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

At Least It Rhymes, Usually

Via a Google news Alert on “poetry,” I found a most interesting review of Andrew Hudgins Shut Up You’re Fine: Poems for Very Very Bad Children. The review’s title is “Bad Poetry Is More Fun,” and it begins “I’m not usually a poetry reader” (but who is, these days?) and does a pretty fair job of introducing the book — even if I didn’t already know Hudgins’ work, I’d probably order it. But this passage particularly caught my eye:

Life, death, family, sexuality — all the big themes are touched upon, just not in a very enlightened way. I’m pretty sure the term “doggerel” was invented for poems like these but don’t let that stop you– there’s plenty here to enjoy if your taste in poetry isn’t too refined. At least it rhymes, usually.

In possibly related news, the same alert let me know that for the first time in 25 years, the Urdd Eisteddfod poetry chair of Wales was left empty. As a judge said, “None of the poems satisfactorily combine clear ideation with masterful technique.”

That link above to Shut Up You’re Fine includes an opportunity to “Look Inside”; for an unrhymed, unrefined, and definitely adult-themed poem from Hudgins, look here.

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May 30, 2009   No Comments

Not Waving but Drowning

I learned from Slashdot (yes — news for nerds!) that Google is developing something which they call Wave for collaborative work. When you ask to be kept informed of development news, they ask for a message along with your email address, saying “Write a message to the Google Wave team
(Haikus, sonnets and ASCII art all accepted)”

So I wrote them a triolet (podcast here):

What poets dream they sing alone?
Can dancers dream in measured tread
To private rhythms all their own?
What poets dream they sing alone
When every word they’ve ever known
Is borrowed from the unknown dead?
What poets dream they sing alone,
Can dancers dream in measured tread?

I’m excited about Wave for a number of reasons. I lead a (very) small team of programmers abd I play in a pretty damn big band. For both there’s a real need for better collaboration and coordination, and I’m always buying or trying software that might help — so far, none really has — and Google has got at least a few things spectacularly right. Even so, there’s connectivity problems with the band and NMCI problems at work, so I’m doubtful I’ll be able to use Wave for them.

But I also am interested in collaborative work, especially long narrative work, with other poets, and there are very few poets anywhere near where I live. I’ve done one such fair-sized project — Pardon My Dragon, a verse play written with Matthew Shindell and Reb Livingston — and the process was truly painful (the finished work less so). If Wave works, I’m looking for partners. I’m looking for partners to help me find out if Wave works.

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May 29, 2009   4 Comments

An Unironic “Woohoo!”

It’s been more than a week — busy at work and busy rehearsing for and performing an all-Beatles concert with about half of Fractal Folk and upwards of 200 primary school kids. Was fabulous, but it ate writing and sleep time.

And during this quiet period, Online University Reviews published its list of 100 top poetry blogs, and the Formal Blog is on that list — so woohoo!

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May 24, 2009   No Comments

Off to Cackalackie

Where I get to see my two stepdaughters form my second marriage, both just about grown. Well, one of them is grown – and they were 2 and 4 when I met them! I’ve podcast a pair of sonnets I wrote for them here.

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May 15, 2009   2 Comments

Frederick Turner

has a blog! And when he says “mark my words: on poetry, life, culture, and the cosmos,” he means it. I traveled with Fred 35 years ago this summer and was blown away by the breadth and depth of his knowledge and the enthusiasm with which he shares it. I’ve only seen him occasionally since, but he remains one of my heros.

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May 12, 2009   No Comments

Line Breaks & Free Verse — a Clarification

While I was attempting last weekend to till the garden (I broke the tiller about a third of the way through the job) I spent some time thinking about reader’s responses, in comments and email, to my control freak post — it seems I sowed confusion there as well — and I want to try to set things at least a little straighter than my garden rows. Please understand that I’m writing particularly about the performance of poems, and I know some poets don’t give a damn about performance. They may be wonderful poets, but not for me. I’m just not interested in poetry written purely for the page. If a poem can’t be read aloud to a competent, comprehending listener, I won’t read more than a few lines and you can’t make me. By the way, “comprehending” includes what happens when we hear “Jabberwocky.”

First, I’ll try to make clear what I mean by metrical versus free verse:

  • In metrical verse, some aurally distinguishable speech feature is counted to determine when the line breaks. Depending on language and custom, that feature could be stresses, syllables, patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, syllables of a certain length, patterns of syllables of certain lengths, tones — it doesn’t matter, as long as native speakers of the language can hear it. They need not be able to identify what it is that’s counted to determine the line break.

  • If line length is determined by anything other than by counting aurally distinguishable features, then for my purposes here it’s free verse. The poem may be organized in some ferociously complicated manner, but however important such organization may be to the poet and to any students of the poem, if a listening native speaker of the language cannot hear the effects of that organization as the poem is performed aloud, the poem is indistinguishable from free verse in performance, and that’s all I care about here. Obviously that organization is very important in other contexts.

Whatever verse I write, whether free or metrical, I work damned hard to make it sound a certain way. I especially work hard to control the rhythm – the pace and the patterns of emphasis of the poem. And whatever verse I write, most of the tools work in pretty much the same way — length of clauses, kinds of subordination, syntactical jiggery-pokery, assonance and consonance, any rhyme (especially internal rhyme), passive or active verbs, almost everything. The great exception is the enjambed line break.

In metrical verse, enjambment speeds the pace of the poem – it jams the two lines together! In unrhymed metrical verse, particularly in longer lines such as the pentameter, excessive enjambment, just as excessive substitution, can blur the nature of the meter, as Johnson complained of Milton’s blank verse.

In free verse, on the other hand, enjambment slows the pace of the poem — or, if it doesn’t, then it can’t be heard and is imperceptible in performance. When a listener can hear it, it has great expressive potential. To take just one example, by emphasizing both the last phrase of the first of the paired lines and the first phrase of the second, it can cue the reader that the poet intends unusual emphasis on their juxtaposition — an effect difficult to achieve in metrical verse without some typographical cue such as an ellipsis or a dash or a sprinkling of ungrammatical commas.

My complaint with some practitioners of free verse is that they read their work as if it were prose, and all that wonderful suggestion for the eye is lost to the ear. Ironically, free verse is most like chopped up prose when readers ignore the chopping.

This distinction in the function of enjambment in free versus metrical verse is destabilizing to the performance of both kinds — poets working both ways lose some confidence in how someone else will speak the lines. On balance, though, it seems to me I’ve got a better chance of getting a reasonable reading (no such thing as a correct reading) with metrical verse, and that’s one reason I write mostly metrically.

This is not the first time I’ve nattered on about enjambment — I spent most of December 2004 writing about it, and my very last substantive post before moving from Radio to WordPress was on the subject. I don’t anymore agree with everything I wrote then, but it does seem still useful.

Unlike the borrowed tiller. I’ll rent next time.

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May 12, 2009   7 Comments

A Little Fit, Reconsidered

It rained again.

“The Gardener’s Two Minds”

The garden’s either muck
Or still undug, the truck
Mired almost to the bed,
Half the seedlings dead
From drowning, rot, or mold,
Frogs about as bold
As jays, mosquito clouds
When there’s no thunder clouds,
And everything is wet!
Nothing isn’t wet!
I’m wet!
But how can you complain?
Come August, you’ll miss this rain.

Listen here.

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May 8, 2009   No Comments

I’m a Control Freak

I took part in a mailing-list discussion of how some poem should/could be scanned, and it made clear to me why I choose to write in meter. It isn’t because I believe metrical verse is inherently superior to free verse: I believe no such thing. It’s because, in this regard, I am a control freak.

Natural-sounding speech, even a good imitation of very colloquial speech, can be written in fairly strict meter by any moderately intelligent person who’s worked hard enough, but it isn’t natural speech. In metrical verse there’s a dance between the rhythms of ordinary speech and the rhythm suggested by the meter, which is why we can speak of metrical promotion and demotion: in a metrical line, syllables unaccented in ordinary speech can be nudged by the meter to slightly greater prominence, and accented syllables can be nudged to slightly lesser prominence. The key words there are “nudged” and “slightly,” but they make a big difference in the music of the line.

In free verse, all bets are off. Some poets pause at the ends of their lines; some don’t. Some chant their verses; some speak plainly. Some acknowledge white space; some don’t. Some deliberately make oral
performance of their poems nearly impossible.

And that‘s actually the reason I choose to write in meter — I want to have at least a fighting chance of getting a reader to hear a poem the way I mean it to sound, to write so as to have the best chance of conveying the music I intended to put in the poem, and with free verse, unless the reader has heard the author read a particular poem, the odds ain’t good.

That is not a denigration of free verse. It just means that what I want to accomplish is unlikely to happen using free verse. The spoken performance of a free verse poem is underdetermined in comparison to that of a well-made metrical poem. Again, that is not a value judgement – it just means there will be more variance in a set of performances of a given free verse poem than in a set of performances of a given metrical poem. Of course there are variations even in my readings of my own poems, some of which depend on my mood, some on the reaction of any audience, some on the nature of the audience. I sometimes change words on the fly. It’s not the fact, but the degree of variance that matters to me.

Take a look at this poem in today’s Slate, by Lucas Howell, and then listen to him read it.

[ For those who don’t want navigate, here are the first few lines:

Out of the broad, open land they come.
Out of a coal seam’s
                                            hundred-thousand tons of overburden,

out of shit-reek barns
and shearing pens,
                                        or down from the powder blue

derrick platforms of howling Cyclone rigs
they rung by rung descend.

—————-

In his reading, there’s absolutely no audible indication of any break where there is no punctuation – no pause at all, for instance, between “seam’s” and “hundred-thousand tons.”]

Now I like this poem, especially when I hear him read it. But suppose I didn’t have that recording. How would I know that such visual violence should be completely undetectable in performance? Looking at that poem, a reasonable performer might very well try to respect the author’s intention by respecting the author’s layout of the poem.

This is a pretty extreme example, but it applies to almost all free verse – consider Sharon Olds’ tick of breaking lines after a definite article. That’s not in her performances. And then Jorie Graham, who does expect layout to affect performance.

Certainly people unfamiliar with the metrical tradition may bend metrical verse as they read aloud (mostly by banging on the beats and the rhymes), but the printed poem is not going to be so different from the spoken one as it is above.

See? I’m a control freak.

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May 5, 2009   10 Comments

Elsewhere

I stole that title of from the Blowhards and I’m not sorry — go read this post about the forgotten author of Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis. Michael Blowhard asks

Hey, some other questions that the Patrick Dennis thing may leave us wondering about:

Why don’t we value light entertainment more than we do?
Why don’t we value pleasure more than we do?
If it’s OK to think of Boucher, Fragonard, Fred Astaire, and Cary Grant as immortals, why not delightful writers too?

There may be more important questions concerning writing as an art market — but I can’t think of any.

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May 3, 2009   2 Comments

You Pick the Ending!

I’ve got this poem I wrote in triple meter, pretty unusual for me, and I’ve written 3 endings, and I can’t choose between them. Below I’ve typed it out with my current favorite final quatrain (candidate number 1 in the poll to which I hope you will respond), followed by the other three endings. I’d appreciate it if you’d use the comments to let me know which ending you prefer. The poem’s called “A Stratagem.”


When I talk about politics, poems, or art
My wife rolls her eyes and my kids run away
And my friends begin shouting, “Enough, you old fart!
Get over it, man! We don’t care what you say

About something that happened long ages ago
When a man named Somethingus said this about that
And Somebodyelsus said, “Actually, no,
Since your whatsus is broke and your ass is too fat.'”

Then they’re back to the tube, where Buffy the Slayer
Is bound by a vampire who strokes her bare thigh,
And I’m forced to conclude that there isn’t a prayer
Of serious talk, nor a reason to try.

Perhaps the solution’s to have myself dubbed,
Like a film by Truffaut in Hollywood-ese.
I could say what I want and they wouldn’t feel snubbed
And we could spend hours just shooting the breeze!

Here are the other candidates for final quatrain:
number 2:

I shall have myself dubbed, by Italians, I guess —
Though there’s much to said for the arts of Hong Kong—
When I ask “Don’t you think?” I’ll be answered with “Yes!”
And won’t care the translation’s hilariously wrong.

and number 3:

Perhaps the solution’s to have myself dubbed
Like Fellini translated to Hollywood slang —
I could say what I want, and they wouldn’t feel snubbed,
And I could believe I’m just one of the gang.

If you like, you can listen to the choices (along with most of what you’ve already read above) here.

So pick one! I’ll use the one with the most votes — unless you write an ending yourself which I like better than any of these, in which case I’ll gladly share the credit and any riches which may result.

Update 5/4/09: Fixed the weird punctuation which I swear wasn’t there when I posted way too late last night.

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May 3, 2009   8 Comments