Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Post-Retreat Post (back from Sea Ranch)

This morning, second day back from the retreat at Sea Ranch, where Robert, Beverly, Nancy, David, Zack, Jeanne, Scott, and I spent two days reciting poems by heart, writing, reading, and talking about poetry... yet not entirely back, so reading Robert Hass's Twentieth Century Pleasures on my way in to work on BART (reading it for something like the nineteenth time), trying to stave off reality and bring the poem-making mind with me as close as possible to where the elevator doors would close on me on Market Street. Hass's tone is so intimate, so much on the level with the reader, that it was easy for me to imagine him there with us, talking about poems as we stared out the picture windows at the fuzzy-antlered adolescent deer, the trio of hares in the tall grasses studded with iris, and beyond the meadows to the metallic and un-pacific Pacific beating below the bluffs.

In the first essay, the one on Lowell, Hass says, "I heard, and it was the incantatory power of the poems that moved me. Enchantment, literally," and then not much later, "You can analyze the music of poetry but it's difficult to conduct an argument about its value...." He says a lot more--each paragraph has a phrase I've underlined or checked--and I could fill this post easily with nothing more than quotes from him. But I was thinking about that last statement, and I realized that we constantly try to do that all during the retreat, argue about a poem's value. Is such-and-such a good poem? How would we make it better? Or is it simply trash?

Well, it's fun to, let's say, workshop Elizabeth Bishop when she can't defend herself, and there's nothing wrong with discriminating among poets and poems--if this vintage has a nose of blackberry and chocolate and that one has a nose of wet dog, why can't we do the same with a Dean Young or Gillian Connolly? But you can argue until you're blue in the face if "it's gotten into the blood" or it hasn't. You're not going to change any minds/hearts with close reading.

It bothers me, though, when we descend into typing and prescription. None of us writes in a "school." We write a poem. I don't know about you, but I'm not writing what I wrote yesterday, let alone what I wrote ten years ago. So when someone says, "Poetry is all about XXXX or XXXXX..." or "You can't write that..." I bristle. I know that Eliot's contemporaries condemned his writing. Hell, they did that with Whitman. Man that guy was weird, they thought.

I guess what I'm trying to say is you can't like everything, but it can't hurt to have all different kinds of poetry in this world, fraternizing with each other and cross pollinating and whatnot. You can never tell what will get into your blood, in the long run.

If this is sounding awfully sermon-like for a blog post, forgive me. (Post a comment and let me know what an ass I am.)

What a wonderful weekend it was, maybe, for me, the best retreat ever ('cause man did I need it!), and we've been doing this for maybe eight (more?) years--even if I ate too much and wrote too little, if I never got time to do yoga and didn't get all the way down to the beach. I missed husband and pooch, but it was still wonderful. And by the way, I found my lost copy of Poetry magazine.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Essential Reading?

Ron Silliman has an interesting piece on his blog this morning about Peter Davis’ Poet’s Bookshelf, an anthology of various poets’ lists of “5-10 books that have been most ‘essential’ to you, as a poet.” Silliman says the 13 living poets listed most often on other poets’ “essential” lists are John Ashbery, Edward Field, Charles Simic, James Tate, Louise Glück, W.S. Merwin, Carolyn Forché, Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, Galway Kinnell, Michael Ondaatje, and himself.

Personally I’m rather happily surprised to see Michael Ondaatje on the list, and if there’s one poet I’m surprised to see not on the list, I guess it would be Anne Carson, but of course there are plenty of others (Robert Hass, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich) whose absence is noticeable. Anyway, Silliman makes this interesting observation:

“This actually points to a curious phenomenon that pops up in the book—one that I suspect is ‘real,’ i.e. true of a broader spectrum of poet/readers than one can find in this book. SoQ poets are often apt to include one–sometimes more—post-avant types in their reading lists of ‘essential books.’ But post-avant poets virtually never list SoQ poets in theirs.

“That can be interpreted variously, all the way from ‘SoQ poets are forced to concede that post-avant writing includes some of the most compelling poetry composed in the past century’ to ‘post-avant poets are far more cliquish & closed-off to a wide range of writing than are SoQ folks.’ But what if the real answer is more both/and rather than either/or?”

Not surprisingly, I tend toward the “far more cliquish” interpretation, although certainly both may be true. But can it also be true that “post-avant” poets are blind to the power of the poetry of Merwin, of Glück, of Kinnell? Or perhaps they just don’t want to call them “essential.”

Friday, April 15, 2005

Haiku Cont'd / Haiku Quiz

A couple of years ago my friend Zack and I were arguing about poetics, and he quoted a haiku by Buson as an example of the kind of poetry he likes:

The lights are going out
in the doll shops—
spring rain.

In return, I quoted a haiku by Basho as an example of the kind of poetry I like:

The morning glory also
turns out
not to be my friend.

I’m not sure if this is an argument between the poetics of Basho and the poetics of Buson or not—I suspect not—but it made me think that you can determine a person’s poetics on the basis of what haiku they like and dislike, and in that spirit I offer the following quiz. (To keep it simple, all the poems are taken from The Essential Haiku, edited by Robert Hass.)

Match the school of poetics with the appropriate haiku:

A) Postmodern
B) Post-postmodern
C) Neo-Formalist
D) Confessional
E) Post-Confessional
F) Neo-narrative
G) Neo-romantic
H) Beat
I) Deep Image
J) New York


A snowy morning—
by myself,
chewing on dried salmon.


A cold rain starting
and no hat—


Year after year
on the monkey’s face
a monkey face.


Just say the word “cherry”
and it storms down the mountain,
the autumn wind.


A flying squirrel
chewing on a bird
in the withered fields.


on a naked horse
in pouring rain!


These sea slugs,
they just don’t seem


Writing shit about new snow
for the rich.
is not art.


The withered fields—
“Once upon a time, deep in the forest,
lived an old witch …”


Even as
my father lay dying,
I went on farting.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Searching for Lost Haiku

The one thing that made me want to be a poet when I was growing up was a high school teacher reciting this haiku by Buson:

In the bedroom, stepping
on my dead wife’s comb:
the sudden cold.

That’s Robert Hass’s translation, but I swear the version I heard as a teenager said nothing about a dead wife. In fact what made chills go up my spine was precisely that it made me feel the grief without mentioning her. The way I remember the haiku—which I’m sure is inaccurate—is more like this:

Sweeping the bedroom,
I find an ivory comb
on the wooden floor.

Of course I didn’t realize it then, but this is a famous haiku and you can find translations of it all over the place, but all the translations I’ve seen mention a dead woman. I would love to find the version I first heard, the one that changed my life.

The different translations, of course, bring up the question of how much to say and how much to leave out in a poem. I’m pretty sure the haiku meant nothing to most of the kids in my class, but it might have meant something to them if it had made clear the woman’s death. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that increase in clarity would have reduced the electrical charge the poem sent through me. Poems seem to need to leave gaps for sparks to leap across in the reader’s mind. Or does the translation need to mention the woman? What would the ideal translation of this poem be?

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Poetry Against Poetry During National Poetry Month Is a Great Idea

Edward Albee a great playwright and astute thinker about the game of life believes that one should never do praxis. Praxis is the expected, even a right turn off of expectation is still praxis. Art is not meant to fulfill praxis...as it has already been filled by expectation. Art that surprises and opens even contradicts itself (as Whitman might add) seems very much the point of Art. So posting poems against poetry in national Poetry Month has that slightly creepy, very humorous, and intellectual quality of mis-direction in its purpose. It is contrary to praxis. Argument increases the value of its subject...like an economics of ideas. The market value of a debated idea is greater than one accepted blindly or ignored entirely. Poems against poetry are good for poetry. And I am all for that. Now what would be nice is a posting of poems against poems against poetry.

At Slate Pinsky submits poems against poetry to the public...

Monday, April 11, 2005

Larry Levis and U2

Cheryl and I went to see U2 on Saturday in San Jose. What a great show! Cheryl has finally converted me into a wholehearted U2 fan, though I have yet to convert her into an opera fan. I do sometimes wonder, though, what toll stadium rock shows take on my hearing, and that's toll in the sense of both bridge tolls and tolling bells, because when we got home I could still hear what I can only describe as ten thousand tiny sleigh bells shaking simultaneously in the distance across a field of snow. I'll also put in a plug for One, the organization to fight global AIDS and poverty which Bono plugged in the show before singing "One."

I guess I'm just constitutionally incapable of forgetting about poetry, though. In the midst of 20,000 people jumping up and down to the music, I was on my feet listening to every decibel but there was still a part of my brain thinking about poetry. And what it was thinking about most was Larry Levis and his dream of Yeats. Levis once gave a talk on elegies and Seamus Heaney that I think was later published in Marlboro Review and was also memorialized in Ellen Bryant Voigt's wonderful poem "What I Remember of Larry's Dream of Yeats."

Levis' talk slowly metamorphoses from a scholarly essay on Heaney into almost a prose poem about Levis' messy apartment in (of all places to encounter Yeats) Salt Lake City, and tells the story of how Yeats comes back to retrieve a poem he'd forgotten: "He went quickly into the kitchen and emerged again with the work in his hand, and passing by me glanced at the new edition of his poems, the most complete and scholarly one available, open to a place where I had made a note in the margin, and he paused slightly and then said, 'What are you reading that for?' and looking straight at me said, 'Passion is the only thing that matters in poetry. As a matter of fact, it's the only thing that matters in life.'"

Anyway, that's what I was thinking of in the middle of 120 decibels of "Where the Streets Have No Name," how a poem can be about weeds on a driveway or Julius Caesar or the Iraq War or your sister washing her hair, as long as it has passion. Yes, I know this is very simplistic. I could argue against it myself, but it really is what I believe is true about poetry, going all the way back to Sappho (as translated by Anne Carson):

Eros shook my
mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees

Friday, April 08, 2005

What D'Ya Think?

I've always said I was going to publish my own poetry journal some time in the future. It's something I've wanted to do since I was editor of my high school literary magazine. I'd thought that I would wait until John and I moved someplace further North when we "retired," and we might also run a cafe gallery--possibly with the same name.

But I've been depressed about work, the whole corporate track, and discouraged about the possibilities of publishing the manuscript I have completed. I need something else to care about and work on--though time and money are short. And so I've decided to make that sometime sooner rather than later, to start working toward that goal now.

The magazine will contain poetry and b&w photography. (John will be photo editor, natch.) Of course our "press" will be digital. There's a lot to do and I've got a lot to learn. But first, we need a name.

I've been thinking about this for ages. It seems all the good names are taken. For godsakes, all the bad names are taken too! But last night I couldn't sleep and something came to me. I'll admit it's weird. But I'm hoping people will think about it and tell me what they think. [I'm not sure it's a good idea to solicit advice on names. I knew too many people who did that when they were expecting and people said, "Nah..." I always said, tell 'em after! 'Course when we told our families our son's name after he was born, they both told us what they thought anyway (negative!). Yes, both sides of the family agreed on that. Even so, I want to know what all of you think. The journal name: MARCO/POLO.

Yes, I know it doesn't even conjure up poetry or even art, but, well, let's hear what you think before I give my reasons. Or suggest something else to me. I'm not sold on it. I hope to get some comments from other bloggers here. Please.


Zack Rogow is among the nominees for the Northern California Book Awards. The awards ceremony will take place on Wednesday, April 13, 2005 at the Koret Auditorium of the Main Library in San Francisco from 6:00 to 8:00 pm (book signing 5:00 to 6:00 pm). Rogow was nominated in the translation category for his English version of Colette's novel, Green Wheat.

Alice in Wonderland Meets Ted Kooser

No, this is not about Terry Gross as Alice (although that would be an interesting idea), but I have been thinking about some comments people have made about Ted Kooser’s recent interview on NPR by Terry Gross. He seemed to press a lot of people’s buttons when he talked about the “accessibility” of his poems, as if he were implying in his humble tone that he’s the most accessible dog on the block and you’d better watch out. I didn't hear it that way myself—he seemed very genuine. I like his poems though I don't love them and I doubt they’ll ever make my Top 10 or even Top 40 list.

I think it was J.P. Dancing Bear who recently quoted Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” (“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves …”) as an example of what might be called the slithiness of accessibility. I thought Bear made an awfully good point that “Jabberwocky” is one of the most beloved poems in the world despite the fact that “the mome raths outgrabe” is not exactly a model of accessibility.

While Ted Kooser writes poems about subjects that are “common as dishwater” (one of his poems is called “Dishwater”), I don't think it’s true that “ordinary people” want to read only about dishwater. The Da Vinci Code, after all, may not be great literature, but it's chock full of incredibly esoteric (dare one say “academic”) details (and, OK, dead bodies), but just happens to have sold a gazillion copies. It asks readers not only to learn about Fibonacci numbers, the “golden ratio” (1.6180339, more or less), and the 12th century sect of the Cathars, but also to know what the hell a jacquard bathrobe is.

Well, my point is not that the world needs more poems like The Da Vinci Code, or even that any writer should care about what other people want to read. But “ordinary people” are interested in a lot more than dishwater!

And yet … I’m not sure what I want to say. Cheryl and I went back to Pennsylvania last year to spend Thanksgiving with her family, and we visited the site where Flight 93 went down on September 11. The National Park Service has to haul off truckloads of memorabilia for safekeeping in an undisclosed location because there are so many makeshift memorials of hardhats, stuffed animals, photographs, and flowers, and so many are taken by visitors as “souvenirs” if they’re not locked up.

To get to the site, you drive through a strip-mined landscape and small towns that may once have had a “healthy” economy from coal mining, and there’s something unbearable about the juxtaposition of the memorial and the strip-mined hills. I’m pretty sure I’m not capable of writing a poem that would capture that, and I have no idea whether Ted Kooser or, say, Lyn Hejinian would be more likely to be able to, but I sure wish someone would.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Back from AWP

I’m back from AWP and my memories are a blur of Vancouver rain. I vaguely remember walking down a path strewn with cherry blossoms and magnolia leaves in Stanley Park. I also remember the divine morning pastries at Sen5es. I’ve never found such literally melt-in-your-mouth croissants anywhere in San Francisco.

As far as poetry highlights, as I said, it’s all a blur, but I will say that Anne Carson’s reading was amazing. It ranged from new translations of Catullus to an oratorio “in the style of Gertrude Stein.” I think she has a new book coming out later this year (Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera), and I can’t wait. A couple other new books I recommend are Kevin Prufer’s Fallen From a Chariot, which I read on the flight back to San Francisco; Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, probably the best first book I’ve read in a long, long time; Brendan Galvin’s Habitat: New And Selected Poems, 1965-2005 (about time for a selected poems by Galvin!); and Enid Shomer’s Stars at Noon: Poems from the Life of Jacqueline Cochran. I haven’t read this last but definitely want to after hearing her read a couple of poems in Vancouver. And yes, I do notice that for some bizarre reason (based on my interest in Calvocoressi’s and Shomer’s books), my taste seems to be attracted to the aviatrix theme lately. Actually Kevin Prufer’s book also strangely fits with aviation. Galvin’s, however, is almost religiously earthbound.

The best parts of AWP are the serendipitous encounters, though, not the readings or books. I was chatting with some friends of friends in a loud bar on Friday night, and finally caught the name of one of them, Mary Cornish. Well … a couple of years ago when I had a chance to nominate some poems for a Pushcart Prize, there was one—only one!—poem I had read over the year that made such a strong impression on me that I nominated it, a poem I’d seen in New England Review, “Restoration” by Mary Cornish. I had had absolutely no idea who she was, and suddenly I found myself having dinner with her and her friends.

As one last memory, I’ll also mention W.S. Merwin, who read with Anne Carson. I think Merwin’s poems are inconsistent, but I found myself deeply moved by some of his poems. Maybe I’m a sentimental fool, but after he read “Search Party,” a poem about the disappearance and reappearance of his dog, I found myself trying to pretend that the tears in my eyes were from allergies. I’ll copy the poem below so you can see what you think. I’m stealing it from another website so I don’t promise it’s 100% accurate. It brings up the interesting question of whether it’s a better poem if you hear Merwin tell the dog story as he introduces it or if you read it on its own and have no idea who or what Maoli is.

Search Party

By now I know most of the faces
that will appear beside me as
long as there are still images
I know at last what I would choose
the next time if there ever was
a time again I know the days
that open in the dark like this
I do not know where Maoli is

I know the summer surfaces
of bodies and the tips of voices
like stars out of their distances
and where the music turns to noise
I know the bargains in the news
rules whole languages formulas
wisdom that I will never use
I do not know where Maoli is

I know whatever one may lose
somebody will be there who says
what it will be all right to miss
and what is verging on excess
I know the shadows of the house
routes that lead out to no traces
many of his empty places
I do not know where Maoli is

You that see now with your own eyes
all that there is as you suppose
though I could stare through broken glass
and show you where the morning goes
though I could follow to their close
the sparks of an exploding species
and see where the world ends in ice
I would not know where Maoli is

—W. S. Merwin

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Tuning up

We're still awaiting responses from many of you to join us here. In the meantime, yes, there are a lot of kinks to work out. I've even had some problem posting as myself!

I'd really like to encourage all of you to become team members. This is a great way to discuss books you love, to tell us when you've won a contest or had poems accepted, or just to complain and moan.