Two essays this time around to catch up a bit. The first is “Stray Thoughts on Roethke and Teaching” from Richard Hugo’s great book of essays on writing, The Triggering Town. This is an interesting comparison to Philip Levine’s essay on taking a class with John Berryman.
In his class Theodore Roethke focused on reading poets with “good ears” like “Yeats, Hopkins, Auden, Thomas, Kunitz, Brogan" [who interesting Roethke was once in a relationship with....so must have had something better than good…ok I’ll stop].
He talked about “falling in love with the sounds of words” and “the heart and soul of poetry” which sounds a big vague.
Hugo continues about the reputation of Roethke's classes: “One sad thing about university reputations is that they lag behind the fact. By the time you hear how good an English department is, it is usually too late to go there.” Hugo says that despite this rule, Roethke got better as a teacher as time went on. Roethke talked about taking risks, “a lot of poets don’t have the nerve to risk failure…you have to work, and you had better get used to facing disappointments and failures, a lifetime of them.”
Hugo talks about the crazy hard final exam Roethke would give to his students: a list of 10 nouns, 10 verbs and 10 adjectives and you had to use five words from each list, write four beats to a line, six lines to a stanza, three stanzas, two internal and one external slant rhyme per stanza, a max of two end stops per stanza and the poem must have clear and grammatically correct sentences that made sense....and finally the poem must be meaningless (that last one was Hugo’s own masochistic addition)!
The point of the exam: “Two many beginners have the idea that they know what they have to say—now if they can just find the words. Here, you give them the words, some of them anyway, and some technical problems to solve. Many of them will write their best poem of the term….the exercise is saying: give up what you think you have to say…”
“The second half of the Roethke final usually consisted of one question, a lulu like, ‘What should the modern poet do about his ancestors?’”
Hugo talks about Roethke explicating a line from Yeats’ “Easter 1916” poem, the line “Stumbling upon the blood dark track once more” and how “blood dark track” according to Roethke “goes off like rifle shots.”
Hugo says this is
“simple stuff. Easily observed. But how few people notice it. The young poet is too often paying attention to the big things and can’t be bothered with little matters like that. But little matters like that are what make and break poems, and if a teacher can make a poet aware of it, he has given him a generous shove in the only direction. In poetry, the big things tend to take care of themselves.”
Later Hugo says,
“A good teacher can save a young poet years by simply telling him things he need not waste time on, like trying to will originality or trying to share an experience in language or trying to remain true to the facts (but that’s the way it really happened). Roethke used to mumble: ‘Jesus, you don’t want to say that.’ And you didn’t but you hadn’t yet become ruthless enough to create. You still felt some deep moral obligation to ‘reality’ and ‘truth,’ and of course it wasn’t moral obligation at all, but fear of yourself and your inner life....Despite Roethke’s love of verbal play, he could generate little enthusiasm for what passes as experimentation and should more properly be called fucking around.”
[Oy, I just said that.]
But Hugo says that the
“quest for self is fundamental to poetry. What passes for experimentation is often an elaborate method of avoiding one’s feelings at all cost. [Yes!] The process prohibits any chance the poet has to create surrogate feelings, a secondary kind of creativity but in most poems all the poet can settle for. The good poems say: ‘This is how I feel.’ With luck that’s true, but usually it’s not. More often the poem is the way the poet says he feels when he can’t find out what his real feelings are.”
Hugo then talks about people who struggle to appear interesting,
“There are those usual people who try desperately to appear unusual and there are unusual people who try to appear usual.” It doesn’t surprise me at all when the arrogant wild man in class turns in predictable, unimaginative poems and the straight one is doing nutting and promising work. If you are really strange you are always in enemy territory, and your constant concern is survival.”
Hugo says James Wright “was one of the few students who was writing well in Roethke’s classes.”
Then Hugo moves to talking about the future of American poetry, quoting Mark Strand who “remarked recently in Montana that American poetry could not help but get better and better, and I’m inclined to agree. I double that we’ll have the one big figure of the century the way other nations do, [William Butler] Yeats, [Paul] Valéry."
Hugo ends by giving us Roethke’s thoughts about the pressures of publication:
“’Don’t worry about publishing. That’s not important.’ He might have added, only the act of writing is. It’s flattering to be told you are better than someone else, but victories like that do not endure. What endures are your feelings about your work [Oy, Feelings again]. You wouldn’t trade your poems for anybody’s. To do that you will also have to trade your life for his, which means living a whole new complex of pain and joy. One of those per life is enough.”
Whew. I don’t know about you but I feel better right now.
The second essay is a short article from Poets & Writers in 1988 called “Poetry on the Run” by Arthur Roth who learned to memorize poems while he was out on long runs around the neighborhood.
As an aside, one of the interesting things about this 1988 issue of P&W is that there is only one ad for an MFA in all the pages of this article (Warson Wilson College in North Carolina). The rest are for two workshops, a prize-winning announcement and a writing conference. Times have changed.
Anyway, since running (and swimming after developing an arthritic hip), Roth has memorized about 76 poems. “Memorizing—like running—gets easier the more you practice.”
And he claims the practice often “halts him in his tracks” with the discovery of a new meaning in lines he previously thought he knew very well.”
I am terrible at memorizing even the basic life things so I don't see myself doing this....or running.
The next essay in the stack is actually the introduction of the book Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell. I remember we were assigned this book in a high-school poetry class and the teacher went off on a weird tangent about writing detective screenplays (I think she was having a breakdown) and we never ended up reading it. Then the book was again assigned in a poetry class I took in college and we never read it then either. So I've had this book twice and never read even so much as the introduction of it. And every time I read the title I want to start singing "No Night So Long" with Dionne Warwick, although the lyric is "living on the wind" not "sleeping on the wing." That doesn't seem to matter in the situation.
The material in the intro is pretty basic for advanced poets, but it's probably useful for teachers running poetry intro classes. And then again, sometimes coming back to basic is a good opportunity for a beginner’s mind reset.
And oddly these precepts kind of track to life in general, too. The intro is divided into three sections as follows. My peanut-gallery comments in parenthesis.
I thought this was good, too: “Poets are not big, dark, heavy personages dwelling in clouds of mystery, but people like yourself who are doing what they like to do and do well. Writing poetry isn’t any more mysterious than what a dancer or a singer or a painter does.”
This was good too: “Sometimes because they find poetry difficult and complicated, people make the mistake of talking or writing about it in an abstract, general, overcomplicated way. They think that being abstract and general is more serious and is the way to talk about difficult and important things—that being simple means you’re 'shallow' or uncomplicated or unintelligent. In fact, abstraction is often a way of being evasive…”
Writing Your Own Poems
Whew. Ok. So that's another NaPoWriMo in the bag. One more year to go.
Meanwhile, I’ve been collecting some final stats on this year’s set of poems.
Two late arrivals displaced two planned poems, which changed our demos somewhat:
I had to gather images for all the Twitter posts and after a while I just decided to add them to the NaPoWriMo page. In the process I found this interesting thing about painter Andrew Wyeth’s windows.
Although I love all the songs I picked, I did regret not being able to find a spot for a song of Sara Bareilles’ with her vast array of very helpful and inspiring love songs. And to that point, lots of fascinating and magical things happened during the making of these poems but one of them was this: as I was lamenting the lack of Bareilles in this set, my music app shuffled up a Bareilles song that fit very movingly into one of the new Electrical Dictionary poems, which is a sister set of a sort to this group.
I was also able to create linkages between a few of these poems and some of the poems in “33 Women” from NaPoWriMo 2018 and we could revisit some of the lovely women there. So that was nice.
In related news, the Poetry Society of America is doing a "Song Cycle" series right now where their investigating the relationship of poetry to music in the opposite way, music inspired by poems.
As I’m working through this stack from the essay class I took at Sarah Lawrence College in the 1990s there is no order to them. Over a year ago I just pulled the stack out of a box in my garage and have been pulling essays off the top of it. Occasionally I’ll come across something that’s more research than essay and I’ll stick that stuff back to the bottom of the stack to figure out what to do with later.
So it’s always incredible to get an essay during a timely moment. And this week’s pick was eerily apropos in light of the horrible news continually coming out of Ukraine.
The packet is chapter 5 from the book The Witness of Poetry by Czeslaw Milosz, a book I own and read so long ago I didn’t recognize this re-reading it again now, or maybe it just didn’t resonate back then before such an event as Ukraine or the political crack-up we've been witnessing worldwide over the last 10 years.
The chapter, called “Ruins and Poetry,” talks about the ways in which Polish poets once dealt with the hellish devastation they experienced between 1939-1945, examining “what happens to modern poetry in certain historical conditions,” how certain luxuries of thought become meaningless.
Milosz starts by saying,
“a hierarchy of needs is built into the very fabric of reality and is revealed when a misfortune touches a human collective, whether that be war, the rule of terror, or natural catastrophe. Then to satisfy hunger is more important than finding food that suits one’s taste; the simplest act of human kindness toward a fellow being acquires more importance than any refinement of the mind. The fate of a city, of a country, becomes the center of everyone’s attention, and there is a sudden drop in the number of suicides committed because of disappointed love or psychological problems. A great simplification of everything occurs and an individual asks himself why he took to heart matters that now seem to have no weight.”
This immediately reminds me of the luxury of experimental and avant garde poetries and how this luxury is not available to poets in communities experiencing peril, but is more often a poetry project chosen by white, middle-class writers and artists. But I was ahead of myself. Milosz continues,
“And, evidently, people’s attitude toward the language also changes. It recovers its simplest function and is again an instrument serving a purpose; no one doubts that the language must name reality, which exists objectively, massive, tangible, and terrifying in its consequences.”
Which is exactly where we find ourselves now, not only with language theory but in the reality that is in contention on the Internet and in the news.
Milosz talks about the underground Polish poetry written under German occupation, it’s “documentary value” more than its “artistic rank.” It’s only after the war, an “exceptionally trying collective experience,” that poets are able to try to define the disintegration they experienced and explore a language that poorly served as “a façade to hide the genocide under way” and how even the language of “religion, philosophy, and art became suspect as accomplices in deceiving man with lofty ideas, in order to veil the truth of existence.”
First, we look at the poetry of Tadeusz Różewicz, “Nothing in Prospero’s Cloak” and how the poem is an “accusation at human speech, history, and even the very fabric of life in society, instead of a poem pointing out the concrete reasons for the anger and disgust. That probably happens," Milosz says, "because as was the case in Poland during war, reality eludes the means of language and is the source of deep traumas, including the natural trauma of a country betrayed by its Allies.”
And after such devastations, all writers and artists suffer an existential crisis of confidence. Later Milosz even invokes the famous Theodor Adorno adage, paraphrasing that “after the Holocaust, poetry is impossible.”
“Next to the atrocious facts, the very idea of literature seems indecent, and one doubts whether certain zones of reality can ever be the subject of poems or novels…On the other hand…documentary poems belong to literature and one may ask, out of respect for those who perished, whether a more perfect poetry would not be a more appropriate monument than poetry on the level of facts.”
We then look at Anna Świrszczyńska and how she witnessed the atrocities of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and how it was only “many years later” (30 years in fact) that she could “reconstruct that tragedy” with a “style of miniatures scenes," very short poems or micro reports, single incidents in her book Building the Barricade.
These poets search for “equilibrium amid chaos” and often “take refuge in the world of objects” as “human affairs are uncertain and unspeakably painful, but objects represent a stable reality, do not alter with reflexes of fear, love, or hate and always ‘behave’ logically."
“Objects in [Zbigniew Herbert’s] poetry seem to follow this reasoning: European culture entered a phase where the neat criteria of good and evil, of truth and falsity, disappeared; at the same time, man became a plaything of powerful collective movements expert in reversing values, so that from one day to the next black would become white, a crime a praiseworthy deed, and an obvious lie an obligatory dogma.”
“Moreover, language was appropriated by the people in power who monopolized the mass media and were able to change the meaning of words to suit themselves. The individual is exposed to a double attack. On the one hand, he must think of himself as the product of determinants which are social, economic, and psychological. On the other hand, his loss of autonomy is confined by the totalitarian nature of political power. Such circumstances make every pronouncement on human values uncertain. In one of Huber’s poems the narrator hears the voice of conscience but is unable to decipher what the voice is trying to say.”
The poem “The Pebble,” Milosz says, is polemical, especially the last three lines.
“Pebbles cannot be tamed, but people can, if the rulers are sufficiently crafty and apply the stick-and-carrot method successfully. Tamed people are full of anxiety because of their hidden remorse; they do not look us straight in the face. Pebbles will look at us ‘with a calm and very clear eye’ to the end. To the end of what? We may ask. Probably to the end of the world.”
“events burdening a whole community are perceived by the poet as touching him in a most personal manner. Then poetry is no longer alienated….if we must choose the poetry of such an unfortunate country as Poland to learn that the great schism in poetry is curable, then that knowledge brings no comfort. Nevertheless, the example that poetry give us perspective on some ritual of poets when they are separated from ‘the great human family.’”
He then talks about Mallarme’s sonnet “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Allan Poe" and says
“it was Poe’s use of English and his form of versification that contributed to this marginal place in the history of American poetry...From romanticism, of course, comes the idealization of the lonely, misunderstood individual charged with a mission in society, and thus French symbolism emerges as a specific mutation of the romantic heritage…Society appears as given, like trees and rocks, endowed with the firm, settled existence typical of nineteenth century bourgeois France. It is precisely that aspect of poetry in isolation as depicted in this sonnet which strikes us as incompatible with what we have learned in the twentieth century. Social structures are not stable, they display great flexibility, and the place of the artist has not been determined once and for all...Polish poets found out that the hydra so ominously present for the symbolists is in reality quite weak, in other words, that the established order, which provides the framework for the quarrel between the poet and the crowd can cease to exist from one day to the next.”
And finally, Milosz leaves us with this very conclusion about how we choose (or are forced) to write:
“Polish poets may reproach their Western colleagues who generally repeat the thought patterns proper to the isolated poet. That would be a reproach for lacking realism. In colloquial speech, the word ‘unrealistic’ indicates an erroneous presentation of facts and implies a confusion of the important and unimportant, a disturbance of the hierarchy. All reality is hierarchical simply because human needs and the dangers threatening people are arranged on a scale. No easy agreement can be reached as to what should occupy first place. It is not always bread; often it is the word. And death is not always the greatest menace; often slavery is. Nevertheless, anyone who accepts the existence of such a scale behaves differently from someone who denies it. The poetic act changes with the amount of background reality embraced by the poet’s consciousness. In our century that background is, in my opinion, related to the fragility of those things we call civilization or culture. What surrounds us, here and now, is not guaranteed. It could just as well not exist—and so man constructs poetry out of the remnants found in ruins."
Recently (as part of a Katharine Hepburn project) I’ve been reading the poems of H. Phelps Putnam, the famous poet Hepburn failed to bed despite many attempts. (Her father threatened to shoot Putnam during a visit to Fenwick).
Putnam was very famous as poets go, as famous as Hemmingway, Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay at the time they say. Notoriously low opinion of women, except for the great Kate herself who surfaces very well in his poem "Daughters of the Sun." These days you’ll never see his name referenced in any poetry anthologies nor are you able to find any decent pictures of him online (just tried).
But his poem below seems a very American response to the devastating news of war, but one that exists far away and requires a less dramatic reprioritization of the hierarchy of one's needs, a war that gives the poet the luxury to experience anxiety but not devastation. His priorities are challenged but to a lesser degree (at least where love and laughter become prioritized). This is a valid response in its context, albeit far luckier. In this case, the poet is dealing with the news of World War I.
H. Phelps Putnam
Our days are clamorous, and all about
All men say this and that, and crack their throats:
Of shame some bawl, and some of honor shout,
And still the nerve-wracked crowd upon them dotes.
Alas, my love, I know not what they mean—
Would that I did, life is much gentler so—
For it is merely something heard and seen,
The shadowed stir of a galanty show.
One thing I know, one unhowled truth for us!
I love you and you me—it is enough!
It is the point of flame round which the world
Of misty clamor turns, and turning thus,
Is but an irony, our mirthful stuff,
Of laughter born, and into laughter whirled.
The first is yet another essay about the affordances of computers and yet more predictions for a utopian age of computers and then we finally get into more obvious literary concerns with two essays from 1961 that begin to show how computer theory and avant-garde literary theory merge.
In the introduction to “Man-Computer Symbiosis” by J. C. R. Licklider (1960) Norbert Wiener (I love the name Norbert) and Katharine Hayles raise issues for humanists around ideas about true subjectivity, paying most attention to the fuzzy border where humans end and machines begin (never more relevant than today with our smartphone addictions). Wiener also shows where New Media projects began, right around World War II with the development of anti-aircraft guns. Computer science then began to study how did humans and machines fit together in cutting-edge weaponry systems and war games.
These technological advances, Wiener says, also intersected with new thinking about the self as an illusion which dovetailed nicely with increasingly-popular Zen Buddhist ideas of the self.
And here is the pivot where the humanist and the engineer come into conflict.
The engineer, not typically steeped in history or liberal arts, rarely pauses to consider the human consequences beyond the building of a new gadget or tool. Humans do respond as if they in fact have a real self. And this always guarantees my favorite scary boogeyman: unintended consequences.
The article alludes to this itself with a reference to “The Monkey Paw" story about magic wishes and unforeseen consequences. Wiener sees a parallel with computer engineering: handy solutions may bring bigger problems.
This article predates the beginnings of the Internet (APRANET) in October of 1969, but Linklider predicted “men will communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.” He even predicted cyber-romance. But like other predictors of this era, he completely failed to predict the downsides: cyberstalking, cyber-bullies, conspiracy theory proliferation.
He talks about the “inflexible dependence on predetermined programs” and who in a modern office environment doesn’t twitch at that little string of words?
In the article Licklider dreams of a computer/man symbiosis similar to the insect/tree symbiosis. He sees computers performing both the most repetitive, clerical operations of the human mind and solving more difficult problems with more efficiency and speed than a human brain can manage.
He says the question is not what is the answer. The question is what is the question. I don't know for sure, but I think I've heard my father say that a few times. We’re still struggling with this little bit of wisdom anyway. We spend too much time asking the wrong things and studying the wrong data.
Most interestingly, Licklider does a survey of his own thought process and maintains that 85% of his thinking time is spent “getting into a position to think or decide,” the bulk of his time learning, gathering and researching versus a small amount of time spent actually digesting information and calculating. He says it takes him “seconds to determine.”
He admits, “books are among the most beautifully engineered, and human-engineered, components in existence, and they will continue to be functionally important within the context of man-computer symbiosis.”
The next essay is “’Happenings’ in the New York Scene” by Allan Kaprow (1961). The introduction addresses how audience participation and interactivity attempted to break down the barriers between creators and their audiences and how this influenced media artworks and menu-driven media seeking non-hierarchical relationships. The introduction also notes an article by Söke Dinkla, “From participation to Interaction,” where she notes that these kinds of participation happenings often occur along a fragile border and that their efforts were never entirely free of authorial manipulation. I think this is relevant to current, similar multi-media experiments.
Kaprow defines for us what happenings were in the realms of theater, writing, music and painting and he traces the history from of interactive performance from circuses, carnivals, traveling saltimbanques and medieval plays.
Drawing connections to modern media pieces, Kaprow notes that happenings often had no literary point; they might not “go anywhere” or have any beginning, middle or end. Audiences co-mingled with creators who aimed for un-artiness, a more natural habitat and results had a rough, studio-like feel. Pieces were not written but generated in action. Words were materials, structures based on chance techniques.
Kaprow admits that most of the attempts at un-self-consciousness failed and these events felt ironically planned and academic. And all too often, the results were boring.
But admittedly happenings have had a profound influence on new media pieces, like all kinds of chance artworks and writings. But there’s no reason that chance characteristics and interactivity must necessarily define media pieces.
The last essay is “The Cut-Up Method” by William Burroughs (1961) introduced by Brion Gysin. Like happenings, surreal and beat experiments also influenced not only new media projects but computer game theory. Gysin reminds us that initial poetry generators were meant to be an intermediate step for generating a rough draft of content, and that even Burroughs admitted to performing a human edit as he worked toward a final draft. (My boss at ICANN just reminded me this week what an oxymoron the term 'final draft' is and it reminds us how truly final anything really is).
The benefit of such a method for Burroughs was the happy accidents that resulted and Burroughs insisted, “all writing is, in fact, cut ups.” Mentally speaking, this is very true.
Read more about this kind of creative assemblage: "Cut Up: The Creative Technique Used by Burroughs, Dylan, Bowie and Cobain"
The next essay in the stash is “Staking the Claim of the Title” by Nance Van Winckel. I see this essay appeared in AWP’s March/April Writer’s Chronicle magazine at some point. We might have received our typed-but-unpublished draft in Tom Lux’s Sarah Lawrence craft class since the essay is full of love for Tom Lux and his quote that became the essay's title.
At first I thought this was a horrible title for the essay about titles but then changed my mind when I heard the quote in context.
Titles are crucial, of course, the essay claims. Titles “give a literary work a frame or a spark. They can infuse a piece with power and authority, or with mystery and allure. Bad titles can be lead weights; clever ones can kill or poison.”
Which is all to say the title sets the tone, which is no small thing when a title contains the first words a reader will encounter. You can work against a title’s tone (Wallace Stevens is a good example) or clue the reader as to what might follow. Will the piece be absurd, smart-ass, comedic, dramatic, whatever.
Winckel claims a title often will work subconsciously and that a reader absorbs more than we may even know, that this happens because a reader has no context yet for the information in a title. So a title will often “hover in the mental periphery” as we read through a piece. Winckel uses Thomas Hardy’s novel “Jude the Obscure” as an example of a title that doesn’t even click in until three-quarters of the way through, “the title’s been looming, accumulating the force it will eventually deliver.”
So a title is more, she says, than merely a label, which early “working” draft titles often are. She tracks title changes in Sylvia Plath poems and explicates how James Wright’s tongue-in-cheek titles work (“As I Step Over a Puddle at the End of Winter, I think of an Ancient Chinese Governor” and “A Message Hidden in an Empty Wine Bottle That I Threw into a Gully of Maple Trees One Night at an Indecent Hour”), Brenda Hillman’s titles (“Never Mindshaft”), Barry Hannah’s titles (“Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet,” and “You Can’t Any Poorer Than Dead”), Gen X titles like Dave Eggers’ use of irony in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
Winckel calls Tom Lux a “contemporary title maestro” and quotes him in saying our job is “to write poems that are hard not to read.” Titles, Lux says, stake a claim as they grab the reader’s attention. Winckel says “then it’s up to the poem….to maintain its spell.” A title “must be both a surprise and an inevitability.”
The title is like a circus ringleader (I wrote this in the margins at the time).
Winckel then quotes Stephen Dobyns, “a poem has an emotion, idea, physical setting, language, image, rhythm and tension…one must be made important as soon as possible, either in the title or in the first line or two.”
Winckel traces title-history through English novels (typically names of protagonists) to titles about the poet’s state of mind (Coleridge’s “Fears in Solitude”) to metaphysical titles (like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Hart Crane’s “The Bridge”) to titles that allude to other titles (The Sound and the Fury and Of Mice and Men). She admits postmodernist titles are less about guiding the reader and explores “the uncontested titular master” Wallace Stevens. She tries to explain iconic critic Helen Vendler’s explanation of Stevens’ titles, something about first, second and third order experiences. I have no idea what this means but it has something to do with the tenor and the vehicle of a metaphor.
Winckel admits that Stevens’ titles are often only “tangentially associated” with their poems.
All I know is that Wallace Stevens’ titles were often colloquial and the poems themselves very intellectualized, leaving the reader to try to grasp the connection between the two. Winckel’s example works well to explain this, “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters.” She tells us Stevens had a list of over 300 titles unconnected to any poems and she lists about 11 of them, of which these were my favorites: “The Halo That Would Not Light” and “The Last Private Opinion.”
I wish that last poem did in fact exist. We need that poem right about now.
The title to avoid, Winckel says, is the summary. She says “there’s no surer way to sap a good poem’s energy than to laden it with a phrase that ‘sums it all up.’”
Better to dig into the subconscious, she says, and work through “layers of meaning” and “interconnections…ramifications...[more of a] sideways glance than a summation.”
Titles can “be interesting just at the level of language itself….provide information the piece needs early….lift to the surface some important feature that might be missed…establish tension…develop expectation.” She explains how paintings do this when their titles are unexpected. Her example is Susan Bennerstrom’s painting of a cleared table entitled “Waiter.”
Winckel says, “the richness of the world looms in what isn’t here, in what’s waiting to be set before us.”
Recently I received two books of poetry about movies. The first was a gift called Reel Verse, Poems About Movies, an anthology by Everyman's Library. There are so many good poems in this one and I found quite a few online.
Some of my favorites were poems about racism and segregation in movie theaters: Ellen Byrant Voight's "At the Movie House: Virginia, 1956," a similar poem by Elizabeth Alexander called "Early Cinema," and a very chilling poem about the movie Birth of a Nation called "Meanwhile" by Martha Collins where she traces the damage this infamous 1915 movie did to real people, including an increase in lynchings, torture and the rebirth of the KKK.
Denise Duhamel's great poem "An Unmarried Woman" about the movie of the name and how it's seen viewed through the lens of two young girls: "This was just marriage, we guessed, sipping our frappes."
Amy Gerstler has a great poem called "The Bride Goes Wild" about love and sex that is basically just movie titles strung together. Ron Koertge's "Aubade" is about Bette Davis movies. "Janet Leigh is Afraid of Jazz" is a great Noir poem by Marsha De La O.
Sonia Greenfield does a funny role-reversal in the poem "Celebrity Stalking" where Meryl Streep and George Clooney are stalking the poet for poetry. And Gregory Djanikian's got an empowering poem called "Movie Extras" and Vijay Seshardri's "Script Meeting" was a tour de force about special effects. Paul Muldoon has poem about young boys accidentally watching a romantic film called "The Weepies" and Carol Muske-Dukes talks about watching her actor-husband get murdered repeatedly in her poem "Unsent Letter #4."
Patricia Spears Jones has some good lines in a poem about the movie Hud (which I haven't even seen):
"Where else can a man be a jerk
and still make a woman's heart ache?
We want more.
More of his cool, patrician inspection
of the very core of our lusting selves.
Oh for a day to be Patricia Neal
warming up her whiskey voice
just so she can tell Paul Newman
where to go and how fast to get there.
For now, the jerk stands bare chested
There's a whole chapter on auteurs. Highlights are:
I took the term "field of music" for my NaPoWriMo 2022 project from Elena Karina Byrne's "Easy Rider."
Other good ones were David Wojahn's "Buddy Holly Watching Rebel Without a Cause," "At the Film Society" by Stephen Dunn and one of my favorites, "Voice Over" by Geoffrey O'Brien about a tough, fall guy getting his revenge.
The second book was the new chapbook from Ann Cefola called When the Pilotless Plane Arrives available on Trainwreck Press.
This is an amazing little set of ars poetica poems culled from the material of old movies, like Bette Davis' Now Voyager or the somewhat newer Close Encounters of the Third Kind plus Universal's suite of horror movies. Some of your favorite b-movies might be here: This Island Earth, Dr. Cyclops, The Monster and the Girl aka D.O.A., King Kong Escapes, The Mole People, The Bride of Frankenstein, House of Horrors, The Leech Woman, The Mummy's Hand, Dead Man's Eyes, Calling Dr. Death, House of Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man.
Each poem extrapolates a delightful and non-obvious lesson about writing from the serepentine plots of these movies. And that lesson might be four lines or four words.
A longer example from "First Draft in a Drawer" (after Now Voyager, 1942):
....proving an initial
draft needs care, questions asked by a skilled
professional, exposure to revered poets,
the wide Atlantic, salt air, and above all,
proscribed love, to risk its truest self.
Or this more brief lesson from "You're Getting Sleepy, Sleepy..." (after Calling Dr. Death, 1943):
"cross out articles, finish off adjectives with a pillow"
In some poems, Cefola addresses the poet directly: "You too, poet" or "poet, you maybe be irritable as that scientist." In the last poem she brings it all together, the connecting fiber between the poet and the scientist gone mad, in the poem "Propulsion" (after Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977):
It's always been this way. A tuning fork for the world. I just.
Want to know. You enter the sparkling city and—know.
You had already been taken long ago.
To return back to digital art essays from the New Media Reader, I'll be talking about two predictive pieces next: Vannevar Bush's essay "As We May Think" from 1945 and "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" by Alan Turing from 1950.
Bush's piece is a list of predictions, both hits and misses, but some impressive hits like ideas around wearable informational devices, wireless data connections, machine voice interactions, information storage working like brain cells and e-books. Forefront in his mind was the predicted coming information explosion. His ideas inspired the invention of the computer mouse, the word processer and hypertext.
He wanted to solve the time-consuming lookup problem and make man's "record of ideas" highly searchable. As he said, significant attainments have been lost in a mass of inconsequential, the glut of publications being crippling to researchers. But he probably didn't foresee the glut being so big and growing exponentially bigger as storage systems themselves grew, not only with information but misinformation.
Technologists predictably never predict meanness.
Although Bush didn't predict digital storage systems; he instead imagined storage on film. He also couldn't see beyond a room full of girls keyboard-punching data onto cards. But, most specifically for our purposes, he did predict possibilities for machines beyond numerical calculations. He saw machines manipulating language. And he envisioned an efficient text search much like the Internet parses IP addresses, although he envisioned a clunky "memex" machine instead of the Internet itself. He also dreamed of machines that would work beyond logical files and paths but would operate as the mind operates, by an almost random association via a web of trails (which is pretty much the Internet).
In "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," Alan Turing explains the imitation game (and if you've seen the movie of the same name, you're familiar with Turing's tragic story) and his hopes to test computers with the imitation game in order to answer the question can machines think, which would become known as The Turing Test. He rephrased the question to can computers fool us into thinking they can think, or can they think at a rudimentary level?
Like Bush, Turing also saw language possibilities. His work also led to early programming languages like FORTRAN and COBAL, email, word processing, voice recognition, chat bots and that OK button you've spent half your life clicking.
The article follows a very rational path, explaining the imitation game and why it would be good to find out the capabilities of the machine as a way to ask, "what are the physical and intellectual capabilities of man?" He then systematically goes through all the objections, from contemplations of the soul and God, superiority complexes, mathematical limitations, human frailty, infinity and even ESP. In an early question of identity, Turing even wonders if the human mind is like an onion, full of layers but ultimately no core there.
Turing created a random-number generator on the Mark I machine and, in the summer of 1952, Christopher Strachey used that to write the love-letter-generator program in what is now considered the first piece of digital art.
“One of Alan Turing’s final projects was a computer-based, automated love-letter generator, which some have identified as the first known work of new media art. It was programmed by Christopher Strachey in 1952 for the Manchester Mark I computer. Turing maintained this machine, which was fondly known as M.U.C, as a professor at the University of Manchester, and the love letter generator was but one among its many applications. It operated with a template similar to the game of Mad Libs, into which the computer would insert nouns and adjectives of endearment randomly selected from its database."
MY RAPTURE ADORES YOUR FERVOUR. YOU ARE MY PRECIOUS BURNING. MY COVETOUS EAGERNESS TENDERLY LIKES YOUR EAGER SYMPATHY. MY LOVESICK FONDNESS WOOS YOUR SYMPATHY. MY FONDNESS PINES FOR YOUR FELLOW FEELING.
YOURS PASSIONATELY, M.U.C.
You are my avid fellow feeling. My affection curiously clings to your passionate wish. My liking yearns for your heart. You are my wistful sympathy: my tender liking.
M.U.C. stands for Manchester University Computer. What a sweet talker, that machine!
"As Noah Wardrip-Fruin has suggested, it is interesting that Turing and Strachey were both gay men, and that their first literary collaboration for the computer imagined it as the author of a one-sided epistolary romance. The tangled mash-up of sentimentality bespeaks a twinge of longing beyond the one that already accompanies the genre: one can almost sense M.U.C.’s thirst, as if the computer were struggling to speak from the heart but discovered that its vocabulary had been arbitrarily limited to the language of clichés. Like the wooden puppet in search of the Blue Fairy, the computer longs to be human; like Snow White fleeing into the forest, it longs to be admitted into the company of those who are capable of care and affection.”
According to Stobhan Roberts in The New Yorker, basically 70 base words here could create three hundred billion different letters.
"In choosing to write a program that expressed adoration rather than humor or literary talent, Strachey was perhaps playing the cynic, exposing the mechanical nature of romance. The German artist and theorist David Link, in his book Archaeology of Algorithmic Artefacts, observes ...'ultimately the software is based on a reductionist position vis-à-vis love and its expression,” Link writes. “Love is regarded as a recombinatory procedure with recurring elements.'”
And I need to stop at this point and say Alan Turing has been an important inspiration to me since I first encountered this co-created random love letter generator in the Electronic Literature MOOC from Davidson College. It's not insignificant to me that these two men were closeted gay men (although not in a relationship) and that one of Turing's final projects was contributing to something we can call digital love art. So basically emotion, drama, concealment, longing was baked into the very first digital art. And the idea that machines can aid humans in unpredictable ways.
The algorithm broken down: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strachey_love_letter_algorithm
Take a spin on a recreated generator: https://www.gingerbeardman.com/loveletter/
Christopher Strachey had a literary pedigree: https://rhizome.org/editorial/2013/apr/9/queer-history-computing-part-three/
The next piece in the essay class was "Notes on the Art of Poetry" by Dylan Thomas, which confusingly is also a poem. The essay is most likely from the book Modern Poetics: Essays on Poetry edited by James Scully (1965).
Although the essay in the version from the book is not available online, quotes from the essay are found here and there: https://quotesondesign.com/dylan-thomas/ and this version is not the same as my version, but it's close.
The subtitle says the essay was “written in the summer of 1951, at Laugharne, in reply to questions posed by a student” – a fact that seemed somewhat indulgent at first; but I think this a very understandable impulse, the desire to elaborate on something you previously only considered while thinking on your feet.
Anyway, Thomas starts by saying how poetry first came to him with sound and nursery rhymes (which I can relate to as the first two books my parents gave me were my father's copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses and Hallmark's A Child's Rhymes which was illustrated). Dylan says, “let me say that the things that first made me love language and want to work in it and for it were nursery rhymes and folk talks, the Scottish Ballads, a few lines of hymns…”
He maintains “I am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behaviour very well, I think I can influence them slightly…they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great, and bearable. Out of them came the gusts and grunts and hiccups and heehaws of the common fun of the earth”
“What I do like to do is to treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone or what-have-you, to hew, carve, mould, coil, polish and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, figures of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly-realised truth I might try to reach and realise."
“My first, and greatest, liberty was that of being able to read everything and anything I cared to. I read indiscriminately, and with my eyes hanging out.”
He goes on to define the charge that he has been influenced by James Joyce; he also talks about “the great rhythms” of the Bible and Sigmund Freud.
Then he moves over into talking about craft:
"I may apply my technical paraphernalia. I use everything and anything to make my poems work and move in the direction I want them to: old tricks, new tricks, puns, portmanteau-words, paradox, allusion, paronomasia, paragram, catachresis, slang, assonantal rhymes, vowel rhymes, sprung rhythm. Every device there is in language is there to be used if you will. Poets have got to enjoy themselves sometimes, and the twisting and convolutions of words, and inventions and contrivances, are all part of the joy that is part of the painful, voluntary work.”
He also lists as influences the Surrealists (and the subconscious mind…without the aid of logic of reason…illogically and unreasonably in paint and words”) but he breaks with them in insisting that afterwards composition “must go through all the rational processes of the intellect. The Surrealists, on the other hand, put their words down together on paper exactly as they emerge from chaos; they do not shape these words or put them in order; to them chaos is the shape and order. This seems to me to be exceedingly presumptuous; the Surrealists imagine that whatever the dredge from their subconscious selves and put down in paint and words must, essentially, be of some interest or value. I deny this. One of the arts of the poet is to make comprehensible and articulate what might emerge from the subconscious sources; one of the great main uses of the intellect is to select, from the amorphous mass of subconscious images, those that will best further his imaginative purpose, which is to write the best poem he can.”
I agree with this. Neglecting to edit through selection, deletion, reconfiguring has always seemes presumptuous and lazy to me. Five little more minutes could turn something mediocre or solipsistic into something amazing and meaningful to someone besides yourself.
Thomas finishes attempting to avoid defining poetry.
“What does it matter what poetry is, after all….All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it, however tragic it may be. All that matters is the eternal movement behind it, the vast undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation, or ignorance, however unlofty the intention of the poem.”
“You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick…But you’re back again where you began. You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in.”
And that's pretty much all you have to say about that.
Updated (March 16, 2022):
Ok so the mix of songs has, for the most part, been nailed down. Some happy things; some unhappy things. I think a good balance. Despite the completely nailed-down title ("A Field of Music: 30 Love Songs Incorrectly Explained"), not all of the songs are popular, nor will they necessarily be incorrectly explained (although tangents might ensue). Oh and there's a three-song interlude plus one poem with two songs so there are actually 33 of them. So there's that.
I ran some demographics on my choices just to see how I did. I completely disregarded genre because I didn't care about that nebulousness. But here is some other information: