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

Poetic Justice?

I’m glad that two Supreme Court Justices have a little poetry as part of their familiar mental furniture. For many reasons I’m afraid the time is not far off when such casual quotation of poetry between important public officials will be a historical curiosity: fewer and fewer people read poetry at all; fewer poets are interested in making memorable poems; even fewer poets are interested in the techniques of rhetoric, rhyme, and prosody which can support making memorable poems; many actively avoid those techniques, distrusting them as productive of earworms, meaningless snippets that can actually interfere with comprehension of the poem — if they’re even interested in being understood.

And it seems to me possible that the line from “Stopping By Woods” is just such an earworm for Roberts. After all, he’s suggesting Souter is eager to give up his seat in order to return to “return to your land ‘of easy wind and downy flake’” – but the poem is actually a rejection of the temptation to rest in that place:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Souter’s reply, on the other hand, seems to me deeply grounded in the complex and unsettling “Two Tramps in Mud-Time.” He is grateful for the opportunity he’s had to do meaningful work — work “where love and need are one” — and deeply aware that such work is denied to many. Everything in the poem is precariously balanced: the singing bird “wouldn’t advise a thing to blossom”; in summer we’ll miss spring’s plentiful water, still we should “Be glad of water, but don’t forget / The lurking frost in the earth beneath”; there is even a sense in which his privilege is an affront to the two tramps’ lack:

They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man’s work for gain.

And yet he continues his work.

Obviously I have no real knowledge at all either of Roberts’ or Souter’s reading habits or of their intentions in quoting Frost. But I’m sorry it’s Souter who’s leaving the court.

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June 30, 2009   No Comments

Supreme Poet

From the Christian Science Monitor via a Google Alert for the word “poetry,” I learn that Justices Roberts and Souter said farewell to each other with letters quoting, first, Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” (Roberts to Souter) and then his “Two Tramps In Mud Time” (Souter to Roberts). Pretty fabulous, especially because the references are, not exactly casual, but they’re not announced – Roberts quotes six words with no attribution, expecting Souter to just know the line, and Souter does. He responds

You quoted the Poet, and I will, too, in words that set out the ideal of the life engaged, “…where love and need are one…”

And that capitol ‘P’!

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June 29, 2009   No Comments

I’ve Been Trying

but my laptop died June 9 (wah!) and my desktop has been dedicated to production of a video promo pack for Fractal Folk (yay!) and the computers at work are for, weIl, for work (sigh), and my handwriting’s gotten worse (wtf!), so I haven’t done any writing done this month: I’ve completely forgotten how to work with pen and paper.

It will be August before I can replace the laptop, but Krys should finish the promo pack in the next few days, and I’ll be back to work. I have been reading poetry I bought at West Chester, and I haven’t forgotten Julie Kane. But the most exciting thing I’ve been reading, at least in terms of something I might use in my own work and thinking about poetry, is Annie Finch‘s The Ghost of Meter. I feel the earth move.

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June 28, 2009   No Comments

“a wild sustenuto of the heart”

Meghan O’Rourke quotes a poem by Jack Gilbert in her mostly favorable review of Cristina Nehring’s A Vindication of Love. The book as reviewed, and to some extent the review, come close to arguing that love without risk is too narrow and likely unsatisfying — with which I agree — and that a lack of occasional failure and messiness is evidence for a lack of risk-taking — with which I heartily disagree. And I have a poem to quote as well. The full text of Richard Wilbur‘s “For C.” is reprinted at the Poetry Foundation; here is the last two verses:

We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse
And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share
The frequent vistas of their large despair,
Where love and all are swept to nothingness;
Still, there’s a certain scope in that long love
Which constant spirits are the keepers of,

And which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart,
A passion joined to courtesy and art
Which has the quality of something made,
Like a good fiddle, like the rose’s scent,
Like a rose window or the firmament.

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June 25, 2009   No Comments

Hook Them While They’re Young

I’ve very nearly got religion.

Not for any gods or holy books, none of which interest me in the slightest except as source material, one way or another – but for a new way of thinking about poetry and the market. Do you know what are the most important literary awards in terms of their effect on sales? Certainly not the National Book Award, and, for Americans, who recently seem to be excuded from consideration, not the Nobel.

It’s the Newbery, and other prizes from the Association for Library Services to Children.

Marilyn Nelson started her workshop by saying “I’m carrying a flag bearing the letters YA.” Last year she got a large 5-figure advance for 10 sonnets in a collaboration with another poet.

For the YA market, there is no compromise in subject matter or treatment — Neil Gaiman won this year’s Newbery — 16-20 year olds know when you condescend, and their response is not kind. And there’s a lot of poetry – this year one of the Newbery honor selections was The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle.

And just maybe, if we work to create a new generation of readers of poetry, they will keep reading poetry as they grow older.

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June 22, 2009   2 Comments

Rhythm & Booze

There was a lot of both at West Chester, but I’m talking Julie Kane‘s book, one of two of hers, and one of about 40 altogether that I purchased at the conference. I’m a poor man now.

Late last night I picked Rhythm & Booze as the first of those forty to read, mostly because it was selected for publication by Maxine Kumin (I wished her a Happy Birthday a few weeks ago). It was late, and I didn’t intend to do more than browse a bit, but I ended up reading the whole thing twice, so I’m a sleepy man, too.

I love the book, particularly the first two thirds or so, which is filled with fabulous villanelles. Her other book, Jazz Funeral, was published last January and I intend to read it for review this weekend — tonight I’ll be busy with the last rehearsal before the first real gig (tomorrow!) for Fractal Folk.

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June 17, 2009   1 Comment

Poetry’s Ghetto

Here’s what Wikipedia, after a nod to slam and identity poetics, says about poetry in the United States:

In general, however, poetry has been moving out of the mainstream and onto the college and university campus. The growth in the popularity of graduate creative writing programs has given poets the opportunity to make a living as teachers. This increased professionalization, combined with the reluctance of most major book and magazine presses to publish poetry, has meant that, for the foreseeable future at least, poetry may have found its new home in the academy.

I’ve long argued it’s a disfunctional home, so concerned with internal politics and status that poets stuck there forget they should be writing for ordinary literate audiences, and now it seems to be going broke. I doubt there will be a bailout.

But even if university presses keep printing poetry, who besides the poets and their parents will care? Look at a pair of stats reported here nine years ago:

  1. The average print run for a book of poetry is 1,000 copies, and most titles are out of print the same year they are published.
  2. Poetry sites on the World Wide Web are, by one estimate, the sixth most frequently visited of all Web sites, well ahead of David Letterman’s Top Ten List and ’N Sync’s home page.

Nothing’s improved concerning the first item, and while I’m willing to bet a small sum that this site alone gets more hits than ’N Sync these days, even the cited article admits there ain’t no money in it.

Money, of course, is the great attraction of the university for poets. Very few have ever made a living entirely from their poetry, and the university is one of the very few workplaces where you can, at least, talk about poetry and not cause your colleagues to avoid you at lunch — though the kinds of poetry you can talk about may rather limited, and so may be the kinds of things you can say. An admiration for Longfellow doesn’t seem to be now as completely outré as it was in the 80s, but the vitriol recently heaped by some academic poets on Robert Service and his readers in discussions at the Poetry Foundation‘s Harriet blog was truly astonishing. Here’s part of one of the mildest comments:

The example of Robert W. Service is very shabby. As far as Robert W. Service goes I would be more than willing to wager that his work is NOT bought by poets during serious study, but rather by Moms and Dads buying the illustrated versions of their children. I would not hold children up as part of a serious readership of poetry, not as an example. I could be wrong but I doubt it.

Let me be clear: those who derided Service (certainly not all of the commenters, and certainly not Annie Finch, who originally posted on Plath) frequently mentioned a young readership and the existence of illustrated editions as points against him, as evidence that he isn’t valued in the academy, which means he isn’t taken seriously as a poet by the people whose opinions count, those whose views control the canon (but hasn’t the canon been burst open!?!).

Who do they think they are? Who do they think will read their poems in 30 years when most of those 1000 copies of each book have been recycled into paper picnic plates and garden mulch? Certainly not those no-longer-children who are now reading illustrated editions of Robert Service. May Google preserve them — which their presses seem unlikely to allow.

This past weekend, in Marilyn Nelson‘s workshop at West Chester, I was granted (well, I paid a lot of money for it) a revelation about just who they might be reading, and about a possible way out of the ghetto poets seem to have created for themselves. Tomorrow I’ll share that revelation — hey, I’ve blathered enough already!

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June 15, 2009   2 Comments

West Chester

Reeling a bit – Donald Hall, Richard Wilbur, Helen Sung trio, Christopher Ricks, David Mason, too many more, and workshop/conference with Marilyn Nelson – the last a revelation about which more when I’m home and recovered.

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June 13, 2009   No Comments

Happy Birthday, Maxine Kumin!

I once asked her if she thought I might ever write a real poem or if she thought I was just a reasonably clever grad student. She answered “I don’t know.” She was only at the University of Louisville for about a month-long residency, so it was probably just reasonable courtesy, but I was much encouraged.

Here is one of many of her poems I’ve loved.

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June 6, 2009   1 Comment

June 4, 1989

Students came to Tiananmen Square
To mourn the death of Hu Yaobang,
And call the old men to repair
The State they’d led to wrong.
Workers joined the student throng
And made the Square the people’s place –
Thousands and tens of thousands strong,
They gave Liberty a Chinese face.

From the Great Hall of the People glared
Faces from the revolution, hung
There to silence those who dared
To charge the State with wrong.
But now the torch of freedom shone
From the statue of a woman raised
Before them — the people’s challenge flung,
Giving Liberty a Chinese face.

Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng stared
As one man, unarmed and alone,
Despite the armored terror
Of the State’s insane wrong,
Stopped a column of tanks along
The Avenue of Eternal Peace.
He simply stood his ground,
And gave Liberty a Chinese face.

Remember the thousands dead and mourn.
Remember the State’s deadly wrong.
Martyr’s blood is never erased –
They gave Liberty a Chinese face.

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June 4, 2009   3 Comments