Monday, May 29, 2006

The Poetic Idea

Recently I reread Cavafy’s poem “Darius.” I love this poem! I think of Cavafy as writing two kinds of poems: brief erotic lyrics and longer historical poems, the historical poems often written in persona. A handful of his poems combine the two impulses in historical love poems, and they are probably my favorite. “Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340” might be my favorite Cavafy poem.

I’ve been thinking about why I love these poems so much, partly because I feel a strong interest myself in writing this sort of historical persona poem. I think what attracts me is the enormous field these poems give imagination to work (or play) in. I love the wheels within wheels of imagination conjured when Cavafy imagines a Persian poet in turn struggling (in the midst of a war) to imagine what the subject of his poem, the king Darius, must have felt as his own kingdom was threatened:

But in all his turmoil and trouble,
the poetic idea too comes and goes persistently—
the most probable, surely, is arrogance and drunkenness;
Darius must have felt arrogance and drunkenness.

I don’t know Greek so I can’t judge the accuracy of the translation. Perhaps the poem simply says that even in a time of turmoil, the poet keeps coming back to thoughts of his poem. But the phrase the poetic idea feels so right! This struggle to imagine what someone else is feeling inside their skin (“the most probable, surely, is arrogance and drunkenness . . .”) feels so central to poetry that it seems right to call it “the poetic idea,” the very idea of poetry itself.

One contemporary poet who often does this is Norman Dubie. One of my favorite poems by Dubie is “The Fox Who Watched for the Midnight Sun,” where, as in Cavafy, Dubie imagines a writer, Henrik Ibsen, in turn imagining what his characters must feel:

Ibsen had written earlier of an emotional girl
With sunburnt shoulders,
Her surprise when the heavy dipper came up
From the well with frogs’ eggs bobbing in her water . . .

Also as in Cavafy, some of the most powerful moments in Dubie come when he shifts back and forth between imagining Ibsen’s imagination and imagining Ibsen’s real life:

Inside the parlor Ibsen writes of a summer garden, of a
Butterfly sunken inside the blossoming tulip.
He describes the snapdragon with its little sconce of dew.
He moves from the desk to a window. Remembers his studies
In medicine, picturing the sticky
Overlapping eyelids of drowned children . . .

This feels so much like the movement in “Darius”:

The poet contemplates the matter deeply.
But he is interrupted by his servant who enters
running, and announces the portentous news.
The war with the Romans has begun.

As Cavafy imagines Phernazis imagining Darius’ drunkenness, I imagine Cavafy drunk on his own imagination.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Letter to the Editor

I got my May issue of Poetry in today’s mail (why not until May 27?) and just wanted to mention—in case anyone happened to read my letter to the editor—that the reason my letter is so insipid is that the editors took my brilliantly triple-edged, three-paragraph letter and cut it down to one blunt-edged paragraph that I guess makes someone’s point but not quite mine. Granted, my letter needed some editing, but why did they take out all the good parts?

Maybe this is why I write poetry. It's almost impossible to get poetry published and no one reads it when you do, but at least no editor would think of deleting two-thirds of your poem and publishing it like that without even asking you.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Poetry course PR

This is an unabashed publicity piece (desperate plea) for my poetry course. It's just three evenings in June at Ft. Mason. I'm expecting the course to find its own level--if it's all beginners, the course will be geared to beginners. If I get students who have been writing for some time, we can move into a higher gear.

But whether you, yourself, are interested or not, if you live in the SF Bay Area, please spread the word for me. If I do not get at least ten enrollees, there will be no class. So please download my flyer and post it where you work or play. Thanks!



Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Happy to be back

Yes, I was away. We left at the crack of dawn on Friday and came back late last night, in time to wish our son Happy 24th Birthday for one hour--before we would have had to have waited for #25. Greta G., pooch in residence, was ecstatic upon our return. She shed so much fur around the house (stress? just because?) you would have thought she would be naked, but actually there was still quite a bit on her scruffy self. I've been taking breaks from work (I have to, to stay awake) and walking about picking up the clumps of the stuff. Haven't I just made it sound attractive in case I ever need someone out there to dogsit?

Back East was okay (Belmont, Mass.), but going away just makes me glad to come home to California. I know people will throw things at me for saying this, but people are just nicer here. Coffee is better. You can find places to go for a walk--paths, sidewalks. To be fair, the motel was in an area of mostly biotech companies, and I did find a nice bike path to walk on, at least by the time I had to head back, but mostly cars ruled. I have to say that the area was gorgeous--everything in bloom: lilacs, dogwood, azalea... The wedding--did I mention we went back for a family wedding?--was in an Audubon sanctuary, which was stunning. How do birds know to come to the sanctuary? Don't know, but I tell you the word was out. Those birds were singing, chirping, shouting out to each other. They were only overpowered, during the ceremony on Sunday, by the thunder. Still, the rain held off during the couple's vows (and no one missed the minister's homily). It was lovely. I was the matron of honor, a first for me, and I kind of got a kick out of it despite looking (I thought) like a shiny midnight blue sausage in my dress. I had midnight blue satin three-inch strappy heels on too, and by the end of the day I was nearly in tears from the pain. Back at the motel, the power was out, so I unstrapped them and wriggled out of my dress in the dark.

It was a third wedding for her, a second for him. Altogether six grown-up children of the bride and groom.

Came back to an "I am sorry" letter regarding the Bread Loaf Scholarship. Although my vanity was warmed by (another!) finalist status and having made it to the final round, that fact doesn't do much for me. Still, it's just as well. With another two trips Back East already planned in the next few months, I could hardly have afforded the room and board or airfare if I had got in. Just bitter about what it takes to make it these days. I guess there's nothing special about me, or not enough buzz, or something.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Clouds of Magellan

Ten excerpts from “The Clouds of Magellan (Aphorisms of Mr. Canon Aspirin)” by Norman Dubie:

The four terrific agents of movement are earth, air, metaphor, and water.

Job suffered from having two prime suspects. Nietzsche was of unsound mind and obedient to the point of rebellion. Samuel Beckett, the most elegant of them all, couldn’t phrase the indictment. The only successful prosecution of God was conducted during the war years by Emily Dickinson of Amherst, Massachusetts. She was not seeking a higher office.

Immediately after war, people have little tolerance for symbols.

Trilogy and Four Quartets are great poems. But if they were boats, they would not have carried a single living soul back from Dunkirk.

That lovely Auden wore bedroom slippers on the subway.

Auden mused that the unreal was unanswerable or just absurd. But he conceded that a poem must be more interesting than anything anyone might say about it.

When Orson Welles made his first wine commercial, I realized Falstaff would have found our country cruel and intolerable.

The last evening of the Empire is devoted to gossip, not poetry.

The Sioux buried their dead in the sky? This too was realism.

Both of these men [Proust and Joyce] are sacred and dead. They fucked with time, is their epitaph.
These are from a 35-page prose poem and I have taken them horribly out of context. Forgive me. They were delicious / so sweet / and so cold.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Strange Days

A thick white contrail above, splitting the dome of the sky into two hemispheres. Next to it, its negative or shadow, so that the white streak looks cut out of the paleness of blue.

While awful, outrageous things proceed at such a pace in the world that one turns away from the news, disturbing changes are happening at the local level. Just the other day, it was announced that Clear Well-Lighted Place for Books on Van Ness was closing. (It was at this very good bookstore that I met C. Dale when he had a reading of young writers published in NER.) More recently, the owners of Cody's on Telegraph in Berkeley announced that it would close. And Poetry Flash, announced that its illustrious reading series held there--Robert Thomas, Beverly Burch, Zack Rogow, C. Dale Young and many, many well known writers have read there--would end on June 4, 2006. (I loved to stare during the readings at the portraits that ringed the room.)

Okay, times change. Where did you buy the last book you purchased? At an independent store or Amazon?

I've picked up a contract for some tech writing that will keep me busy through June. More details about this later.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Isosceles Koan

When Beverly and I gave a reading last week, someone asked me afterward what had made me want to write a long (almost 20-page) poem about an early 20th century Czech composer, Leoš Janáček. I made a rather lame response about how powerfully Janáček’s music had affected me, but the question got me thinking.

The poem is really about a romantic (if—possibly—platonic) triangle Janáček was involved in during the last several years of his life. On the one hand, the question of what inspired me to write the poem implies that while these characters interested me enough to write the poem, that interest didn’t come through for at least one listener. On the other hand, I’m tempted to ask in response, “What didn’t interest you?” From Helen of Troy to Antony and Cleopatra to Anna Karenina to, well, Brokeback Mountain, “triangles” have always been one of the most compelling themes in art.

The only question is why the subject is so compelling, and the answer I come up with is that everyone on earth can relate to the feeling of being torn in two different directions. We’re not all torn between two different loves, and in fact many people find that a self-indulgent form of soap opera. While I’m not ready to dismiss Anna Karenina as high-brow soap opera, there are people who would.

But we’re all torn in two. Maybe it’s between working on a poem and taking our kids to the park, or between political action and weeding our garden, or between spending time with a friend and paying the rent—often, in the largest sense, between love and work. Even though romantic triangles may be a particularly self-indulgent form of conflict, I think in art they become a metaphor for all these larger conflicts in our lives.

The value of focusing on romantic triangles in art is that they are particularly hard to gloss over. We probably spend most of our lives in denial when it comes to the other conflicts in our lives, convincing ourselves we have resolved them. We’ve found a balance point that works. Our kids understand that we go into our room every Saturday morning to write but will emerge on Saturday afternoon to be with them. Or our whole family marches against the war and, voila! no conflict between politics and family.

The thing about a love triangle is that, like a Zen koan, it is absolutely impossible to resolve. It doesn’t allow you to relax in the complacent illusion that you’re in control of your life and know what you’re doing. And if you do relax in that illusion, one of the other people involved, like a good editor, can be counted on to force you to cut the crap. No, I’m not recommending triangles as a way of life, but I do think they’ve been a compelling subject for poetry for thousands of years because they’re a crucible that forces painful truths into the light.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Shaman: Hawk or Duck?

I enjoyed Charles Harper Webb’s essay, “The Pleasure of Their Company,” in the Spring 2006 Cortland Review. He says the three qualities central to good poetry are wit, passion, and impropriety, and while passion may be self-explanatory, he defines wit as “quickness of perception, ingenuity, keen intelligence,” and impropriety as “unsettling truths.” I must admit I find it refreshing simply to hear someone talk about qualities this fundamental, rather than people always talking about techniques like rhythm, syntax, and line breaks. I mean I’m as interested in phanopoeia and melopoeia as the next person, but Webb at least tries to keep his eyes on the prize. (Yes, I know this use of “eyes on the prize” may be almost as unconsciously ironic as CNN News’ latest slogan, “Keeping Them Honest.”) But here are a handful of quotes from the article:

More than one poet whose voice is lively and engaging in conversation [and in blogs?] lapses into dull anonymity when the poems begin.

The success and proliferation of dull poetry is at least partly due to the tendency to second-guess and override one’s “gut” response to voice. [I think this is true, despite the fact that it also parodies Stephen Colbert’s great parody of Bush.]

Psychological blind spots—for instance, lack of insight into other people—show up as blind spots in poetry. A man’s unresolved anger toward women may show itself in poorly drawn, stereotyped female characters.

Poets too impressed by what has been written before will repeat it in inferior form. Poets who hate the past too much will write nothing that lasts.

Poets who want to be shamans will sound like quacks.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

How 'Bout

A musical interlude: generals,
mustachioed, tipping their hats
look stage left and then the piano
starts with something uplifting
old-timey Oh Susanna Oh
now the backup singers
look to you for their cue
and regroup — natty, colorful,
coordinated, like the generals,
like a counter of folded T-shirts
at the Gap and when the curtain
falls, when the curtain falls when
the curtain drops you exit
vaguely exhilarated, humming.

Have you seen this? Not musical, but exhilarating:


Have applied for a too-good-to-be-true job, but I want it to be (true).