“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.
The essay we're reviewing today came from the Jorie Graham introduction to the anthology The Best American Poetry 1990. Graham has a portion of the essay on her website: https://www.joriegraham.com/prose_american_poetry_intro. You can also read a copy of the full essay (with marginalia) here: https://www.mirandafield.com/static/classes/intro-graham.pdf or you can buy the book.
Often, introductions to volumes of poetry (singular or anthologies) are no good; they’re often too specific to certain poems yet unread. This essay, however, was great, and from Jorie Graham it’s no surprise. If you read one poetry essay in your life…this one is a good candidate. So I'll be quoting lots of it.
Part 1 is a great dip into the experience of being at a poetry and prose reading:
"I went to a reading recently--fiction and poetry. It was a warm Indian summer night. The man introducing spoke first about the novelist--her meteoric rise to the top along the fast track. Book awards. Movie deals. The person in question stood up and read wonderful, funny stories. I laughed out loud; listened to the sentences flowing by--their aggressive overtaking of the space. There was no silence, there was the run run of story over it all. It sprayed forward over the unsaid until it was all plot. People changed or didn't….
Then our host introduced the poet--one of our very best. The introductory remarks referred to the 'dark times poetry is in.' People resettled in their chairs. The man in question stood up to read, looked out at us over his glasses, cleared his throat. He tried to say something funny to put us at our ease, but we weren't. What was he going to do? Where did the wonderful warm sensation of story go? A poem began. Not a little story told in musical rhythms, but a poem. Oh, it had story. And it was music. But it seemed to begin out of nowhere. And it moved irrationally--by the standards the fiction had set. It leapt. It went too suddenly to the heart of the matter. Why was I feeling so uneasy? I didn't feel myself thinking anymore. I wasn't feeling lifted or entertained. My hands felt heavy. My body felt heavy. The air into which language had been pouring for almost an hour felt heavy….
Now it was words into an element that was crushing in its power and weight. I thought of Sartre's notion that prose writers tame language and that it's up to poetry to set it free again..
I felt myself having to "listen" with other parts of my sensibility, felt my mind being forced back down into the soil of my senses. And I saw that it was the resistance of the poem--its occlusion, or difficulty--that was healing me, forcing me to privilege my heart, my intuition--parts of my sensibility infrequently called upon in my everyday experience in the marketplace of things and ideas. I found myself feeling, as the poem ended, that some crucial muscle that might have otherwise atrophied from lack of use had been exercised. Something part body, part spirit. Something the species should never evolve away from. Something I shouldn't be living without. The poem must resist the intelligence / almost successfully, whispered Wallace Stevens."
Next to that last paragraph, my 1990s self wrote, “I don’t agree with this.” Huh. Interesting. Because now I do. It’s a good defense of difficulty.
Part 2 is more of a defense of difficulty, how inaccessibility is leveled against poets and their retreats into “saying narrative is all there is or should be, saying self should be ostracized, saying free verse is fatal, or all rhyme and meter reactionary, talking about elitism, about how poetry has failed to communicate…"
Remember in Stephen Dobyns' essay the definition of poetry was 'to communicate.' I don’t disagree with that but I think there can be poetry that thwarts communication too.
Graham talks about “the fact that poetry implicitly undertakes a critique of materialist values.” I think this is mostly true (to read poetry might be a desire to escape that world) but there are conceivably poems that might encourage materialism. Poetry (and not just political poetry) often does explicitly challenge modern values. Graham talks about poetry’s “truer, or more resonant, more supple values.”
Back to difficulty, she compares difficult poetry to modern dance and carpentry:
“Of course, with woodworking or ballet, one can still enjoy what one barely grasps…but with poetry readers feel like they’re missing something...[or]... that one is stupid, blind.”
She talks about "dream logic, mystical visions and intuitive, irrational thinking, leaps beyond cause and effect…. the merging of its irrational procedures with the rational nature of language.” These experiments seem to be interesting tests of the plasticity of language, sentence making, storytelling sense, but they’re not for everybody.
I do disagree with this statement: “Aren't such accusations of elitism rather condescending to the people on whose behalf they are made?” because I don’t think accusations of elitism are always made on behalf of any reader, but by readers directly. At least in my experience. But then she discusses poetry that slows you down as being an anecdote for modern language (and this was all before the Internet):
“the terminal "slowness" of speech in relation to the speedier verbal image as a medium for sales (of objects, people, ideas, of verisimilitude, of desire)… ); a disrespect for all nonlucrative activities; a general impatience with depth, and a shortened attention span...Sound bites, shortcuts, clips, trailers, minimalist fragmented 'dialogue,' the Reagan-era one-liner on the way to the helicopter: the speed with which an idea must be 'put across' is said to be determined not just by monetary considerations, but by the speeded-up, almost decimated attention span of the bored, overstimulated viewer who must be caught, bought, on the wing, as he or she is clicking past, 'grazing' the channels, wanting to be stopped, but only momentarily."
"The genius of syntax consists in its permitting paradoxical, 'unsolvable' ideas to be explored, not merely nailed down, stored, and owned; in its permitting the soul-forging pleasures of thinking to prevail over the acquisition of information called knowing.”
Part 3 is an amazing summary of the smorgasbord of options, not just difficult poems:
She gets into this idea of Americanness here a bit in this section (although there’s a whole later section for that):
“We are faced with a more historical (and American) distrust of articulateness:'inarticulateness' as stoicism, perhaps--the terseness we recognize in our Western folk heroes--as if to speak a full sentence, to yield to easeful speech, were a sensual activity one cannot, or should not, afford to indulge."
She talks about minimalism, Zen notions of restraint, suppression of ego, “inward abbreviation,” “the coding covert political activity requires…to use James Wright's phrase, expresses a deeply-held American belief that the simpler the utterance--the closer to the bone of the feeling--the better the chance of getting the self through uncontaminated by language: speech a vehicle that can "betray" honest feeling…"
And various notions of the self: the invented or invoked self, a constructed self, a mask or mythic persona, “the tradition of "honest" speech on American soil, and there are many poets who attempt to merge the two impulses.”
She talks about the sense of seeking:
"investigations rather than as conclusions. Words--or the gaps between them--are used to recompose a world, as if these poets were looking for a method by which to experience the world once again. We might find ourselves being asked implicitly where the poem actually is: In the world? In the language? In the reader's interpretation or in the poet's intention?...the increasingly elliptical lyric poets…uses or serial”
And writing devices that hint toward new media experiments:
"break the fluid progress of the poem, that destabilize the reader's relationship to the illusion of the poem as text spoken by a single speaker in deep thought, aroused contemplation, or recollection. These interferences force the reader out of a passive role and back into the poem as an active participant….. the lust-for-forwardness, with all its attendant desires for closure, shapeliness, and the sense that we are headed somewhere and that we are in the hands of something.”
And then this was very interesting paragraph:
"You'll find the undiminished, or unintimidated, eloquence of our classical believers--perhaps only apparently unperturbed by the desperate fray; poets in whom the repose of counted language is perhaps the highest form, today, of bravery."
The online essay ends here, but the book essay has 3 more sections.
Section 4is about poetry’s exclusion from the marketplace, it’s being a “moral and spiritual undertaking” along with questing: “honing of one’s tools for sight—formal techniques—is the honing of one’s tools for insight.”
Then she talks about confessional poems when they aren't working:
“The poetry that fails the genius of its medium today is the poetry of mere self. It embarrasses all of us. The voice in it not large but inflated. A voice that expands not to the size of a soul…but to the size of an ego."
She says “a true poem…puts the self at genuine risk.”
I again suspicious of proclamations about “the true/real/correct" poem thing. But a good poem can do that. She says, “the poet must move to encounter an other, not more versions of the self….something the writer risks being defeated—or silenced—....How sincere are we about wanting to go where the act of a poem might take us? Do we not often, instead, take the poem merely where we want to go—protecting ourselves?”
I’m guilty of this. Sad face.
More about difficulty: Difficulty is…not in any way synonymous with…laziness.”
She says every generation has to restore the role of language and language and “do it essentially from scratch” to make works “full again…to clean the language of its current lies.”
Section 5 goes into what is American about these poets. This sentence wasn’t as interesting as what she’s already said about American traits in prior sections. She struggles to define the voice and personality, the jazz quality, the self-aware media events, attempts to being both historical and ahistorical...breakdancing on the surface and breaking the flow of anything that would thicken into history." Manifest destiny, progress, and some stuff I can’t even decipher.
Section 6 wraps it up saying there's “no voice elusively attached to region, race, gender, class…hybrids of styles, un-ironic or beyond post-modernism, more of a “stylistic searching…the poetic map of the country reads far less like a set of rival encampments, as the various polemicists would have us believe, and far more like a wonderfully varied and passionate family argument” where “cross-pollination is going on.”
That’s nice to hear. I hope its true.
She does see evidence of “deeply political” poetry concerned with “the condition of the Republic.”
So this essay is both a timely snapshot of poetry in American in 1990 and a survey of the landscape in a more solid sense.
Good head food.
So we're continuing to go through essays I read in a grad school essay class. To recap, I recently found a box of essays from the class in my garage. I’m blogging about them here so I can throw them out. I'm really enjoying revisiting them. This essay, “Poetry and Audience” by Robert McDowell is really an article from Poets & Writers from 1988.
I was taking the class in 1995 so this is pretty old already. Someone must have been hanging on to it. I have made a funny note at the top: “Robert says irritating.” This was referencing poet Robert Fanning who many girls (and boys) I knew had a crush on at Sarah Lawrence College but he was allegedly unavailable (engaged or married or something). I didn’t know him at all. I was only in two classes with him including this one. Besides, I reserved my crushing for Ross Gay (who I only ever had in one class). But I did note this comment as if it were valuable for some reason.
I should note I took a class from Robert McDowell years later at the West Chester Poetry Conference. It was a seminar on narrative poetry and his class and advice helped me quite a bit while I was editing Why Photographers Commit Suicide and when I started the long narrative that is Cowboy Meditation Primer.
McDowell starts by acknowledging the lack of readership in poetry, causing in writers a “self-esteem that has disintegrated,” feelings of being inferior and useless (I'm thinking white male angst here) and he does then invokes Yeats, Eliot and Ezra Pound. But then he counters that he's not so sympathetic with that view and proposes ways to broaden the audience beyond the academy, writing students, and eccentrics who read poetry. His potential audience aims at everyone else who is watching TV (video games weren’t even a thing yet—how quaint).
He also proposes:
He also makes a differentiation between sentiment and sentimentality. This reminds me today that we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, instead of simply throwing out the old clichés. We might have thrown out our humanity in an effort to avoid stilted Hallmark emotions.
When I used to read Poets & Writers articles I would circle faculty names I recognized in MFA Writing Program advertisements (which are the majority of the ads) in case I one day wanted to look into their programs. I scanned all the names I had circled and I didn’t notice this at the time but Digby Wolfe was teaching TV writing at University of Southern California. He was a writer on Laugh In and head writer for the 1975-76 Cher show.
So as I've been posting essays we were given in an essay class at Sarah Lawrence College, I've been thinking about the types of essays and their differences, their stylistic variety. Some were very practical, some were making an argument of some kind, others (like this one) were airy and mystical. Students usually had a preference and contributed essays that matched their predilections.
Although I preferred essays that blew my mind in some practical way, I didn’t hate the rambling scats like this one by Charles Wright called “Improvisations, The Poem as Journey.” There were things to learn from both types of essay.
You can find this essay in a book called Poets Writing Across Borders, The Strangest of Theatres. Here is a free PDF version: https://nanopdf.com/download/view-the-pdf-poetry-foundation_pdf
You can also purchase copies of the book here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-strangest-of-theatres-jared-hawkley/1111672733
You’d think a scatting sort of essayist would value the journey over the destination but not Charles Wright. This is an essay claiming (but not really proving) that all meaning is found in the destination. He starts with the phrase, “I am writing to you from the end of the world” by Henri Michaux, a French Surrealist poet. Then he goes on to talk about what the end of the world might mean for Dante, Orpheus, Ulysses, Aeneas. My marginalia to the side says “ornament.” A lot of this essay feels ornamental to me. Bringing in classical poetic references often feels superfluous.
His thesis, “I think it’s what’s at road’s end that is important, that where the road leads is where the meaning is: it’s not the telling of the story that’s important, it’s what the story has to tell” is presented in a rambling journey without much gold at the end. This is essay is all road and no destination. And I don't hate that. But it's ironic.
He quotes a Japanese Zen master about the plantain and equates it to a poem: “A plantain has earth, water, fire, wind, emptiness, also mind, consciousness and wisdom as its roots, stems, branches, and leaves, or as its flowers, fruits, colors and forms. Accordingly, the plantain wears the autumn wind, and is torn in the autumn wind. We know that it is pure and clear and that not a single particle is excluded.” This is today a poem is pure and full of all the elements, like a plantain.
I’m always suspicious when a poet tries to tell us what a poem is, what “all true poems” are. But I’m not too worried in this case because nothing Wright says here is concrete enough to be annoying, didactic poet-splaining.
Wright reaches for something. He says a poem is a “journey of discovery. Something is being found out….an uncovered new thing. Poetric structures sometimes end up in that fortunate ‘field.’” I read “that fortunate field” phrase a bunch of times and I still have no clue what that is.
He then talks about Italian poets Dino Campana and Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti’s two word poem that, Wright says, is ultimately untranslatable:
I punched this into Google Translate and what-do-you-know: it is untranslatable. But then I asked Monsieur Big Bang (who speaks Italian) to translate the words, which he said mean “I illuminate myself from the immensity.” He griped, “what’s untranslatable about that?!”
By this point, I’m getting annoyed by the cryptic exclusivity. But on another day I might be charmed by its mystery.
Another mystic sentence near the end: “That ‘cutting edge,’ where all true poems climb from and return to, is the edge where the void begins.” Technically speaking, does a naughty limerick avoid this void? Or Dr. Seuss? Is that not poetry too?
Here’s the last sentence of the essay. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it: “The journey is always into the unknown, into the mystery and darkness, where great lobsters fall on our...” In our class all the photocopies cut off right there, like a cliff or a....void. The students who brought the essay into class had to read off the last few words to the rest of us, which we dutifully copied where the void began: …” heads and great unseen wings gaze our faces and vanish.”
Sometimes mystery works (this Charles Wright book is one of my favorites). Sometimes it feels like bullshit on an essay exam. It depends upon where your heads at that day I guess.
I've been posting blog reviews of essays I was given in a poetry essay class at Sarah Lawrence College in the 1990s. Here's another one. Sometimes essays were simply chapters in a book, like this: “Women Poets and the Emergence of Modernism” from the 1993 book The Columbia History of American Poetry (Parini & Miller).
Although this is a great-looking tome of comprehensive American poetry history (the kind I’ve been looking for actually), the fact that a student brought this particular chapter to discuss is very telling. Modernism when I was at Sarah Lawrence was about 80 years old. It’s now over 100 years old. And the fact that it takes up so much of our intellectual energy is crazy-making to me. I’ve taken three Modernism MOOCs: the University of Pennsylvania’s ModPo (which made connections between Modernist and contemporary language poetries), Harvard (connecting Modernism in Chicago, New York City and London) and the University of Illinois (exploring poets the Modernists rejected; this class was my favorite because it showed the flip-side of history). I just finished reading B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates and in his biography by Jonathan Coe we see even Johnson was criticized back in the 1960s for thinking James Joyce was something new. That was 30 years before my Sarah Lawrence class. Will we ever move on?
Anyway, this is an article about the forgotten women of Modernism, the “largely neglected figures” of Gertrude Stein, H.D. and Marianne Moore. This is all in the context of the 1990s when this book came out. All my MOOCs covered Stein, H.D. and Moore and I studied Stein in undergraduate school, so I feel this error of omission has been partially rectified. I say partially because the Big Brains of Modernism are still considered to be Eliot/Pound/Williams/Stevens and that quadrant of maleness has been way over studied.
“These women shared this antipathy to sentimentality but did not often share the positions of their male contemporaries, whose experimental forms masked conservative—even reactionary—attitudes toward women, society and politics and whose interests in myth and history excluded women.”
That’s exactly what the University of Illinois class on Modernism was talking about!
It's also noted in this chapter, however, that Alfred Stieglitz was one of Gertrude Stein’s first champions (as well as Georgia O’Keeffe’s) and Stein's first published poems appeared in issues of Stieglitz's Camera Work in 1912.
“Stein was the most modern of the Modernists.”
In college when we were studying Gertrude Stein (who I was just hearing about), my classmate Diane Harvestmoon said, “Listening to Gertrude Stein is like listening to rain.” I always remember that brilliant thought. Don’t try to figure rain out, right?
“Until recently, she remained a writer’s writer.”
The essay also drops the bombshell that “H.D. had already perfected the [Imagist] style that Pound claims to have discovered.”
I also love the Marianne Moore’s quote of George Grosz, that art is “endless curiosity, observation, research, and a great amount of joy in the thing.”
The essay claims these writers were “working from a wholly different and more revolutionary attitude toward poetic authority than the High Modernists.”