to a mother jealous of her daughter’s beauty ends like this, complete with link:

And Shakespeare’s sonnets are the best summing up of the bittersweet necessity of the fading of beauty.

The manner of poetry matters, and so does its matter.

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April 20, 2009   No Comments

The Consolations of Poetry

Being sick sucks. I sit down to read or write and I am stupid, my head hurts, I can’t breathe freely, I don’t sleep well, and still the world goes trundling by. Today I’m coughing up bloody sputum, and I feel better than I have in a week.

But I did fall in love again with Robert Graves’ poems: here’s an early one in full, which I managed to post in two tweets Saturday:

“Love Without Hope”

Love without hope, as when the young birdcatcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire’s own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.

And on the same page of the 1975 Collected ( I haven’t seen the Complete) there’s the charming “Henry and Mary,” which begins with two quatrains in nursery-rhyme trimeter except for the tetrameter penultimate line of the second stanza, setting up the fully tet dialog of the last stanza:

She gave him a new-laid egg
   In the garden there.

“Love, can you sing?”
                                         “I cannot sing.”
“Or tell a tale?”
                               “Not one I know.”

“Then let us play at queen and king
   As down the garden walks we go.”

There are so many wonderful poems: “The Persian Version” of the battle of Marathon, ending “Despite a strong defence and adverse weather / All arms combined magnificently together.”; the “Gardener” who “had something, though he called it nothing — / An ass’s wit, a hairy belly shrewdness / That would appraise the intentions of an angel / By the very yard-stick of his own confusion, / And bring the most to pass.”; a terrifying poem called “The Sweet-shop Round the Corner”; “Beauty in Trouble,” who goes back to the “beast who beats her,” prompting the reflection

“Virtue, good angel, is its own reward:
   Your guineas were well spent.
But would you to the marriage of true minds
   Admit impediment?”

Graves is best known for his novels (one of which, “I, Claudius,” provoked a movie featuring both Peter Sellers and visible sexual penetration) and for his study of mythic structure, The White Goddess. But the poems flowing from the latter, including his most well-known poem, “To Juan at the Winter Solstice” (you can hear Graves read it here), seem to me just Graves riding his hobby horse, and ignoring what he does best:

“Flying Crooked”

The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has — who knows so well as I? —
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Update April 20: At Vary the Line, the Poetry Collective posted the full text of “The Persian Version.” During Viet Nam War days — and over the last 8 years as well — this poem had a special resonance for me. I can easily imagine it spoken by Donald Rumsfeld or Douglas Feith, with Graves cackling in the background.

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April 19, 2009   3 Comments

Samuel Johnson, Bless His Soul

So naïve! “…by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.”

That’s from the essay on Gray in The Lives of the Poets, though I found it today after being led by David Graham to Jack McCarthy‘s Notes from the Poetry Underground — a very good read, as is his Open Letter from the Margin. The first essay led to an exchange between between McCarthy and Donald Hall, reported in the second, in which Hall says this:

But every time I alter a linebreak, and often when I change a noun or a verb, I am doing it for the sound it makes. I don’t care whether anybody reads it aloud or not, the sound is still there. Linebreaks and punctuation are a crude kind of musical notation for the sound of a poem. They are not there just to be looked at, and the sound is the first thing.

Just what is the sound of a linebreak in unrhymed, non-metrical poetry, if it isn’t a pause, however slight?

But that’s an aside.

The real issue for McCarthy is the same one which led to such viciousness in the Harriet discussion on Plath: the relationship between academic and popular poetry. One poster said slam poetry would be taken seriously when Jorie Graham went to one. Well, Donald Hall did go, and enjoyed himself immensely, though he didn’t think what he saw and heard was significant poetry. McCarthy correctly points out that at any given slam “you cannot expect to see the Super Bowl of Poetry; what you’re watching is usually more like an exhibition game in the sweltering heat of the dog days of August.” The nationals, though, are pretty impressive.

The other day there was a “Blues”-themed open mic at the Prince Frederick library, and people brought guitars, some electric, and we brought most of Fractal Folk, and I brought some hard-times sonnets, triolets, pantoums, rondeaux reduoublé, and a double refrain ballade, and another guy brought a longish blues-stanza dream narrative and some sonnets retelling Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It was a very good evening.

I think that academic poetry cannot survive, except in the way that Latin may be said to survive, without strong connections to — make that free intercourse with — the world of open mics and slams and podcasts and internet forums.

Because in the end, Samuel Johnson is right.

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April 14, 2009   No Comments

Time and Chance

Today, for the second time in a few months, I watched Krys play in a swing band at a retirement community for a hospice benefit, and for the second time I helped a little — carrying things, running the singer’s sound, trying to get a recording. It went pretty well — I think I’m now official volunteer sound guy, and I love the music. There were prizes, a bad rhyming poem in no discernible meter, pretty good food, and dancers.

So here’s my second sonnet this National Poetry Month, and my seventh poem. Ain’t gonna make 30.

Like Kingdom Come

The Grateful Dead or maybe Nine Inch Nails
Instead of Artie Shaw and Mel Tormé,
But as we die some band will try to play
The tunes we boogied to before the scales
Formed on our eyes, while we were deaf to tales
Of debt and grief and pain, when I could say
And mean “I swear it’s going to be OK,”
Before we knew that nothing never fails.

Odds are they’ll do all right. Maybe the bass
Will just play root and fifth, but folks will dance —
A little stiffly — but they’ll dance. The drum
Might drop a beat, the singer make a face
Her mother couldn’t love; though time and chance
Rule everything, they’ll dance like Kingdom Come.

Once again I’m far from home. Podcast late tonight or early tomorrow.

Update, April 13th: The podcast is finally up. I’ve been sick like dog for the last two days.

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April 11, 2009   No Comments