Thursday, March 30, 2006

Summertime / Workshop

I've been trying for a long time to get a teaching gig, but run into the Catch-22 that I don't have experience teaching. Well, so, life is hard and then you die. But finally, it seems, I've got a break. I will be teaching three (count 'em) sessions with City College Continuing Education on Thursdays in June at Fort Mason. I was so excited by this, I forgot to even ask if I'll be paid for it. (I assume I'll be paid something, though.)

I'll post more details as the date nears, but please, if you live in the City or Bay Area, spread the word. If you know people of any age who want a basic Poetry Workshop experience, this will be a welcoming, informative, non-intimidating place for them to start.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Bishop / Birthday

The Bight
[On my birthday]

At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn't wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.
The little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock
already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves.
The birds are outsize. Pelicans crash
into this peculiar gas unnecessarily hard,
it seems to me, like pickaxes,
rarely coming up with anything to show for it,
and going off with humorous elbowings.
Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar
on impalpable drafts
and open their tails like scissors on the curves
or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.
The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers,
bristling with jackstraw gaffs and hooks
and decorated with bobbles of sponges.
There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock
where, glinting like little plowshares,
the blue-gray shark tails are hung up to dry
for the Chinese-restaurant trade.
Some of the little boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

--Elizabeth Bishop

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Fear of the Sticky Web

I’ve been absent from the blog for a while. Blame it on a backache and a foot-ache. I’ve been reading Tony Hoagland’s essay in the March issue of Poetry, “Fear of Narrative and Our Skittery Poem of the Moment.”

I don’t think of myself as a narrative poet, but Hoagland talks about narrative as just one example of the “poetries of continuity.” More strikingly, he talks about poems that keep narrative “at arm’s length, without being caught in its sticky web,” and about “a claustrophobic fear of submersion or enclosure” and “the sweaty enclosures of subject matter.”

This seems exactly right to me, and it’s what I’ve tried to talk about in some earlier posts, where I’ve talked about poems that have a sense of an “entered” world, and their connection to mortality. This all comes together for me in Lynn Emanuel’s stunning poem “The Burial.” Even if you think what I’m saying is ridiculous, read this poem. It may be the only poem I can think of that combines the two kinds of poetry, beginning in distance and manic association (“it burns like fire on amphetamines,” in its own words) and ending in confrontation with the ultimate claustrophobia: the poet burying her father in “the cold, dark, closed places,” shoveling dirt on his casket.

Hoagland talks about poems that have a “passive-aggressive relation to meaning,” and quotes Czeslaw Milosz: “a poet discovers a secret, namely that he can be faithful to real things only by arranging them hierarchically.” That is a very curious thing to say! I think most poets, for that matter most people with any political awareness, are deeply suspicious of hierarchical arrangements of anything.

Hoagland talks about poets’ “ambivalent relation to knowledge,” and I would add an ambivalent relation to power. Most of us are deeply ambivalent about power, the possession of power, the exercise of power, and poets are particularly ambivalent about the power of language. Is using language in a “powerful” way inherently oppressive?

The issue of power divides our whole society. Is gun control a solution to violence, or is the solution that good guys need more guns to fight bad guys? Any thinking person is suspicious of solutions that depend on the exercise of power by one group over another.

But when it comes to language, and the power that writers exercise over readers, I don’t see any other way. The civil rights movement wouldn’t have gotten very far if Martin Luther King had said, “A have dream I” and congratulated himself for breaking the back of oppressive syntax. Abandoning the use of powerful language as politically incorrect doesn’t “liberate” the reader—it just bores the reader. I think this is what Milosz means when he says that a poet “can be faithful to real things only by arranging them hierarchically.” Poems need to weave a sticky web to catch the reader, not leave the reader free. Readers want to be stuck in the poem’s web.

Monday, March 13, 2006


I was interested in this article from the Guardian on “divine inspiration.” What struck me was this quote from T.S. Eliot:

“If the word ‘inspiration’ is to have any meaning,” TS Eliot wrote, “it must mean just this, that the speaker or writer is uttering something that he does not wholly understand—or which he may even misinterpret when the inspiration has departed from him.”

I think most people would agree, or at least pay lip service to that idea, but it’s a weirder definition of inspiration than it seems at first . Usually when people think of inspiration, they think of an “Aha! experience.” For example (SPOILER WARNING), when David Chase wracks his brain to figure out how to end the first episode of The Sopranos, he must go “Aha!” when he gets the inspiration of Tony being shot by his own uncle. Once the inspiration comes, it immediately feels right. This is typically what inspiration means to scientists and detectives and cooks (“What shall I serve tonight? I’ve got it—goat curry!”) and, yes, poets.

When Shakespeare ends King Lear with Lear’s heartbreaking “We will sing like birds in the cage . . . ,” or has Lady Macbeth say “unsex me here,” it’s inspired but he understood what he was saying, didn’t he? When Dickinson imagines a fly buzzing around her deathbed, it’s inspired but comprehensible. Usually we imagine inspiration as the cliché light bulb. Suddenly we know what panel to press to open the secret door in the Temple of Doom. Eliot’s idea of inspiration that in effect leaves us in the dark is a pretty radical idea!

I’m exaggerating to make my point. Inspiration typically happens somewhere between light and darkness, in the shadowy realm of the inspired “hunch.” But poets vary widely in how far they want their reach to extend beyond their grasp, their words beyond their understanding. If it’s too far beyond, all criteria are lost. We haven’t found the secret door, but who cares? We can write “cackling sinecures behold local rumors of Arnold” and call it inspired. Why not? Maybe it is, if inspiration is by definition beyond your ability to know whether or not it’s inspired.

But genuine inspiration feels utterly right and mysterious at the same time. As someone said, it would not even have occurred to any other actor in the world to make the choices Marlon Brando does in the “contender” scene in On the Waterfront (the radical gentleness, for example, with which he pushes aside Rod Steiger’s gun), yet it feels utterly natural.

As far as how this relates to my own writing, well, I wrote “Sleepwalker,” the poem Diane links below, years ago, but I swear it was only when I reread it a couple days ago that I realized it could be about a man discovering his wife’s infidelity (“One night I found you pumping / from the neighbors’ well . . .”). You learn something new every day—especially in the dark!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Check Out Poetry Daily Today!

Go to Poetry Daily. Robert's got a poem there from his new book!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Snowboarding in San Francisco

For about ten minutes this evening, following violent thunder and lightning, hail came down, peppering against the windows like rocks. When it was over, the neighborhood was entirely white. Now you have to understand I live on a VERY steep hill. It was incredible. Kids came out like it was Fourth of July and New Year's and everything rolled all together. Of course cars couldn't come up. People could barely walk up. Boogie boards and snowboards appeared. One guy went the full length at least six times. I'm no photographer, but John caught the tail end of the action as he and the pooch trudged up the hill. This is the way it looked when it already had started to melt.

Right to Privacy

An interesting post by Josh suggests that there are three types of poetry: (A) social formalism (“critical, antimetaphysical, constructivist, and politically engaged”), (B) the private-romantic (“the poem as guarantee of some minimal subjectivity (legroom in coach)”), and (C) the metaphysical-romantic (“It has the highest ambitions for poetry within the private-spiritual sphere to which poetry has traditionally been allocated (whereas Poetry A seeks to explode or implode that sphere)”). As suggested by Josh’s “legroom in coach” aside, he finds it hard to take B seriously.

What strikes me is how crucial the issue of privacy has become in our lives—in so many areas. In the political arena, progressives are often the defenders of privacy, both on issues like the Patriot Act and wiretapping and, of course, abortion. The existence of a Constitutional right to privacy has become a central doctrine of the left, and it’s ironic that, as Josh says, the effort to “explode or implode” the private sphere has become a central goal of some of the most “politically engaged” artists. It also is interesting to note that “the earliest recognition of the concept of privacy is in the Muslim religion. . . . ‘In Islam the law is God-given and the right of privacy is a sacred right’” (OK, that's according to Wikipedia).

As one of those people—one of those poets—who feels “continual outrage” (as Josh says) at the attacks on privacy by self-righteous preachers (whether religious, political, or literary), I am fascinated by America’s love-hate relationship with privacy. It goes back for hundreds of years: the Puritans demanded communal, public confession (think of the witch hunts, both literal and figurative, conducted by extremists of both the right and the left throughout history), while the American founders were determined to protect privacy (and, not incidentally, private property).

Artistic privacy needs to be protected as much as political privacy, even though it’s dangerous. Just as freedom of speech protects offensive speech as well as enlightened, defense of the private sphere in art inevitably protects the sort of “fiddling while Rome burns” poetry (or perhaps “sipping my latte on a snowy evening” poetry or, as Josh nicely puts it, “culinary” poetry) that reduces privacy to self-indulgence, as well as makes possible the genuinely sublime that can only emerge from privacy.

Monday, March 06, 2006

My final answer

I haven't completed the application yet, and it may take a few days. Tomorrow is a physical therapy appointment and a job interview (production editor, but something). But here is my essay about my four (and more) lessons. See below for what this is all about. Essay:

If I could teach my students only four things during the semester, I would teach them to read as if their lives depended on it, that they cannot know everything, but can learn how to find what they need to know, that writing is a way of thinking, and that the right word matters.

To read as if one’s life depends on it would be my first real lesson because I think it is key to everything. Unlike some teachers, I don't think that reading need be instructional, politically correct, or of high quality to have the desired effect — to open up the world for the student to its full 360°. I think the beginning student should read everything he or she can get their hands on, that, like panning for gold, the good stuff will sort itself out, and that as the student continues to read, she or he will be drawn to exactly what she or he needs. (However, I have very strong opinions about what I think is good literature, and I can tailor a reading list to the individual, to help a student find books that will stimulate and make him or her want more.)

The quantity of information that exists in this Information Age is daunting. Sophocles didn’t have this problem, nor did Shakespeare. Beginning students in the 21st century need to learn how to use the Internet and libraries (both!) to discern for themselves what is information and what is opinion, what is fact and what is fiction, what they need and what they don’t.

Writing is thinking. It requires sorting and ordering information. It isn’t easy. To get from the beginning of a sentence to its end requires using gray matter that for most American students is flabby and slack. But writing does not have to be intimidating, with word processors as allies. Getting something (anything) down on the page is the best way to start. And then you edit.

My fourth lesson, that the right word matters, is a lesson in precision. Whether writing an essay or a technical paper, I want my students to learn to focus their writing like a lens on what they are trying to persuade or explain or illustrate. If they are writing a poem, it should be equally important to get the precise word in the precise place. Don’t say nails when you mean screws, pants when you mean jeans. I think that it is important to care to get it right, that it matters that it matters.

The above are my four lessons. But I would also teach my students that life doesn’t have an undo button, that one person can make a difference, that they must love themselves before another can love them, and that a paragraph does not have to have five sentences. These last four lessons would only be to equalize the effect of high school and Hollywood and give us a good place to start.

Wish I were going to Austin.

If you can (I can't) and are anywhere near Healdsburg, in Sonoma County, California, go hear Robert read! You'll be glad you did.


Friday, March 03, 2006

Cheating (sort of)

As some of you know, I’m trying to find work, having been laid off from a technical writing job last summer. I’m still looking in the high tech field, but I’ve been trying to find work in teaching and publishing as well.

Today, a community college near me posted the following ad for an English instructor on Craigslist.

Include with your application an essay (500-750 words) on the topic:

The College of San Mateo offers two developmental courses below transfer level. Imagine that you are teaching the lower of these two courses. If you could teach your students only four things in this course during the semester, what would they be? Explain your rationale.

I love the idea of this, and it may be a way to get around the fact that I don’t have years of experience as a teacher.

I’m asking for your help to come up with the four things I would want my students to learn. I can think of two right off the top of my head:

  • You can’t know everything, but you can learn how to find what you need to know.
  • Precision is key to the best writing, from technical writing to poetry.

So what were some of the things you wish someone had taught you in your early years in college? Remember, this is a developmental English class. No idea too far out or silly to consider….