It’s been a rocky year kids for reasons I can’t even begin to explain to you. But one of the final adversities this fall was the slow crashing of our dear webhost Typepad over the last three weeks, starting with their inability to display images on the site. Fortunately I was able to backup all (or most of) the many words but it’s been made clear by the downtime (and Typepad’s own homepage missive that they’re no longer taking new customers) that it’s time to move all the sites to more stable and supported pastures. That will take quite a bit of time and effort (and that’s after researching where we can even go). I don’t know if I’ll even be able to restore everything, but if not we can revisit old posts from time to time.
Brave new start.
So anyway I’ll be gone for a while which is kind of bummer considering I was within a shot put of finishing both the Cher TV shows and the Essay Project and was in the middle of a new set of Grammar poems.
The big irony here is that I had taken some time off blogging this fall (and off social media too, although I didn’t do as well with that). I had decided to just stop talking for a minute and start listening (but mostly just stop talking already). And when the weather changed last week I crafted some new posts about poets and madness, Cher's new Decades collection and a few other things that won’t see the light of day for a while.
Honestly, I’m one of the lucky ones in this hosting meltdown because at least I had most of my backups from 2007 and I’m not depending upon any of my words to eat. They’re provided free of charge. Since I’ve never felt this current life’s mission has been to make money or get ahead, I’m not suffering quite as much as some others at this time. (For anyone on Typepad who doesn’t have backups, try visiting archive.org, the Wayback Machine, and you can grab stuff there.) And Typepad most likely will stabilize again (fingers crossed) but this is a big wakeup call for us old-timers over there. And this whole experience just highlights how fragile an internet life can be and how it can all become destabilized and disappear overnight, just like Vint Cerf indicated all those many years ago when he warned us in a speech that a generation of intellectual property will probably be lost. Web companies come and go. The supports you take for granted can lose their way. It’s all part of the digital lifecycle.
It could be worse…always.
Which brings me back to my little goal of shutting up for five minutes. It might be longer than that. I will be taking this opportunity to watch one of my favorite movies, Into Great Silence. I will pretend to be a monk for a while until my little Chatty Cathy comes out again, which is inevitable.
In better news, ICANN has called everyone back into the office for the first time since they shut down in April of 2020. So oddly 2023 is feeling like what I expected 2020 was going to be. And that includes trips into the LA office starting January, during which I’ll see the Joan Didion exhibit at The Hammer Museum and will report back on that when the sites are all moved. This also means there will probably be no NaPoWriMo 2023 for me next year as I won’t likely be up and running by that time.
But there’s plenty of work for me offline and I hope to catch up with everyone down the line. I hope the rest of everyone’s year goes well and next year we can pick up with new books and fun Cher stuff.
We’re getting down to the bottom of the Sarah Lawrence essay class stack. It's hard to estimate how many we have left, but a lot of it is probably unbloggable. Below is a short-stack of five single paged items that are not necessarily related but some are.
The first is a Time Magazine Art section piece from February 1996 by Paul Gray called "Attention Name Droppers." At the time, a formerly obscure and newly attributed 16th century Michelangelo statue of Cupid had set philosophers of value into a tizzy. The same thing had also just happened with a newly found Shakespeare elegy.
“It is easy to see why people who make their living studying Michelangelo and Shakespeare should be agog at the possibility of more material to occupy their attention….[but] neither the Cupid or the elegy is intrinsically different now, in the full glare of worldwide publicity, than a few weeks ago, when both enjoyed obscurity.”
Exactly. And this is what make these valuations problematic…always. They're based on social ideas, not objective ones. We all think we're objective, but...
I’m always referencing this book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like by Paul Bloom because it exposes just this kind of illusion we have about what good judges we are of things like music, food and art. There’s a similar story in the book about a painting that had one value before being discovered as belonging to a famous artist and one afterwards. Or maybe it happened the other way around, that what was deemed a brilliant thing was suddenly discovered to be not so brilliant because it suddenly wasn't attached to a famous person anymore.
“Aesthetics,” Gray says, “for all the millions of words that have been written on the subject, remains an inexact science. We cannot say why a painting once supposed to be a Rembrandt loses face when its connection with the master is disproved, even though it looks just the same as it did when we admired it before.”
Perfectly said. Except that we can say: judgement is social, judgements are made based on social pressures, social aspirations, social likes and dislikes, even if they’re subconscious.
There’s a three paragraph excerpt of Muriel Rukeyser from her 1949 book The Life of Poetry about confession and revelation: “Confession to divinity, to the essential life of what one loves and hopes, on a level other than the human, is full of revelation. The detachment, here from conscious to unconscious emotion values, has the power to change one’s life.”
“But there is another confession, which is the confession to oneself made available to all…the type of this is the poem in which the poet, intellectually giving form to emotional and imaginative experience, with the music and history of a lifetime behind the work, offers a total response. And the witness receives the work, and offers a total response in a most human communication.”
Very similar to her earlier statements from the Digital Poetry post I made back in June. I’m just beginning to understand Rukeyser. Baby steps. Powerful stuff.
The next piece is from Donald Revell’s book The Art of Attention where he talks about poetry being a form of attention, “itself the consequence of attention. And, too, I believe that poems are presences.”
He quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson to say, “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing…the creative act is continuous, before, during, and after the poem. An attentive poet delights in this continuity…I am speaking of intimacy, which is an occasion of attention. It is the intimacy of poetry that makes our art such a beautiful recourse from the disgrace and manipulations of public speech, of empty rhetoric. A poem that begins to see and then continues seeing is not deceived, nor is it deceptive.”
He then quotes this from Walt Whitman:
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
Revell says, “the poem of attention is not merely a work in progress; it is a work of progress in the most natural sense.”
The next is a grumpy little column from W.S. DiPiero called “One Paragraph on our Poetry.” It’s a long paragraph of which I’ve only excerpted about half, starting where he says,
“what’s wrong with it is that it’s worried about being right. Heart-throb platitudes, huggy acecdotalism, outraged stridencies over injustice in countries to which the poet migrates in search of worthy subjects, scrupulous self-censorship….agonies endured (or sworn to) entirely for the ‘appropriate dramatic fulness’ of a poem….valiant eloquence in defense of poetry…Does it matter? Poetry which exists in all of its words but which does not need only words for its existence…”
and then he takes on the new formalists.
Not much to say about this except that maybe it’s just best to just skip the dishes in the buffet you don’t like, instead of railing at all the eaters. Pea soup isn’t for everyone.
The last piece is a collection of two blurbs about the unconscious. The first is “Writing and the Unconscious: The Imagistic Leap” from The Portable Jung that relates analytical psychology to poetry:
“the writer’s conviction that he is creating in absolute freedom is an illusion” and that artists are swimming with an 'unseen current' and guided by it and that it is a psyche 'which leads a life of its own' and that only a writer who 'acquiesces from the start' can begin to function.
“a great work of art often has as its center a long floating leap from the conscious to the unconscious” and possibly many leaps. He also says that “powerful feeling makes the mind associate faster…increases the adrenalin flow, just as chanting awakens many emotions.”
A few weeks back when we were reviewing some revision essays, a few teachers remarked on the issue of poetry as therapy for those poets who weren’t keen to do the work of revision, as if this was the cut-off between professionals and therapy-seekers. The topic came up again as I was finishing Richard’s Gray’s history on American poetry. Gray's second-to-last section was entirely about the act of writing poetry after trauma, specifically the collective trauma of the 9/11 attacks and the kind of group therapy that occurred when hundreds of poems found themselves tacked up all over New York City and every living poet of note took a turn at trying to speak about the 9/11 tragedy in verse.
These poems holistically challenge the ideas that “politics kills poetry” (Tim Scannell) or that therapy has no place in poetry.
Gray says the 9/11 poems are a mark of witness, a mark of despair or rage from a single voice in an effort to join a collective experience of sense making. Gray talks about the tropes of these poems: falling, ‘the’ moment of a disaster, the moment just before, the helplessness of words, the unsayable, transfiguration of the ordinary, nostalgia for innocence, and a community’s sharded fall into the depths of psychic harm. These poems also call in question the lines between private and public spaces and explore tools we have as humans to map the loss, the very particular coordinates of loss, and also trauma’s heavy burdens of impotence and exhaustion.
Gray explores a large group of 9/11 poems in an attempt to determine which ones are shallow and cliched and which ones are meaningful in order to understand how we can find meaning from trauma and strategies for writing about it.
To me, the 9/11 poems seem to operate like other trauma poems of our time (school shootings, for example) or like trauma poems from our past (most war poems).
Surviving Home by Katerina Canyon is a book about a set of personal traumas, which in many ways makes it a hard book to review. It is first and foremost an exercise in listening more than reviewing. The scenarios are pretty harsh and their ramifications are felt everywhere throughout the book. Which, as a second point, makes it hard to know which poems are “succeeding,” especially when reviewing the book from a very different life experience.
I feel you have to read a book of trauma in two ways at once: listening in the Brene Brown sense, a kind of human-to-human sense, and also reading with an ear to craft and execution. But even that is not easy.
Reading from a craft perspective, I want to say Canyon's simple poems were more impactful than the more complicated poems, and yet the complexities in those poems were an important representation of any confusing and entangled experience.
The first poem, “Involuntary Endurance,” is a good introduction to what you’re going to get. In fact, the hardest poems seem front-loaded in the book: “I Wish I Could Tell You This Has a Happy Ending,” “I Felt My Brother’s Wrists,” and “My Pain Is Sculpted into Art for You to Consume.”
Her titles are particularly good.
She explores deep wounds, like in “Thoracic Biology” where she says, “most times when I sleep, I dream of/my hands, clutched tight around something/I cannot see, and I cannot let go.”
Her poems are mostly conversational and she works with sensory feelers into the terrain of her Los Angeles past like in the poem “My Life Map” or poems about her mother: “Small Bear to Great Bear” and “An Afterthought of a Netflix Show” (with an uncanny appearance by Carol Burnett).
But there are also some experimental pieces, like “The Tyger, Interrupted” with literal interruptions into the William Blake poem, “The Tyger.”
There are some faint light beams of hope here too, some short reprieves for both Canyon and her readers: “Aunt May” which references Z.Z. Hill’s song “Down Home Blues" and “The New Hope” where “I kick the crust between my soles,/This is where I will find a picket fence/Painted white like dandelions.”
Which brings us to another point about experimental poetry and poets who express disdain for the political act of witness or explorations of trauma: the choice to go fully experimental or dismissive is an opportunity provided a privileged writer. Poetry of witness and therapy are less valuable to people who don’t need it. You don’t value the picket fence when you don’t need to; you can have it or not have it. I can have it or not have it and so this poem challenges me to understand what the symbol means to Canyon. What symbolizes a fantastical cliche to me takes on an out-of-reach realism for someone who has no easy path to the symbol and cannot take it for granted. So poetry like this challenges the very idea of cliches themselves. Symbols are cultural and relative.
Which leads us right into her poem “Authority Questions” with the lines “would it have been different/if I were white, and if I had blue eyes/and I lived on a ranch with 500 head of cattle? Would the doctor have still called me a liar?”
It gets worse from there.
The traumas here are racism, physical abuse, (being locked in the closet “All Day Long” with her autistic brother), drug trauma, (“Trifling with Heroin” which opens with “She learned to cut lines at eight”), “The Consideration of the Black Bear” where she says about her father, “I was raised to be/the perfect fault--/to take the blame/to allow you to be King.”
Even a poem called “Blessings” seem mostly ominous. There are quite a few meditations on god and godlessness, a school shooting poem, (“A Petition for Unrecognized Children”), a few Trump poems, poems about Sojourner Truth and Harvey Weinstein.
And this probably speaks to my GenX love for kind of new structures but my favorite poem in the collection was the “I Left Out ‘Bells and Whistles’ Written with a Little Help for Websters Dictionary,” a dictionary poem about (ominous) words and phrases born the same year Canyon was born, (which I'm guessing from the tool below was 1968). This makes me think we should all consider the words born with us and what vibrations, legacies and ramifications their ideas had on the world (similar to all the ramifications of our beliefs and actions); and isn't exploring ourselves and our words, and exploring ourselves in words the whole point of writing poems really.
Use this tool to help you search for your own birth words: https://www.merriam-webster.com/time-traveler/
What is a Digital Poem
I want to start this digital catch-up by saying I’ve been thinking a lot about what separates digital poetry from digital art which happens to be using words as material. I think this is the main point of contention for paper poets around pieces labeled digital poetry, especially when few if any of the aims of poetry-as-meaning are involved. Many digital artists use words as material and since there’s no narrative element to the thing, they want to put it in the digital poetry bucket (as if poetry is just that nebulous thing that is not narrative or sensical, which is a pretty small view of what poetry is).
So I’ve been trying to come up with some parameters in my own head just to understand it myself. And here’s what I’ve come up with:
We’re almost done with the conceptual essays about computers and it looks like we’ll be going into actual essays about art and hopefully examples of interesting things. These two are by Marshall McLuhan and you know we’d have to pass through McLuhan because he’s the one who famously said, “the medium is the message” which has digital art all over it.
The introduction to two of his essays talks about what the “medium is the message” means, that the delivery medium of any content influences our understanding of it in profound ways we do not often realize. (You can see this clearly with social media arguments on the internet; the internet medium had transformed the way we argue and the ways we tolerate ((or don’t)) opinions that differ from our own).
But McLuhan’s statement was made for television not the internet and his examples go back to the first printing press and how mass-produced books changed the way people thought about...well everything. The introduction also quotes Neil Postman (who wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death) who said, “the clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.”
The first essay is “The Galaxy Reconfigured or the Plight of the Mass Man in an Individualist Society” (1962) where McLuhan talks about “sense rations” and changing patters of human perception, using William Blake’s “Jerusalem” and how our imaginations acclimate to new technologies, how they change how we think, how technology actually facilitated changes from gothic to renaissance to realism in literature. The printing press (or the idea of a popular press) brought to us the idea of a mass consciousness, a group vision, the lack of one single vision, and that all endeavors became “a mosaic of the postures of collective consciousness” and then we started to question, ‘what is truth?’ and then the sheer volume of voices gave us “mental anguish.”
The task of the individual artist became to “tap into the collective consciousness” even if the forms were individualistic and private. He says this occurs both with music and writing technologies. We “behold the new thing” and are “compelled to become it.”
And then he goes into capitalism and market economics and self-regulation of markets and feudal societies confronted with technology. But then he comes back around to how technology can isolate the senses and hypnotize society. How we become what we behold as we are swept away by the novelty. He says, “the most deeply immersed are the least aware.”
We are often lured by the idea of an improved future. And in some cases the new technology does provide improved future (think of the washing machine, for example). Another example is the printing press which brought us the novel itself and the sustained tone of a long story which produced in readers a “feeling of living in the world.” Not too shabby.
The invention of the novel lead us to study the new reader which led to Edgar Allan Poe writing "The Philosophy of Composition" and inventing the detective story (all good there), then symbolist poetry, the reader as co-author, and the nineteenth century mass surrender of unique selfhood, the assembly line, the unconscious, the non-logical.
So that happened.
His second and famous essay is “The Medium is the Message” (1964)
“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividng all things, as a means of control, personal and social consequences of any medium technology is an extension of ourselves.” He says machines usually fragment and decentralize.
Interestingly, he talks a lot about the invention of the electric light, pure information without a message. And he uses this to launch into talking about how the content of the medium is just another medium when you pull back the layers. Writing is really a medium for speech, which is just a medium for our thoughts, which is then a medium for our nonverbal impulses.
Technology changes the scale, pace, and pattern of human affairs. The railroad accelerated time and enlarged the scale of previous human functions. New kinds of cities came to be, new kinds of work and leisure that evolved to be independent of location. Then the plane came and dissolved the railway city.
There are independent consequences in the use of any technology. Again his example of the electric light: what it’s used for is irrelevant; it dramatically changed our lives and our behavior. "Content tends to blind us to the character of the medium." Content is a distraction.
He quotes something my father used to always quote as well because he worked for IBM for many years, probably the original 'thinking outside the box' idea: "IBM is not in the business of making machines, but in information processing."
And McLuhan insists light is a communication medium and it's no coincidence they called light companies “light and power." Electric light eliminates time and space just like the radio, the telegraph, the phone, the TV (and now the internet).
He criticizes technology apologists for being disingenuous when they say technology is the scapegoat for the sins of the world. It's like saying “apple pie is neither good or bad. It is the way that it is used" (and "guns don't kill people...")
There are consequences of innovation. These apologists speak "in the true narcissistic style of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form."
But it's more complicated (as it always is) than good or bad. The printing press gave us trashy novesl and nationalism, but he says, it has also gave us the Bible (and Choose Your Own Adventure books). Movies brought a world of illusions and dreams, point of view, then cubism happened, the idea of perspective, the interplay of planes, contradictions, instant sensory awareness of the whole...
Like all cultural things, it's not always easy to unravel: “Instead of asking which came first, the chicken or the egg, it suddenly seemed that a chicken was an egg’s idea for getting more eggs.”
That's a lot of omelet to chew right there.
Soo...I was doing something I definitely shouldn’t be doing...and I came across this very cool website called Poetry Atlas. You can look up poems connected to or referencing cities and towns around the world. You just type in the city and you're off to the races: http://www.poetryatlas.com/
This week, I used it to look up poems about the city of my birth.
(An aside, I was the one-hundredth baby born at a white skyscraper hospital in downtown Albuquerque called St. Josephs, which is now a brown medical building called Lovelace. My parents got a steak dinner. My brothers were born across the highway at Presbyterian and there were no steak dinners for them.)
Anyway, two really lovely poems about Albuquerque are on the site. And I think they resonated with me for a few reasons. One is that New Mexico in general and Albuquerque specifically can be a very harsh place to live. Even today. It’s a tough city and it can be a rough place.
A lot of people are drawn to New Mexico for the natural formations and the spirit of the place but it's not for the light of heart. The weather can be harsh. Half of us are allergic to the Chamisa and the juniper pollen. The spring winds can drive you mad (or if you're like my grandmother you can become addicted to them and forever need the sound of a draining wind to fall asleep). Medical care here is absurd. The public schools aren't very good. I guess there are some building codes. And mañana is the motto of the land which you will either learn to love or not.
And I am made of this place. These are my people. And the word love doesn’t quite express my connection to the rocks and trees and mesas and people here. It's really, really foundational for me. But sometimes I wonder if humans were meant to habitate this place.
My big family loves to say wherever they live is "God's country" and my little nuclear family loves to laugh about that. My grandparents and parents and brothers have always believed New Mexico is God's Country. Living far away in St. Louis, that is what we always said to each other. And when I found myself back here about 12 years ago, it dawned on me what that really meant was: 'good lord' and 'for the love of God' and 'for Christ’s sake!"
Sometimes you need poems to remind you what you love about the flawed city and country and world you are from.
And I must say, in reference to the first poem below, Albuquerque's airport is one of its lovliest things here, as airports go.
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:
"If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately."
Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. "Help,"
said the flight agent. "Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this."
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.
"Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?" The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, "No, we're fine, you'll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let's call him."
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—
by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
"Passing Through Albuquerque"
by John Balaban
At dusk, by the irrigation ditch
gurgling past backyards near the highway,
locusts raise a maze of calls in cottonwoods.
A Spanish girl in a white party dress
strolls the levee by the muddy water
where her small sister plunks in stones.
Beyond a low adobe wall and a wrecked car
men are pitching horseshoes in a dusty lot.
Someone shouts as he clangs in a ringer.
Big winds buffet in ahead of a storm,
rocking the immense trees and whipping up
clouds of dust, wild leaves, and cottonwool.
In the moment when the locusts pause and the girl
presses her up-fluttering dress to her bony knees
you can hear a banjo, guitar, and fiddle
playing "The Mississippi Sawyer" inside a shack.
Moments like that, you can love this country.
We're getting down to the bottom of the essay stack--lots of little pieces down here. I found four in a row on the topic of revision. Three of them begin with basically the same idea:
I'm always surprised when I talk to writers who hate the editing part of the process for some reason or another. Editing has always been one of my favorite parts. You've regurgitated the raw material into a formless shape and the shaping part is effort for sure but that’s where the magic starts to happen.
It's also where the sweat happens and without the idea of work, writing would be too fluffy to me. Besides, if I wasn’t wanting to do the work, I'd rather stretch out on the couch and read the fruits of someone else's hard labor, which is a lot less work.
I feel writers tend to fetishize first thoughts. But thinking is bigger than first thoughts, awesomely less simplistic that first thoughts. A first thought is a seed. And if you’re satisfied with seeds over flowers…
Editing is long process that happens over a lifetime. Editing is also relationship-building, not just with your first readers, but with yourself, all your other self(s).
The first of these five notes on revision is of unknown origin. I think an old friend of mine went to a workshop one day and gave me a copy of their notes but I'm not sure. It's a one-sheet thing about how revision is a "re-visioning" or a "re-imagining."
Get some distance from the poem, a "half-forgetting" distance that disconnects you from "the initial impulses" so you can see what "the poem is revealing." Then ask these questions:
The second sheet is also a mystery essay but along the margins is written Best Words, Best Order which is the title of Stephen Dobyns' popular writing guide. This sheet asks a few other interesting questions:
The next essay is "Household Economy, Ruthlessness, Romance and the Art of Hospitality: Notes on Revision" by Richard Tillinghast from the book The Practice of Poetry. It begins with a quote from Dorothy Wordsworth in 1800, "Intensely hot, I made pies in the morning. William went into the wood and altered his poems."
Along with his comment about poetry-as-therapy, he states, "the impulse to improve is also a sign of humility" which he admits is "naturally rare, particularly among young writers, for whom the value of doing something remarkable is vastly increased when they can say it only took them fifteen minutes."
He talks about Elizabeth Bishop's worksheets and Robert Lowell's drafts and how there were "few sparks of genius, few notes of originality or distinctive voice" in them and how different their initial thoughts were from what the final poems ended up to be. A perfect poem could have started as "a series of dispirited and formless reflections."
Tillinghast advises to "apprehend the poem's field of energy...Get a sense of the poem as something not defined by or limited to the words you have written down...a good poem, even in a potential form, has a shape, a life that floats above the words: 'the light around the body,' as Robert Bly put it."
He says, "savvy writing is a way of staying flexible." Metaphors he uses to describe the process: (1) getting off the freeway and going through an unknown neighborhood, (2) entertaining like a good host.
He also says revising is a "revision" but one that doesn't "knock the bloom off your original excitement." Give it just enough distance to "allow the poem to suggest new moves."
"Revising," he says, "is not so much a task as it is a romance." But he doesn't go on to define what that means. He just lays that out there.
The next mini-essay is "Waiting and Silence" by Susan Snively also from the same book, The Practice of Poetry. She starts like this:
"Franz Kafka is said to have kept a sign above his desk that read WAIT. Kafka's sign could serve as both the first and the last word on the subject of revision. But it is not a command to be passive. On the contrary, waiting is an active state of mind in which important work may take place--perhaps the most important work in the life of a poem. The most exhilarating, and therefore treacherous, moment in a poem's composition comes when the first draft is done."
She talks about the discipline of "leaving the poem alone" and how "no rules exist for how long the poet must stop fiddling with the thing." She suggests, like many do, reading the poem out loud to find "awkward enjambments, unwitting repetition and accidental howlers. Casting a cold eye on mingy little words (and, it, but, which, that) shows how to clear the underbrush from the living roots. Keeping both eye and ear alert for dead phrases and cliches."
She admits it could take months and years to finish a poem and recommends David Kalstone's Becoming a Poet. She ends with the following questions:
"What am I not allowing myself to say? Should it be said? Why do I want this poem to end? Is it a false resolution?"
In any case, she says, a poem can be "rescued by silence and waiting."
Addonnizio is such a great teacher (a very popular teacher) because she operates on both the mechanical and mysterious levels, where many poems believe you have to choose between the two ways of thinking. (Why should we have to choose?) She's also very cool and so when she says something, (I've seen this at writing festivals), the students lean in.
"A lot of people get hung up on revision," she says. "How can you be objective about your work, so you can figure out what it needs? How do you know what to let go of and what to keep?...How do you keep from losing interest in the process that felt so great at first, but now feels like you're hacking through vines with a butter knife for a machete? Welcome to the jungle."
"It's not so much a process of editing as of making unexpected discoveries."
Editing helps you build your decision-making skills, how to take what you need from books, from the "contradictory suggestions" of your readers. You can revise toward mystery; you can revise toward clarity. Here are some guidelines she's come up with:
Things she suggests trying:
Work through a few of these exercises even if you don't feel like it, she says. The point is to jumpstart your mental processes.
You'll find your dead ends, she says. She talks about the editing "comb-over" that is "taking thin areas and adding in more texture, more detail, more energy of language."
The part you can't teach, she says, is the mental leap, the epiphany that sometimes comes from playing around (editing). Her final advice is to "learn strategies, be stubborn, and wait--pray--for the leap."
So there was this kind of event that happened at Sarah Lawrence when I was there where fellow poetry students would put out flyers for little gatherings outside of classes and workshops, like impromptu discussions. I went to two of them, (that I remember anyway). One was on making a living as a technical or business writer organized by the poet Ann Cefola. I never did persue a professional writing career, (as soon as I discovered I had quite limited amounts of creative energy reserves), but Ann I became friends at that event and have remained supportive colleagues ever since that day. The other gathering was organized by a poet named Karl. I still have his flyer: "The Common Table: The Prose Poem." A bit pretentious sounding but I was always curious about prose poems and how they diverged from fiction shorts or shock fiction. At this event we were to determine the borderlines were actually very fuzzy.
The flyer quotes Charles Baudelaire, (considered the first prose poet and the one who coined the term), and his preface from Petites Poemes en Prose about the "miracle of a poetic prose...supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses."
Oh la la. The flyer then goes on to talk about this "confounding form" that is not an "unstructured monster" but "subtle" and how "you know a prose poem when you find one."
Or write one. I have written many pieces over the years I consider somewhere inbetween prose poems or fiction shorts. I've also been known to perform prose-poem opportunism, like for this poem "Orgasmic Orange" which is truly a three stanza lyric poem but here is masquarading as a prose poem.
And then I have many, many poems that intially came out as prose but they don't seem rightly prose and so were changed into verses (sometimes going back and forth a few times to figure out what they really were). "Fortune" is a recent example of a poem that initially came out like a longish prose poem and then was shaped back into tighter verses. And I think "tight" or "loose" here are my personal keywords when determining which direction to go in.
But nobody seems to agree on what the rules or the tools are or how to define the prose poem.
There's an excerpt in this packet from Introduction to the Prose Poem: An International Anthology edited by Michael Benedikt who agrees we are "in the midst of" an exploration on what prose poetry is," a genre "self-consciously written in prose" and forgoing the device of the line break. He says a key word for him is "intense," and says the form has a structure with its "own independent internal logic...metaphor and analogy" using "a music more internal" and "subtle" where the "line is not present to underline musical effects."
He notes that some of "the major poets in verse" worked with prose poems toward the end of their careers "when their command of poetry and their sense of its possibilities were presumably at their most practiced and acute:" Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme and Valery.
The packet then includes a deep dive into Michael Benedikt's poem "The Meat Epitaph" and how he drafted versions. He was very organized and kept each draft coded in file folders! My notes on this section quote Princeton Encyclopedia's definition of the prose poem as a form of contractions that undermine the action, how over time, poetic devices have become less effective and what does a line by itself mean; often it contradicts the sentence it is in ," [which is what I've always liked about it].
Anyway, Benedikt talks about the contradiction he was working with in his poem: how an "impious human" can write "morally concerned...poetry without betraying either the impiousness of the Self or the seriousness of the subject."
Benedikt talks about aspects of his process and whether prose poetry is "freely associative" and how structure finds its way into free verse and what poetic divices are still in play in the prose poem but that prose poems often read with a kind of "flat" style and borrow qualities from the surrealists.
My marginalia from the conversation has extra definitions:
We also talked about how pieces like "A Potato" by Robert Bly have a kind of fable-like quality, that these pieces are not always linear, not always "about something" or to "further some idea."
One question remains for me based on one note toward the end of the conversation: "form of prose poem is rectangle (box); pack only essentials."
Is this true? Or is there room for more superfluous storytelling in prose pieces than verse? Because usually when I convert something back into verse, a lot has to go and I shave out quite a bit. So are prose poems more economical than verse poems? In some ways they might need fewer words than a long-form poem but have more breathing room than a short lyric poem has or a haiku obviously.
At the meeting, Karl also provided a bulleted list of poets who have tried the form, a list which is too long to recreate here but here are some highlights not already mentioned above:
I would add to this list:
The next essay is a bit of a departure from the other SLC class essays, It’s the preface and two chapters from The Untouched Key, Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness by Alice Miller (translated from German).
In the book, psychologist Miller explores the way childhood events affect paitners and writers and how she can see childhood influence in pieces of art. She considers these clues to works “lost keys.”
The first chapter is on Pablo Picasso, particularly his “late works in Basel” painted when “he was 90 years old.”
She talks about how he “disregarded all convention as well as his own technical ability and attained what he had wished or all his life: the spontaneity and freedom of a child, which his perfectionism robbed him of in childhood…I seemed to be sensing a man’s last strenuous efforts to express the most hidden secrets of his life with every means at his disposal before it’s too late, before death takes the brush from his hand.”
Miller says, “a great deal has been written about the sexual themes…attributed to his declining libido” but she feels the sorrow exhibited in his late work reaches back to childhood trauma and not “an aging man’s regrets at his waning sexual vitality.”
She sensed this, she says, from “the themes," “the force of the brush movements,” “the vehement way he sometimes applied the color and conjured up new feelings that had to be given form,” his “haste to produce the unsayable, to say it with colors.”
But then again, these things could indicate almost anything.
But Miller continues, “since the efficiency of defense mechanisms decreases in old age, since repression works with less ingenuity, it was possible, I thought, that traces of childhood trauma not evident before might become visible in his late works.”
And the trauma Miller explores was based on his intense “reluctance to go to school” which was presumed to have been caused by a 1884 earthquake in Málaga when he was three years old. His parents had to flee with the family and the stress of the escape possibly caused his mother to go into premature labor days later before the family could safely return home. She sees implicit support in a poem Picasso wrote in 1936 about a cacophony of screaming (children, women, birds, flowers, beams and stones, bricks, chairs, curtains…paper, etc.) Miller sees a visual depiction of the earthquake (as seen by a child) in Guernica (1937) with its “horror, terror, and helplessness…total destruction…he even painted himself over to the right as the bewildered child in the cellar.”
Miller says Picasso “always abandoned a style once he had developed it…but the theme of the distorted human body haunted him all his life.” She says “little children often express their traumas in a painting….it took forty years before he was able to paint like a child, that is, to let his unconscious speak.”
She admits most biographers gloss over Picasso’s childhood in total, and this earthquake’s significance in particular.
I’ve been exploring childhood myself (in some subconscious ways, too) so this was an interesting topic for me. But like all things, I half believe it and half don’t. She’s probably right in general but she simply doesn’t have enough evidence in Picasso’s case to make a definitive, convincing case; so she just rehashes the same arguments multiple times and across many pages as if rewording the few pieces of evidence will prove a theory to be true.
Very sketchy biographical information does not equate to threads drawn out from years of therapy. As a psychologist and psychoanalyst, Miller would know this.
In the other chapter included in the set, Miller talks about an exhibit of Chaïm Soutine. She draws parallels between the childhood's of Soutine and Hitler and how one man became an artist and the other a despot.
She talks about Soutine’s paintings filled with “strange, twisted, tormented figures…houses, streets, and squares…that looked as though they might start to quiver at any moment...I asked myself whether the extremely threatening situation of the Nazi Holocaust had motivated, or even compelled, Soutine to paint the work as shaking and falling apart.”
She talks about how Soutine and Hitler were both punished severely with “brute force” for wanting to become artists, Soutine because his family were Orthodox Jews and Hitler because his family was totalitarian. In Soutine’s case, he had an advocate in his mother which helped “him develop a sense of justice.” Hitler had no advocates.
Miller then goes on to talk about the childhood of Paul Celan and “the witnesses who rescued him” from his yard-locked life where “the world lies on the other side of the chestnut trees” and Dostoyevsky whose father “treated his serfs with such cruelty that in 1839 they murdered him” and Stalin and his childhood of extreme poverty not dissimilar to Charlie Chaplin's but whose “experience of being loved can be sensed in all the Chaplin films. In spite of hunger, misery, and calamity, there is always room for feelings, for tears, for tenderness, for life.”
Miller says, “the truth won’t allow itself to be silenced completely, even with the help of poetry, philosophy, or mystical experiences. It insists on being heard, like every child whose voice has not been completely destroyed.”
It’s possible these conclusions are too simple in the face of an annoyingly tangled and complex lives. But that doesn’t mean her ideas might not be on to some clues regarding these artworks or that we can’t use this to explore our own ideas and executions, to explore our own childhoods.
Over a year ago, my mother sent me a box of things she had collected from my childhood. Confronting that box was a bit shocking and eye-opening for me. It opened a door to my childhood that is still bearing fruit. And it also has me thinking about the ways in which childhood and young adult events are still shaping my behavior and reflections today.
The last time we discussed haiku we were working through 52 weeks of haiku meditations (and that seems like a lifetime ago!).
I have no idea where this little packet came from, I'm guessing not from the Sarah Lawrence essay class, if only because it's not an essay, but the introductory chapters of The Essential Haiku, Versions of Bashō, Buson and Issa by Robert Hass. It could have been distributed at a poetry conference workshop from somewhere or even from another class somewhere. Not sure. But it's in the essay stack now so...here we go.
Robert Hass did a lot of work to reinterpret the haiku tradition and this book has been a popular place to dig into haiku traditions.
The packet includes the full Introduction chapter and then the separate biographical pages introducing each poet, along with some curated poems from whomever put the little packet together. I’ve culled a smaller set in each section below.
All of these poets spent "years in travel, sleeping at monasteries and inns...[as] poet-wanderers...for whom travel and its difficulties were a form of freedom and a way of disciplining the mind...All three became teachers of poetry."
Hass explores three core Buddhist metaphysical ideas about nature:
Many of the season references reflected "a Japanese way of thinking about time and change." For example, snow itself had many associative meanings particular to Japanese culture having to do with exposure and bareness. Spiders were a "traditional mid-summer theme." Seasons gave "a powerful sense of a human place in the ritual and cyclical movement of the world. If the first level of a haiku is its location in nature, its second is almost always some implicit Buddhist reflection on nature. One of the striking differences between Christian and Buddhist thought is that in the Christian sense of things, nature is fallen, and in the Buddhist sense it isn't."
Hass explores three core Buddhist metaphysical ideas:
What appeals to us, Hass says, is the "quality of actuality, of the moment seized on and rendered purely, and because of this they seem to elude being either traditional images of nature or ideas about it....this mysteriousness...they don't generalize their images...mysteriousness of the images themselves." Hass quotes Roland Barthes in noting the poems' "breach of meaning" as post-modern objects, as "deconstructions and subverters of cultural certainties" and the "silence of haiku, its wordlessness."
Hass then talks about how in particular Zen Buddhism "provided [these poets] training in how to stand aside and leave the meaning-making activity of the ego to its own devices. Not resisting it, but seeing it as another phenomenal thing, like bush warblers and snow fall."
Individually, the poets break down like this:
Bashō was the calm ascetic and seeker who wrote what was then called hokku. Many of his poems dealt with "the transience of things" and "spiritual loneliness...profound loneliness and sense of suffering." His poetry centered on "a sense of sabi...loneliness, or aloneness, or the solitariness akin to no-mind, which gives intense concentration, and curious lightness, and a tragic sense to the work"
Bashō "insisted on poetry as a serious calling...that it amounted to years of immensely subtle thinking about how to give resonance and depth to the image"
He was credited with reinventing the form and studied Chines poetry, Taoism and Zen. One of his students brought him a gift of a banana tree (bashō) from which he took his name. In a big city fire in Endo, his house burned down.
"He thought about giving up poetry, but confessed that he couldn't do it."
how does he live, I wonder?
An autumn night--
don't think your life
Even in Kyoto--
hearing the cuckoo's cry--
I long for Kyoto.
of the peony.
on the half-finished bridge.
Bunson was an artist of painterly precision who loved the of materials of art and color and the shape of things, according to Hass. He was a distinguished and successful painter and his poems Hass describes as painterly, "visually intense" with a "aesthetic detachment…in love with color. There is a sense in them also of the world endlessly coming into being."
Hass says Bunson’s haiku are like early poems of Wallace Stevens ("The Snowman" and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.") Buson was critical of contemporary haiku masters and said:
"These days, those who dominate the kaikai world peddle their different styles, ridicule and slander everyone else, and puff themselves up with the title of master. They flaunt their wealth, parade their ignorance, and promote themselves by arranging their students' innumerable wretches verses in anthologies. Those who know better cover their eyes in embarrassment and are ashamed of such behavior."
So not much has changed.
Hass says scholars like to compare the objective Buson and the subjective Bashō.
in both stirrups.
the sound of the bell
as it leaves the bell.
His Holiness the Abbot
in the withered fields.
The mad girl
in the boat at midday;
it draws her eyebrows
A gust of wind
the water birds.
The owner of the field
goes to see how his scarecrow is
and comes back.
the caterpillar's hair.
a fish leaps--
Escaped the nets,
escaped the ropes--
moon on the water.
The old man
bent like a sickle.
Calligraphy of geese
against the sky--
the moon steals it.
Before the white chrysanthemum
the scissors hesitate
Issa was the humanist of pathos and humor and anger.
Issa means "a cup of tea" or "a single bubble in steeping tea." He has been described as "Whitman or Neruda in miniature" and has also been compared to Robert Burns and Charles Dickens with his "humor and pathos, the sense of a childhood wound, the willingness to be silly and downright funny, and the fierceness about injustice." He could also be "didactic and sentimental" but in his best work he was "quite unlike anyone else, the laughter cosmic, the sense of pain intense...with no defenses against the suffering in the world."
Like Buson, he was a Pure Land Buddhist and he could be "inclined to moralize" but that there is an "edge of rage in his poems, something very near cynicism." He often wrote about "the smallest creatures....flies, fleas, bedbugs, lice" and his work has been described as "countrified haikas" with "vernacular language" and "local slang."
As it happened his house also burned down.
Don't worry, spiders,
I keep house
(For many years I had a NYC Metro placard with that poem on it, which I picked up one night from a stack of donated Metro posters at a poetry event in NYC.)
New Year's Day--
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.
Climb Mount Fuji,
but slowly, slowly.
Under my house
measuring the joists.
I'm going out,
flies, so relax,
Even with insects--
some can sing,
Don't know about the people,
but all the scarecrows
Blossoms at night,
and the faces of people
moved by music.
The gorgeous kite
from the beggar's shack.
in a scarecrow's belly.
it's no light thing
being born a man.
The holes in the wall
play the flute
this autumn evening.
Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.
Last time, I think,
I'll brush the flies
from my father's face.
a small boat
drifting down the tide.
the snow falling.
Insects on a bough
floating down river,
These two deleted poems were vulnerable for replacement for various reasons, maybe I didn't feel they were finished or they were missing some element or I wasn't really that attached to the song itself (although a feeling of incompleteness surely applies to many of the existing poems too, just not as strongly, including one of the replacement poems that I never was happy with; but that particular song asserted itself somewhat strenuously).
In any case, I was reminded of one of the poems this morning because another song by the artist came up on my android shuffle while I was on the treadmill and I was reminded how much I do like Dana Glover. In this case it was the definitely the poem, not any blasé feeling about the song.
My friend Christopher used to spend hours perusing CD stores in LA to cull out all the cut-outs, discounts and failed attempts. He probably had thousands of them at one point and he gave them (and still gives them) out at Christmas and birthdays with detailed post-it note descriptions of why it was a crime the artist never made it big. I've saved all the post-its completely disassociated from their CDs and they're still pleasant to read like random enthusiasms.
Anyway, Christopher gave me this album (I'm assuming quite inadvertently) right before my wedding, which was not lost on me at the time. We both loved this song and talked about Glover's talents and assets quite a lot back then. My first draft of the poem, due to its theme of being unable to think clearly in the middle of an emotion, is probably what made it difficult for me to critically solve the poem's problems, which today looked like the first two stanzas.
I reworked it this morning. It was in the April 19 slot before getting shown the door by REO Speedwagon.
So Many Thoughts
from “Thinking Over,” Dana Glover
Glover’s inquiring notes climb up my tributaries
like feels. And when I’m feeling, I stall;
I can’t think. The muscle halts.
The machine jams.
And I forget how pretty she is
when her long wail sweeps me up
to its crest. This beautiful girl
who is thinking everything so
dramatically, thoroughly through.
What a lucky turn for her,
this ability to reason through swales
and careening buckles,
ripping out a seasick howl
in the middle of a capsize.
She's like a mermaid
whose heart and mind and soul
are all the same thing.