Not all the essays in my stack are from my essay class. This one was given to me by a classmate named Teresa and her note says “Mary: Essay on Music from Teresa.” This essay, "What Do I Like?" by Theodore Roethke is from Conversation on the Craft of Poetry, edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (1961).
Teresa had been talking to me about the rhythm in my free verse poems and this is an essay all about rhythm and music in lines, the power of meter even in free verse, which Roethke calls “a denial in terms…the ghost of some other form, often blank verse.”
Roethke takes apart his favorite stanzas by these poets (some listed only by last name, others by full names): Auden, Samuel Johnson, himself, George Peck, Elinor Wylie, (Louise) Bogan, Charlotte Mew, Donne, W.H. Davies, Blake, Janet Lewis, Robert Frost, Stevens, Ransom, Whitman, Lawrence, Christopher Smart, and Robert Lowell.
Roethke talks about iambs, sprung lines, base line, alliteration, logic, feminine endings and velocity, spondees, propulsion, repetition, psychological pacing, tone, stress, the “bounding line” or the nervousness in a line, the tension, the energy, the psychic energy, rhetorical devices, enumeration, successive shortening of line length, line length variation, modulation, the natural pause, and the breath unit.
Here are some of the most interesting quotes:
“To question and to affirm, I suppose are among the supreme duties of a poet.”
“We must keep in mind that rhythm is the entire movement, the flow, the recurrence of stress and unstress that is related to the rhythms of the blood, the rhythms of nature. It involves certainly stress, time, pitch, the texture of the words, the total meaning of the poem.”
“We all know that poetry is shot through with appeals to the unconscious, to the fears and desires that go far back into our childhood, into the imagination of the race... [which is why] "some words….are drenched with human association...”
“We must realize, I think, that the writer in freer forms must have an even greater fidelity to his subject matter than the poet who has the support of form. He must keep his eye on the object, and his rhythm must move as a mind moves, must be imaginatively right, or he is lost.”
In any case, I watched one of my old favorites a few weeks ago, Sea of Love, only to discover I like it a lot LESS now, (as opposed to Tootsie, the closing scene of which reminded me of Sea of Love in the first place). I find it so much less sexy now. Although I still like Al Pacino, I'm much less affected by his sad, puppy-dog shtick and the whole story feels much seedier and ickier post #metoo (unlike Tootsie which held up recently at a Netflix movie party with a group of women I know).
But anyways....there's a poem scene in it! I had no memory of this.
In the movie, the cops are under the mistaken impression that the killer is a woman who loves poetry in her want ads. So they go to Frank Keller's (Al Pacino) apartment to try to write a poem to entice the murderer. Al Pacino's father, played by William Hickey, comes up with a gem his deceased wife once wrote in high school. The cops are dumbfounded and use this poem in their ad.
Lady—I live alone within myself
like a hut within the woods.
I keep my heart high upon a shelf
barren of other goods.
I need another’s arms to reach for it
and place it where it belongs.
I need another’s touch and smile
to fill my hut with songs.
A single, white, male, 42, NYW
The image to the left is a hilarious critique of poetry by a 5th grader. Read more about it on DailyDot.
So I’ve finally come to the essays my assigned-partner (who I can’t even remember) and I picked for our essay week when it was our turn. Full disclosure, they were terrible. I had not a clue where to find poetry essays, was completely turned-off by the Sarah Lawrence library (and hated going there) and my partner had no interest in researching anything or doing any kind of group work (you know who you are). And so we were left with a few bad short pieced I found. Looking back, I disappoint myself.
"The Problem with Poetry" I brought to Sarah Lawrence as a clipping from something published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch years earlier. I have no clue where we found the Rainer Maria Rilke quote. I was reading "Letters to a Young Poet" but maybe my partner found it. Clearly I was the one who photocopied it because I have a piece of paper taped to it blocking out the parts we didn’t want to photocopy.
"The Problem with Poetry" was an op ed by journalist David Awbrey. It was republished across the country at the time. This essay class was really not the best audience for this editorial. I find myself often simultaneously enthralled and mortified as I look back on my time at Sarah Lawrence, all the times I was a completely clueless and an unintentional shit-starter. I wasn’t brave enough to have been half as annoying as I undoubtedly was as I was trying to form and express my identity as a writer who knew nothing from nothing.
In any case, this article takes poets to task for many things:
“Unlike some great writers of the past -- Dickens, Zola, Melville -- many of today's writers have little understanding of how most people live and work. Where aspiring writers once labored on newspapers or in gritty real-world jobs, today's young novelists are more likely enrolled in a college creative-writing program. There, rather than rub their noses in the raw material of life, young writers produce self-pitying drivel on the tragic struggles of assistant professors of English or pick in their subconscious at the scabs of abuse, despair and other wounds caused by their own tiresome personalities.”
Ouch! That’s my classmates he’s talking about. Did I read this thing again before bringing it in?? No wonder I wasn't making friends and influencing people!
“For many of them the foremost issues are whether they get academic tenure or funding from the National Endowment for the Arts....so much current literature is written in an obscure language that is virtually incomprehensible to the average college-educated reader…jargon-ridden and code-laden…read by virtually no one beyond a narrow range of literary cult-followers.”
Here is bit of a weird part about the written message of God:
“Unique among world societies, Western civilization is a culture of the word. The Judeo-Christian tradition is based largely on the written message of God. American democracy is based on a clearly expressed legal system. In Western history, the printed word has been the primary agent of cultural change....It's amazing that at a time of wrenching social upheaval so few writers have anything to say that doesn't center on themselves and their inner lives. A look at a stack of recently published novels or the book sections of magazines and newspapers will turn up few purposeful guides to life in the late 20th century.”
Is he advocating political writing? That would be interesting considering Modernism and Post-Modernism's complete success in eradicating 1930s feminist and political (communist and socialist) writing from the earth, starting during the red scare and continuing through....like yesterday. Or is he only looking for life-guidance in modern art?
“After all, Ms. Angelou talks about rocks, rivers and trees -- and even Washington politicians understand what she means.”
I’m always torn between intellectualism and popular culture. Both sides are so adamant in their ideologies. I try to bridge the gaps between them and just end up feeling depressed. So little understanding flows in both directions. It’s part of our narcissism culture. We’re so self-obsessed, we lack the muscle to even consider other points of view.
What young person can resist writing too soon, though? But it speaks back to my earlier cluelessness, a cluelessness that is essentially evidence for his point. Here it is in its entirety:
“…Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) - they are experiences.
For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn’t pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else -); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars, - and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that.
You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labor, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return.
For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.”
Having chosen this piece now seems like an ironic little missive, me chiding my current self with a WTF from the past.
You probably can’t get through a general writing program in America without reading this essay. It’s been a very influential and important essay in retrospect, as has O'Connors fiction, important for not just fiction writers but in many ways for poets.
And I have to say, this essay came up in my stack at a very serendipitous time. Not only is there a new Flannery O’Connor documentary out now called Flannery, which I watched a few weeks ago, but I learned there that O’Connor and her father both died of Lupus, a fact which sent me into a big of a funk because I’m in the process of being diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder that might be Lupus, will most likely be Lupus. Everyone around me (including my new Rheumatologist) tells me Lupus is very survivable these days (in fact, my own Grandfather survived it); but because I’m a bit of a hypochondriac I’m already imagining my Greta Garbo death throes. And her real first name being Mary doesn't really help.
Anyway, O'Connor opens with this somewhat heady start: “I think that if there is any value in hearing writers talk, it will be in hearing what they can witness to and not what they can theorize about.”
She beings to discuss “literary problems” and how the 1950s contained no writerly consensus like the “1930s writers with similar social consciousness." Interesting this history has largely been erased from college classrooms, even though I read in Camille Paglia's book, Break, Blow Burn, that she sees socialism all over college coursework. More on that book later.
“Today each writer speaks for himself,” O'Connor says. My 1990s notes asks“is this dated?” My 2020 response was “no.” (I’m even argumentative with myself).
O'Connor maintains that every writer sees themselves as a realist writer. She then talks about being pigeonholed as a Southern writer:
“The first necessity confronting him will be to say what he is not doing; for even if there are no genuine schools in American letters today, there is always some critic who has just invented one and who is ready to put you into it. If you are a Southern writer, that label, and all the misconceptions that go with it, is pasted on you at once, and you are left to get it off as best you can…and are judged by the fidelity your fiction has to typical Southern life./I am always having it pointed out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it, that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families, nor Bible salesmen prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs.”
She then talks about the point of a novel. And this is important because it explains her view of where relevant novels diverge from popular novels.
“There was a time when the average reader read a novel simply for the moral he could get out of it”
After watching the documentary I feel she’s casting her mother in this category of moral-seeking reader.
“Today many readers and critics have set up for the novel a kind of orthodoxy. They demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit rather than broaden the novel's scope. They associate the only legitimate material for long fiction with the movement of social forces, with the typical, with fidelity to the way things look and happen in normal life.”
She goes on to say,
“The writer has no rights at till except those he forges for himself inside his own work.”
“…as long as these works have vitality, as long as they present something that is alive, however eccentric its life may seem to the general reader, then they have to be dealt with; and they have to be dealt with on their own terms.”
Here is where O'Connor gave permission for the interests of the writer to diverge from the interests of the reader, the writer who seeks experimentation or uniqueness or expression of the self. It’s a very important, as is the example of her fiction itself. It was such a juicy time to be a fiction writer. All bets were off. Go your own way. Like all self care, it eventually turned in on itself until it became a narcissistic impulse.
I do say I don’t think the two extremes should be as competitive as they are: the self vs. the community. But we tend to view such things this way, very black and white, these days.
O’Connor then particularizes her ideas talking about the Southern grotesque:
“When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic…In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life… the customary kind of realism have been ignored…there are strange skips and gaps …Yet the characters have an inner coherence, … Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected.”
It’s so easy to see how her 1950s readerships needed some help in learning to read her stories.
“All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.”
The lovely relativism we’ve all been taught to respect, this is it "the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute." (Google.com) It was a beautiful thing, relativism. But like all ideas put to action, it had unintended consequences. And I believe there’s a straight line to be drawn from the cult of individuality and respect for relativism to the political climate we live in today, where millions of people can flatly deny the reality of another group of millions of people.
And where does the suspicion of science come from (as seen from fifty years ahead of this essay)?
“Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong even though this is the first generation to face total extinction because of these advances. If the novelist is in tune with this spirit, if he believes that actions are predetermined by psychic make-up or the economic situation or some other determinable factor, then he will be concerned above all with an accurate reproduction of the things that most immediately concern man, with the natural forces that he feels control his destiny. Such a writer may produce a great tragic naturalism, for by his responsibility to the things he sees, he may transcend the limitations of his narrow vision.
On the other hand, if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of … Such a writer will be interested in what we don't understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than in probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not”
There a lot of good stuff in there: writing into the unknown, writing into possibility. She then goes on to talk about fiction and the senses…and distorting the senses….the wild that is “of necessity going to be violent and comic.” Do you recognize where we are vis a vis cultural stories? How violence and comedy have merged?
She then talks about grotesque being the true anti-bourgeois style and how America connects grotesque with the sentimental. She talks about the idea of compassion being overused.
“The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult for him to be anti-anything.”
“In nineteenth-century American writing, there was a good deal of grotesque literature which came from the frontier” [I thought of Mark Twain here.]
This probably the most famous quote of the essay,
“Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one”
She goes on to describe the South as Christ-haunted if not Christ-centered. She says, “the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”
There’s a really interesting reference to William Faulker and the demands of the writer to “make it new” (which is another pressure of obtaining fame and individuality):
“...the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn't just doing badly what has already been done to completion. The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”
Ugh. She’s so good.
She goes back to talking about what good literature should avoid…
“Whenever the public is heard from, it is heard demanding a literature which is balanced and which will somehow heal the ravages of our times. In the name of social order, liberal thought, and sometimes even Christianity, the novelist is asked to be the handmaid of his age.”
There follows a questionable part about Henry James describing a black porter’s mistake. It could be a racist idea but I don’t even understand the point of it. So I couldn’t say. It’s good to note here that the documentary delves into whether O’Connor was a racist, a product of her times or a describer of the racist evils of her time.
“The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision”
I question this idea now, having seen the effects of a fiction that absolves itself from cultural obligation. We are our stories. And horrifically, we become the stories we tell. Life coaches will tell you this. Certain American culture groups value stories more than other groups do. Where are we now?
“I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up.
You may say that the serious writer doesn't have to bother about the tired reader, but he does, because they are all tired. One old lady who wants her heart lifted up wouldn't be so bad, but you multiply her two hundred and fifty thousand times and what you get is a book club.”
That was probably the second most famous sentence from the essay.
“I used to think it should be possible to write for some supposed elite, for the people who attend universities and sometimes know how to read, but I have since found that though you may publish your stories in Botteghe Oscure, they are any good at all, you are eventually going to get a letter from some old lady in California, or some inmate of the Federal Penitentiary or the state insane asylum or the local poorhouse, telling you where you have failed to meet his needs.”
“… The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised.”
“...We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.”
“...The great novels we get in the future are not going to be those that the public thinks it wants, or those that critics demand. They are going to be the kind of novels that interest the novelist”
“...The problem for such a novelist will be to know how far he can distort without destroying”
The above is just a fine line (such a hazy line) in retrospect. I think in the pre-neofascist era, I would have agreed with everything O’Connor has said. But I’ve had a change of heart. She ends with this:
“…I hate to think of the day when the Southern writer will satisfy the tired reader.”
I morn these ideas to some extent. I wish the writer could go his own way exclusively. I wish all of us could be disruptions. But what we end up with is an alienated, disrupted society. Now the reader is not only tired, but neurotically anxious and possibly psychotic (as a culture). So which way did we move exactly? We’re certainly as blind as we ever were, albeit nobody thinks they particularly are.
The literary goal of testing a readers discomfort seemed interesting and honorable, to shake people out of their complacency. The effort has surely taken over literary movies, fiction and poetry. But in the end it’s just made us all feel edgy.
We’ve absolved ourselves of any moral responsibility for our collective stories...and something has filled the void.
“Taking What You Need, Giving What You Can: The Writer as Student and Teacher” is an essay by David Huddle from Writers On Writing, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini.
This is mainly an essay about the value and practice of writing workshops. Huddle starts by taking survey of his own experiences with no fewer than eleven writing teachers. This made me count the number of writing teachers I’ve had and I could only remember the poetry teachers: eight as of now. I can’t really remember the fiction ones: but probably around 3.
Huddle says, “I was able to take what I needed from every teacher and every class, and I was able to disregard what I didn’t need or what might have harmed me. I’m not sure what to name this quality—survival aptitude, perhaps…”
He says this seems to be the skill you’re born with or not. I would agree. I’ve seen many writers unable to parse through the intimidating onslaught of information in workshop discussions for usable advise. I’ve also seen writers who have their eye on the ball and can work like a surgeon to take what they need from a heap of opinions. A tough skin helps but some very sensitive writers can also get there. It just takes a few days for the sting to wear off.
Huddle says from his years of experience he can say that intelligence, language aptitude, literary instinct and other “writerly resources” cannot predict who will succeed in writing and who will not.
He goes into a few paragraphs about how high school and undergraduate teachers made writing seem too elite to him. But he feels “writing is a natural act” as is reading and criticism. Like all workshop teachers I have known, Huddle is all about reading, reading and more reading. He says, “automatically, [writers] consume the writing technology of what they read.” I feel this is true. It sinks into you, all the craft and the architecture. The rhythm. You don’t even have to explicate it. But that’s fun too. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile for someone else to be doing that.
He feels workshop critiques come in two varieties, those who make pronouncements and those who feel they are not in a position to make pronouncements. My first teacher and primary mentor, Howard Schwartz, was really good at breaking through this fear. He would call on us individually. We had to make pronouncements or at least ask questions. I was terrified by it but hung in there because only a flood would’ve kept me out of that class I was learning so much.
Then Huddle talks about the writing process. And strangely his comments map a conversation I saw last week in an amazing documentary about artist Elizabeth King. She struggled with the same issues described here:
“..when I first began writing, I always had a plan and I stuck to it as strictly as possible, trying to ignore the distracting ideas that came to me in the composing process. I tell [my students] that I still begin with a plan, but that nowadays I try to accept most of the ideas that come to me in the composing process…such ideas are, in my opinion, true inspiration…..much more reliable and useful than the other kind."
Then he talks about how to receive criticism, a “valuable skill very much worth developing. He defends the process of a writer remaining silent during workshops: “I remind authors that they are not required to accept any of the criticism they are offered, and I suggest that they not be hasty in deciding whether or not to use a piece of criticism or a suggestion. A suggestion that seems insulting during and immediately after workshop discussion may next week be the key to a brilliant revision.”
He then goes through the experiences of each of his eleven workshop teachers and what he learned from each one, even the terrible one. And this was insightful:
“What a workshop is not is a committee that repairs faulty manuscripts. Most of the time manuscripts can be improved in response to workshop discussion. But the process is not a mechanical one in which critics tell the author what is wrong with a story and how to fix it, and the author goes home and does what the workshop told him to do. The dynamic of a workshop is oblique, indirect, subtle, and occasionally perverse.”
Souls who can’t deal with this kind of grayness often get frustrated with writing workshops, writers who want things cut and dried, black and white. It’s wrong or right? Disagreements make them uneasy.
“I believe workshops can be immensely useful but that they are only rarely useful in obvious and logical ways.”
Tom Lux used to tell us something similar, that workshops won’t get you published but they’ll give you your readers and writerly friends for life. Although I didn't appreciate the message at the time, (Sarah Lawrence was an awfully expensive meetup in that case) I did meet my current two best friends at Sarah Lawrence.
He ends with a checklist about good writing:
Which is all to say not to take writing workshops too seriously. It’s an aid but not the most important work, not as important as practicing, reading and experimenting on your own.
I’m currently working on a poetry project with playing cards, a regular poker-card sized deck. I come from a big poker playing family. Unfortunately, I am hopelessly terrible at poker and have lingering PTSD from these family games. Not only were they ruthless players but I was completely unable to see the patterns in poker hands, even with the cheat sheets my father created for me. I have a poker blindness it turns out. But I love the feel of a card deck in my hands, the very tactile slipperiness and the sound of a shuffling deck. I love to see some talented shuffler at work. I even liked building houses of cards. And as an extension of that, card designs is also fun and culturally interesting to me.
While trying to explain my own project to a friend of mine, I went through my house and realized I had quite a collection of cards, especially when I dug through the game closet. I had a book about Apache poker cards, a deck of historical Spanish playing cards (the real Wild West cards) purchased from Bent's Fort, Phoenix cards (supposedly they tell you your past life), I Ching cards, cards from the games Masterpiece, Killing Dr. Lucky, 25 Outlaws (those cards were designed by Dave Mathews interestingly), Go Fish Modern Art cards, Agatha Christie game cards and some cards from a
game called Art Shark.
To help explain my project I also went online to find other existing card sets and purchased two additional decks plus another interesting poetry game.
In a 1-card instruction, David Trinidad writes about the magic 8-ball quality of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. He created a 78-card tarot-like deck of big cards you can use for 1 to 4 card divination spreads. I’m pretty ‘eh’ about divinations only because a bad or good read can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I mean, I’m skittish and superstitious enough as it is. And what good does it do you to know what’s coming up?
Anyway, I tried it out and each card has 1-2 lines of a Dickinson quatrain on its face. One drawback of the cards is the fact that there’s no attribution to the lines, so if you liked some you don’t have a clue (other than a google search) as to which Dickinson poem to seek out. The largeness of the cards was also a big unwieldy.
One question I asked was about a sort of screwball endeavor and should I continue with it:
"Passenger – of Infinity –"
The second question was about guidance for a current project not going well:
"Those not live yet
Who doubt to live again —"
(I have no idea what that means.)
The third question was open ended, “tell me something about life?”
"Many Things – are fruitless –
‘Tis a Baffling Earth –"
These are very narrow cards that work similarly to the Dickinson deck, as divination. Created by Eryk Hanut and Michele Wetherbee, they have simple to complex spreads, using Rumi verse as life guidance. The set also comes with a somewhat big book (for card sets anyway) on the history of Rumi, divinations and how their project started.
I did the simplest spread of three cards.
The spread was as follows: First card (what brought on the situation), second card (what is the current situation) and third card (what will happen or “how to deal with it.” I love the double meaning of deal there, as a coping strategy and being dealt cards.) I can tell you I never "dealt well" with the poker cards I was dealt. Anyway,
This looked intriguing!
Some issues: it was hard to get the paint chips out while they were still in the box and yet pouring them out of the box felt like a potential nightmare. Also, they’re ordered in perfect color-wheel order. Playing with them messes that up. Not for OCD people. It bothered me and I’m not OCD. Also, there weren’t enough prompt cards.
Each paint chip has a corresponding word. The basic idea is that you pull 12 color chips and a prompt and write a poem using some or all of the paint chip's colors or words.
The first spread I sent to my friend Christopher. We’re doing a cross-writing project similar to what Wordsworth and Coleridge did. He wanted to write a new poem and asked for prompts. This box seemed a pretty handy prompt generator. We'll see what he comes up with. Here were my chips, prompt and the resulting poem.
to Watermelon Mountain is to go
to the bottom of the sea after all
the blue has been washed away.
Coral fish skeletons swim around
mesas and settle in buttes.
I came to find
my grandmother’s hydrangeas
growing like a fence along the dirt road,
rustling like mystic royalty or a memory
of lavender blowing in the dust.
Euphoria is colorless
here, a breeze from the West
waffling around you, dappled
sunlight after the day’s spartan
The key is catching up
with the zephyr. The key is often surprising
Like every first kiss. You come upon it
and stop to say hello like an inchworm
considering the cottonwood leaf
with his many feet.
This week’s packet was a twofer, “On Being a Poet in America” and “To Make Words Disappear” by Louis Simpson. I have to say these are the first essays I didn’t like at all. I’ve noted that they were brought in by Greta and Andy, two poets at SLC who I DID like. The first essay can be found in the book Selected Prose and the second short essay from A Company of Poets, both books by Louis Simpson.
I’m quite immune to a kind of “grumpiness as display” from writers like Mark Twain. I’ve done it myself, learned from the somewhat stalwart grumpiness of my grandfather Stevens. But this grumpiness of Simpson's is far from charming. The last straw for me was reading in another book last week, essays by Maxine Kumin, that Simpson dismissively reviewed one of Anne Sexton’s books as “Menstruation at Forty.” On this side of #MeToo he comes off poorly. But here we go.
“On Being a Poet in America” starts with lofty goals with that title and he begins by telling us there is no shortage of poets short on talent, how talent cannot be “bought, borrowed, or stolen. Many pretend to have it…” I’m thinking here we’re dealing with fears of illegitimacy we all have as artists; but no, he’s got no soothing conclusion for fears of talent-less-ness.
He then talks about imaginary beginnings for good poets and how a poet should behave: “He will not serve other men. That is the occupation of a valet.” Seriously? That's dismissive to poets and valets.
The sections are basically small mini-rants with no real transitions or cohesion.
Then he talks about being seen as a writer: “The astonishment that anyone reads anything you write, and that anyone takes it seriously, as though it actually existed." This is good. This is a common feeling. But then he continues with "And then your resentment. What right do they have to read your mail?” Resentment? I think he’s revealing something of himself here, mistakenly attributing that feeling to all of us.
The next section is about how poets cannot have great audiences because, “The mark of a bad writer is that he is popular.” He outright dismisses popular culture and continues by saying “popularity…flatters the stupidity of the audience. But real poetry cannot be popular in its own time.” So much in here is messed up.
He goes on about the falseness of “artistic integrity” and how professors he has known who have bemoaned about it always end up as advertising executives. So…he's dismissive of both popularity AND artistic integrity. Pretty amazing.
The next short section declares this: “There is only one law for the poet—tell the truth!...tell the truth…if you are serious about it—and if you’re not, you aren’t a poet at all.” You know I hate this "poetry is" crap but especially today, in this world of propaganda and our polarizing struggles to define truth, this seems like such a quaint and naive idea. And his fury at the declaration marks hint the great struggle over truth might already be beginning.
But even when he’s full of himself and full of hot air, I still find something to like here, like these fiery sentences:
“I know too much about literary life. I know by what means, by what steady cultivation of his betters, by what obsequiousness in print and out of it, the mediocre writer gets himself a name…The need of fame has turned many a decent man into an envious, spiteful, vanity-ridden, self-deluding wretch. And what does he have to show for it? A handful of reviews.”
But then he's back to academic insults: “whether one writes ‘in form’ or ‘out of form,’ is not an essential question—it is a matter for simpletons to worry about" and “How easy it is to settle on a certain style, to write a certain poem over and over again! Most verse writers do just this. The publish a new book of the same poems every four years, and when they have repeated themselves often enough they win the Pulitzer.”
And then he has very lofty ideas about truth: "you find that you are wrestling with an angel….not witnessing but assisting at the birth of truth in beauty. Of course, to some people this is all nonsense. To a deaf man, music does not exist; to a blind man, there are no constellations in the sky.” There's no room for any kind of variation of experience or disagreement here. You are blind and deaf if you don’t agree with this.
The next section takes aim at critics: “Criticism in the last forty years has been largely an end in itself, a bastard kind of art, a kind of theatricals for shy literary men…when you examine the critic’s method, under the appearance of sweet reasonableness, there are only prejudices and taboos. The critic’s art depends on an exertion of his personality, an unstable quality.”
And here, even when you agree with him, you find yourself cringing at his own very "theatrical” vitriol. And then there’s the inconvenient fact here that a poets art also too often depends on the same kind of “exertion of his personality, an unstable quality.”
All this hints at sour grapes over being excluded in some kind of group. And hey, some of us out here should be able to relate to that. But he makes any kind of relatable connection impossible. I found this tone problem the very same that always crippled arguments between my grandfather and other people. His very valid truths would always get lost behind his presentation too. You see it all the time right now in political debates: smug republicans calling liberals smug. Smug liberals calling conservatives stupid. It just makes people entrench. But the hate is at such a high level, it cannot defuse itself and compromise collapses.
Simpson says, “the poem, the novel, the play. They deal in facts. But the critic deals in opinions.” This is simply not true. Art is full of opinions. And so it puts his whole idea of truths into question.
The last section talks about poets with “poetic intelligence” like Rilke, Yeats, Blake. “Poetic brains.” Frost drew “back from ultimate commitment” he says. "...a poet of original and purely poetic talent….would make up new ways of seeing things; he would push metaphor to the limit. And if such a poet were also interested in ordinary life, we would have great American poetry. Such a poet would not have to justify his existence in America; the rest of us would have to justify ourselves to him.”
You read that and wonder if that sounds like humility coming from Simpson or him suggesting that such a poet is himself.
“To Make Words Disappear” talks about “emotional intensity” being “what poetry consists of.” Here we go again. This is the issue with surrealism, Simpson says. Emotion needs “a narrative line” and poets “seem to think that it is enough to say that they are having a feeling.”
He also doesn’t like “poetry that preaches…a poet berating people for their shortcomings—for example, for not being as ‘politically aware’ as he is.”
“There is a lot of hard breathing going on…you may feel sympathetic, but it doesn’t do a thing for your life.”
If that’s not a narcissistic statement, I've never heard one. What can this poem do for me?
But then hilariously he adds, “It would be better if he were less self-absorbed and told you something that was interesting”
Something interesting according to you. It’s all about you. It's not always about you. I think that's the cautionary tale of these essays.
Anyway, I was skimming through a huge book called The Art of the Story, edited by Daniel Halpern, a book I bought with three friends to read together but we never did; and I came across a good Russel Banks story called, "My Mother's Memoirs, My Father's Lie, And Other True Stories." You can read it here at Vanity Fair. There's a misprint in the Vanity Fair version. The story really ends with this sentence "Who would listen?" The last sentence is a repeat of a sentence higher up in the story.
In any case, if I were a professor or teacher I would have my students read this story (even poets because we're telling stories in our own way). This story is a little gem about telling stories, why we tell them and how we tell them. It's also a great story about how we're searching for intimacy when we tell stories.
The narrator describes how his mother seeks intimacy with big, false stories. Then he describes how his father seeks intimacy with self-absorbed, false family history. Then, at the end, there is a moment of real intimacy when his mother tells a very honest but structurally flawed story.
And there's the heart and emotion of the piece, how flaws (and flawed moments) work in ways other more dramatic tactics do not.
It's not only a good writing lesson, but a good life lesson.
I just finished reading The Language of New Media by Lev Manovich. Three things I can say about this book. One is that it's written like a textbook and is very, very dry. If you're not serious about New Media pieces, I would skip this book. Two, there's a lot of philosophy of new media culture here that is much broader than simply talking about art on computer and film (there's actually a lot about film chat here). This book is about how these tools (databases, navigable space, computer collage) change our thinking, just as media changes have always tweaked our view of the world. And three, no other book has ever given me more ideas about digital projects than this one. It was slow going, but it was really crunchy food for thought.
And predictably, after finishing the book I was inspired to experiment with a slew of new media, e-lit poems: https://www.marymccray.com/audio-clips.html.
One goal of mine was to give my e-lit projects some higher emotional content. My slim surveys (to-date) around the e-lit landscape have shown me lots of cool projects that use language as mostly raw material in order to experiment with the new technologies. Not many artists have gone beyond post-modernist and modernist kinds of intellectual experiments around language to use poetry in a more traditional way but still incorporating new media platforms. That's not entirely true, but for the most part.
This is a question I'm always asking: what affordances (or attributes) about a book or an HTML page help serve the poem better than without those affordances? The same with e-lit stories. How does the platform serve the story or poem? And if it doesn't, it's not an integral part of the poem or story. It's just an alternate-delivery device.
So, there are really three things I was interested in: using (1) crafted sentence (versus randomly generated material) with (2) emotional content (vs. content with ironic distance or an intellectual message) in play with (3) new media platforms (HTML, Forms, PowerPoint, Graphs/Images, etc.).
And all that equals e-lit love poems, doesn't it? Of course it does.
It's been a cray past few weeks, emotionally, physically, mentally. For some reason during the Long Weekend when I should be sequestering myself, doctors here are finally on the verge of figuring out a health issue I've been having for about ten years. Nothing crazy but I've been hitting my head against a wall trying to elicit help all this time and now suddenly things have started moving and I'm having blood tests run every two days and all sorts of activity during what is probably the most dangerous time to be trying to visit medial facilities. Oh well. It is, as they say, what it is.
I've also been working on some new media poems over the last week or so (more on that later).
But anyway, one of my New Year's resolutions this year was to finish two anthologies I started and then abandoned. There are two huge poetry anthologies I’ve had stacked on my desk half-finished for over year, in one case a few years. The 500+ page New Poets of the American West, edited by Lowell Jaeger, and the 775+ page book Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone. This year I made it one of my goals to finish them. Well, to be honest, I had grown impatient or bored with single volumes of poetry.
Some years you like reading single books and some years you want greatest hits. You just have to pay attention to your yen.
Poets of the American West (2010)
I picked up this book as part of my search for poems about New Mexico. This book is organized by state and includes all everything west of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. So no Texas. There are a lot of different poets, styles, and subjects. The introductory essays are great. I especially liked this: “Consider the poem as artifact. Try reading the poems as if we are archaeologists on a dig….What can we learn about this person’s world?”
The best thing about anthologies is trolling them (in the good way) to discover new favorite poets. I’ve used many international anthologies that way. Some of my discoveries this round were:
Jim Natal, “The Half-Life of Memory”
Sean Nevin, “Wildfire Triptych”
David St. John: “Los Angeles, 1954”
Noah Eli Gordon, “All Orange Blossoms Have to Do Is Act Naturally”
Jane Hilberry, “The Moment”
Robert King, “Now”
Marilyn Krysl, “Love, That Hugeness” and “Song of Some Ruins”
Sheryl Luna, “Las Alas”
William Johnson, “New Year’s Eve”
Judy Blunt, “Showdown”
Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Meditations on the South Valley, VIII”
Michael Pettit, “Sparrow of Espanola”
David Axelrod, “The Spirit of the Place”
Rob Carney, “January 26, 2009” and “Two-Story, Stone and Brick, Single-Family Dwelling”
Elizabeth Bradfield, “Multi-Use Area”
Bo Moore: “Dry Land” and “Pretty” and “Forecast”
I had some issues with this book.
Most of the poets are assembled by language and then by country within that language, which is cool. But then more than half of the book is English and there are no country subcategories for the English section. Everyone from Canada, England, Australia, America, etc. are all lumped together.
Poet and translator Willis Barnstone, Aliki's father, did many of the translations. They’re not bad but they all use the same category of words (very simple Saxon vocabularies) and they all sound very much like Google Translate after 50 pages. This is probably why a volume of this heft should solicit the skills of a variety of translators.
The introductory essay was slim and the poet bios are not standardized. Some include books written, some include where poets are from, some are long critiques of the poets. It felt very hodge-podge and half-researched.
The volume includes poems of the editor, Aliki Barnstone. I struggled with how to feel about this. Whether or not this seems kosher depends entirely on the kind of anthology you're dealing with: an anthology of feminist or food poems or poets from New York State, for example. But this is Women Poets from Antinquity to Nowish. We assume we’ll have the best of the best in here. It just seems a bit forward to insert yourself in this most serious list, even if you are somewhat contemporary and published.
There were quite a few modern English poets I didn’t know. And meanwhile, some big poets weremissing, like Nikki Giovannie, Alice Walker and Alice Fulton.
Some of the font choices were a bit uncomplimentary with each other.
Overall it feels a bit like a rush job with more effort put to favorite poets.
That said Aliki Batnstone’s book on Emily Dickinson’s poetic development is the best book I’ve read on Emily Dickinson and there were some amazing moments reading this anthology.
I will always appreciate this piece of poetry translated by Willis Barnstone from Song of Songs:
“My love has gone down to his garden,
in the bed of spices,
to feed his sheep in the orchards,
to gather lilies,
I am my lover’s and my lover is mine.
He feeds his flock among the lilies.”
And this Willis Barnstone Sappho translation:
“Like a mountain whirlwind
punishing the oak trees,
love shattered my heart.”
And the book has inspired me to look into some poets like Cecil Bodker, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and Julia de Burgos. “To Julia de Burgos” was a great poem translated by Grace Shulman, as was “I Hear You’ve Let Go” by Rosario Ferre. I also want to check out Martha Paley Francesacto, and this was a great poem by Gaspara Stampa translated by J. Vitiello:
“When before those eyes, my life and light,
my beauty and fortune in the world, I stand,
the style, speech, passion, genius I command,
the thoughts, conceits, feelings I incite,
In all I’m overshelmed, utterly spent,
like a deaf mute, virtually dazed,
all reverence, nothing but amazed
in that lovely light, I’m fixed and rent.
Enough, not a word can I intone
for that divine incubus never quits
sapping my strength, leaving my soul prone.
Oh Love, what strange and wonderful fits:
one sole thing, one beauty alone,
can give me life and deprive me of wits.”
Jean Valentine’s “Foraging, part 2 “The Luminous Room” was a very sexy sex poem and Margaret Atwood’s marriage poem “Habitation” was good. I learned a better appreciation for Heather McHugh.
And I have to say this is the first time I’ve read in which I’ve been able to finally understand Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” or Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” after decades of approaching them in classes and other anthologies. You just have to be ready for these things, I guess.