Even though my life was out of control last year, I did manage to keep reading...to keep sane! These books below were worth talking about.
This slim book is an anthology of essays from Poetry magazine, non-poets who read poetry and what they get out of it, from scientists to doctors to war correspondents. It was a bit dry but interesting to me. I like that Poetry magazine is searching for relevance outside of poetry writers. I'm not sure what was missing for me, but something was. I'll keep thinking about it. The essays are filled with great thoughts though, lots of quotable material. A few examples:
American Philosopher Richard Rorty talks about poetry as friendship, “I now wish I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose...rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts--just as I would have if I had made more close friends.”
Tex expert Xeni Jardin talks about poetry like a machine, “Poetry is, you might say, the command-line prompt of the human operating system, a stream of characters that calls forth action, that elicits response.”
PBS NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Brown quotes Haitian poet Frankétienne with a very pragmatic view, “Words cannot save the world” and Brown continues, “Look around you, see the destruction, the stupidity, the despair, and you have to believe he’s right. And yet an account must be given.”
Residuum by Martin Rock was finally a poetry experiment worth reading. These are cross out experiments that read like real time edits. Poems go in multiple directions at once. Some edits are around truth or specificity or political correctness or just the political. My first fear was this is gonna suck. It did not suck. The branches were illuminating. There are not so many poems in the book that it feels overwhelming. Also, each poem is framed by a black and white photo of a machine circuit and a body circuit which plays on the idea of circuits in thinking and the writing process.
There are probably many strategies for reading these, but I approached it by reading the crossed out words first and then backing up and reading the rewrite. It can be read like conscious corrections of the unconscious. They’re impossible to quote, but here are some examples (click to enlarge):
Taking about Residuum to a friend, we also discussed how tired we were of reading generic confessionals from the 80s, the cryptic one and a half pagers we all used to write (and I still do!). The form is dead and old, we decided. We were hungry for experiments done well.
When I picked up this book I thought it would be more of that. And there are poems like that, Muske-Dukes process the death of her husband and a childhood in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. But there were some great things in here too, like “Condolence Note: Los Angeles” about sending condolences in the modern era, “River Road,” a compact thing of grief, “Heroine” a poem essay about Jane Eyre and Rochester and the problems of this couple:
"Except for the matter of the thread, the breath-colored
Filament linking two hearts with pretty much nothing
In common. The thread pulses like a Bronte umbilical,
Which it is.."
There’s also a great poem about hate mail, called..."Hate Mail.” And the best poem was almost a kind of response about the limits of confessional poems, a poem called “Parrot” which ends:
I think I know, the Parrot protests. I honestly think
I know, but I am so tired of squawking the same
Profound shimmering insights--& nobody listening!
So the old style does not lose value with the new.
Early last year while visiting Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, for a hot springs soak at Fire Water Lodge (they accept pets), I found this used book, Poetics, Essays on the Art of Poetry, edited by paul Mariani and George Murphy. It’s filled with the essays of poets extolled in my undergrad and graduate classes and is filled with the au courant thinking about poetry circa the late 70s and early 80s.
Jonathan Holden talks about “where we are now” with modernism and postmodernism: “...the revolution has left the poet in America a bureaucratic specialist isolated in a university as in a laboratory, conducting endless experiments with poetic form, and in an adversary relation to general culture.”
Paul Breslin talks about how to read a contemporary poem: “It has a stock rhetoric of portentousness, and all too often its mysteries are only the trivial mystification of cant and code.”
Charles Simic talks about negative culpability, uncertainties and the positions you take as a poet: “One can say with some confidence that the poet writing today can no longer be bound to any one standpoint, that he no longer has the option of being a surrealist or an imagist fifty years after and to the exclusion of everything else that has been understood since.”
Brendan Galvin writes about compassion and writing “close to the bone” that becomes self indulgence: “...real frisson doesn’t come from hyperbole, but from understatement.”
Galway Kinnell writes about self absorption and the school of self dissection: “The poetry of this century is marked by extreme self-absorption. So we have been a “school” of self-dissection, the so-called confessional poets, who sometimes strike me as being interested in their own experience to the exclusion of everyone else’s.”
Tess Gallagher writes about poetry as a reservoir for grief and the communication of poems to their audiences: “Poems, through ambiguity and the enrichments of images and metaphor, invite our returns.”
Sandra Gilbert talks about the poems of self-definition and modern views about female confession and the madwoman trope: “Men tell her that she is a muse. Yet she knows that she is not a muse...men tell her she is the angel in the house, yet she doesn’t feel angelic, and wonders, therefore, if she is a devil, a witch….Men tell her that she is Molly Bloom, Mother Earth, Istar, a fertility goddess...They tell her….that she should not mean but be.”
Alicia Ostriker talks about the female divided self and covers poets from Anne Bradstreet to Lucille Clifton in four categories: authenticity, anatomy, sexual politics, and love poetry: “Raised up to be narcissists, which is a game every woman ultimately loses, we must laugh that we many not weep.”
Howard Nemerov talks about image and metaphor (loved this so much I bought his book of essays): “I will add that one can love a poet without being either cajoled or bulldozed into believing his theories.“
Robert Hass talks about rhythm and prosody: “Free-verse poems do not commit themselves so soon to a particular order, but they are poems so they commit themselves to the idea of its possibility, and, as soon as recurrences begin to develop, an order begins to emerge.” and “Two is an exchange, three is a circle of energy, Lewis Hyde has said, talking about economics.”
Stanley Plumly talks about silences: “That remarkable tension between how and why, the lyric and the dramatic, between lingering and needing to go on, between the horizontal rhythm of the line and the vertical rhythm of the story, with the balance always favoring the movement down, is what gives free verse its authority."
Stephen Dobyns talks about metaphor and memory: “...it is the ability of metaphor to elicit large non-verbal perceptions that is one of the great strengths of poetry and what can make a poem immediately convincing.”
William Matthews writes about poetry as knowledge: “A writer who speaks of having something to say is almost always doomed by that obligation to bad writing, unless he or she is willing to append: ‘but I don’t yet know what it is.’”
William Stafford writes about diction: “Where words come into consciousness, baffles me.”
Michael Ryan talks about primordial images: “I think if there is anything in us that is purely preliterate and unconscious, it is rhythm. We are subject to its influences incessantly, and our lives depend on it”
Lisel Muller talks about germanic and romance words (my copy is missing the final pages of this essay but I really enjoyed it): “The tradition of French poetry, Bonnefoy says, is abstract; it deals with essences. French poets want generic words, unlike English ones, who want the specific.”
Robert Pack talks about silences, Caesuras, and ellipses.
Denise Levertov writes about the function of the line: “The fact is, they are confused about what the line is at all, and consequently some of our best and most influential poets have increasingly turned to the prose paragraph for what I feel are the wrong reasons--less from a sense of the peculiar virtues of the prose poem than from a despair of making sense of the line.”
Marvin Bell writes about re-reading and learning about rhetoric: “...the great achievements of American poetry have been essentially rhetorical, those of rhetoric rather than of image and metaphor, or of imagination, structure and vision” and “...the poem is primarily a set of rhetorical maneuvers.”