It's been a cray past few weeks, emotionally, physically, mentally. For some reason during the Long Weekend when I should be sequestering myself, doctors here are finally on the verge of figuring out a health issue I've been having for about ten years. Nothing crazy but I've been hitting my head against a wall trying to elicit help all this time and now suddenly things have started moving and I'm having blood tests run every two days and all sorts of activity during what is probably the most dangerous time to be trying to visit medial facilities. Oh well. It is, as they say, what it is.
I've also been working on some new media poems over the last week or so (more on that later).
But anyway, one of my New Year's resolutions this year was to finish two anthologies I started and then abandoned. There are two huge poetry anthologies I’ve had stacked on my desk half-finished for over year, in one case a few years. The 500+ page New Poets of the American West, edited by Lowell Jaeger, and the 775+ page book Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone. This year I made it one of my goals to finish them. Well, to be honest, I had grown impatient or bored with single volumes of poetry.
Some years you like reading single books and some years you want greatest hits. You just have to pay attention to your yen.
Poets of the American West (2010)
I picked up this book as part of my search for poems about New Mexico. This book is organized by state and includes all everything west of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. So no Texas. There are a lot of different poets, styles, and subjects. The introductory essays are great. I especially liked this: “Consider the poem as artifact. Try reading the poems as if we are archaeologists on a dig….What can we learn about this person’s world?”
The best thing about anthologies is trolling them (in the good way) to discover new favorite poets. I’ve used many international anthologies that way. Some of my discoveries this round were:
Jim Natal, “The Half-Life of Memory”
Sean Nevin, “Wildfire Triptych”
David St. John: “Los Angeles, 1954”
Noah Eli Gordon, “All Orange Blossoms Have to Do Is Act Naturally”
Jane Hilberry, “The Moment”
Robert King, “Now”
Marilyn Krysl, “Love, That Hugeness” and “Song of Some Ruins”
Sheryl Luna, “Las Alas”
William Johnson, “New Year’s Eve”
Judy Blunt, “Showdown”
Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Meditations on the South Valley, VIII”
Michael Pettit, “Sparrow of Espanola”
David Axelrod, “The Spirit of the Place”
Rob Carney, “January 26, 2009” and “Two-Story, Stone and Brick, Single-Family Dwelling”
Elizabeth Bradfield, “Multi-Use Area”
Bo Moore: “Dry Land” and “Pretty” and “Forecast”
I had some issues with this book.
Most of the poets are assembled by language and then by country within that language, which is cool. But then more than half of the book is English and there are no country subcategories for the English section. Everyone from Canada, England, Australia, America, etc. are all lumped together.
Poet and translator Willis Barnstone, Aliki's father, did many of the translations. They’re not bad but they all use the same category of words (very simple Saxon vocabularies) and they all sound very much like Google Translate after 50 pages. This is probably why a volume of this heft should solicit the skills of a variety of translators.
The introductory essay was slim and the poet bios are not standardized. Some include books written, some include where poets are from, some are long critiques of the poets. It felt very hodge-podge and half-researched.
The volume includes poems of the editor, Aliki Barnstone. I struggled with how to feel about this. Whether or not this seems kosher depends entirely on the kind of anthology you're dealing with: an anthology of feminist or food poems or poets from New York State, for example. But this is Women Poets from Antinquity to Nowish. We assume we’ll have the best of the best in here. It just seems a bit forward to insert yourself in this most serious list, even if you are somewhat contemporary and published.
There were quite a few modern English poets I didn’t know. And meanwhile, some big poets weremissing, like Nikki Giovannie, Alice Walker and Alice Fulton.
Some of the font choices were a bit uncomplimentary with each other.
Overall it feels a bit like a rush job with more effort put to favorite poets.
That said Aliki Batnstone’s book on Emily Dickinson’s poetic development is the best book I’ve read on Emily Dickinson and there were some amazing moments reading this anthology.
I will always appreciate this piece of poetry translated by Willis Barnstone from Song of Songs:
“My love has gone down to his garden,
in the bed of spices,
to feed his sheep in the orchards,
to gather lilies,
I am my lover’s and my lover is mine.
He feeds his flock among the lilies.”
And this Willis Barnstone Sappho translation:
“Like a mountain whirlwind
punishing the oak trees,
love shattered my heart.”
And the book has inspired me to look into some poets like Cecil Bodker, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and Julia de Burgos. “To Julia de Burgos” was a great poem translated by Grace Shulman, as was “I Hear You’ve Let Go” by Rosario Ferre. I also want to check out Martha Paley Francesacto, and this was a great poem by Gaspara Stampa translated by J. Vitiello:
“When before those eyes, my life and light,
my beauty and fortune in the world, I stand,
the style, speech, passion, genius I command,
the thoughts, conceits, feelings I incite,
In all I’m overshelmed, utterly spent,
like a deaf mute, virtually dazed,
all reverence, nothing but amazed
in that lovely light, I’m fixed and rent.
Enough, not a word can I intone
for that divine incubus never quits
sapping my strength, leaving my soul prone.
Oh Love, what strange and wonderful fits:
one sole thing, one beauty alone,
can give me life and deprive me of wits.”
Jean Valentine’s “Foraging, part 2 “The Luminous Room” was a very sexy sex poem and Margaret Atwood’s marriage poem “Habitation” was good. I learned a better appreciation for Heather McHugh.
And I have to say this is the first time I’ve read in which I’ve been able to finally understand Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” or Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” after decades of approaching them in classes and other anthologies. You just have to be ready for these things, I guess.
The essay we're reviewing today came from the Jorie Graham introduction to the anthology The Best American Poetry 1990. Graham has a portion of the essay on her website: https://www.joriegraham.com/prose_american_poetry_intro. You can also read a copy of the full essay (with marginalia) here: https://www.mirandafield.com/static/classes/intro-graham.pdf or you can buy the book.
Often, introductions to volumes of poetry (singular or anthologies) are no good; they’re often too specific to certain poems yet unread. This essay, however, was great, and from Jorie Graham it’s no surprise. If you read one poetry essay in your life…this one is a good candidate. So I'll be quoting lots of it.
Part 1 is a great dip into the experience of being at a poetry and prose reading:
"I went to a reading recently--fiction and poetry. It was a warm Indian summer night. The man introducing spoke first about the novelist--her meteoric rise to the top along the fast track. Book awards. Movie deals. The person in question stood up and read wonderful, funny stories. I laughed out loud; listened to the sentences flowing by--their aggressive overtaking of the space. There was no silence, there was the run run of story over it all. It sprayed forward over the unsaid until it was all plot. People changed or didn't….
Then our host introduced the poet--one of our very best. The introductory remarks referred to the 'dark times poetry is in.' People resettled in their chairs. The man in question stood up to read, looked out at us over his glasses, cleared his throat. He tried to say something funny to put us at our ease, but we weren't. What was he going to do? Where did the wonderful warm sensation of story go? A poem began. Not a little story told in musical rhythms, but a poem. Oh, it had story. And it was music. But it seemed to begin out of nowhere. And it moved irrationally--by the standards the fiction had set. It leapt. It went too suddenly to the heart of the matter. Why was I feeling so uneasy? I didn't feel myself thinking anymore. I wasn't feeling lifted or entertained. My hands felt heavy. My body felt heavy. The air into which language had been pouring for almost an hour felt heavy….
Now it was words into an element that was crushing in its power and weight. I thought of Sartre's notion that prose writers tame language and that it's up to poetry to set it free again..
I felt myself having to "listen" with other parts of my sensibility, felt my mind being forced back down into the soil of my senses. And I saw that it was the resistance of the poem--its occlusion, or difficulty--that was healing me, forcing me to privilege my heart, my intuition--parts of my sensibility infrequently called upon in my everyday experience in the marketplace of things and ideas. I found myself feeling, as the poem ended, that some crucial muscle that might have otherwise atrophied from lack of use had been exercised. Something part body, part spirit. Something the species should never evolve away from. Something I shouldn't be living without. The poem must resist the intelligence / almost successfully, whispered Wallace Stevens."
Next to that last paragraph, my 1990s self wrote, “I don’t agree with this.” Huh. Interesting. Because now I do. It’s a good defense of difficulty.
Part 2 is more of a defense of difficulty, how inaccessibility is leveled against poets and their retreats into “saying narrative is all there is or should be, saying self should be ostracized, saying free verse is fatal, or all rhyme and meter reactionary, talking about elitism, about how poetry has failed to communicate…"
Remember in Stephen Dobyns' essay the definition of poetry was 'to communicate.' I don’t disagree with that but I think there can be poetry that thwarts communication too.
Graham talks about “the fact that poetry implicitly undertakes a critique of materialist values.” I think this is mostly true (to read poetry might be a desire to escape that world) but there are conceivably poems that might encourage materialism. Poetry (and not just political poetry) often does explicitly challenge modern values. Graham talks about poetry’s “truer, or more resonant, more supple values.”
Back to difficulty, she compares difficult poetry to modern dance and carpentry:
“Of course, with woodworking or ballet, one can still enjoy what one barely grasps…but with poetry readers feel like they’re missing something...[or]... that one is stupid, blind.”
She talks about "dream logic, mystical visions and intuitive, irrational thinking, leaps beyond cause and effect…. the merging of its irrational procedures with the rational nature of language.” These experiments seem to be interesting tests of the plasticity of language, sentence making, storytelling sense, but they’re not for everybody.
I do disagree with this statement: “Aren't such accusations of elitism rather condescending to the people on whose behalf they are made?” because I don’t think accusations of elitism are always made on behalf of any reader, but by readers directly. At least in my experience. But then she discusses poetry that slows you down as being an anecdote for modern language (and this was all before the Internet):
“the terminal "slowness" of speech in relation to the speedier verbal image as a medium for sales (of objects, people, ideas, of verisimilitude, of desire)… ); a disrespect for all nonlucrative activities; a general impatience with depth, and a shortened attention span...Sound bites, shortcuts, clips, trailers, minimalist fragmented 'dialogue,' the Reagan-era one-liner on the way to the helicopter: the speed with which an idea must be 'put across' is said to be determined not just by monetary considerations, but by the speeded-up, almost decimated attention span of the bored, overstimulated viewer who must be caught, bought, on the wing, as he or she is clicking past, 'grazing' the channels, wanting to be stopped, but only momentarily."
"The genius of syntax consists in its permitting paradoxical, 'unsolvable' ideas to be explored, not merely nailed down, stored, and owned; in its permitting the soul-forging pleasures of thinking to prevail over the acquisition of information called knowing.”
Part 3 is an amazing summary of the smorgasbord of options, not just difficult poems:
She gets into this idea of Americanness here a bit in this section (although there’s a whole later section for that):
“We are faced with a more historical (and American) distrust of articulateness:'inarticulateness' as stoicism, perhaps--the terseness we recognize in our Western folk heroes--as if to speak a full sentence, to yield to easeful speech, were a sensual activity one cannot, or should not, afford to indulge."
She talks about minimalism, Zen notions of restraint, suppression of ego, “inward abbreviation,” “the coding covert political activity requires…to use James Wright's phrase, expresses a deeply-held American belief that the simpler the utterance--the closer to the bone of the feeling--the better the chance of getting the self through uncontaminated by language: speech a vehicle that can "betray" honest feeling…"
And various notions of the self: the invented or invoked self, a constructed self, a mask or mythic persona, “the tradition of "honest" speech on American soil, and there are many poets who attempt to merge the two impulses.”
She talks about the sense of seeking:
"investigations rather than as conclusions. Words--or the gaps between them--are used to recompose a world, as if these poets were looking for a method by which to experience the world once again. We might find ourselves being asked implicitly where the poem actually is: In the world? In the language? In the reader's interpretation or in the poet's intention?...the increasingly elliptical lyric poets…uses or serial”
And writing devices that hint toward new media experiments:
"break the fluid progress of the poem, that destabilize the reader's relationship to the illusion of the poem as text spoken by a single speaker in deep thought, aroused contemplation, or recollection. These interferences force the reader out of a passive role and back into the poem as an active participant….. the lust-for-forwardness, with all its attendant desires for closure, shapeliness, and the sense that we are headed somewhere and that we are in the hands of something.”
And then this was very interesting paragraph:
"You'll find the undiminished, or unintimidated, eloquence of our classical believers--perhaps only apparently unperturbed by the desperate fray; poets in whom the repose of counted language is perhaps the highest form, today, of bravery."
The online essay ends here, but the book essay has 3 more sections.
Section 4is about poetry’s exclusion from the marketplace, it’s being a “moral and spiritual undertaking” along with questing: “honing of one’s tools for sight—formal techniques—is the honing of one’s tools for insight.”
Then she talks about confessional poems when they aren't working:
“The poetry that fails the genius of its medium today is the poetry of mere self. It embarrasses all of us. The voice in it not large but inflated. A voice that expands not to the size of a soul…but to the size of an ego."
She says “a true poem…puts the self at genuine risk.”
I again suspicious of proclamations about “the true/real/correct" poem thing. But a good poem can do that. She says, “the poet must move to encounter an other, not more versions of the self….something the writer risks being defeated—or silenced—....How sincere are we about wanting to go where the act of a poem might take us? Do we not often, instead, take the poem merely where we want to go—protecting ourselves?”
I’m guilty of this. Sad face.
More about difficulty: Difficulty is…not in any way synonymous with…laziness.”
She says every generation has to restore the role of language and language and “do it essentially from scratch” to make works “full again…to clean the language of its current lies.”
Section 5 goes into what is American about these poets. This sentence wasn’t as interesting as what she’s already said about American traits in prior sections. She struggles to define the voice and personality, the jazz quality, the self-aware media events, attempts to being both historical and ahistorical...breakdancing on the surface and breaking the flow of anything that would thicken into history." Manifest destiny, progress, and some stuff I can’t even decipher.
Section 6 wraps it up saying there's “no voice elusively attached to region, race, gender, class…hybrids of styles, un-ironic or beyond post-modernism, more of a “stylistic searching…the poetic map of the country reads far less like a set of rival encampments, as the various polemicists would have us believe, and far more like a wonderfully varied and passionate family argument” where “cross-pollination is going on.”
That’s nice to hear. I hope its true.
She does see evidence of “deeply political” poetry concerned with “the condition of the Republic.”
So this essay is both a timely snapshot of poetry in American in 1990 and a survey of the landscape in a more solid sense.
Good head food.
So we're continuing to go through essays I read in a grad school essay class. To recap, I recently found a box of essays from the class in my garage. I’m blogging about them here so I can throw them out. I'm really enjoying revisiting them. This essay, “Poetry and Audience” by Robert McDowell is really an article from Poets & Writers from 1988.
I was taking the class in 1995 so this is pretty old already. Someone must have been hanging on to it. I have made a funny note at the top: “Robert says irritating.” This was referencing poet Robert Fanning who many girls (and boys) I knew had a crush on at Sarah Lawrence College but he was allegedly unavailable (engaged or married or something). I didn’t know him at all. I was only in two classes with him including this one. Besides, I reserved my crushing for Ross Gay (who I only ever had in one class). But I did note this comment as if it were valuable for some reason.
I should note I took a class from Robert McDowell years later at the West Chester Poetry Conference. It was a seminar on narrative poetry and his class and advice helped me quite a bit while I was editing Why Photographers Commit Suicide and when I started the long narrative that is Cowboy Meditation Primer.
McDowell starts by acknowledging the lack of readership in poetry, causing in writers a “self-esteem that has disintegrated,” feelings of being inferior and useless (I'm thinking white male angst here) and he does then invokes Yeats, Eliot and Ezra Pound. But then he counters that he's not so sympathetic with that view and proposes ways to broaden the audience beyond the academy, writing students, and eccentrics who read poetry. His potential audience aims at everyone else who is watching TV (video games weren’t even a thing yet—how quaint).
He also proposes:
He also makes a differentiation between sentiment and sentimentality. This reminds me today that we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, instead of simply throwing out the old clichés. We might have thrown out our humanity in an effort to avoid stilted Hallmark emotions.
When I used to read Poets & Writers articles I would circle faculty names I recognized in MFA Writing Program advertisements (which are the majority of the ads) in case I one day wanted to look into their programs. I scanned all the names I had circled and I didn’t notice this at the time but Digby Wolfe was teaching TV writing at University of Southern California. He was a writer on Laugh In and head writer for the 1975-76 Cher show.
So as I've been posting essays we were given in an essay class at Sarah Lawrence College, I've been thinking about the types of essays and their differences, their stylistic variety. Some were very practical, some were making an argument of some kind, others (like this one) were airy and mystical. Students usually had a preference and contributed essays that matched their predilections.
Although I preferred essays that blew my mind in some practical way, I didn’t hate the rambling scats like this one by Charles Wright called “Improvisations, The Poem as Journey.” There were things to learn from both types of essay.
You can find this essay in a book called Poets Writing Across Borders, The Strangest of Theatres. Here is a free PDF version: https://nanopdf.com/download/view-the-pdf-poetry-foundation_pdf
You can also purchase copies of the book here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-strangest-of-theatres-jared-hawkley/1111672733
You’d think a scatting sort of essayist would value the journey over the destination but not Charles Wright. This is an essay claiming (but not really proving) that all meaning is found in the destination. He starts with the phrase, “I am writing to you from the end of the world” by Henri Michaux, a French Surrealist poet. Then he goes on to talk about what the end of the world might mean for Dante, Orpheus, Ulysses, Aeneas. My marginalia to the side says “ornament.” A lot of this essay feels ornamental to me. Bringing in classical poetic references often feels superfluous.
His thesis, “I think it’s what’s at road’s end that is important, that where the road leads is where the meaning is: it’s not the telling of the story that’s important, it’s what the story has to tell” is presented in a rambling journey without much gold at the end. This is essay is all road and no destination. And I don't hate that. But it's ironic.
He quotes a Japanese Zen master about the plantain and equates it to a poem: “A plantain has earth, water, fire, wind, emptiness, also mind, consciousness and wisdom as its roots, stems, branches, and leaves, or as its flowers, fruits, colors and forms. Accordingly, the plantain wears the autumn wind, and is torn in the autumn wind. We know that it is pure and clear and that not a single particle is excluded.” This is today a poem is pure and full of all the elements, like a plantain.
I’m always suspicious when a poet tries to tell us what a poem is, what “all true poems” are. But I’m not too worried in this case because nothing Wright says here is concrete enough to be annoying, didactic poet-splaining.
Wright reaches for something. He says a poem is a “journey of discovery. Something is being found out….an uncovered new thing. Poetric structures sometimes end up in that fortunate ‘field.’” I read “that fortunate field” phrase a bunch of times and I still have no clue what that is.
He then talks about Italian poets Dino Campana and Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti’s two word poem that, Wright says, is ultimately untranslatable:
I punched this into Google Translate and what-do-you-know: it is untranslatable. But then I asked Monsieur Big Bang (who speaks Italian) to translate the words, which he said mean “I illuminate myself from the immensity.” He griped, “what’s untranslatable about that?!”
By this point, I’m getting annoyed by the cryptic exclusivity. But on another day I might be charmed by its mystery.
Another mystic sentence near the end: “That ‘cutting edge,’ where all true poems climb from and return to, is the edge where the void begins.” Technically speaking, does a naughty limerick avoid this void? Or Dr. Seuss? Is that not poetry too?
Here’s the last sentence of the essay. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it: “The journey is always into the unknown, into the mystery and darkness, where great lobsters fall on our...” In our class all the photocopies cut off right there, like a cliff or a....void. The students who brought the essay into class had to read off the last few words to the rest of us, which we dutifully copied where the void began: …” heads and great unseen wings gaze our faces and vanish.”
Sometimes mystery works (this Charles Wright book is one of my favorites). Sometimes it feels like bullshit on an essay exam. It depends upon where your heads at that day I guess.
I've been posting blog reviews of essays I was given in a poetry essay class at Sarah Lawrence College in the 1990s. Here's another one. Sometimes essays were simply chapters in a book, like this: “Women Poets and the Emergence of Modernism” from the 1993 book The Columbia History of American Poetry (Parini & Miller).
Although this is a great-looking tome of comprehensive American poetry history (the kind I’ve been looking for actually), the fact that a student brought this particular chapter to discuss is very telling. Modernism when I was at Sarah Lawrence was about 80 years old. It’s now over 100 years old. And the fact that it takes up so much of our intellectual energy is crazy-making to me. I’ve taken three Modernism MOOCs: the University of Pennsylvania’s ModPo (which made connections between Modernist and contemporary language poetries), Harvard (connecting Modernism in Chicago, New York City and London) and the University of Illinois (exploring poets the Modernists rejected; this class was my favorite because it showed the flip-side of history). I just finished reading B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates and in his biography by Jonathan Coe we see even Johnson was criticized back in the 1960s for thinking James Joyce was something new. That was 30 years before my Sarah Lawrence class. Will we ever move on?
Anyway, this is an article about the forgotten women of Modernism, the “largely neglected figures” of Gertrude Stein, H.D. and Marianne Moore. This is all in the context of the 1990s when this book came out. All my MOOCs covered Stein, H.D. and Moore and I studied Stein in undergraduate school, so I feel this error of omission has been partially rectified. I say partially because the Big Brains of Modernism are still considered to be Eliot/Pound/Williams/Stevens and that quadrant of maleness has been way over studied.
“These women shared this antipathy to sentimentality but did not often share the positions of their male contemporaries, whose experimental forms masked conservative—even reactionary—attitudes toward women, society and politics and whose interests in myth and history excluded women.”
That’s exactly what the University of Illinois class on Modernism was talking about!
It's also noted in this chapter, however, that Alfred Stieglitz was one of Gertrude Stein’s first champions (as well as Georgia O’Keeffe’s) and Stein's first published poems appeared in issues of Stieglitz's Camera Work in 1912.
“Stein was the most modern of the Modernists.”
In college when we were studying Gertrude Stein (who I was just hearing about), my classmate Diane Harvestmoon said, “Listening to Gertrude Stein is like listening to rain.” I always remember that brilliant thought. Don’t try to figure rain out, right?
“Until recently, she remained a writer’s writer.”
The essay also drops the bombshell that “H.D. had already perfected the [Imagist] style that Pound claims to have discovered.”
I also love the Marianne Moore’s quote of George Grosz, that art is “endless curiosity, observation, research, and a great amount of joy in the thing.”
The essay claims these writers were “working from a wholly different and more revolutionary attitude toward poetic authority than the High Modernists.”
I loved this book. It was written in the form of a Chilean Academic Aptitude Test and builds from short questions to long comprehension texts.
It’s hard to describe it as either poetry or fiction (as the cover itself indicates). It’s kind of like poems morphing into short stories, with everything in between. Pretty amazing. Each one was great and many "questions" found an emotional space in the cryptic format of a test form. There’s even a fill-in-the-bubble answer form provided in the back, just for the look of it.
I have never read an essay to satisfactorily describe how a prose poem works, especially in comparison to typical poems or short prose. And I like prose poems and “sudden” fiction pieces. I’ve just never read anything that really seems to be able to explicate what they’re doing and why they should be prose poems and not line-break poems or shock fictions. This essay from my essay stack is no exception.
It's a mystery piece in my pile called “The Prose Poem: The Example of A Potato” by Karl Johnson. I can’t find any information on this essay or this writer online. There’s a former New York Daily News editor online with that name, but I can’t verify a match. I’m wondering if this might have been a student at either University of Missouri-St. Louis or Sarah Lawrence College and the essay found it's way into my essay class stash. I’m really not sure.
The essay begins by accepting that the words prose and poem contradict each other. And the writer acknowledges the fun of line breaks: why give them up? Seeking for benefits of the prose poem over line breaks, he comes up with “subtlety" as line breaks are so prominent and work so well to illuminate their beginnings and endings. They can be heavy handed, possibly melodramatic, not subtle enough in the middles. I can buy that.
He shows as a delicious example, “A Potato” by Robert Bly.
The potato reminds one of an alert desert stone. And it belongs to a race that writes novels of inspired defeat. The potato does not move on its own, and yet there is some motion in its shape, as if a whirlwind paused, then turned into potato flesh when a ghost spit at it. The skin mottles in spots; potato cities are scattered here and there over the planet. In some places papery flakes lift off, light as fog that lifts from early-morning lakes.
Despite all the eyes, little light gets through. Whoever goes inside will find a weighty, meaty thing, damp and cheerful at the same time, obsessive as a bear that keeps crossing the same river. When the jaw bites into the raw flesh, both tongue and teeth pause astonished, as a bicyclist leans forward when the wind falls. The teeth say, “I never could have imagined it.” The tongue says: “I thought from the cover that there would be a lot of plot....”
Johnson is right to say this prose piece is not a short of fiction. But I disagree about why. I would say the piece lacks a narrative, scene or dialogue that brings fiction to life. Johnson lists poetic elements like metaphors, similes, rhyme, assonance, consonance, metrics of iambs, and a feeling of pattern. But fiction can use these tricks-of-trade as well. So this doesn’t really separate the prose poem from the short fiction unless we can all agree on a threshold of figurative language that makes one thing a poet and another thing fiction. But that seems arbitrary and a waste of effort; because as poets experiment toward narrative, fictioneers are pushing experiments back with copious figurative devices.
Is the linebreak missed, Johnson asks? This is often a question I ask myself too. I do eventually make a decision but I’m never at all certain why. Johnson is on target to say, “Sometimes the meaning of a line out of context even contradicts the meaning of the sentence as a whole” but actually this is why poetry with line breaks can be so exciting. Why give up that double meaning that line breaks provide?
Finally, Johnson discusses the poems “broken expectations, taking a literal subject with a reader’s preconceived notions and subverting those “in the last sentence.” Which is a very cool thing, but not something the form of fiction or poems with line breaks cannot do.
But at the end, the essay really starts cooking, illustrating how old the form of prose poem might be. He traces them back to William Carlos Williams in 1918 and back to Baudelaire in 1855, both writers producing books of only prose poems. But he goes further than that to Chinese Writers using the Fu form of rhyming prose and then suggests even the Old Testament qualifies with its patterns and repetitions.
I read a really sexist essay last week by Robert Duncan so I looked him up on Wikipedia to see if he was part of that sexist clique of Modernists. Wikipedia describes him as “a devotee of Hilda "H.D." Doolittle” and that got me wondering if I was going to be a “devotee” of some poet, who would it be? I mean someone who could I be a completest for (buying up every volume and critique)? Who could I haunt the alleys over in search of they key to what makes them magical beings? I was stumped by this question. I mean it didn’t take me long to narrow down a few suspects. I have never NOT enjoyed an Albert Goldbarth or Anne Carson book. I could see becoming a devotee of someone who I could imagine enjoying 100% of their output and consuming their biographies with relish.
But….Anne Carson is ruled out because her stuff is all, in actuality, over my head and I’m completely unwilling to learn Classic Lit to any degree, let alone what I would need to do to fully comprehend Anne Carson books. So...I'm crying uncle on that one. Albert Goldbarth on the other hand, yeah I guess I could become a devotee of his but the one time I saw him at the Los Angeles book festival, he was a bit crusty. So I don’t know if I could show up to all of his shows, if you know what I mean. Which you'd have to keep up with as a devotee.
Here’s the other issue, I'm already pretty busy being a devotee in the pop culture sphere. And honestly, that's too much fun to give up. I mean, until there are 33-lps, 45s, 8-tracks, dvds, blu-rays, Vogue magazines, tv show episodes, posters, perfumes, skin care products, goth furniture to track down, I might get bored with just collecting....books. I mean I just bought a Cher puzzle today. And I'm eagerly anticipating it's arrival. Can you picture an Anne Carson or Albert Goldbarth doll, complete with an array of Bob Mackie outfits? No. Maybe we should have that. But we don't. So, I'm out of luck to become a poet's scholar. I'll have to make do with my literary finger puppets, which do come with awesomely detailed outfits.
Meanwhile, here's an interesting article on how our writing rituals may help us think: https://getpocket.com/explore/item/the-psychology-of-writing-and-the-cognitive-science-of-the-perfect-daily-routine. It includes a chart of famous writers and their waking-up habits vs. productivity levels. Here's a shortcut to the chart: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/12/16/writers-wakeup-times-literary-productivity-visualization/. The chart is hard to summarize but the author with most books and genres combined with the most awards is Ray Bradbury, who woke up at 9 am everyday.
The article references a book called The Psychology or Writing by Ronald T. Kellogg but the only affordable version is on Kindle or from your local library. While looking for that book I also came across this interesting workbook called The Psychology Workbook for Writers by Darian Smith, which steps you through how to create well-rounded fiction characters.
Finally, while I was visiting the brainpickings.org site today, a pop-up window came up saying, "Hey, I thought you could use a poem today." And boy, I sure could. What a nice websity thing to do!
It's like a free gift at checkout!
Some days in our Essay class, we'd get two essays in one packet. These two essays by Chinua Achebe come from his book Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. Both essays cover Western ideas about individuality, which track nicely to our current conversations and struggles in the Age of Narcissism.
Essay one: “The Writer and His Community”
Achebe says, “One of the most critical consequences of the transition from oral traditions to written forms of literature is the emergence of individual authorship.” He talks about the physical transformation as well: “…a story that is told has no physical form or solidity, a book has: it is a commodity and can be handled and moved about.”
Igbo artists “are always careful to disclaim all credit for making.” Achebe quotes Herbert Cole as saying, “A former onyemgbe fears that he might slip up and say, ‘Look, I did this figure.” If he [says] that, he has killed himself. The god that owns that work will kill him.”
John Plamenatz is quoted as saying, “The artist ploughs his own furrow, the scholar, even in the privacy of his study, cultivates a common filed.’" Achebe continues, "It has been said that the American Ralph Waldo Emerson was the first to use the word ‘individualism’ in the English language, rather approvingly, as a definition for the way of life which upholds the primacy of the individual.”
“Western man [has] made the foundation of his philosophical edifice, including the existence of God, contingent on his own first person singular!...Perhaps it is the triumphant, breathtaking egocentrism of that declaration that occasionally troubles the non-Western mind.”
The west “prompted the view the view of society and of culture as a prisonhouse from which the individual must escape in order to find space and fulfillment….when people speak glibly of fulfillment they often mean self-gratification, which is easy, short-livid and self-centered. Like drugs, it has to be experienced frequently, preferably in increasing doses.”
“Fulfillment is other-centered, a giving or subduing of the self, perhaps to somebody, perhaps to a cause; in any event to something external to it. Those who have experienced fulfillment all attest to the reality of this otherness.”
It’s interesting to contemplate what this means for our philosophy of living, but this essay is actually asking us to consider our ideas of the self when we write or create art pieces.
“…resulting art is important because it is at the centre of the life of the people and so can fulfill some of that need that first led man to make art: the need to afford himself through his imagination an alternative handle on reality.”
It's true, however, that the Igbo community supports its artists. They won't starve by creating art for the community for free. But I think Achebe is not necessarily talking about support as much as he is referencing the credit we seek or demand, the ego that wants to place yourself into the creation story.
Essay two: “The Igbo World and Its Art”
Igbo African art is “never tranquil, but mobile and active, even aggressive.” Apparently there are no private art collections among Igbo people. Art is always spiritual and public.
So last December our living room flooded. Last week we had to move everything for some new flooring. While I was putting stuff back I decided to revisit these Stones from the Muse, basically a bag of rune stones for jumpstarting creativity.
A book comes with a bag of stones and in the book there are configurations for types of stone pulls you can do.
I chose to work with the Conscious and Subconscious configuration first. I pulled these stones:
Seed (ideas) (Conscious)
The book reading for this stone said my mind is a compost heap. It develops its own heat. It’s a fertile bed of ideas that come from everywhere. I have to nurture it, turn the compost heap or it will get stinky and stagnant. I must make choices or the heap will choke anything I'm trying to grow. I need to thin out the heap sometimes.
(The book didn't say this but I also think it helps being organized.)
Eggs (potential) (Subconscious)
I need to start working more fully with my mind and heart. If I'm blocked, I need to give something up: a chore, a defense mechanism, an idea about my persona. I need to schedule time, if even 15 minutes to make progress. What’s in the way of my going deeper or doing something different? I need to make some purposeful mistakes to see what happens.
Tidbits from The Atlantic
I'm getting to the end of reading through my 2016-7 gift subscription to The Atlantic. A few mentionable literary pieces:
IN Mark Twain's book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the printing plates was vandalized pre-publication and a plate-designer gave Silas the preacher an erect penis (which the illustrator didn't illustrate). Much money was offered as a reward but none of the 50 pressmen would fess up to the alteration of the plate. Door-to-door salesmen of the book were asked to rip the illustration out of their copies. This reminds us Twain's novels were one of the first great American lit books sold door to door. Read the full blurb.
And Beowulf is being revisited for lack of transcendence and the story's attraction to pop re-tellings.