Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Poems I’m Sick and Tired of Reading

All the poems on How the Things in My Writing Space Symbolize My Life. You know the poems I mean: “As I write this poem I look at the dull blade of the letter opener, the postcard Brian sent me from Machu Picchu, and the snowflake of dried cat barf on my desk, and I realize that this simple collage symbolizes my entire life.”

A poem related to the “collage” poem and equally over-symbolic might be called the “tableau” poem: “As I walk through the park I look at a red-haired boy climbing the red steps of a slide, ketchup wrappers scattered like autumn leaves, and a robin in the shadow of an Exxon sign, and I realize that this scene captures the entire meaning of life.”

Yes, I’ve written poems like this myself, and I’ve read good ones. Still, I’m sick of them. What poems are YOU sick of?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Poets as Heroes (Not)

Some people have commented on Ira Sadoff’s recent essay in APR on William Stafford, believing that Sadoff crossed the line with some “mean-spirited” criticism (William Logan Lite) of Stafford’s poetry. What interests me is what we mean in general when we say that negative criticism “crosses the line.” I’d say we mean criticism that crosses over from criticizing the poem to criticizing the poet.

There’s nothing wrong with harsh, even viciously mocking, criticism of a poem. Hey, sometimes it’s fun! And you can learn something from making smart, nasty fun of John Ashbery or Sharon Olds or even Wallace Stevens or Yeats. After all, if you haven’t read Mark Twain’s hilarious and merciless skewering of James Fenimore Cooper, you haven’t lived. “Cooper hadn't any more invention than a horse; and I don’t mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes-horse.”

When criticism turns into ad hominem Swift Boat-style attacks on someone, though, that’s something else. Of course it’s a fine line, and critics probably shouldn’t self-censor themselves anymore than poets should. Twain pretty much said that Cooper was a total idiot, after all, and the world would be a poorer place if he hadn’t said it.

On the other hand . . . I think it’s crucial to maintain the line between the writing and the writer. How often we cross that line! How often we say, “What a courageous poem!” as if the poet were some sort of moral hero for writing it, and implying that so many other poets are cowards. And often when someone accuses a poem of sentimentality, they’re really accusing the poet of personal shallowness, not just having written a flawed poem.

I think it’s a mistake whenever critical judgments of writings turn into moral judgments of writers. Some of Emily Dickinson’s profoundest poems were turned into sentimental drivel by editors who unforgivably changed her punctuation or added a syllable to even out the rhythm. It proves how thin the line is between the profound and the sentimental.

Sometimes an embarrassingly sentimental poem can be revised into an electrifying poem by changing one word. The point is: the same person wrote the electrifying version and the sentimental one. You can’t go from judgment of the poem to judgment of the poet. For one thing, it makes poets too determined to write “courageous” poems, or “compassionate” poems, or “honest” poems, and they forget about just writing good poems.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Poetry made of Goose Liver...

First, I am thankful that Thanksgiving is over. My mom is no longer there for us to go to (John's mom is in Boston), and I cook. This year, John was really busy outside the house (well, someone's got to earn money, and I haven't been doing much of that lately). He did help me on Thursday with last-minute everythings, but mostly I did all the cleaning, shopping, cooking, and organizing. I brined the turkey, made two pies, a dozen-ingredient stuffing, and... well, everything but the cranberries and the sweet potatoes, which others brought. By the time everyone left, and we cleaned up and finally turned in at 1:00 this morning, I was so exhausted you could have mopped the floor with me, and I wouldn't have had the energy to protest.

Today is very quiet. I don't even mind doing more cleaning (but no cooking!) at my own pace. John and dog are gone to the studio, the rain has stopped, and it's a lovely fall day. I just had a small piece of leftover brie cheese (didn't get any yesterday), a toasted roll, and a big bowl of cold, cooked brussel sprouts (no competition there).

Oh yes, the title of the post. We were sitting around the fire drinking liqueurs, and I remembered I wanted to try Deborah Ager's suggestion of Exquisite Corpse. I got some resistance, but we did it twice, and while no memorable poetry resulted, everyone got a kick out of it--especially with one funny line about a lobster complaining about being put in a pot. But then we played the parlor game (I don't know the name) where a word that no one knows is picked from the dictionary, then the real definition is put in a hat along with each person's contribution of fake definition. The object is to guess the real definition and fool the others into believing your fake is it. Poetry must have been one everyone's mind, because one definition--pastry made of goose liver--was read, "poetry made of goose liver." Well, I s'pose you had to be there, but we laughed so hard it hurt....

So, it was a good Thanksgiving, and as I said, I'm glad it's over.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Friday, November 18, 2005

Long time, no post

Robert has posted, Beverly has posted, but it's been ages since you've heard from me. I realized that today when I invited someone to look at our blog here, and looked at it myself, this evening, with a stranger's eye, and realized there's no trace of me. Maybe an explanation is warranted.

I haven't been myself of late. I'm waiting to hear word on my manuscript (to give the plot line without the details), and what I wanted to do was post some hurrah here, some celebration, but it's been ages without word (two possibilities, no promises), and it could all go poof now or the next instant. And that's all I can say.

I do have ideas I want to post. I've been gestating this idea about subject, about the concept of what a poem is about. I've also got some responses to Charlies's posts about rejecting aesthetics--mostly terminology. But I can't think clearly, can't get beyond the idée fixée (and I hope the accent marks work on Blogger).

So anyway, i'm still here, if not wholly, at least in part. TTYL, as they say--soon?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Proust’s Wrinkle in Time

I promise this will be my last Proust post, but I can’t resist. Just look at this one sentence. Yes, it starts as an embarrassingly corny metaphor. What do you expect from a book called In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower? The adolescent narrator is infatuated with a “gang of girls” he meets at the seaside. But if you can get past the girls-as-flowers, past the ludicrous “having botanized among such young blossoms,” and keep going, it’s worth it. He’s watching the girls walk along the seashore with the ocean in the background:

For this present object [the girls] was the one I would have preferred above all, as I knew perfectly well, having botanized so much among such young blossoms, that it would be impossible to come upon a bouquet of rarer varieties than these buds, which, as I looked at them now, decorated the line of the water with their gentle stems, like a gardenful of Carolina roses edging a cliff top, where a whole stretch of ocean can fit between adjacent flowers, and a steamer is so slow to cover the flat blue line separating two stalks that an idling butterfly can loiter on a bloom that the ship’s hull has long since passed, and is so sure of being first to reach the next flower that it can delay its departure until the moment when, between the vessel’s bow and the nearest petal of the one toward which it is sailing, nothing remains but a tiny glowing gap of blue.

Love it or hate it, you’ve got to wonder: What is going on here? What begins as a dated (to put it kindly) image of girls as gentle rose stems suddenly, uh, blossoms into a convoluted image of an ocean liner and a butterfly. This is metaphor deliberately out of control: girls equal flowers, ship’s hull equals . . . what (aside from some phallic overtones)? And what does that “gap of blue” equal?

An image of girls on the beach turns into a meditation on the relativity of time and space and perspective and . . . what? One thing it suggests is that from a certain perspective an ocean liner and its world of power and commerce are nothing compared to a flower petal. Another is that someone who loiters moves faster than someone who steams full-speed ahead, and that a “tiny glowing gap of blue” is (from, let’s say, an artist’s perspective) all that separates two worlds that are light-years apart.

Doesn’t this remind you of A Wrinkle in Time? It’s as if Proust is learning to time-travel by crossing those wrinkles, going from a madeleine to his long-dead aunt, from an ocean liner to a rose, ultimately from the living to the dead and back, because something may survive death only if a cookie is as strong as the ocean. Somehow from the girls on the beach Proust moves to an almost abstract manifesto: “Nothing remains but a tiny glowing gap of blue.”

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Watching John Ashbery Write

I love the piece (subtitled above) by Larissa MacFarquhar in the current New Yorker on Ashbery. Here's a nice passage: "He's trying to cultivate a different kind of attention: not focussed, straight-ahead scrutiny but something more like a glance out of the corner of your eye that catches something bright and twitching that you then can't identify when you turn to look."

This is why I can't read Ashbery for a long stretch but like him in small doses. A whole book becomes numbing, unlike, say Charles Wright, where a book keeps building on itself to something huge. Ashbery's books (not that I've read many of them, maybe just a couple) are really collections of singular poems, and while the cumulative effect might force another kind of experience, it's not one I want to stay with long. Picking up one poem at a time though (at least certain ones, including two of the three in the New Yorker this week) is kind of a thrill.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Swimming In It

You know that paragraph on water from Joyce’s Ulysses?

What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire? . . . Its universality: . . . its imperturbability in lagoons and highland tarns: its gradation of colours in the torrid and temperate and frigid zones: its vehicular ramifications in continental lakecontained streams and confluent oceanflowing rivers . . . .”

And so on it flows for one glorious 500-word sentence. What do you call that? That moment in a poem or story where the writer has discovered a vein of ore and decided to mine it for a while, where a musician has discovered a riff and decided to swim in it for a while. It’s interesting because it’s controversial. When Joyce starts in with his list— “torrents, eddies, freshets, spates, groundswells”—part of you just wants to tell him to shut up: “OK, I get it! You could have stopped after the first couple words, and you certainly didn’t have to keep going with “geysers, cataracts, whirlpools, maelstroms . . . .”

Perhaps prose writers are more prone to this sort of indulgence (I think of it as characteristic of Salman Rushdie, for example), but at the same time—isn’t it almost the essence of what is meant by lyrical? Writing becomes lyrical at the moment when speech becomes song, and isn’t that the moment when we discover something worth repeating? Not an idea but a gesture, a rhythm, a pattern:

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there—and the beautiful curious liquid . . .

Isn’t repetition (with variation, of course) the essence of song, whether it’s Walt Whitman or the song of the indigo bunting: fire, fire; where? where? here, here; see it? see it? (Digression: you may think this is a crock, but check out this cool “transcription” of birdsongs by Tomm Lorenzin.)

I’ve been thinking about this because I think I’ve become way too afraid of repeating myself, way too cautious and embarrassed by this sort of self-indulgence. It’s interesting because it demands a lot of a reader. It demands something different from what a poem full of broken syntax or literary allusions demands, but it demands a sort of surrender and trust: No, this poem doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, or maybe I think I already know where it’s going and I’ve been there, but . . . maybe I don’t, and maybe the writer doesn’t know either. Maybe I wouldn’t have guessed that “hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides” would end in “faded flowerwater, stagnant pools in the waning moon.”

Friday, November 04, 2005

Chameleon in the Blogosphere

I just can’t keep up with all the arguments on poetics. Have you checked out the “three-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system” of poetics being discussed—and very perceptively, e.g., by Robert (no relation)—on various blogs? The three axes, by the way, are “tradition/innovation,” “self/community,” and, uh, “polemical/nonpolemical,” or something like that.

I find these arguments very interesting, but (interestingly) I can’t get very interested in taking a position. Perhaps this only proves I’m at the extreme of the nonpolemical axis. It does occur to me that a better name for that axis might be “negative capability/positive capability.” Maybe I’m just weak when it comes to standing up for my convictions, but I’d rather think I’m like Keats’ “chameleon poet,” as he said in one of his letters:

What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon Poet. . . . The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures. . . . It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact hat not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature – how can it, when I have no nature?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


Check out Nancy Taylor Everett’s poems from her “Juliet As Herself” series in the current Blackbird. Nancy is a member of our group although currently “on sabbatical.”

While you’re at Blackbird, also check out the feature on Larry Levis, one of my absolute favorite poets. I liked Tom Andrews’ moving and funny review, “The World as L. Found It,” of Levis’ Elegy, made more moving (and perhaps funnier, in a way Levis and Andrews would appreciate, I think) because Andrews, like Levis, died at a young age.

I was particularly interested in this statement by Andrews:

I’m thinking of John Koethe’s helpful essay on Ashbery, “The Metaphysical Subject of John Ashbery’s Poetry” (in David Lehman’s collection, Beyond Amazement). Koethe makes a distinction between poets who write out of a “‘voice,’ which basically amounts to a projection of a personality—either the poet’s actual personality or one he assumes” and those, like Ashbery, whose work “is informed by a nonpsychological conception of the self . . . .
This also reminds me of Beverly's comments below about poetry and psychology. I think it’s probably true that poetry is divided between poets whose work is profoundly psychological and poets whose work is based on “a nonpsychological conception of the self,” and that the two are so far apart they hardly speak the same language. That’s why some poets are so contemptuous of the “Poet looks at a daffodil (or a dune buggy) and has a shattering insight” type of poem: it’s because it’s psychological, so even if the insight really is shattering (and not a sentimental cliché), it still can never get beyond (from their point of view) the limitation of being psychological.

I don’t know if it’s possible ever to bridge this gap, but if anyone does bridge it, I think it’s Larry Levis. Andrews (whose essay is a lot funnier, in both senses, than I’m making it sound!) argues that Levis is, like Ashbery, on the nonpsychological side of the fence. I agree that Ashbery is, but it’s awfully hard to categorize Levis. Andrews quotes this wonderful passage (“Swollen with the eucharist of failure”!) from Levis’ “Elegy with an Angel at Its Gate.” It seems both psychological and nonpsychological, and beyond both:

We were never the color-blind grasses,

We were never the pattern of the snake
Fading into the pattern of the leaves,
Never the empty clarity one glimpses

In water falling, in water spreading itself
Into the thin white veil of what is never there,
The moment clear and empty as a heaven

Someone has just finished sweeping

Before the moment clouds over and again
Becomes only an endless falling of water
Onto stone, and falls roaring in the ears

Until they ring, and the throat suddenly
Swollen with the eucharist of failure,
A host invisible and present everywhere,

Or, anyway, present everywhere we are.