Thursday, January 26, 2006

Lucid Dreaming

This morning I looked at a letter I’d written to a friend almost five years ago. It’s amazing how the same issues about poetry keep coming back over and over. I could have written this yesterday:

I also think of “lucid dreaming”—you know, those dreams where you know you’re dreaming. Very occasionally I have had a very brief “lucid dream,” in which, for example, I might be walking down a path and then realize I’m dreaming and simultaneously realize I can stay in the dream if I try very hard to pay attention. I know if I just keep strolling down the path, I’ll wake up in a second, but if I look very closely at the shrubs at the edge of the path and the shapes of the clouds in the sky and so on, I will stay in the dream and it will in fact become more and more vivid . . .

The point is the analogy to poetry—paying intense attention to the sensual texture of the imagery so that it becomes more vivid and you enter into it—so that it becomes a story instead of just a vision, maybe not a story in the sense of a traditional narrative, but in the sense of an entered world, the sense of entry that results from commitment to an image, following it instead of just using it.

This idea of poetry that enters the world it imagines is still important to me. I don’t necessarily mean a fantasy world. It could be Harry Potter, but it could just as easily be a re-creation of the “real” world. It could simply by a lyrical wildflower. But I think there’s a difference between poetry that makes the commitment of entering its own world—whatever that world may be—and poetry that keeps its distance.

I don’t necessarily mean to criticize poetry that “keeps its distance.” It can have tremendous energy, freedom and spontaneity. It defends its freedom to visit multiple worlds, but I think that freedom is mental freedom. Your mind can go from San Francisco to Shanghai to the moon, but if you actually get into a space capsule and go to the moon, your body is stuck there.

I think there’s a kind of poetry that makes an equivalent commitment—an entering the body of the poem. Partly I’m talking about something pretty obvious. When Rowling creates the world of Harry Potter, she has to play by the rules of that world or else ruin the book, and in the same way Milton has to play by the rules of Paradise Lost—he can’t just interrupt the story of Adam eating the apple to tell the reader about a delicious apple tart he had the night before in a London pub, or start discussing the politics of Oliver Cromwell. But if he could—it might make a very different but very exciting poem! In a sense that’s what Ezra Pound does in the Cantos, and in fact I think much of modernism and postmodernism is all about holding onto that spontaneity, that freedom of mental movement.

Part of the attraction of that freedom, I think, is its honesty: it would be so refreshingly honest to hear Milton talk for once about his evening at the pub. But there’s also something lost in poetry where the consciousness is, well, flitting, and sometimes what’s lost is the sense of death. Once you commit yourself to the poem’s world, you immediately invite death in, too. It’s all Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz — when I died.” Even if there’s no narrative, once your body is in the room of the poem, there’s no escape.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Lorca Returns to New York

Standing the Whole World on Its Ear,” an article by Jeremy Eichler in today’s New York Times, makes me wish I could go to New York this afternoon to see Osvaldo Golijov’s new opera, Ainadamar, named for the “Fountain of Tears” near Granada where Federico García Lorca was killed in 1936. Interestingly, the main character in the opera is not Lorca, but Margarita Xirgu, the great Spanish actress for whose voice Lorca wrote some of the greatest roles in his plays.

The New York production was directed by Peter Sellars, and much of what Sellars says about it seems just as relevant to poetry as to music:

“The high energy in Bartok and Stravinsky’s music was this ethnic energy, a Jewish energy, a Gypsy energy, and it was precisely the energy that was literally exterminated in the death camps of Europe,” Mr. Sellars said. “It is what has been missing from most European music for a while. It’s that huge, unbearable melody of lament which is devastating and life-affirming at the same time. Which is, of course, a huge tradition of Jewish music, and which has been missing in action. Osvaldo has brought it back from Eastern Europe, through Israel, through Argentina. It is transformed but still wailing.”

Mr. Golijov speaks of the traditional synagogues he attended in Argentina and Jerusalem as a primary musical model, less for their liturgical melodies than for the churning energy he heard emerging from the semi-chaos of a restless congregation engaged in a thousand varieties of prayer. “You enter,” he said, “and somebody’s screaming, somebody’s mumbling, somebody’s meditating, and you don’t know how, but they suddenly start singing the same tune.”
I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as an exciting image of what poetry could be.

[Later attempt at clarification:] What really interests me is the idea that a lot of avant-garde music and poetry has a bloodless, cerebral quality, and Sellars' connecting that to the actual shedding of blood and persecution of Jews and other minorities in the 20th century—in effect that fascism had a destructive impact on the arts that the arts have yet to fully recover from, and the destructive impact is seen in the arts' being overly cerebral, not yet able to be fully human again, not yet able to scream and mumble and meditate and sing all at once.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Old poems

It's high time I said something on this blog. Here we are, well into the new year. Been working out again, trying to work off the holidays. Been looking for a job. Hah! Not much luck there, and the unemployment due to run out....

Been working on Demimonde again, though Lord knows I'd like to be done with it. Didn't do too much to it besides adding three bright and shiny poems and removing two oldies. There was nothing "wrong" with the ones I removed. One was actually a prize winning poem once (in 1992). But I'm sensitive to the possibility that it and the other may seem dated or seem to come out of a different sensibility from the [newer] others. I mean, I'm glad I'm not writing the same things or in the same ways I wrote ten, fifteen years ago. But if they were really good poems, would they have "held up"?

I'm interested in this question in a larger context as well. I've set myself a crazy task for 2006--not quite a resolution, more like an outlandish hope, like those held by runners who do ultramarathons in Death Valley: If I don't die in the process, I will arrive at the end a changed person. The task is to read through my poetry books, four shelves, from A-Z, about eight or ten linear feet. So far, I've read Atwood and most of Auden (Selected Poetry). For all the good stuff in these books, I have to say that there is much that does seem dated. I liked the Atwood more than I thought I would, but there was no doubt it was written in the 1970s: lots of bone, muscle, stone, earth words, and just a different feel. The Auden (this is a Modern Library edition, first published in 1933) is of course even more dated. There are the wonderful standards: "Musee des Beaux Arts," "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," others. There's the strange, huge, poem-essay, "Caliban to his Audience,"--with its sentences that go on for ages, that, in itself, seems impossibly dated to my attention-deficit mind. And there are poems like this one, picked randomly (I'll quote the first of four stanzas), called "Rimbaud."

The nights, the railway-arches, the bad sky
His horrible companions did not know it,
But in that child the rhetorician's lie
Burst like a pipe: the cold had made a poet.

My point is not that it's good or bad, but that its sensibility seems dated. Or that's the question I'd like to pose, anyway. Comments?

Addendum: BTW, I know it will seem odd to many of you that I don't have any Ammons or Ashbery, but I just don't....

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Refusing Heaven

I read Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven over the weekend. The book came out a year ago and you may remember blog talk about the poem with the woman wiping barbecued chicken grease on her breasts. It’s an understatement to say Gilbert is controversial. He represents everything the “post-avant” despise in poetry, and everything the “romantics” wish that poetry would return to being—poetry’s “true business.”

Most of the reviews I read on Refusing Heaven took one side or another in this controversy. Unfortunately, this does not tell us very much about the poetry itself. I am tired of reviews that point out the differences between, say, Jack Gilbert and John Ashbery, and then take sides. This is no way to shed light! What’s enlightening is to point out the differences between a good Gilbert poem and a bad one, a good Ashbery poem and a bad one.

I loved Gilbert’s 1994 book The Great Fires, even though I am not generally in love with that “type” of poetry. Often Gilbert is too direct and “sincere” for my more decadent taste. I have little patience for lines like “The man slices / tomatoes and lemons. Takes out the fish / and scrambles eggs,” and am similarly impatient with abstract generalities like (opening the book at random) “Grief makes the heart / apparent as much as sudden happiness can.”

Nevertheless, anyone who doesn’t recognize the greatness of The Great Fires seems stubbornly blind to me. Gilbert reminds me of Hemingway more than anyone else, and of course a lot of us are tired of that sort of writing, but like Hemingway, Gilbert’s best work has an undeniable greatness. Read “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” and other poems on Scoplaw’s blog.

So why was I so disappointed by Refusing Heaven? I like the opening poem, “A Brief for the Defense,” very much. But the book pretty much went downhill from there for me. Perhaps the concrete and the abstract don’t come together the way they do in the earlier book. So many of the poems end in abstractions that don’t quite work: “The soul is ambitious / for what is invisible. Hungers for a sacrament / that is both spirit and flesh. And neither.” There is also the question of Gilbert’s attitude toward women, which some readers find offensive partly because of his excessive “romanticization” of women. I am about as romantic as anyone can be, but I do cringe when a line begins “The reason we cannot enter the same woman twice is . . . .”

Still, there are lines I love in Refusing Heaven, and some of the best are about Pittsburgh, as in “A Taste for Grit and Whatever”:

. . . Is it because
Pittsburgh is still tangled in him that he
has the picture on his wall of God’s head
torn apart by jungle roots? Maybe
growing up in that brutal city left him
with a taste for grit and whatever it was
he saw in the titanic rusting steels mills.

Gilbert makes great discriminations, like “the quiet that is the music of that place, / which is the difference between silence and windlessness” from “Music Is in the Piano Only When It Is Played.” But while there are wonderful lines, it’s hard to find wonderful poems in this book. The poem about Pittsburgh, for example, goes on to a conclusion that I just don’t find credible: “Why the erotic matters so much. Not as / pleasure but a way to get to something darker.” One could come up with a dozen adjectives to describe Gilbert’s poetry, and they would apply equally to Refusing Heaven and The Great Fires. I find it fascinating that poems so alike in their style and form and voice can be so different in quality.

Gotta go: Y Tu Mamá También is on TV and I feel a need to see something great.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Invitation to comment

I just want y'all to know that you are welcome to comment here. Apparently, our comments were set to allow team members only. I don't know how they got that way. I'm sure I would not have done that , and I'm pretty sure Robert would not have done that, and we're the only ones on this blog who have administration rights, so... it's a mystery.

However, hopefully it's changed so that anyone (using word verification) can comment, and I hope you will--especially on some of those pithy posts Robert has written lately.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Strange Case

I enjoyed Wendy Lesser’s review of Julian Barnes’ new novel, Arthur & George, today on Slate, “The Strange Case of Julian Barnes.” Before you read it, be warned that, as Lesser warns at the start, it gives away what happens in the novel. This blog, however, contains no spoilers, as I’m not even going to talk about the book, which I haven’t read. In fact I haven’t read any of Julian Barnes’ books, though the review certainly got me interested.

What really interests me is Lesser’s belief that in Arthur & George Barnes finally found a subject matter to suit his talents. I think this search for the right subject is something we poets hardly ever talk about, maybe hardly ever think about, in our own work or others’, but it seems crucial to writing good poems. Lesser puts it this way:

Not until now, it seems, has Barnes had a subject that allowed him to maintain exactly the right distance—neither too close nor too far, neither helplessly indignant nor cowed by admiration, neither mired in the plot nor caddishly manipulating the heartstrings of his characters. Flaubert, perhaps, was too chilly a model for him [in Flaubert’s Parrot], and too grand a one. He needed somebody he could stand up to—someone whose thought processes he could reasonably hope to emulate and maybe even outdo. He needed a figure who cared, as he evidently does, for logic, order, and structure. He needed someone who was both English and not-English, because one of Barnes’ constant strengths, especially in his nonfiction, has been the ability to see England from the outside. And he needed at least one character whose inner life he could hope, respectfully, to convey.

Instead he got two, Arthur and George. Their solid reality gave him grounds for respect; their placement in time gave him the necessary distance; and their eccentric combination of merits and shortcomings (different merits and shortcomings in each case) gave him the room he needed in which to create believable characters.
I don’t think Lesser is saying that writers in general need characters sufficiently distant in time from themselves, with sufficient eccentricities, etc. She’s saying this is what Barnes needs. I think the most important skill for poets to learn may be how to pick a subject that suits their temperaments. (Yes, I realize the whole notion of “subject” is suspect, and maybe what some writers need is to avoid any subject.) Maybe John Ashbery needs to write about Daffy Duck and Kim Addonizio needs to write about “the Guerra brothers slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly.” It seems almost impossible to save a poem if you’ve picked the wrong subject, but it’s so hard to know what you need. Do you need a subject that’s very close to the bone (your bones) or far away—or exactly where in the middle? Do you need a character who loves logic and structure (like Barnes), or just the opposite?

Monday, January 02, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

No, I haven’t seen the movie yet—I’m one of those people who almost always waits for a film to come out on DVD. But all the talk about the film inspired me to go back and reread the original story, Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” from Close Range: Wyoming Stories. What a great book! What a great set of stories, from the opening “Half-Skinned Steer” all the way to “Brokeback Mountain.” Well, maybe a couple of the stories in the middle go a bit over-the-top, a bit too far into the melodramatic “gruesome things that happen in bad weather” genre, but Proulx is such a great writer.

Occasionally when I get discouraged in my “Why doesn’t anyone read poetry?” mode, the possibility crosses my mind for a disturbing half second that maybe it’s because we poets are all a bunch of lazy sons of bitches who just don’t work hard enough at what we do and don’t write very well. What contemporary American poet writes half as well—as poetically—as Annie Proulx? And I could name a dozen other fiction writers. As the judge said about obscenity, I can’t define it but I know it when I see it. Maybe I can’t define good writing but I know it when I read it, and “Brokeback Mountain” is it. It’s poetry.