The final essay in the David Rivard Sarah Lawrence class packet is an introduction to the book Helpful Hints, Notes on Writing Poetry by Jon Anderson. Coincidentally, the next essay in the Suzanne Gardinier essay class is also an introduction (in some cases, these are really good essays) to the book The Postmoderns, The New American Poetry Revised edited by Donald Allen and George F. Butterick.
Anderson’s tips are from his days teaching and he cautions us that all his tips are “not applicable to everyone’s writing, that, in fact, their opposites might be useful.”
He states he wanted the tips to be brief, not prescriptive. Our teacher, David Rivard, must have considered these useful tips as well. When reading any list of tips, there are always plenty of things you like and don’t like. Everyone’s experience is so different as writers. I won’t focus on the tips I disagreed with. But I can tell by my notes from the 1990s in the margins that any advice to try imitate another poet’s voice or style struck me as scary and dangerous. I must have been afraid of losing myself.
Oh as if.
Here are my favorite tips:
The editors date postmodern poetry to begin at the end of World War II. “Modernism came to an end with the detonation of the Bomb in 1945."
The preface doesn’t remark on Theodor Adorno's famous quote post-Auschwitz that ''after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric'' (1949) . Most definitely this influenced post-modernisms experimentations too.
Postmodernims is characterized as “experimental” and the editors list poets' influences as “Emerson, Whitman, Pound and Williams," egregiously ignoring ALL the womenfolk: Gertrude Stein, H.D. and Emily Dickinson whose influence was just as powerful.
This “underground” was first formed in “schools” like The New York School, the Beat poets and the San Francisco renaissance poets and the Black Mountain Poets, and all the other avant-garde of the 1950s.
Their poems didn't gain respect in the 1960s and 1970s.
Conceptual inspirations were: imagism, French symbolism.
Topics include: the limits of industrialization and high tech, spiritual advancement, communal energies, American individualism.
They were writing against: academic formalism.
They consider themselves: revolutionaries.
“Their most common bond is a spontaneous utilization of subject and technique, a prevailing “instantissm” that nevertheless does not preclude discursive ponderings and large-canvased reflections. They are boldly positioned and deft, freely maneuvering among the inherited traditions, time-honored lore, and proven practices, adopting what they need for their own wholeness and journeying.”
Yes, that’s how this preface talks. :-(
Because the photocopied prefeace is from a later-day reissue of the anthology (1994), the editors briefly sketch out which poets were added since the original volume came out 20 years prior.
List of mentioned poets: Charles, Olson, William Everson, Robert Duncan, Laurence Ferlinghetti, Barbara Guest, Jack Karouac, Jackson Mac Low, Denise Levertov, James Shuyler, Philip Whalen, Robin Blaser, Kenneth Koch, Jack Spicer, Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Lew Welch, John Ashbery, Larry Eigner, Edward Dorn, Jonathan Williams, Gregory Corso, Joel Oppenheimer, Gary Snyder, Jerome Rothenberg, Michael McClure, Diane Di Prima, Anselm Holo, Amiri Baraka, Joann Kyger, John Weiners, Robert Kelly, James Koller, Ron Loweinsohn, David Meltzer, Edward Sanders, and Anne Waldman.
That's 38 poets of which 5 are women. Just sayin’ they could have done better. The editors tried and failed to organize poets by geographical boundaries. They ran out of room for theoretical writings and poet statements.
Charles Olson’s essay “Projected Verse” starts things off, as Olson they say was the first to use the term “postmodern.”
The most interesting part of the preface for me was the comparison of how each writer conceptualized the idea of postmodernism:
They see postmodernism as “bold” and “heroic” which seems a bit over-the-top.
But there are some other adjectives that apply to the definition more specifically and helpfully: “idiosyncratic, “flexibility,” resilient and advantageous syntax,” exploration of language as a system,” “a different disposition of self,” a “quick willingness to take advantage of all that had gone before.”
Although the postmoderns are too "of their time" to comment on their own culpability in leading us where we are today, they are distant enough from their elders to criticize the moderns for similar liabilities. As they constrast postmodern from modern, the editors say “…if it’s true that the attitudes and commitments of modernism helplessly produced the Bomb and other forms of species alteration.”
We all helplessly produce untintended consequences.
This paragraph is a good definition what postmodernism is:
"These poets have taken advantage of the gains of imagism and surrealism, the chief accomplishments of poetic modernism. They are the grand and multifarious [not so multifarious if your read the table of contents] fulfillment of the vers libre of the early 1900s. Many demand a reorientation of values, a reexamination of the very premises of Western civilization. Most seek for the individual, a new relation toward his or her world, a new 'stance toward reality,' where each poem’s line, whether long-breathed or tightly controlled, is open to its own possibility, where the syntax responds with vital immediacy to the moment’s pulse. They are revolutionary, characterized by a willingness to seize the romantic imperative, to seek alternatives to the ‘static’ quo.”
We’re getting down to the last two essays from the David Rivard class at Sarah Lawrence back in 1994-ish. It’s another Philip Levine one and I would say this is my favorite essay in the project so far, but then Levine is one of my favorite poets so this is not a surprising thing. This essay makes me want to do a deep dive into all of his prose. It’s called “Mine Own John Berryman” and it talks about his experience at the Iowa Writers Workshop with teachers Robert Lowell (who sucked) and John Berryman (who was great). This essay, like “Entering Poetry” which we covered a few weeks ago was from his autobiography of essays that had just come out, The Bread of Time (1994).
The most wonderful thing about this long essay experiment has been how I’ve come to soften about essays I formerly disliked. I’ve grown up, changed. But Philip Levine: it is so heartwarming to be able to say there has been no change. I still love his poetry and prose and this feels like a rediscovery.
This essay is full of not only beautiful passages, but criticism and praise of his teachers that hits exactly the right notes, like this beginning:
“I can’t say if all poets have had mentors, actual living, breathing masters who stood and sat before them making the demands that true mentors must make if the fledgling is ever to fly. Some poets seem to have been totally self-starting….I’m thinking of such extraordinary examples as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, who over a hundred years ago created not only their own gigantic works but the beginnings of something worthy enough to be American poetry, and they did it out of their imaginations and their private studies and nothing more. But then, they had the advantages of being geniuses….I think also of those poets who had to be poets, whom no one or nothing short of death could have derailed from their courses—John Keats, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Rimbaud—who outstripped their mentors before they even got into second gear. There are those who were lucky enough to find among their peers people of equal talent and insight to help them on their way, like Williams and Pound, who for the crucial early years of their writing careers ignited each other…As for those of us here in the United States of America in the second half of the twentieth century, we have developed something called Creative Writing…One can only regard it as one of the most amazing growth industries we have. Thus, at the same time we’ve made our society more racist, more scornful of the rights of the poor, more imperialist, more elitist, more tawdry, money-driven, selfish, and less accepting of minority opinions, we have democratized poetry. Today anyone become a poet; all he or she has to do is travel to the nearest college and enroll in Beginning Poetry Writing and then journey through the dozen stages of purgatory properly titled Intermediate Poetry Writing and Semi-Advanced Poetry Writing, all the way to Masterwork Poetry Writing, in which course one completes her epic on the sacking of Yale or his sonnet cycle on the paintings of Edward Hopper, or their elegies in a city dumpster…”
Did he write this yesterday? From his grave? Yes. Yes. Yes. All of it. And how he threads the success of poetry workshops to the decine of civility. It's like he was my mentor and I didn't even know it.
And then! And then he goes into his own early experiences squeezing poems out of the collegiate poetry factory, with Mr. Confessional Robert Lowell no less who had just won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Lord Weary’s Castle. Ground zero for the whole enterprise at the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Levine didn’t go to Iowa in 1953 to study with John Berryman (not yet famous for his “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”) but to study with the famous Robert Lowell.
“To say I was disappointed in Lowell as a tacher is an understatement…a teacher who is visibly bored by his students and their poems is hard to admire. The students were a marvel: we were two future Pulitzer Prize winners, on Yale winner, one National Book Critics Circle Award winner, three Lamont Prize winners, one American Book Award winner.”
Wow. Taking down Robert Lowell of the great Boston Lowells, relative of famous poets Amy Lowell and James Russel Lowell in just two sentences! Who Lowell was contrasted with who "we" were. It’s like buttah!
And what an amazing workshop class it was: Donald Justice, W.D. Snodgrass (who would continue in the tradition of Robert Lowell confessional free verse), Jane Cooper, William Dickey….among others.
“Lowell was, if anything, considerably worse in the seminar; we expected him to misread our poesm—after all, most of them were confused and, with few exeptions, only partialy realized, but to see him bumbling in the face of ‘real poetry’ was discouraging.”
Levine then gives an example of Lowell misreading a Housman poem and continues with a final discomforting scene:
“His fierce competitiveness was also not pleasant to behold…he seemed to have little use for any practicing American poet….During the final workshop meeting he came very close to doing the unforgivable: he tried to overwhelm us with one of his own poems….someone, certainly not Lowell, had typed up three and a half single-spaced pages of heroic couplets on ditto masters so that each of us could hold his or her own smeared purple copy of his masterpiece. He intoned the poem in that enervated voice we’d all become used to….I sat stunned by the performance, but my horror swelled when several of my classmates leaped to praise every forced rhyme and obscure reference…No one suggested a single cut, not even when Lowell asked if the piece might be a trifle too extended, a bit soft in places. Perish the thought; it was a masterpiece. And thus the final class meeting passed with accolades for the one person present who scarcely needed praise and who certaininly had the intelligence and insight to know it for what it was: bootlicking.”
I love this man.
Levine goes on to contrast the experience of his next workshop teacher, John Berryman.
“To begin with, he did not play favorites: everyone who dared hand him a poem burdened with second-rate writing tasted his wrath, and that meant all of us. He never appeared bored in the writing class; to the contrary, he seemed more nervous in our presence than we in his.”
“We returned the next Monday to discover that Berryman had moved the class to a smaller and more intimate room containing one large seminar table around which we all sat.”
My favorite teacher did that too. That must have been a thing.
Levine describes how Berryman managed to weed out “unserious” students, “a contingent of hangers-on” until “all but the hard-core masochists had dropped.” And incredibly not only was Levine one of these masochists, he was too poor to pay for the class and was coming anyway. Berryman would joke about it to Levine when Levine tried to say there had been a mix-up with the registrar. “I was the only nonenrolled student attending, but so extraordinary were his performances that the news spread and by the time he gave his final Whitman lecture the room was jammed to the bursting point.”
It never occurred to me to sneak into classes I wasn’t registered for. Dagnabit.
Berryman taught them how to find “hot” areas of their poems and revise toward the heat, how to be ruthless and make radical revisions. “There are so many ways to ruin a poem,” Berryman said. Levine talks about how Donald Justice was the superstar of the class.
Berryman also was a scholar of Shakespeare and one day had the students all re-read The Tempest. “There is great poetry hiding where you least expect it,” Berryman said. “We must find our touchstones where we can.” Beautiful.
Levine is often sarcastically funny. When Berryman was extoling the virtues of Macbeth, how Shakespeare had less than two weeks to write the play and how Berryman said it “’took him no time at all to write it, and yet it would take half the computers in the world a year to trace the development of the imagery that a single human imagination created and displayed in a play of unrivaled power.’" Levine, a former auto factory worker, retorts, "So much for the School of Engineering.”
Berryman also put students in their place. He “made it clear, those who best understood prosody—Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Blake, Hopkins, Frost, Roethke—had better things to do than write handbooks for our guidance.”
Other great Berryman quotes:
“Speed, achieved by means of a complex syntax and radical enjambment.”
“Certain poets are so much themselves, they should not be imitated: they leave you no room to be yourself, and [Dylan] Thomas was surely one of them, as was Hart Crane, who probably ruined the careers of more young poets than anything except booze.”
“Better to learn from a poet who does not intoxicate you, better to immerse yourself in Hardy, whom no American wants to sound like.”
“Write everything that occurs to you; it’s the only way to discover where your voice will come from. And never be in a hurry. Writing poetry is not like running the four hundred meters.”
“’No poet worth his salt is going to be handsome; if he or she is beautiful there’s no need to create the beautiful. Beautiful people are special; they don’t experience life like the rest of us.’ He was obviously dead serious, and then he added, ‘Don’t worry about it, Levine, you’re ugly enough to be a great poet.’”
Levine also drops the bombshell that Snodgrass claimed Lowell discouraged his confessional poems instead of inspiring them.
Levine talked about how Lowell’s favoritisms divided his class into “hostile factions” whereas in Berryman’s class everyone in the class stayed friends and “took pride and joy in each other’s accomplishments…we were learning how much farther we could go together than we could singly, alone, unknown, unread in an America that had never much cared for poetry.”
This essay made me reflect on my own experience with the best teacher I ever had, Howard Schwartz. Later at Sarah Lawrence College when I was getting my MFA in one of the imfamous Creative Writing programs, Tom Lux confidently announced to us that in his workshop and classes we would get the closest reading of our lives. And to his credit, it was pretty close, but no cigar on the closest. That was in Howard Schwartz’s class. Lux would take us line by line, but Schwartz took us work by word like a poet mechanic. We’d spend ten minutes debating whether a title should be using the word “A” or the word “The” and it drove some students batty but I wouldn’t have changed a thing about any of the many classes I took with Howard Schwartz. He too was the just right combination of encouraging with no-bullshit tolerated. You had to have a tough skin or develop one. Some students couldn’t do it.
I'm going to order the full Levine suite toot suite!
This next article from the Suzanne Gardiner class at Sarah Lawrence was an interesting one, "1NK M4THM4T1CS, 4N 1NTRODUCT1ON TO L4NGU4GE POETRY by JOEL LEW1S" and it appeared in the magazine Poets & Writers in Sept/Oct 1990.
One of the interesting things about this old P&W article from 1990 is that it wasn’t wall-to-wall Writing MFA ads like it is these days. This article only has three: Washington University in St. Louis, Vermont College and Cleveland State University. Which seems like a lot but it's not. There are also ads for journal subscriptions, writing competitions and book publishers.
In this essay, Joel Lewis quotes Language poet Charles Bernstein to say Language poetry “does not involve turning language into a commodity for consumption; instead it involves repossessing the sign through close attention to, and active participation in, it’s production.”
Total sense, right?
Lewis traces what exactly Language poetry was reacting against starting with the New York School's opposition to the New Criticism of the 1950s, “the egocentric, single-image, quasi-romantic poem that dominates literary magazines.”
The irony here is that language poetry has come to dominate magazines and book prizes over the last few decades every bit as much as new criticism once did. And how strange it is that everyone is always reacting against literary magazines and most likely because their poems were not getting into them (which involves its own egocentricity). And then considering the very small readerships of literary magazines, it's quite amazing so many revolutionary poetries result.
“I look out my/window and I/am important” jokes scholar Robert J. Bertholf. Even the line breaks are true. Bertholf continues with the satire of the typical workshop instructor asking, "Has s/he earned this last line, class?”
You can see why someone would want to revolt.
Lewis says “it seems that mainstream poetry exists simply to justify an apparatus of writing grants, workshops, summer poetry camps, and magazines, rather than for any reading audience.”
Which is an interesting thing to say because I can tell you this: thirty years later Language poetry has done nothing to change that fact, but arguably made it worse.
There’s a fine line between art pieces that use words as visual material and experimental poems that do the same; and I feel language poems sometimes cross that line depending upon the intent of the poem. Lewis overtly states this when he says Clark Coolidge’s landmark 1970 book Space “turned the subject of poetry onto itself by treating words as solid objects, much in the way a painter uses a tube of oil paint—as material for making art.”
The intent of sense making by parataxis is a different intent that separating words entirely from any sense-making aim. And word as paint, wood or any kind of object steps away from poetry and becomes a physical object of art. I have the same issue with digital poetry that likewise doesn’t use words for any language-sense-making aim.
Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman (pictured above), Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andres and their journals from the 1970s and 1980s are discussed.
“Admittedly, a good deal of the poetry is difficult. It requires that the reader drop his or her notion of the poem as anecdote or self-revelation and accept it as a ‘living document of the author’s engagement with the reader and the world through language as the agent of shared thinking.’”
This reminds me of a very talented undergraduate poet I knew at University of Missouri-St. Louis named Diane Harvestmoon who once said she read Gertrude Stein like listening to rain falling. I finally got it and still believe her definition of language poetry was the best I've ever heard.
“This is not writing aimed at reaching the masses, but at that fierce and devoted group of believers who are already serious readers of poetry.”
Poet’s poets. Scientist’s scientists. There is a definite need in the world for pure experimentation away from any practical application. And sometimes, like unintended consequences from pure scientific experimentation, there are found practical benefits. These poets ask “’How does it make meaning?’ Rather than ‘What does it mean?’” This means these poems study the way we read poems, which is important but not for everybody. There are other neccessary goals for poetry. When anyone makes the statement that this is the new poetry and other poetries are done for, then we have a problem. When magazines and book prizes publish mostly language poetry, then we are leaving out other vital audiences and experiments.
I, myself, am interested in project-based language poetry which Lewis here calls “procedural investigations”like Ron Silliman’s using no verbs in his poem “Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps” or Ted Greenwald’s poem on one-word lines, “Makes Sense” or David Melnick’s poem using a “self-invented vocabulary list,” “PCOET” or Len Hejinian’s poem “My Life” which is almost autobiographical but in a mishmash scramble:
"…Why are these people writing to each other. It’s true that there are times when its embarrassing to have come from California. The late afternoon light, which my mother always referred to as “backlighting,” gentled the greens with blue and grey. I only want the facts. It’s o.k. to have pancakes for dinner.”
These writers are trying to get out of their own heads and Lewis says they are not interested in writing what they already think. He traces their influences to Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Louis Zukofsky, Gertrude Stein, Robert Creely, Charles Olson, John Ashbery, Larry Eigner, Francis Ponge, Paul Celan, Vladimir Khlebnikhov, early William Carlso Williams, 1960s cinema and art, the writings of earthworks artist Robert Smithson, minimalism, scientific, nonliterary vocabulary, Rolan Barthe’s writings about the death of the author and other ideas of post-structuralists. These poems reject new Criticism’s ideal of "representational language carrying meaning in a story or anecdote."
The problem with destabilizing authorship (which eventually results in destabilizing expertise and somehow humility) is the atmosphere of meaninglessness we are living in today, where everyone accuses their neighbors of fake news. To challenge reality is to destabilize it and there are political ramifications for that once the cat is out of the bag. To use a flawed piece of rhetorical language.
Like digitial poets, language poets have written a lot of criticism and theory. And Lewis admists “these critical writings are far more interesting than Language Poetry itself.” I’ve said as much about early digital poems. “Their works may become little more than fodder for numerous internalized academic debates. Will Language Poetry become part of the very institutions it opposes by providing yet another entrée on the menu of Modern Language Association (MLA) conventions.”
Yes and yes and yes.
Lewis also points out that Language Poetry “has generated a great amount of outright hostility….Poetry raders, at some level, are a society of believers….has faith in the rituals of the form: the conventional handling of metaphor, closure, and the narrative are not only accepted by expecte, and any desecration of the tabernacle of poetry often results in the cry of ‘philistine’ or anti-poetry.’”
There’s also a new accusation of white privilege made against language poets, that these poets exist in a safe harbor that permist the luxury of experimentation and play. Marginalized writers may feel pressed to keep trafficking in sense-making. No group is monolithic, however, and there are experimental black poets like Harryette Mullen. But many other poets from marginalized communities might feel they cannot afford to avoid the poetry of poltical witness in service of what Language Poetry critic Tom Clark calls “the usual disjointed, self-referential mucking about grammar.”
Because even these attempts to avoid the self somehow comes back upon the self and self-referenced process.
Ron Silliman admits this poetry “threatens established thinking” and so it now exists as threatened. We are now wringing our hands at the loss of rational thinking on social media and in govnerment. Instead of pushing readers to use their critical thinking skills more, people have given up figuring out the new quagmires and as a society we're all doing far less critical thinking.
So although I feel there is a need for this type of experimentation and I personally enjoy reading the results, the project’s goals have not been met…like...at all. I compare these language experiments to spending the last decade watching ghost-hunting reality shows. I really enjoy it; I always hope they’ll find proof of a ghost; but reviewing the results from ten years ago against shows of today we don’t have much to show for all of it. Does that mean we should stop trying to prove ghosts exist? I don’t think so. But we should have more humility and, like any good scientist, reconsider our hypotheses.
The artcile also includes some sample writings from Charles Bernstein which encapsulates language poetry's goals in a surprisingly sensical way:
“Poetry is like a swoon, with this difference,
it brings you to your senses.”
And this from Rae Armantrout
“Going to the Desert
is the old term
"landscape fo zeroes"
the glitter of edges
again catches the eye
to approach these swords!
lines across which
beings vanish / flare
the charmed verges of presence”
and this fragment from “Person” by Bob Perelman:
no matter how liberal the building codes
glass houses conceived in sin from day one
blizzards of chance down on the fountain of youth
all without a verb
because capitalism makes nouns
and burns connections.
I remember this next essay in the David Rivard class packet. It was a popular one at Sarah Lawrence because Federico Garcia Lorca wrote so eloquently about New York City. The essay is “The Duende: Theory and Divertissement” and like other Spanish works of poetry and prose, it dances around the topic a lot. And I really like that about Spanish poetry; but I’m annoyed by the fog of un-specificity in the essays. It starts to sound like so much spiritual, tent-revival mumbo-jumbo after a few pages.
Lorca's essay is describing moments when someone will say, “Now that has real duende!”
He says Manuel Torres once said this about a singer, “You have a voice, you know all the styles, but you will never bring it off because you have no duende.” This statement is so assertive you sense there's a blowhard behind it. Lorca goes on to say duende can be found in “anything that springs out of energetic instinct” whatever that is.
Lorca admits it's all a big mystery, “ a mysterious power that all may feel and no philosopher can explain.” He calls it an “earth-force.” All artists work toward perfection “at the cost of a struggle with a duende,” which is not an angel or a muse, “the Muse dictates and…prompts. There is relatively little she can do, for she keeps aloof and is so full of lassitude….The Muse arouses the intellect….but intellect is oftentimes the foe of poetry because it imitates too much.”
Ok, I'm half way there but not completely...sounds tricky. He continues...
“The Girl with the Combs had to mangle her voice because she knew there were discriminating folk about who asked not for form, but for the marrow of form—pure music spare enough to keep itself in air. She had to deny her faculties and her security; that is to say, to turn out her Muse and keep vulnerable, so that her Duende might come and vouchsafe the hand-to-hand struggle. And then how she sang! Her voice feinted no longer; it jetted up like blood, ennobled by sorry and sincerity, it opened up like ten fingers of a hand around the nailed feet of a Christ by Juan de Juni—tempestuous!...”
The arrival of the Duende always presupposes a radical change in all the forms as they existed on the old plane. It gives a sense of refreshment unknown until then, together with that quality of the just-opening rose, of the miraculous, which comes and instills almost religious transport...”
"All of the arts are capable of duende, but it naturally achieves its widest play in the fields of music, dance, and the spoken poem, since these require a living presence to interpret them…”
"The magical virtue of poetry lies in the fact that it is always empowered with duende to baptize in dark water all those who behold it, because with duende, loving and understanding are simpler, there is always the certainty of being loved and being understood; and this struggle for expression and for the communication of expression acquires at times, in poetry, finite characters.”
If you’re still confused, here is more information about the Duende in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duende_(art)
The essay has a spiritual element I didn’t quote but that is captured in Wikipedia: “at least four elements can be isolated in Lorca's vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical.” The Wikipedia also contains Nick Cave’s description of duende as a sadness in love songs.
So although I think Lorca’s very long-winded description is way too elusive to be useful (which may be the point), I actually do believe in duende. The problem is, it’s subjective measurement. What produces an emotional response in one person does not produce an emotion response in another. A lot of it has to do with culture and environment.
Next up from Suzanne Gardiner's Sarah Lawrence Essay class back in the mid-1990s were three pieces by Sharon Olds who was very popular with the women I knew at the college and it seemed this was because she was a very contemporary confessional poet who was not afraid of writing about sexual content, parental abuse. And that was very appreciated in the 1990s. But I had a hard time getting into Olds because her prose and verse seemed a bit flat to me. This feels almost like sacrilege to say.
In three stapled packets there were two tiny memoir essays that I can’t find online or referenced in a book anywhere although the photocopy is clearly from a journal or anthology somewhere.
In the first little essay, “Small Memoir on Form” the first sentence is “Meter and rhyme always had a strong power over me” and that’s pretty much about as exciting as the thing gets.
Olds takes us through her autobiographical reading-list as a teenager, which sounded pretty advanced to me but I recently read Mary Oliver's childhood list and it was also pretty advanced. Olds read Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, e.e. cummings, Auden, Roethke, St. Vincent Millay, Donne among others…it really is a very long list. Then how she studied foreign languages to read international poems in their original languages (now that's passion for poetry!), and then how she loved diagramming sentences….
“There was always that danger, that any received form might take over, emptying itself of the heart it was meant to support.”
College was scanning poems and avoiding history, math and science. Then she lists all the forms she practiced until earning her Ph.D. and immediately freeing herself with free verse:
“I think I saw the sonnet form as somehow located in an atmosphere of elegance—a court with a Queen—a decorated place where one fit into the pattern. A kind of Anglophile upper-middle-class world. And I wanted to sound like a “real person”—an “ordinary woman.”
What I find interesting here is the juxtaposition with the essay last week by Philip Levine and his heartfelt scenes, narratives and conversations. Olds' essay is more abstract and unparticular about what these references and influences opened up in her, bringing it all alive for us. She talks about wanting to get on the page “energy and joy of language…an independent will and soul…pent-up feelings and subjects…sentimental and melodramatic.” But there's no energy and joy here somehow.
But she does say she always a poem was something “inside you, almost written really, and it’s up to you to get it out intact. Transfer its life onto the page until it can breathe on its own.”
She talks about dancing, hard-rock dances and the contrapuntal, the trochaic rhythms of her early poems. “For the first years, all I wrote was personal…it was all I could handle. My heart was too small.”
Then she goes into process a bit:
“Form. I try to start at the beginning, and work through toward the (as yet unseen) end, trying to feel when the poem is going away from its path (which it’s creating), it’s heart-line (head-line, body-line, soul-line). If I’ve gone the wrong way—cross out back up to where it feels right, starting bringing it down again.”
“The strong energy position is the beginning of the line for me rather than its end. I see the images scooping up…”
She then questions whether we want poems to “’lift up’…from the level of ‘mere life’” or “get it on the page as is.”
“You have control over what you write on the paper, but not what comes into your head. You don’t make an image, like a cake, out of ingredients. It ‘comes to you’: it’s a gift….the whole poem is like that—it comes to you, appears inside you, you let it out onto the page half active, half receptive, a kind of love-making. To put more emphasis on formal patterning would be, for me, to give too much power to one side of the equation—to be false to the terms of the enterprise.”
So much of human thought is still so mysterious. I do think you can control thought to the extent you control what you read, hear, what your conversations are about. You can prime the mind. But you can’t manipulate it fully to operate however you'd like.
Olds ends on her idea of free verse as a “soul made visible” and strangely the last little paragraph is about the power of poetry. And that “some say” it keeps us from going over the edge."
The next little essay is “A Brief Visual-Arts Memoir” and it’s similarly flat.
“I don’t remember the first real painting I saw. I drew a lot, wrote a lot, made Christmas cards and elaborate tiny place-cards for large family dinners.”
She talks about documentary photographs in Time Magazine that moved her. She says, “Of all the arts, dance is the most important to my work.”
Sentences like that…it feels like a sketch that never developed into something.
She continues, “…memories and feelings…locked up in our muscles.”
“I feel the beat (meter) physically.”
“So the visual is essential to me (perhaps as the musical or the conceptual might be to someone else), and the visual arts are important to me mostly for the joy they give me.”
All the many declarations of things that "are important to me" feel empty and undeveloped.
But then she does say something interesting about Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party piece: “Chicago’s combination of massive ambition and precise gorgeous detail—a large dramatic piece made of many individual pieces.” She also likes Louise Bourgeois’ piece Femme Ccouteau. But her favorite art object is New York City. End of essay.
So….those were pretty uninteresting for me. But then the last little stapled was something different altogether. One page is a biographical statement of how she wrote “The Wellspring” which was a poem included in Best American Poetry 1989. She says she was writing the poem on the train from Pittsburgh to New York City and:
“…it took eight hours to find the ending, or for the ending to find me. I wrote and wrote, and crossed out and crossed out. It’s something that happens to me sometimes—getting stuck on an ending for hours and hours. Probably lots of people would leave it then—take a break—and that’s probably the right thing to do. I just can’t. The poem keeps pulling at me. It pulls me back to the point where it starts to go wrong. It won’t let me go…I have to finish it, according to its own lights, before I can be free of it and it of me…This ending was waiting for me at home. When I saw, across the reed swamps and the Palisades, the tiny steeples of Manhattan, I ‘got’ it.”
Whoever turned in these packets then added “The Wellspring” poem on the next page. Then the page after that is the rewrite of the poem, now titled “The Source” from her 1996 book which used the title The Wellspring.
This is a poem about sex with men and a very physical description of giving head. The poem then turns into a poem about her father which is pretty amazing (and disturbing sub- textually) but still shockingly amazing. I think in the class we were probably discussing the editing process between the two poems and evaluating the changes.
Obviously Olds didn’t let the poem go on the train that day. She kept rewriting this quite extraordinary poem. I feel the first poem was stronger, more confident. The book's version became more tentative.
For example the Wellspring version starts with this line: “It is the deep spring of my life, this love for men.” That line must have had an impact because I can find quotes of it online as one of the great opening lines of a poem.
The same can't be said for the changed, more vague version in the Source poem, “It became the deep spring of my life.”
As if it wasn’t always a thing that was. Later the Wellspring line, “and drive the stuff/giant nerve down my throat till it/stoppers the hole of the stomach that is always hunger” becomes “and help guide the massed/heavy nerve down my throat until it/stoppers the hole behind the breastbone that is always hungry,”
It’s a bit less salacious the later-day way. Not to give the poem away but Olds eventually has a conversation with sperm and the earlier Wellspring lines “Stay here—for the/children of this father it is a better life;/but they cannot hear me. Blind, deaf...” become “Stay here--/for the children of this father it may be the better life;/but they cannot hear. Blind, deaf...”
The certainty becomes a “maybe.” And the heartbreak was in the certainty.
Sharon Olds has very nice hair, by the way, so I added her to my list: https://www.pinterest.com/poetmarymccray/poets-with-sexy-hair/
I picked up Chen Chen’s book When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities because of the Cher reference in it. But this book did not disappoint. Every poem was a dream. It’s one of those books you enjoying so much you slow down in order to be able to be with it longer. Every poem was an experiment of some kind but with an emotional quality that didn’t feel cold.
“Self-Portrait As So Much Potential” starts us off by introducing us to how the poet sees himself and what his mother wanted him to be. Chen Chen writes delicious lines like “I’m a rusty yawn in a rumored year. I’m an arctic attic./Come amble & ampersand.” It’s a scat skirting around the emotion of being a disappointment as a gay son. Experiment that are touching makes these very engaging pieces. “In the Hospital” is another good mom poem.
Chen Chen does a kind of spiritual questing here with a kick of humor, like in “I’m Not a Religious Person But.”
And the sheer scope of his identity poems: “I am making my loneliness small” from the poem “West of Schenectady” and “my hands/have turned out to be no bee,/all bumble,” from “How I Became Sagacious.”
His experiments are even somehow holistic as in “Please Take Off Your Shoes Before Entering Do Not Disturb.”
And that’s all just in section one! I’ve check-marked almost every poem in this book as a favorite. So from here let me just list the favorites of the favorites:
The lovely ode “To the Guanacos at the Syracuse Zoo” ends with “But isn’t this/how it happens?Aren’t all great/love stories, at their core,/great mistakes?”
“Elegy for My Sadness” hit a heartbreaking home-run with its conflation of Frenchness and depression and I’m sure I will be coming back to this poem many times.
“Kafka’s Axe & Michael’s Vest” covers the idea of silence. A few of his poems reference Paul Celan and asks the question on all of our minds, “What does it mean, to sing in the language of those/who have killed your mother,/would kill her again?” and the tough question “Are we even built for peace?”
We get more of his struggles with his family in “Chapter VIII” when he says “I tried to ask my parents to leave the room,/but not my life. It was very hard. Because the room was the size/of my life.”
And the love poem which is the ode “For I Will Consider My Boyfriend Jeffrey” – “For he looks happy & doesn’t know I’m looking & that makes his happiness free.”
Likewise I bought the chapbook Notebooks from Mystery School by Margaret McCarthy because of her Cher poem in it and the interesting thing about reading this collection was how I had misjudged the Cher poem out of context of the rest of the chapbook. I had read her poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking At Cher,” which is a poem about aging and the transformations we perform in order to avoid aging’s abuse, as sort of dismissive and a critique of maybe what not to do, how not to age like Cher, but the lines were opaque so I wasn’t sure about that.
I was off the mark in any case. This poems are gritty and unapologetic about identity with poems like “Slut” and the free use of words like “crone” and hints at black-sheep arguments with her family. In hindsight I don’t feel McCarthy was invoking Cher as anything less than a admiring curiosity and that the reference to Cher’s “raven heart” was a reference to a “shaman heart” who illustrates that matter can match spirit (we're only as old as we feel).
The New Yorker had a good essay recently called "In The Wars, The Strange Case of Ivor Gurney" by Anthony Lane which was about Kate Kennedy’s biography Dweller in Shadows: A Life of Ivor Gurney.
This is an interesting piece because Gurney was a private and not an officer like some other famous World War I poets (Wilfred Owen for example). His poems are right in the trenches. He was also an accomplished composer.
The article raises questions about the border between sanity and genius. When discussing his orchestral work “Gloucestershire Rhapsody” the reviewer says, “We are at the core of the Gurney conundrum: where does musical ingenuity end and mental volatility begin? So many of his songs are like interrupted idylls, wrong-footing us with their surprising harmonic shifts, as if we had tripped from grass into brambles. Should we revere such an instinct for the unforeseen, or pity the anxious sorrow that lies beneath?”
Lane then talks about Gurney's poems and that “a reading of ‘Sweller in Shadows’ compels you to ask: Gurney was no Modernist, but by what token do we treat his thronging, darting effusions as testaments to an inward disarray, while the laying down of fragments, in the hands of T.S. Eliot, is viewed as a strategy of great deliberation and cunning?”
The New Yorker has been publishing ads by Valentio where the word Valentino is mentioned in a poem.
One ad displays Valentino in larger font size with a poem by Ocean Vuong called “Gian Giacomo Capriotti to Leonardo Da Vinci.”
The other one I've seen is this ad with “The Feminine as Armor” by Janet Mock.
I hope the poets were paid well.
First poet who’s book I liked was Philip Levine's What Work Is. I read a small amount of assigned poetry books in college and most were over my head. But this one I understood sort of spiritually if not just making sense of it. Therefore, Levine was a big early figure in my poetic imagination about who loving poets were. He was a living, working poet.
So when he came to Sarah Lawrence College to read in the mid-1990s and walked in the door right by me in the foyer of Sloanim House, it was like a superstar had entered the building. The only other poet I’ve had that feeling around was Joy Harjo, which was why I was more than willing to pick her up at the Albuquerque airport at midnight and drive her back to a hotel Santa Fe by the outlet mall so that none of the creative writing staff at the Institute for American Indian Art would have to do it.
As a poet from the industrial Detroit working class, Levin's subject was usually the intersection of poetry and his life with early labor work in Detroit factories. I vaguely remember choosing this essay for Suzanne Gardiner's essay class. It’s unstapled which means I might have used it to run off 35 copies (the class was popular and so crowded, students sat in chairs around the edge of the room; snagging a table seat was always unlikely). Student comments about the essay I wrote in the margins: “didn’t need an oxygen mask” (not so hard to read as some other essays in the class), “down to earth quality” (yes, that is Philip Levine) and “put poetry back in the world” which is someone’s idea about Levine’s project.
The essay was called “Entering Poetry” and it was excerpted in some anthology not noted on the printout (bad me). But eventually it became part of his book The Bread of Time: Toward and Autobiography (2001). (This is how poets in the 1990s were…they made gestures toward things. They felt too cowed by post-modernism to commit to actually doing anything.) But re-reading the essay again I was struck by how different it was than the other essays in the class. I really struggled to find essays to submit to the group and like the prior one (a journalistic screed on what was wrong with poetry today from a local newspaper), this one was very accessible, almost too accessible for the class. But in a way this essay presented another example, a more loose, more conversational and autobiographical essay about poetry that feels refreshing among the other think-pieces.
Levine talks about being a hard-luck city kid in Detroit trying to find his way, sometimes fighting through 1940's anti-Semitic bullies. He came to poetry after moving to the suburbs and finding solitude in woods behind his house. And this I found interesting because it mirrored my own experience: he discovered his love of words and his speaking voice not through reading. He sat in the trees and spoke “tiny delicious” sentences to the stars and “the smell of the wet earth would fill my head.”
This essay is frankly only an essay because it was excerpted as such in a book of essays. As part of a thing that is “towards autobiography” it’s just another chapter of human development. So not much theory here. More experience.
Levine talks about what an almost religious experience it was chewing on words. “I could almost believe someone was listening and that each of my words, frightened with feeling, truly mattered.” He then talks about wanting to learn to plant things and learning gardening words like “sandy loam” and he talks about the “earth’s curious pungency that suggested both tobacco and rust.”
Then he says
“tasting the words, I immediately liked them, and repeated them, and then more words came that also seemed familiar and right. Then I looked at the work my hands had wrought, then I said in my heart, As it happened to the gardener, so it happened to me, for we all go into one place; we are all earth and return to earth….I was sure too my words must have smelled of sandy loam and orange blossoms. That was the first night of my life I entered poetry."
As an aside (speaking of gardening), my workplace has started Slack social groups and I’ve joined many of them: cooking (just to see the pictures of food everyday mainly), gardening (people are too busy gardening to post anything there), pets (yesterday’s post was the adage "become the person your dog thinks you are" and I said my terrier thinks I’m a sucker), books (no one’s mentioned poetry yet) and music. I wondered to myself which group is going to be the first to start “shoulding” on everybody. You know, "You should eat/read/listen/adopt/garden with this." Guess who it was. Yup. The music group.
Anyway, Levine then switches gears (har!) and talks about growing up and working at Chevrolet Gar and Axel and his struggles there politically and physically and “the oceanic roar of work.” [This part of the essay has been excerpted here: https://www.randomhouse.com/knopf/authors/levine/poetsonpoetry.html.]
He says, “I have already tried at least a dozen times to capture the insane, nightmarish quality of my life a Chevy” and he says the thickness in his body affected his writing. “I carried what I did with me at all times, even when I lifted a pencil to write my poems.” Levine wanted to “say something about the importance of the awfulness I had shared in and observed."
Then he jumps to his later life as a professor in Fresno, California, and a dream he had there about a colleague back from a grease shop in Detroit, how the dream felt like a rejection of his former life and identity.
And so he started writing about it and realized when he closed his eyes he couldn’t see “the blazing color of the forges of nightmare or the torn faces of the workers….the deafening ring of metal on metal…or the sweet stink of decay.” Instead he saw a company of men and women he loved connecting with each other emotionally and physically. He imagined his former colleague with him in the “magical, rarefied world of poetry." The poem he wrote was “In a Grove Again” and then all the poems that would eventually became the book Not This Pig.
And the whole evolution of this story he is telling is just in an effort to temper “the violence I felt toward those who’d maimed and cheated me with a tenderness towards those who had touched and blessed me.”
The next David Rivard class packet essay is called “Notes on Poetry and Philosophy” by Charles Simic which you can find in The Life of Images, Selected Prose (2015). This is the complete opposite sort of essay, all the head and none in the hands. And yet…a little magically they are both about the metaphysics of entering poetry, one poet (Levine) just explains his connection more practically. The other (Simic) uses philosophical concepts. They both also allude to “the labor” of poetry.
He starts with a story:
“Some sort of Academy of Fine Arts from which they stole the bust of the philosopher Socrates so he may accompany them on what was to be a night of serious drinking.
It was heavy. The two of them had to lug it together. They went from tavern to tavern like that. They’d make Socrates sit in his own chair. When the waiter came, they’d ask for three glasses. Socrates sat over his drink looking wise….This was my father’s story.”
Simic talks about how his father got him into philosophy and how he has always digested the ideas of philosophy through poetry, for example:
"The other appeal of Heidegger was his attack on subjectivism, his idea that it is not the poet who speaks through the poem but the work itself. This has always been my experience. The poet is at the mercy of his metaphors. Everything is at the mercy of the poet’s metaphors—even Language, who is their Lord and master.”
Later he quote, “The twentieth-century poet is ‘a metaphysician in the dark,’ according to Wallace Stevens.”
Simic structures his diminutive sections under poetic and obtuse headings, like “The Fish is Sphinx to the Cat” and “Knights of Sorrowful Countenance Sitting Late Over Dog-eared Books.”
He says, “There is a major misunderstanding in literary criticism as to how ideas get into poems. The poets, supposedly, proceed in one of these two ways: they either state their ideas directly or they find equivalents for them.”
But he loses me here: “…the writing of the poem is the search for the most effective means of gussying up the ideas. If this were correct, poetry would simply repeat what has been thought and said before. [why necessarily?] There would be no poetic thinking in the way Heidegger conceives of it. There would be no hope that poetry could have any relation to truth.” [???—those are actually my question marks from the first reading back in the 1990s.]
“My poems (in the beginning) are like a table on which one places interesting things one has found on one’s walks: a pebble, a rusty nail, a strangely shaped root, the corner of a torn photograph, etc. …where after months of looking at them and thinking about them daily, certain surprising relationships, which hint at meanings, begin to appear.”
That actually sounds like an interesting experiment to try out. “These objets trouves of poetry are, of course, bits of language. The poem is the place where one hears what the language is really saying, where the full meaning of words begins to emerge. That’s not quite right! It’s not so much what the words mean that is crucial, but rather, what they show and reveal.”
The next statement reminds me of an argument I had in Suzanne Gardiner’s essay class:
“...back to things themselves, said Husserl, and the Imagist had the same idea. An object is the irreducible itself, a convenient place to begin…”
“Not true,” I wrote in the margins. I remember how the class digressed into a side-argument about this, how I believed we compromise with our ideas of the irreducible self or thing. We say a chair is its irreducible self but it’s not at all irreducible; it’s made of materials with atoms, which are themselves reducible. And because the levels of reducibility are possibly endless, that make us crazy (because we're not scientists, after all), and we like to pretend the chair as the irreducible thing. But it’s far from true. It’s just our coping-mechanism...with a scientific reality.
Simic goes on to quote Jack Spicer, who saw himself metaphysically as a receiver of messages, to say “Poets think they’re pitchers when they’re really catchers.” Simic says we don’t “will our metaphors” and that words have “a mind of their own.”
I believe this is only because the workings of the subconscious are still so mysterious to us. We have no more evidence that we’re catchers than that we’re pitchers. Or rather we have a scant more evidence that we’re qualified pitchers than we are catchers. Simic hints at this very issue when he admits,
“Heidegger says that we will never understand properly what poetry is until we understand what thinking is….most interestingly…the nature of thinking is something other than thinking, something other than willing. It’s this ‘other’ that poetry sets traps for.”
And I love this part:
“My hunch has always been that our deepest experiences are wordless. There may be images, but there are no words to describe the gap between seeing and saying, for example. The labor of poetry is finding ways through language to point to what cannot be put into words…the poem…presents an experience language cannot get at.”
He says “poetry attracts me because it makes trouble for thinkers.” In the marginalia I’ve written “How?” but this isn’t the kind of essay to describe the hows.
Very similar to Louise Gluck, Simic likes “a poem that understates, that leaves out, breaks off, remains open-ended...Emily Dickinson’s poems do that for me. Her ambiguities are philosophical. She lives with uncertainties, even delights in them. To the great questions she remains ‘unsheilded,’ as Heiddegger would say. The nature of presence itself is her subject. The awe off…the superme mastery of consciousness watching itself.”
And here Simic seems to admit the consciousness is situated within the self.
Robert Hass’ essay "Families and Prisons” from the book What Light Can Do (2012) is the next essay in the David Rivard class packet. This was an interesting exploration about why American’s write about their current families more than poets do in other countries. Like their kids and wives, not just their families of origin, which all poets seem to write about (mothers, fathers, siblings).
Hass says autobiographical poetry about families is relatively new in lyric poetry although “family is one of the fundamental subjects of literature…the great Greek tragedies are about families, and so are many of the great novels of the nineteenth century.” He talks about families in great American plays (O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee) and families in Faulkner novels. But he says it wasn’t until Allen Gisnberg’s poem "Kaddish" and Robert Lowell’s book Life Studies that poets took on domestic life. The sixteenth century was all about erotic love, the seventeenth about “man’s relationship to God.”
“It is almost exclusively [an] American subject,” Hass says, having to do with American “culture and mores.” He quotes a Peruvian poet “who said he had no stomach for Americans and their little, personal poems.”
He talks about the intimacy of writing about one’s children and the “familial feeling” and “buried forms that the emotion can take.” says, “the child enters literature with romanticism…when the middle class becomes its main creator and audience...the child emerges not long after the idea of the rights of man emerged.” He notes where children and politics first merged in literature: Blake, Dickens (Oliver Twist), Hugo (Les Miserables), Dostoevsky, Chekhov. He talks about Gothic novels, sentiment, “tears and terror” and pathos.
Hass then talks about poets who self-praise themselves and poetry. He humorously (or maybe not so humorously) summarizes Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz to say “the proof of the greatness of poetry as an art is the fact that, though no one wants to read it or think about it, though it bores people to tears, and almost no one would under any circumstance short of compulsion read a long poem, and would only in moments of weakmindedness have the thought that it would occasionally be a good idea to read short ones…nevertheless by the sheer brute tactic of talking endlessly and on all possible occasions from the beginning of human utterance to the present moment about the truth, beauty, daring, wisdom, depths, sublimity, fineness, strength, power, necessity and indispensable force of poetry, that everyone else, mainly because the noise has been so incessant and they have had too many other actual concerns pressing upon them to bring the matter to the center of their minds, have more or less yielded, at least as a piety, to this barrage of propaganda from the poets and conceded to poetry the poets’ idea of its value.”
Hass says if you have any doubt about this listen to any lecture by any poet.
He then abruptly turns to talk about poets in prison. At first this subject shift made me lose my mind. There’s hardly a transition beyond “thoughts about the first subject” and “I want to turn now to the second.” I wondered if this was just an essay of disparate subjects strung together by a title? Ugh! But you have to go with the flow sometimes. I couldn’t see why we went from families to politics to self-praise, but Hass had a plan.
He lists the most famous of the imprisoned poets throughout time and some who died before a firing squad (“a gesture Gombrowicz would have found completely typical of the self-importance of poets as a breed”) and Hass says some of these poets in these cases are a “victim of their own success” and that “the only reason they are in jail is that they have succeeded in deluding their rulers into the conception of their importance.”
He then goes on to qualify the poetry of some prisoner and hunger-strike poets. They don’t all write amazing poems as it turns out. He talks about a certain Cuban poet forbidden from reading in public and imprisoned again each time he tries. “His poems, I am sorry to say, are terrible.” He says most people think so. Although martyrdom through poetry may be a respectable course, these particular bad but imprisoned poets “look more and more like the spectacle of human life, and less and less like the special distinction of poetry.” Hass says finally that
“some poets with a great gift might lack courage and some with the courage might lack the gift, that some were steadfast, some faltered, some were duplicitous and redeemed themselves, some were pure victims, helpless as crickets in a cage, and some were wrong, and some did harm. A few of their stories belong to the history of contrariness, valor, cowardice, to tragedy, and to loss so sickening and pointless it is not tragic.”
And here is where Hass makes his stand:
“The danger of this is that there is something wrong with admiring the calamitous. Also to mistake the power of poetry in our need to praise it. Writers like everyone else need examples to teach them courage and responsibility – Akhmatova waiting outside the prison wall in Moscow for news of her son, Whitman in the hospital wards of the Civil War, Ai Qing nursing the socket of his blinded eye in the wake of an attack by young Red Guards and continuing to work on his poems – but poetry needs to be able to face toward the world when no one’s suffering gives it special drama.”
He then quotes a Czeslaw Milosz poem from 1943 during the occupation of Warsaw, “The Songs of Adrian Zelinski.”
He specially notes these three stanzas, where our protagonist mostly just feels sorry for himself (far from a heroic sentiment):
"Somewhere there are happy cities.
Somewhere there are, but not for certain.
Where, between the market and the sea,
In a spray of sea mist,
June pours wet vegetables from baskets
And ice is carried to a cafk terrace
Sprinkled with sunlight, and flowers
Drop onto women's hair.
The ink of newspapers new every hour,
Disputes about what is good for the republic.
The teeming cinemas smell of orange peels
And a mandolin hums long into the night.
A bird flicking the dew of song before sunrise.
Somewhere there are happy cities,
But they are of no use to me.
I look into life and death as into an empty winecup.
Glittering buildings or the route of ruins.
Let me go away in peace.
There is a whisper of night that breathes in me."
This reminds me of how being desensitized to violence means you actually lose your sense(s).
Hass reminds us that (until recently) America was “ a space cleared of political violence, deprivation, censorship…roads without barricades…” and that American poems about current families tend to be poems about hope and poems about original families tend to be about fate. He says confessional poems were a reaction against T.S. Eliot and “the doctrine of impersonality.” But then he concedes that even Pound, Eliot and Yeats were autobiographical in their own way as “The Waste Land” is an “account of "a personal crisis….the terrible sense of sexual unhappiness and impending madness and exile from a father’s authority, with the predicament of Western civilization. The lesson of Eliot for young writers was that their most intimate suffering was a powerful metaphor.”
At the end in the final sentences Hass tries to tie American family poems (from happy cities) to a kind of bravery (a bravery of hope really) of its own kind and that this is a modest but true praise for poetry.
The following essay, "Art in the Light of Conscience" by Russian poet Maria Tsvetaeva is from the book of the same name and the student who handed this one out left off the author attribution (we all later wrote it onto our copies) and of the 19 pages, part of the right-hand text has been cut off by a bad photocopying job. So reading this was a challenge, then and now.
This is not the type of essay I tend to like, being a bit esoteric and vague at the same time. I spent time re-reading sentences to no avail.
Sentences like this: "Genius: the highest degree of subjection to the visitation -- one; control of the visitation -- two. The highest degree of being mentally pulled to pieces, and the highest of being -- collected. The highest of passivity, and the highest of activity."
This actually makes sense after reading the full essay and coming back to it. Her idiosyncratic punctuation takes some getting used to. And I have to say, at first these musings seemed utterly random, but re-reading them a second (now third) time, they seem to have a structural logic.
In this essay, Tsvetaeva is trying to mark out the a religious parameters of talent and at the start, she addresses those who "consciously affirm the holiness of art." "For the atheist, there can be no question of the holiness of art: he will speak either of art's usefulness or of art's beauty."
Tsvetaeva believes art is like nature, it follows its own laws, not the self-will of the artist..."just as much born and not made."
And she questions whether art is truly "For the glory of God?...I don't know for the glory of whom, and I think the question here is not of glory but of power."
In comparing art to nature she asks, "Is nature holy?...why do we ask something of a poem but not of a tree?...Because earth, the birth-giving, is irresponsible, while man, the creating, is responsible...he has to answer for the work...[which is] supposed to be illuminated by the light of reason and conscience."
She then goes on to talk about ecstasy or intoxication in art (something "outside goodness"). She ruminates on what genius is, like a visitation, how things "came upon" Pushkin. Genius she says is both being subject to a visitation and having control over that visitation. Being pulled apart (passively) and being collected (actively). She says there is human will involved but will can only exist after the visitation.
She then uses Pushkin and Walsingham as examples, how Pushkin could not have planned everything, for "one can only plan a work backwards from the last step taken to the first, retracing with one's eyes open the path one had walked blindly."
She's full of delicious melodrama: "So long as you are a poet, you shall not perish in the elemental, for everything returns you to the element of elements: the word....The poet perishes when he renounces the elemental. He might as well cut his wrists without ado."
What does this mean for language and experimental poets? They have not yet acceded to the elemental or slit their wrists.
She then goes on to talk about the difficulty of teaching art: "What does art teach? Goodness? No. Commonsense? No. It cannot teach even itself, for it is -- given. There is no thing which is not taught by art; there is no thing the reverse of that, which is not taught by art; and there is no thing which is the only thing taught by art. All the lessons we derive from art, we put into it. A series of answers to which there are no questions. All art is the sole giveness of the answer."
Oy. Hard to wrap your head around, but it's possible if you keep re-reading it.
She then wonders how culpable the artist is: "One reads Werther and shoots himself, another reads Werther and because Werther shoots himself, decides to live. One behaves like Werther, the other like Goethe. A lesson in self-extermination? A lesson in self-defense?...Is Goethe guilty of all the subsequent deaths?...no, Otherwise we wouldn't dare say a single word, for who can calculate the effect of any one word?"
I can't quite agree with that. We can calculate the effect of propaganda and misinformation. We can calculate the effect on persuasion with pretty accurate statistical margins. This is why marketing and political propaganda work, not on everybody, but on many. We are responsible when we say the word 'fire' in a crowded theater.
But then she qualifies that idea: "Artistic creation is in some cases a sort of atrophy of conscience--more than that: a necessary atrophy of conscience, the moral flaw without which art cannot exist. In order to be good (not to lead into temptation the little ones of this world), art would have to renounce a fair half of its whole self. The only way to be wittingly good is -- not to be. It will end with the life of the planet."
She then talks about Tolstoy's exception, his "clumsy, extra-aesthetic challenge to art" but then humorously notices that "In Tolstoy's crusade against art, we are seduced again -- by art."
Then she talks about "Art without artifice" in which she means a kind of art without affectation or ambitiousness. Of course I loved this part because it has everything to do with our cultural systems of talent hierarchies.
"...there are works that make you say: 'This is not art any more. It's more than art.' Everyone has known works of this sort. Their sign is the effectiveness despite their inadequacy of means, an inadequacy which nothing in the world would make us exchange for any adequacies and abundances, and which we only call to mind when we try to establish: how was it done? An essentially futile approach, for in every born work the ends are hidden. Not yet art, but already more than art. Such works often come from the pens of women, children, self-taught people - the little ones of this world....Art without artifice." Later she says, "A sign of such works is their unevenness." I would add their wabi-sabi.
Tsvetaeva then tries to make sense of the hierarchies of major poet, great poet, lofty poet, genius and here she comes back to the idea that the "poet's whole labour amounts to a fulfillment, the physical fulfilment of a spiritual task (not assigned by himself)...(No such thing as individual creative will.)...Every poet is, in one way or another, the servant of ideas or of elements."
She talks about God and prayer: "What can we say about God? Nothing. What can we say to God? Everything. Poems to God are prayer. And if there are no prayers nowadays...it is because we don't have anything to say to God....Loss of trust."
She is full of almost contradictions. Art is a visitation, but not by God. Art is a sinful, seduction. Art is elemental and natural. The poet is responsible...or not.
She tells a compelling story about how her mother could set the hands on a clock face in the dark without being able to see "the absolute time" and how her hand knew what time it truly was, like a blind visionary.
She talks about the "condition of creation" and how "Things always chose me by the mark of my power, and often I wrote them almost against my will...obeying an unknown necessity."
"I don't want anything that isn't wholly mine, wittingly mine, most mine...I won't die for Pugachov--that means he is not mine."
One of her last sections is Intoxiques (poisoned people). "When I speak of the possessed condition of people of art, I certainly don't mean they are possessed by art." She talks about the stuck artist: "Art does not pay its victims. It doesn't even know them....Shyness of the artist before the object. He forgets that it is not himself writing."
The cure? "To forget oneself is, above all, to forget one's weakness."
"Not without reason does each of us say at the end: 'How marvelously my work has come out!' and never: 'How marvelously well I've don't it!' And not: 'It's come out marvelously!,' but it's come out by a marvel, always a miracle; it's always a blessing, even if sent not by God."
"And the amount of will in this?...lines I got by hard work, that is, by dint of listening. And listening is what my will is, not to tire of listening until something is heard...Creative will is patience."
Her conclusion: "There is no approach to art, for it is a seizure. (While you are still approaching, it has already seized you.)"
"If you wish to serve God or man, if in general you wish to serve, to work for the good, then join the Salvation Army or something of that sort--and give up poetry."
I can't imagine our teacher Suzanne Gardiner agreed wholly with this idea or would Adrienne Rich and some very effective activist poets from recent history.
"...if your gift of song is indestructible, don't flatter yourself with the hope that you serve....It is only your gift of song that has served you: tomorrow you will serve it--that is, you'll be hurled by it thrice-nine kingdoms or heavens away from the goal you have set."
She admits those who serve are more important "because it is more needed, the doctor and the priest where they are at the deathbed. "And knowing this, having put my signature to this while of sound mind and in full possession of my faculties, I assert...that I would not exchange my work for any other. Knowing the greater, I do the lesser. This is why there is no forgiveness for me..."
I went from not liking this essay to not liking it again to finally coming around.