Sunday, December 30, 2007

End of day / End of year

Last of the winter light here in the living room, John and I sitting on the sofa, reading our Christmas books -- mine, Di Piero's Chinese Apples , John going though Salgado's Africa. I like Di Piero for his combination toughness and vulnerability, his originality, the tighness of his lines. John loves Salgado's photographs but says this one is a hard book to browse through, "rips your heart out." He stops to show me this one, and this one. "Look at that; nobody can match him; he's the best there is." The dog is lying between us, old girl, snoring/purring away. She loves nothing more than being between the two of us.

It's a nice quiet end of day -- one more before year's end. I have to work tomorrow, and then we are meeting friends for an early dinner at a local restaurant and come back here for bubbly and to comfort Greta from the fireworks. We cleaned a bit for that, so it's nice to just sit here, watching the seagulls fly in from the Pacific.

It's been a momentous year for us -- Nathaniel getting married, a trip to Ireland, a new deck, a new job for me, some health issues, a few minor victories in my art and John's but not the big ones either of us have hoped for. It's hard to just sum it up, like that. It's just another day, another year, really.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Figured Dark

Many years ago I went through a period where I lost interest in poetry. Then I happened to pick up one of those “World’s Favorite Poems” anthologies and to open it to Blake’s “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,” and I was hooked again. With all the arguments over poetics and the thousands of trendy and conventional poems published every day, it’s easy to forget the original impulse to poetry and why you fell in love with it in the first place.

Last week I read Greg Rappleye’s new book Figured Dark. Greg gets as involved as anyone in the blogosphere in arguments over poetics, but what I love about his poetry is that he seems to forget about all that when he sits down to write, and to sink into a place deep within himself, maybe within all of us. His poems make me remember what made me love poetry in the first place. Here’s a link to “Figured Dark,” the title poem of the book. Somehow it brings together Whistler’s Nocturne, Chet Baker’s music and morphine, archaeology and breasts and fireflies, and makes it all feel utterly natural. Not to mention the gorgeous sound of my new favorite word, Cremorne!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

December, Life and Death and Everything Else

With blogs, as with email, the more often you write, the more you can get away with the quotidian details: what you had for breakfast, who called, the weather, what you are wearing, your recipe for French Provincial vegetable soup. If you only blog every once in a while, your posts seem to have more portent. You start getting shyer. Is anyone going to want to read this? Do I really have anything to say?

Twenty-seven years ago today John Lennon was murdered. Other bloggers were talking about What They Were Doing then. I remember I brought in the SF Chronicle and there it was in the headline. I remember friends being pissed off that I didn't want to stand outside on a prayer vigil. But what was the point? He was already dead. In any case, if you want to know what I was doing then, I was having a miscarriage. Well, a long time ago, wasn't it?

So holidays. Grinning and bearing it here. At this stage of my life, I've done more than my share of cooking and all, and so sometimes I'd like to just hide under the covers and wait for all of it to pass. Not going to happen, so deep breath, and deal with it, Diane. (At this moment, I'm sitting on my couch with my sweet dog Greta snuggled up against me. You know everything seems fine when your dog loves you.)

Meantime, thanks to Jilly Dybka's blog, I read this and following in the New York Times Book Review:

No contemporary poet is famous, but some are less unfamous than others. That’s because the poetry world, like most areas of American life, has its own peculiar celebrity system — and if the rewards of that system rarely involve gift suites filled with swag from Jean Patou, they remain tempting enough to keep grown writers hustling. The problem is, poetic stardom is an unpredictable business. Good writing doesn’t guarantee a reputation; bad writing doesn’t guarantee oblivion; nor can grace, money or nimble careerism entirely explain why Poet X reads to overflowing auditoriums, whereas Poet Y reads to his cats. Maybe it’s simply the case that, as William Munny remarked in “Unforgiven,” “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

Anyone who knows me the least little bit knows why I identify with the above.

In other news: my niece in Texas just had a baby. Hurray! A girl named Sydney. And we are making plans to go to Port Clyde, Maine, for another niece's wedding in May. A week on the Maine coast! I'm really looking forward to it.

Cold here. Don't you Midwesterners and Northeasterners laugh, but it has been in the 40s. I don't deal well with cold, so that's quite enough.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Quick now, here, now, always…

It's just that this is so cool. It makes me want to write a poem -- except I'm at work. Oh yeah. And they just gave me a nice token of appreciation 'cause they like me.


I would give my two front teeth -- and more! -- to hear something (preferably something positive) about my manuscript, especially before having to send out another half dozen competition submissions before week's end.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Not So Fast, Eye of the Beholder!

Before reading any further, look at the images of the three sculptures and decide which one you find most attractive. No, this isn’t an offshoot of C. Dale’s caption contests—or is it? It’s from a study done in Italy (of course) on people’s responses to works of art. Actually the study itself may be somewhat less interesting than a comparison of the original study to a somewhat popularized summary in LiveScience.

The LiveScience story emphasizes the study’s implication that human perceptions of beauty—specifically, human responses to the classical “golden ratio”—may be genetically hard-wired, because most people pick the same image as their favorite. (Well, it’s not really “most people”; rather, it’s a majority of 14 Italian college students “with no experience in art theory.”)

The study itself focuses more on the different responses of the subjects (as shown by brain scans) to the three questions they were asked—whether they “paid attention” to an image when it was shown to them, whether they “liked” it, and whether they found it “proportional”:

In the condition in which the viewers were asked to indicate explicitly which sculptures they liked, there was a strong increase in the activity of the amygdala, a structure that responds to incoming information laden with emotional value. Thus, instead of allowing their nervous centers to “resonate” in response to the observed stimuli (observation condition), when the viewers judged the stimuli according to their individual idiosyncratic criteria (explicit aesthetic judgment), that structure was activated that signals which stimuli had produced pleasant experiences in the past.
This raises a lot of interesting questions! Were people’s responses to the images more spontaneous and honest when they were merely asked to observe them “as if in a museum” than when they were asked if they “liked” them? Were their responses more “conservative” when they were asked to shift into critic mode and pass judgment on the images, because then they applied the criteria they had developed from looking at other works of art that “had produced pleasant experiences in the past”? Were their responses more “romantic” because of activation of the amygdala, which “responds to incoming information laden with emotional value”? When I picked the same image as most people picked in the study, was I really responding to the “golden ratio” of the distance from his head to his navel to the distance from his navel to his knee, or was I just responding to the cute little swivel of his hip?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Riding to Moscow on Chairs

The current New Yorker has a wonderful review by James Wood of a new translation of War and Peace. The whole review is worth reading: it captures some of the novel’s most vivid, and “poetic,” moments, and the fact that they're poetic and what we mean by that are what interests me. The young man Petya is killed in battle, and his comrade Denisov “approaches the body and, as he looks at Petya, ‘irrelevantly’ recalls him once saying, ‘I'm used to something sweet. Excellent raisins, take them all.’ I think that “irrelevance” is of the essence of poetry.

One passage about the variety of translations seems particularly relevant to poetry:

In the novel’s epilogue, Marya enters the nursery: “The children were riding to Moscow on chairs and invited her to come with them.” That is exactly what Tolstoy writes, because he wants us to experience a little shock of readjustment as the adult meets the otherworldliness of childish fantasy. But Garnett, the Maudes, and Briggs [earlier translators] all insert an explanatory “playing at,” to make things easier for the adults. As the Maudes render it, “The children were playing at ‘going to Moscow’ in a carriage made of chairs, and invited her to go with them.”

This might seem like a trivial point, but it is a little clue to the vision of the whole novel. Tolstoy sees reality as a system of constant adjustments, a long, tricky convoy of surprises, as realities jostle together and the vital, solipsistic ego is affronted by the otherness of the world. Nikolai Rostov thinks that warfare is a glamorous business of “cutting people down.” But warfare is nothing like that, and when he finally has the chance to cut down a Frenchman he cannot do it, because the soldier’s face is not that of an enemy but “a most simple, homelike face.” He gets a medal and is called a hero, but can think only, “So that’s all there is to so-called heroism?” By the time Prince Andrei fights at Borodino, he has lost any sense he once had that a battle can be successfully commanded, and applauds General Kutuzov for at least knowing when to leave well enough alone. On a trip home, he sees two girls stealing plums from the estate’s trees, and is comforted, feeling “the existence of other human interests, totally foreign to him and as legitimate as those that concerned him.”

That difference between the alternative translations of “riding to Moscow on chairs” and “playing at ‘going to Moscow” in a carriage made of chairs” seems to capture perfectly what poetry is all about—as Wood says, the ego “affronted by the otherness of the world”—and also captures perfectly why language that is too “accessible” does not always serve the poem.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tofu Stir-fry

I'm posting today because I haven't posted for ages. I've seem to have had things to say, but my sluggish brain has not been ready to follow through. I'm still not certain how successful this post will be, so you might as well lower your expectations. Regular visitors to this blog already know that the posts that have meat in them are Robert's. Yeah, this is a tofu post. Tofu stir-fry.

Wanted to post this link to an interview Zack Rogow did with Bob Hass. (I feel obligated to my fellow po groupers, to wave their flags, having been one who started our workshop way back. Way back. Yes, once upon a time we even met in John's studio across from the ball park when the ball park wasn't even a gleam in anyone's eyes and the neighborhood was dumpsterville. Way back Bob Hass came to our group too -- only once, and it was on his side of the Bay, in Orinda. I remember the poem he brought. I remember the poem I brought.)

We are sick, sick, sick about the oil spill in the Bay! How can you crash into the Bay Bridge? Isn't it big enough? Oh, it was foggy. Well, duh. I am so upset about this, my brain starts to sputter when I think about it. I cannot look at the wildlife-coated-in-oil photos.

I am off from work today, thank you, veterans. As a pacifist, that's about the extent of my gratitude. I know most people think some wars are necessary or inevitable, but I don't understand how you solve anything by killing X number of people.

I have not been writing a lot. I don't want to make excuses. Even my reading has been sporadic. But I read a very interesting essay on Creeley by Charles Simic, published in NY Review of Books, October 25. Now Creeley never really did much for me, was just sort of on the periphery of my vision. But Simic totally impresses me as a poet who can talk about poetry in a way that is more interested in substance than in impressing you with his erudition -- a rare and totally welcome breath of fresh air -- and yet who doesn't look to get extra points for folksy ways, like some other poets laureate. (Not talking about BH. Bob is the best!) Anyway, what he said, by way of preamble, was "Unless one is an inmate serving a life sentence in a state penetentiary, a book of a thousand poems is nearly impossible to read... More to the point, there are not many poets, even among our best ones, who are likely to have more than eighty pages worth reading."

I personally, don't want to argue the point -- it is the emperor's-no-clothes attitude of the statement that impresses me. He also said -- and here I'd like to get input, if you have any opinions on the matter -- that "They [Creeley's early poems] were almost all about love, a subect of considerable interest to a vast number of human beings that for some curious reason is absent from the work of many of our poets today, who, unlike poets in other cultures, generally stay away from any overt expression of erotic feelings, as if love and sex were of little concern to them."

Do you think this is so? Not whether or not love and sex were Creeley's early subjects, but that many of our poets today shy away from this?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Bronze by Gold

The more I read, the more I come back to James Joyce. Radically innovative in both form and content, Joyce also wrote language unrivaled for sheer beauty and told moving human stories. He was both radically traditional and revolutionary. I really can’t think of a 20th Century poet who came anywhere close to Joyce’s success in creating the literature of the future without sacrificing the artistic values of the past that deserve to be saved. William Carlos Williams? Please. Eliot, Pound, Stein, Stevens …? If there had been such a poet, I suspect more people would be reading poetry now.

Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing.
Imperthnthn thnthnthn.
Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.
Horrid! And gold flushed more.
A husky fifenote blew.
Blew. Blue bloom is on the.
Goldpinnacled hair.
A jumping rose on satiny breast of satin, rose of Castile.
Trilling, trilling: Idolores …

—James Joyce

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Fear of the Past

I fear this will be one of those posts that will interest no one but me (they come so fast and furious), but I’ve been thinking about my feelings about the future and the past. Readers of Ron Silliman’s blog will have noted his recent use of the term neophobe to refer to poets “afraid of the new.” That argument doesn’t particularly interest me at the moment, but I’ve been thinking about whether there’s a corresponding “fear of the old” (perhaps we could call poets who suffer from it senaphobes).

What interests me is the idea that there really is validity to this observation about the relationship of different poets to the past and the future. If we avoid derogatory terms like neophobe and talk in less loaded terms like “postromantic” and “postmodern,” there are clear differences between the typical interests of postromantic and postmodern poets. It is a cliché, but a valid one, that “romantics” are interested in love, beauty, imagination, and nature. I think it is equally true (if less noticed) that romantics are typically interested in the past, both historical and mythological. Of course this is not the same as saying that romantic poetry is of the past. If anyone is still reading anything five hundred years from now, chances are good they will still be moved by a poem like Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us,” because if human beings survive that long, they will probably feel all the more that the world is too much with them and will long to hear the sound of that old horn:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Birthday, John Keats!

Keats was born on October 31, and this great poem of his seems appropriate to Halloween. It was written toward the end of his life in the margin of another, very different poem he was working on, and the story is that he was thinking of Fanny Brawne when he wrote it, but no one knows for sure. It may simply have been notes toward a drama he was thinking of writing.

This Living Hand

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Stupidest Man Alive

So yesterday afternoon I'm home working on a poem. I go out to the garage to look for mail, and I hear a door slam. The front door has blown shut and I'm locked out without keys or phone. I feared I'd be there all day, but luckily, with the help of a small stepladder from the garage, I was able to go around to the back of the house and climb over the back fence (not so easy for an old guy like me!) and (again luckily) I'd left the back door open because I'd been going in and out of the patio. Actually I think it's because the back door was open that enough of a wind went through the house to blow shut the front door, because that's never happened before. Now does that make me the stupidest man alive? Of course not. It could happen to anyone, right? No, what makes me the stupidest man alive is that a couple hours later I DID THE SAME THING. Yep, locked myself out the exact same way and had to take the stepladder around the house to the back and climb over the fence for the second time to get back in. Possibly I can blame it all on my being in a poetic trance. Or perhaps I'm just The Stupidest Man Alive.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Checking In

I’m three weeks into my four-week “writer’s colony at home,” and yesterday I finished the draft of a new book. There’s still a lot (months) of work to be done, but the draft is on the table! I’m not sure I’ll follow C. Dale’s method of letting it sit for six months, but if I start working my way through it now, it’ll probably be at least six months before I get to the sections I wrote recently.

I couldn’t sleep last night and got up early and found myself rereading Robert Hass’s Twentieth Century Pleasures, particularly his essay on James Wright. I read Wright’s Shall We Gather at the River when I was 18, and it was my first love in contemporary poetry (I’m afraid my own poetry still has its weaknesses without its strengths). Later I got into the poets like Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Gary Snyder who were considered cooler and hipper, especially in the Bay Area, but you never get over your first love.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Day Off

A gorgeous day in paradise, and just given to me, handed to me on a blue-sky platter. Yes, I got the day off, a total surprise, but then the company I work for contracts with the government; they're off, so we're off. After days of errands and appointments and (yesterday) baseball, I needed some time of quiet and peace. The baseball was on TV and was the choice of son and daughter-in-law and niece, and so they watched and I was in the (figurative) bleachers, working the aisles, plying them with food. I pretty much cooked all day -- though no one made me, I guess -- and by evening was exhausted and feeling guilty that I had squandered the gorgeous day of a thousand things to do in the city. (Yeah, those that know me know guilt comes to me as easily as a blush.)

So, okay, today, Greta (see pic) and I were determined to get out and enjoy the best weather of the year in San Francisco. My fumble with the camera made me miss her legs-in-the-air delight, but you can see her pleasure nevertheless. Now the renovation of the park by Pine Lake is just about finished, and dogs and the ducks, the heron and hawks, and the two somber cormorants all concur that they did a fine job.

Later, I sat out back of my house and invited the Muse to join me, but he was petulant, implying that ignoring him for months at a time and then just expecting him to show the one day I can finally find the time, well, it just doesn't cut it. I put a few lines down on paper, but they're going nowhere. Maybe Muse and I can rendevous again before too long.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Vanishing Point

That’s the name of a poem of mine recently accepted by Blackbird, one of my favorite litmags. It’s been a dry spell for acceptances so I’m taking that as a good omen. The title is also appropriate as I’m vanishing for a month, taking four weeks (four weeks!) off from my job to stay home and write: “my own private Yaddo,” as a friend of mine calls it. My plan is to generate as much new work as possible and worry about revision later. Ideally I'd like to finish a draft of a new manuscript I've been working on. I am going to try not to get distracted by the house remodeling we’re in the middle of, nor by preparing for my upcoming brief panel presentation at AWP on poetry and religion. I will say that “Vanishing Point” is a poem that fits right into that topic! But here’s a poem by Emily Dickinson that fits even better. One thing that makes the poem so great, I think, is that 150 years after Dickinson wrote it, it’s still hard to say if it’s a poem about the glory of creation or the terror of a lonely, chaotic universe—or both.


Behind Me—dips Eternity—
Before Me—Immortality—
Myself—the Term between—
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin—

’Tis Kingdoms—afterward—they say—
In perfect—pauseless Monarchy—
Whose Prince—is Son of None—
Himself—His Dateless Dynasty—
Himself—Himself diversify—
In Duplicate divine—

’Tis Miracle before Me—then—
’Tis Miracle behind—between—
A Crescent in the Sea—
With Midnight to the North of Her—
And Midnight to the South of Her—
And Maelstrom—in the Sky—

—Emily Dickinson

Saturday, September 15, 2007

What I Did On My Vacation: Ireland

How to sum up two weeks in one blog post? Would have been better to keep up to date daily as I've done with holidays in the past, but we brought no computer and only accessed one briefly at a home in which we stayed. I didn't write a word either. Mostly, unless we were asleep, things were happening. In that way, though it was only two weeks, it felt like a year, and though it was Republic of Ireland, it felt like we had traveled galaxies.

First the backstory. This was my second trip to Ireland. When I was 18 and graduated high school, I had the opportunity to travel to Ireland (and other places in Europe) with my high school friend. We spent a good part of the summer there, including traveling around rural Ireland with her uncle the priest. All of her relatives were amused that I was the one, with my red hair, who looked Irish, although, in fact, I'm Jewish by heritage. Well, her brother, a budding photographer, took photos of us at the airport. Six years later, John and I celebrated our wedding. This trip was John's first time anywhere in Europe. He turned 60 on September 3, our Labor Day, and being Somewhere Else would help him to deal with it. Well, it was apparent that if we were going to wait until we could afford a European vacation, we were never going to go. So off we went anyway.

These pictures I'm posting here are John's -- well, except for this one I took of John on the john, on a toilet hole we found on the fourth floor of Carrigafoyle Castle. These were just the snaps. We brought with us a suitcase apiece and one probably bomb-proof case of John's studio camera with digital back (16 megapixels). So in addition to these, he did some serious picture taking. Oh, he wanted castles and we found castles. When he is occupied in this way, there's no hurrying him up. Here's a picture of me being patient/bored while waiting for him to capture every angle and shadow in the Glendalough monastery.

We arrived in Dublin and stayed in a B&B for the first two days and then John's cousin Ursula picked us up and brought us to her sister Geralyn's. Ursula lived in the same apartment house as John in Brooklyn when they were small and has been to the States many times and we know her well. She's a successful playwright and fiction writer and we have always gotten along. As we got into Ursula's car, she looked out and said there's Roddy Doyle walking down the street. He was carrying a newspaper and his groceries.

The really, really sad thing is Ursula and Geralyn's brother Michael was dying. He was fading, we knew, as we left, and John got to see him and squeeze his hand on one of his last days. When Michael was 8 and John was 16, Michael idolized him, so it was so important. Yes, he did die, and we cut short our travel in the West to come back for the service in Glasnevin cemetery. Michael was a staunch atheist and insisted on being cremated, so the service was different to all. Hundreds packed into the chapel -- SRO. It was amazing, like a scene out of a movie, only we were in it. And most of the folk were related to John. He met uncles and cousins and cousin's progeny. Did I say that his mother was one of eleven?

Before we returned to Dublin for Michael's memorial, we saw Dublin for five days and then left for points south and west. Dublin is a vibrant and bustling place, where the old and the new are side by side. Gone are the days of poverty and hardship! Yeah, it was our luck to visit Dublin when the Euro was at its highest. Here's a flower stand on Grafton Street, the street where, it's said, Dubliners go for retail therapy.

When we left Dublin, we rented a car. I should say John did the driving, and it was terrifying. Not only do they do everything entirely in reverse from the way we do, but the roads are often incredibly narrow. Here's a picture of what was supposedly a 2-way road in Wicklow County. When someone comes the other way, you back up. These roads were actually less terrifying than the ones that were wide enough for opposing traffic that would whiz by you at terrifying speeds -- no shoulders -- we often brushed the high hedges along the side of the road.

In Wicklow, we visited the above-mentioned monastery and took a three-hour walk around a lake. In Kilkenny, we visited the castle and cathedral and climbed the round tower. Also got to hear some trad music. Here are some Kilkenny snaps. We went to Kilarney, a tourist town if there ever was one, and from there, like everyone else, drove the Ring of Kerry.

On the Ring of Kerry we found the picture-perfect castle John was looking for -- Ballycarbery -- overgrown with ivy and crumbling. That was also where I slipped on a cowpie and fell (fortunately, not in a cowpie). We came back in the glowering twilight, careful not to hit meandering sheep.

We went from Tralee to Listowel to Tarbert and took a car ferry next to a trailer filled with terrified longhaired horned sheep and drove to Ennis. There we stayed one night in a guesthouse built in 1650 and then headed back to Dublin, or more specifically, to Howth where stayed with another cousin. This is the Howth, as Robert reminds me, of Molly Bloom's monologue: "...the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head ..."

Our last day in Dublin, a cousin, Tadgh, who seems to know everyone who is anyone in Dublin, took us around, full of stories about teaching Arnold Schwarzenegger to say "I'll be back," in Irish...

That night, we dined with four cousins in Trocadero, a photo-lined restaurant that caters to the theatregoers and actors. They did not hurry us out and gave us free drinks. By the time we got back to Howth and then packed, we had less than four hours to sleep.

We never got to see any theatre -- it seemed enough to be in our own movie, and anyway, the timing wasn't right. (The following week there would be a production of Synge's "Playboy of the Western World," a version Roddy Doyle was involved in that was supposed to be provocative and experimental.) I did get to see a street performer who mimed the James Joyce statue pick up his take for the day and stride home. I got into one argument about poetry and bought a Seamus Heaney collection and a book on Irish birds.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Kitchen

This is the kitchen of the house where I grew up. When my mother died Cheryl and I decided to fix up the house and move in, but as you can see, we’ve got a ways to go: it’s radical revision. This is the kitchen where my grandmother baked chocolate chip cookies and I licked the bowl. This is the kitchen where years later my grandmother tried to bake bread at 3:00 a.m. and couldn’t remember how. This is the kitchen where I carved pumpkins and played Monopoly. This is the kitchen where I read Peanuts every morning in the Chronicle and, later, the jazz and rock reviews by Ralph J. Gleason. This is the kitchen where my aunt slammed the door and I pretended she had slammed it on my finger and she got hysterical and my mother screamed and hit her so I couldn’t confess what had happened and had to sit for an hour with my hand in a bowl of ice water to keep down the nonexistent swelling. This is the kitchen where I paid my mother’s bills when her eyesight got too bad to write checks, and this is the kitchen where my stepfather broke his hip when he tried to kick the beach ball across the floor. This is the kitchen they would kick Cheryl and me out of when they had us over for dinner so they could cook in privacy and argue in privacy over who had put what in the salad dressing. This is the kitchen where the liquor cabinet was a shrine full of mysteries, not so much the liquor as the jars of ancient maraschino cherries and, especially, the Angostura bitters that I watched my mother grind into sugar cubes and that smelled like nothing else in my world. This is the kitchen where I washed the pots and pans (my main household chore) and wasted a Tahoe of water. This is the kitchen where I ate Cream of Wheat and chuck roast with prunes and soft-boiled and fried and poached and scrambled eggs and frozen “Italian vegetables” and frozen French fries and Chinese chicken salad and (the worst) German “wilted salad” and “tuna boats” on Fridays and (the best) burnt sugar cake and English muffins and sliced apples and watermelons and papayas and plantains and pineapples and pears and persimmons and pomegranates and white peaches and black plums.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Spring and All

I was interested to read this recent post by Ron Silliman. So often people talk in abstractions (“accessibility,” “slippage”) about poetic issues that it’s refreshing to see a couple specific examples, one of them Robert Creeley’s great poem “I Know a Man.”

I stopped when Silliman said, “Creeley’s famous ‘I Know a Man’ derives much of its power from precisely the fact that the reader situates the key verb, drive, into two possible contexts, one in which the word belongs to the narrator, the other in which the word belongs to John …. Creeley himself said that the former was his original intent, but even he had to acknowledge that readers everywhere could hear both.”

Is this true? Yes, the drive is ambiguous, but is it true that the poem “derives much of its power” from the ambiguity? I would guess that most readers, while acknowledging the ambiguity, read drive as belonging to John, for a variety of reasons such as the stanza break before “drive, he sd.” I would say that most of the poem’s power derives from the sudden shift to “John’s” perspective in the last stanza, and that the ambiguity is relatively uninteresting. What Silliman says about the poem being “a text about primal need in an existential universe” is undeniably true, but isn’t that still true if we read drive unambiguously as John’s command? I’m not objecting to ambiguity per se. I think some poems do derive their power from the multiplicity of interpretations open to the reader. I just don’t think this poem is one of them.

Silliman’s other example is a section of Rae Armantrout’s poem “Grace”:

a spring there
where his entry must be made

signals him on

What does this mean? (Don’t cheat and read ahead for the “answer” as I confess I did when I read Silliman’s blog.) My initial impulse when first reading the passage was to take spring as the season, and “his entry” as an almost abstract (dare I say Merwinesque?) quasi-spiritual quasi-pastoral being (let’s say the magical stag in Harry Potter rather than Merwinesque). I would have had a different take if I’d dwelled on it for another 30 seconds, and yet another take if I’d dwelled for yet another 30 seconds, which is partly the point. Anyway, Silliman’s very interesting point is this:

Whenever I’ve asked students to “tell me what this means,” whether at San Francisco State in 1981 or at Naropa as recently as last summer, I’ve been offered a variety of narratives – … one being the idea of a diver in that instant leaving the board before the arc & splash of the event, the other that of the “step into character” that comes over an actor or actress as they make their entrance from backstage. Never in 26 years has a student offered the narrative Armantrout herself gave me when asked, that of vaginal lubrication. But this doesn’t make any of these narrative scaffolds wrong. All three, in fact, line up the key terms in this passage into roughly the same configuration, tho Armantrout’s own version is the most intimate.

This raises so many questions. It’s certainly true that, of the three narratives, Armantrout’s is the most intimate, although the actor’s story may be the most interesting. The question is whether the power of the poem is increased or decreased by the openness and multiplicity of interpretations. (I just noticed I spelled “Rae” as “Ray” above, which might make someone think Armantrout is a he, which might or might not affect the interpretations, especially the “intimate” one.) Another question: If the multiplicity of interpretations is interesting, would it be more or less interesting if the ambiguity were “clarified”? If the simultaneous perception of diver/actor/lover is interesting, would it be more interesting or intolerably clichéd to make it explicit (“When he entered her he felt like an actor stepping into character …”)?

It’s interesting that Ron talks about how these poems derive their power, as power is the key issue. Obviously one of the distinctions between experimental and mainstream poetry is that experimental poetry typically wants to share more power with readers (regardless of readers' possible desires for a poem to exert its power over them), or to abandon all power in a Buddhist-like renunciation. My instinctive reaction is that if Armantrout is not “attached” to whether I “get” her erotic interpretation or substitute an interpretation of my own, then why should I care about the poem? (I like many of Armantrout’s poems very much, by the way—that’s not my point.) The instantaneous collage in the reader’s brain of spring as “stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf,” spring as erotic arousal, spring as Slinky toy, spring as Sierra thaw, etc. etc. does not inevitably strengthen the poem. So much of contemporary poetics seems to revolve around this strange power struggle where writer and reader fight over the right to transfer their power to the other like a hot potato.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Nessun dorma

Luciano Pavarotti, 1935-2007. It’s hard to say rest in peace to someone whose signature aria was “Nessun dorma,” “No one sleeps.” Check out this heartbreaking video, not heartbreaking because Pavarotti is dead but just because his voice is so damn gorgeous. I suspect even opera lovers with legitimate complaints about Pavarotti as a musician and actor have to admit there have been a couple occasions where they’ve been moved as deeply by his singing as by just about anything in their life.

A couple decades ago when I worked behind the counter at Caffe Trieste, serving espresso to Ferlinghetti et al. in one of the original Beat coffeehouses in North Beach, and not caring anything about opera, I’d still find myself almost every evening putting a quarter in the jukebox to listen to “Nessun dorma.” Not great poetry, I guess, but the line “quando la luce splenderá” always gets to me: “when the light shines,” but I always hear it as a more literal translation—“when the light … splendors itself ….”

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

On my way

By this time tomorrow, John and I will be on our way to Ireland. I'm excited and apprehensive. I haven't been out of the North American continent since my early twenties. Without being too specific, let's just say that was a long time ago (John has never been to any part of Europe, although he's spent time in Haiti and in Japan.)

We will be gone two weeks. I'm not taking a computer (omigod, is that possible?) and though it's conceivable that I might post from one of John's cousin's computers or from an Internet cafe, it's unlikely. Well, the infrequency of my posts here is such that no one will be holding his or her breath.

I bought a lot of (used) Irish literature to get us in the mood, but the quotidian takes its toll, and we haven't made much headway into it. (I'll bring what I can for the long flights.) We have been listening to Dubliners (Joyce) on CD during our respective commutes, courtesy the SFPL. It's the second time for me, and quite enjoyable. It's hard, though, when a line comes along that I want to savor or (heh heh) collect as an epigraph. A choice line can be a springboard into a poem for me.

Will I write while away? Well, who knows. We've got quite an itinerary planned -- a week in Dublin visiting John's cousins, and a week driving through the south and west. I know John will be taking an enormous number of photos. Thank god for digital, or it would be a small fortune. The trip, of course, is a large fortune. But you only live once.

Ah, so here's the itinerary: We hope to see Trinity College in Dublin and the Book of Kells (not quite sure what else in Dublin, but probably a lot of John's relatives), also Newgrange (Ireland's Stonehenge-type ruins), Glendalough in Wicklow county, the Galtee mountains, the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula. We want to go from Killarney to Tralee to Listowel to Tarbert, take the car ferry to Kilrush then stay at Ennis. We'll hopefully see the Cliffs of Mohr and Connemara and the town of Galway. And that's for starters.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Poetic Orientation

Questions and Answers from the American Poetry Association on Poetic Orientation

What Is Poetic Orientation?

Poetic orientation is an enduring emotional, poetic, or aesthetic attraction to poetry of a particular perspective. Poetic orientation exists along a continuum that ranges from exclusively mainstream to exclusively post-avant and includes various forms of bipoeticity. Bipoetic persons can experience poetic and aesthetic attraction to poets of both their own poetic orientation and the opposite.

What Causes a Person To Have a Particular Poetic Orientation?

There are numerous theories about the origins of a person’s poetic orientation; most poets today agree that poetic orientation is most likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors. There is also considerable recent evidence to suggest that biology, including genetic or inborn hormonal factors, play a significant role in a person’s poetic orientation. There are probably many reasons for a person’s poetic orientation and the reasons may be different for different people.

Is Poetic Orientation a Choice?

No, human beings can not choose to be either mainstream or post-avant. Poetic orientation emerges for most people in early adolescence without any prior poetic experience. Although we can choose whether to act on our feelings, poets do not consider poetic orientation to be a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed.

Can MFA Therapy Change Poetic Orientation?

No. Even though most mainstream and post-avant poets live successful, happy lives, some may seek to change their poetic orientation through MFA therapy, sometimes pressured by the influence of family members or writing groups to try and do so. The reality is that neither the mainstream nor the post-avant is an illness. It does not require treatment and is not changeable. Not all poets who seek assistance from teachers or bloggers want to change their poetic orientation, although both mainstream and post-avant poets may seek help with the coming-out process or for strategies to deal with prejudice.

What About So-Called “Conversion Therapies”?

Some teachers who undertake so-called conversion therapy report that they have been able to change their students’ poetic orientation from mainstream to post-avant or vice-versa. Close scrutiny of these reports, however, show several factors that cast doubt on their claims. For example, many of the claims come from institutions with an ideological perspective which condemns either the mainstream or the post-avant. Furthermore, their claims are poorly documented. For example, MFA treatment outcome is not followed and reported over time as would be the standard to test the validity of any poetic intervention.

The American Poetry Association is concerned about such therapies and their potential harm to patients, and has passed a resolution reaffirming its opposition to both avantophobia and quietudophobia in treatment, and spelling out a poet’s right to unbiased treatment and self-determination. Any person who enters into a program to deal with issues of poetic orientation has a right to expect that such a program would take place in a professionally neutral environment absent of any social bias.

Is Mainstream or Post-Avant Poeticity a Mental Illness or Emotional Problem?

No. Professionals agree that they are not illnesses, aesthetic disorders or emotional problems. Over 35 years of objective, well-designed aesthetic research has shown that neither postmodernism nor post-romanticism is associated with aesthetic disorders or emotional or social problems. Postmodernism and post-romanticism were once thought to be aesthetic illnesses because poetry professionals and society had biased information. In the past the studies of mainstream and post-avant poets involved only those in MFA programs, thus biasing the resulting conclusions.

The American Poetry Association has confirmed the importance of the new, better designed research and removed both mainstream and post-avant poetics from the official manual that lists aesthetic and emotional disorders, and urges all poetry professionals to help dispel the stigma of aesthetic illness that some people still associate with mainstream or post-avant orientation.

Can Mainstream and Post-Avant Poets Be Good Parents?

Yes. Studies comparing groups of children raised by mainstream and by post-avant parents find no developmental differences between the two groups of children in four critical areas: their intelligence, aesthetic adjustment, social adjustment, and popularity with friends. It is also important to realize that a parent’s poetic orientation does not dictate his or her children’s.

Why Do Some Mainstream and Post-Avant Poets Tell People About Their Poetic Orientation?

Sharing that aspect of themselves with others is important to their aesthetic health. In fact, the process of identity development for post-avant and mainstream poets called “coming out” has been found to be strongly related to aesthetic adjustment—the more positive the mainstream or post-avant identity, the better one’s aesthetic health and the higher one’s self-esteem.

Why Is the “Coming Out” Process Difficult for Some Post-Avant and Mainstream Poets?

For some post-avant and mainstream poets, the coming-out process is difficult; for others it is not. Often post-avant and mainstream poets feel afraid, different, and alone when they first realize that their poetic orientation is different from the norm. They may have to struggle against prejudice and misinformation. They may fear being rejected by family, friends, co-workshoppers, and academic institutions. Some poets have to worry about losing their jobs or being harassed if their poetic orientation became well known. Unfortunately, studies have shown that nearly one-fifth of all mainstream poets and more than one-fourth of all post-avants have been the victim of a some form of aggression, from name-calling to aesthetic violence.

What Can Be Done to Overcome the Prejudice and Discrimination that Post-Avants and Mainstream Poets Experience?

Research has found that the people who have the most positive attitudes toward post-avant and mainstream poets are those who say they know one or more post-avant or mainstream poets well—often as a friend or co-workshopper. For this reason, poets believe negative attitudes toward post-avant and mainstream poets as a group are prejudices that are not grounded in actual experiences but are based on stereotypes and prejudice.

Why is it Important for Society to be Better Educated About Poetic Orientation?

Educating all people about poetic orientation is likely to diminish prejudice. Accurate information is especially important to people who are first discovering and seeking to understand their poetic identity—whether mainstream, post-avant, or bipoetic. Fears that access to such information will make more people post-avant or mainstream have no validity—information about poetry does not make someone either mainstream or post-avant.

Are All Post-Avant and Mainstream Poets HIV (Human Ironydeficiency Virus) Infected?

No. This is a commonly held myth. In reality, the risk of exposure to Human Ironydeficiency Virus is related to a poet’s behavior, not their poetic orientation. What’s important to remember about Human Ironydeficiency Virus is it is a preventable disease through the use of safe writing practices and not using drugs.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

What is summer?

I remember it vaguely. I remember lying in the cooling grass to combat the heat. I remember pavement so hot you could fry the proverbial egg. And tomatoes on the vine. And sunburn.

The latest issue of POETRY is filled with what could be called, if not light verse, at least summertime poems. All the newspaper and online columnists long ago published their recommendations for summer reading.

Some people, in the face of summertime indolence, seem to hardly have energy for reading. At least that seems to be the gist of the piece I heard by Andrei Codrescu on All Things Considered the other day. He seemed to put down people who were too busy to experience the slow, lazy days of summer.

Well, we haven't been avoiding summer, but it's been avoiding us. Now that our Big Event is over and the deck (hah!) is built, we're busy paying for all that. Driving to work daily has actually been our only chance to see, if not experience, what other people call summer -- or at least sun. High up on a hill in San Francisco's Ingleside neighborhood, days go by without the sun coming out -- or with it coming out just long enough to set in splendor into the ocean. So yeah, in my brief walk from car to office at Moffett Field I can smell the star jasmine. And when John takes a break from his San Rafael studio to take the dog out, he can watch her kick up her heels in the nearby grassy lawns. That's been our summer.

We may have a barbecue on the deck this Sunday. That will mean turning on the patio heater we bought for it. But that's not real summer. That's not lying in the hammock under the sugar pines, smelling the dust.

So what? S'okay. We'll live. We're actually going to take a vacation in a little bit, in September -- probably miss a good part of the sunny weather here -- and visit John's family in Ireland. Life isn't bad, just busy. And I do miss summer.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

An odd predicament

A week ago, I was reading the miniscule book review section of The Chronicle and there was a review of a poetry book by Ellen Bass. There are so few reviews of poetry in the local paper, that I usually feel obligated to read them, at least cursorarily. I didn't have much time, as the poetry group was coming and I had much cleaning to do. But though I read the review quickly, my eyes zeroed in on two lines -- quoted not from Bass, but from Mary Oliver: "There is only one question:// how to love this world."

Actually, the review misquoted it as "the" world, but I googled it and found it was from a poem called "Spring". I don't recall ever seeing this poem. It's not, to my mind, very earthshaking, though it's a good enough poem. The thing is, these are exactly two lines that appear in a poem of mine: "Copernican Revolution." Though that poem has gone through many overhauls including the recent addition of a stanza, the original poem, which very much centers around those lines, was from the late eighties. The Oliver poem -- at least the book it was published in -- is from 1992. My poem is unpublished -- though it's in my well-circulated manuscript. I sure don't think Mary Oliver copied those lines from me -- but neither do I remember ever reading that poem or that book or even much Mary Oliver.

So has this ever happened to you? What would you do? Should I remove the poem from my manuscript? Here's the last stanza of "Copernican Revolution":

There’s only one question:
how to love this world, how to find
the will to serve it—
each morning, the new baby skin of light.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Blogging under the influence ...

I said I would blog this weekend, and here it is, past 7:00 p.m. on Saturday. It was a busy day: John and I took the dog to Pine Lake with the minor detour of neighborhood garage sales. (I bought some lovely linens and crochet doilies and such, the kind of things I had hoped to inherit from my mom, but which disappeared during her final illness. You can't dwell on such things.) Then we went to Sloat Nursery to replace plants that bit the dust during the deck construction. I planted them later. Then we visted the Urban Farmer store so John could get advice and thingies for repairing our garden irrigation -- also mucked up during the deck work, although John believes a gopher or something was gnawing on the underground tubes. He worked on the garden irrigation while I got groceries. I worked back there while he had a beer and kibbutzed. And here it is evening, and I'm sipping some of the wine we have leftover from the wedding. The fog and the wind have come in on our hill. In a short while I will cook some red snapper and rice pilaf and maybe some broccoli stir-fried with garlic and red pepper. But you don't really want to hear any of this.

I never stop thinking about poetry even when I am stopped from doing poetry. Even when I am writing about thermal protection materials for NASA. I meant to comment on the essay by CK Williams in APR, republished in Poetry Daily that Greg Rappelye discussed-quite a while ago -- and that even before that Robert Thomas pointed me to. Whew! All that linking about wore me out.

But really, I thought it was quite an interesting essay, though after a glass of wine, damned if I'll be able to say anything cogent about it. What I meant to do all along is just quote the bits that I liked most, so here goes.

I might in fact be talking to the poor self I was in those days, who thrashed about in so many unknowables, not the least of which was how to think about itself, and what to ask of itself, because so much was asked that seemed off the point, and had nothing to do with anything except the host of dull imperatives with which it had been conditioned by its very disorganized education. We're inflicted with many lessons about ourselves in the course of growing up, but most turn out to be not only useless but possibly detrimental to any sort of artistic creation.

In some odd way, it feels as though the most abiding element of all this has something to do with having from time to time given myself and the very problematic mind which is mine permission to make a poem.

The right to not concentrate, by which I mean the right to allow one's mind to skip and skid away from any prescribed subject without worrying that some aesthetic or moral commandment is being violated.

Poems can take a long time to arrive, and to find their final form, so surely patience is the word here, but it's worth emphasizing that what actually happens doesn't seem to have the maturity and dignity the term patience implies. There's much more flailing about, and hesitating, and clearing the throat; and taking out the trash: we have to have the right to all of this.

Another, related, right: to be wrong... The corollary to this would be to realize that the judgment that something is wrong, or imperfect, or unrealized, has a dialectic concealed in it of which one can be unaware, and that working through this dialectic in itself can be fruitful.

From this follows the right of the mind to be able to remark in itself and not repress, or at least not too quickly, anything that comes to it, even such ostensibly inadmissible emotions as, to mention just a few, lust, greed, envy, anger, even rancor, even genres of otherwise unutterable prejudice. [N.B. certain people who know who they are.] We have, for poetry, to have as accurate an awareness as we can of the quality of our ethical consciousness, but we also need a firm sense of the difference between sins of the heart and sins of the hand: the mind has a life of its own which cares little for the parameters culture and society propose for it, and it is often this inner awareness which is most potentially interesting as aspects of a poem. [N.B. Same people.]

Remembering is necessarily inventing, and inventing is often remembering, but this doesn't mean there are no standards for judging how things are remembered in poems; on the contrary, the poetic memory is art under oath, but real accuracy has more to do with the aesthetic efficacy of the poem, rather than its fealty to any "real" past.

Corollary: to be able to keep confidence in one's work flexible enough so that useful criticism of it won't be rejected out of hand... But we still should be able to believe in and enjoy now and then our own and other people's appreciation and acknowledgment of what we do.

The last right I'd like to propose sounds odd: it's the right not to know what you're doing, even to not know what you've done.... Yet the fact is that much of the best work produced by artists (and maybe everyone else) is accomplished by small or larger leaps into the obscurity out past our intentions; much of what we come to value most in our own work are evidences of that unfathomable phenomenon we call inspiration.

The hardest thing is that inspiration is neither something that can be willed, nor something you can wait around for.

That's enough for now.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Even the Stars Are a Mess

I enjoyed Dana Stevens’ recent review in Slate of Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog’s new film. I particularly enjoyed her link to what she calls “this unforgettable clip” from Les Blank’s documentary about Herzog, Burden of Dreams. It must be 25 years since I saw Burden of Dreams, but I’ve never forgotten that scene either. I probably disagree with everything Herzog says in that interview, but it still shows why, perhaps more than any other living filmmaker, he makes movies that are poetry.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Post-wedding post

One week ago, on 7-7-07, our one and only son got married. It's taken me this long to recover enough to post about it. We were much involved; for reasons I'm not quite sure of, our daughter-in-law did not want to involve (or invite) her parents. So our support was (in all ways) needed.

We also decided this was as good a time as any to replace the deck behind our house. We expected family here from all over, and it just didn't seem right to say, "Come on in, but please don't step on our deck." You see, the deck had been rotten and dangerous for years, and even though we weren't going to have an official party there, it would be (and was) a great idea to be able to invite people to hang there on the day after, on their way to the airport and points homeward.

The actual wedding was north of San Francisco in the town of San Rafael -- the weather in July in SF is more often than not miserable (and sure enough was dripping on the wedding morning). But it was hot and sunny in San Rafael. Friday, the day of the rehearsal, was almost too warm. We were to have the rehearsal barbecue -- for the cast of thousands in the wedding party and all the out-of-towners -- at the gorgeous home of an architect friend of my husband's. Friday morning, I had the privilege of going to Costco with bride and groom -- with my wallet. There was no actual plan for the barbecue. According to my son, it would just come together, and it did, thanks to the amazing venue, the friends and family who set up, cooked, and cleaned up.

The wedding was lovely. Nathaniel promised a short ceremony -- "I do, I do, and we do," and he pretty much kept his word. Although I had given them the anthology of wedding poetry edited by Stephen Mitchell and Robert Hass, there was no poetry. Still, I almost cried, but not as much as I did when my husband was practicing his toast that morning.

The wedding was a vintage 20s-30s theme and sometimes seemed a bit like a costume party or a prom, but it was what the bride and groom wanted; it was their party. Their friends and their cousins were great and worked and played hard. The caterer screwed up on about 20 counts, but even so didn't ruin things, although it seemed as if they tried to ....

And sure enough Sunday happened on our deck, and lo and behold, the sun came out. Everyone marveled at our view. The Texas relatives told us our house would be worth 50K there -- of course that's practically what our view is worth here in SF!

'kay, there's no poetry in this post, but Robert said I had to blog about the wedding. The bride and groom are in Ireland on honeymoon. For us, it's been back to work since Monday, gettin' up at 5:30 and walking the dog and driving down to Mountain View. We slept in until 8:00 this morning. How prosaic can you get!

John is out late shooting an event at a vineyard in Napa. I'm trying to wait up for him, but I'm sinking fast. I printed out a chapbook ms. for a last-minute submission. And then I did something crazy. I added seven poems to my book manuscript, the one that's been out making the rounds, getting weary and old. These were poems that I had been saving for BookNext -- but at this point that doesn't seem like it will ever happen. I just had a feeling BookOne needed some tartin' up, a makeover, if you will. Well, sticking seven poems in pretty much willy-nilly might be more like buying an extension than a makeover. Something tells me I better see what this looks like in the morning.

Saturday, June 30, 2007


Recently I did a quick, inaccurate survey of poems I’d submitted to magazines over the past three years, and found I’d submitted 94 poems and had 7 accepted (one was long). I was prompted by a friend who’d checked his numbers and had about 10 times as many poems accepted as I had and also submitted about 10 times as many as I had. I am very interested in what other people’s experiences are—not acceptance rates but just submission numbers. Some people send out 10 poems a year and others (who amaze me!) send out 1,000.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Let's Do It

It’s time for another William Logan quiz, now that his latest review, “Let’s do it, let’s fall in luff,” has been published in New Criterion. The rules are the same as last time. The six poets reviewed are:

1) John Ashbery
2) Henri Cole
3) Cathy Park Hong
4) Frieda Hughes
5) Robert Lowell
6) Frederick Seidel

And here are the six excerpts from the review. Match the poet with the quote that refers to his or her work!

a) “Misery doesn’t love company—misery is company.”

b) “Were _____ unfortunate enough to develop Alzheimer’s, the poems wouldn’t change a bit.”

c) “ … so near to being illiterate, you weep for English syntax.”

d) “_____ sees the advantage … of making things new by making them partly incomprehensible.”

e) “The fretted, distressed lines itch to be something else and end up like nothing but themselves.”

f) “a restless artist who believes that originality requires constant change (unfortunately, as with urban development, if you tear down too much, you have no urbs any more).”

On a more serious note, Logan’s observations on poetry and class are interesting:

The rich are different from you and me. They write better poetry, or did when poetry was an art of leisure. It sometimes seems that, in the centuries after scops stopped singing for gold rings in the meadhall, few men except Sir This or Lord That had the free time to bother with verse—if you weren’t nobility, or landed gentry, or clergy, you were about out of luck. Later, poetry made some great poets rich, like Shakespeare and Pope, and some rich poets great, like Byron and Shelley. Wordsworth and Coleridge were able to scrape by without much by way of day jobs; and neither Tennyson nor Browning ever had to shovel coal. There are exceptions, but many well-known poets never earned a pay check. Only in the twentieth century did poetry become a middle-class art not just read but written by the middle class.

Friday, June 22, 2007

First Day of Summer

Can it be that I've not posted here since May? -- and even then was circumspect and silent about what was going on. I was teaching a course that I hated (not poetry) -- someone else's program, from start to finish, and, I couldn't please that person nohow. The class has been blessedly over since Memorial Day. Then my work revved up into a new gear, and now I am working on staff (80% now, full time come July).

More about the job later. First, I want to post some exciting news: On Saturday, June 23rd, my poem will be featured on Poetry Daily. This is the poem that was published in Field last April, and that, in itself, was exciting. So many stressful things happening right now -- my son's wedding in three weeks, construction on our deck out back, the new job with its mega-commute -- and that's just part of it -- that I haven't been sending things out. So this is a real boon. The email came while I was at work and totally surprised me. I've had Poetry Daily as my home page for years, and it's been a dream of mine to be featured there. I hope you will read the poem, and I hope you will like it.

In other news … Robert's panel has been approved for AWP '08 in NYC. He'll be presenting on a panel on "poetry and religion" with Marianne Boruch, Laura Kasischke, Greg Rappleye, and Roy Jacobstein. I so want to be able to be there! I'm sure Robert will want to post the details as the day nears.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Not So Plain Style

As a counter to the lines from Rilke below and another favorite quote, here’s a passage from Tony Hoagland’s “On Disproportion,” from Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft:

I have a friend who once edited a poetry magazine and returned manuscripts with a note saying, “a little more savoir faire, please.” Arch and arrogant, I thought at the time. Now I can understand, I think, what he meant, and reading many poems I, too, often want to say, “a little more excess, style, violence, savoir faire, please.” It was Rilke, our great model for the ecstatic poet, who asks in the Ninth Duino Elegy, “Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: “House, / Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Olive tree, Window,— / possibly: Pillar, Tower?” These lines, suggesting a life’s work in the plain style, imply that an artist would be well exercised if kept on a diet of all nouns.

But Rilke the poet, in the poem itself, hardly slows down at his own suggestion; he whirls, pirouettes, leaps, spins, commands, begs, refuses—and goes on to add, “but for saying, remember, / oh, for such saying as never the things themselves / hoped so intensely to be.”

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Gazer Within

This may be my favorite quote ever, from Larry Levis’ essay “The Gazer Within”:

“I find I’ve been speaking, all along, about the attempt of the imagination to inhabit nature and by that act preserve itself for as long as possible against ‘the pressure of reality.’ And by nature I mean any wilderness, inner or outer. The moment of writing is not an escape, however; it is only an insistence, through the imagination, upon human ecstasy, and a reminder that such ecstasy remains as much a birthright in this world as misery remains a condition of it.”

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Knock on the Door

Greg posted ten quotations on poetry that are important to him and I thought I’d try the same, but maybe I’ll start with just four or five.

First, this is from Robert Pinsky’s Poetry and the World:

I want to say—as humbly as possible—that despite all the complexities of literary theory, for all the ingenuities of ambition or expectation, the trouble with most poems that fail—one’s own poems, or poems written in workshops, or submitted to magazines, or published in books—may be described simply: they are not interesting enough to impart conviction. Most of them fail to be surprising or musical or revealing enough to arouse much interest; to read them, one must be a professional (and certainly not an indolent or drowsy professional). It sounds silly to say so, but some explicit sex, or a few jokes, or a bizarre personal confession, might make these poems more interesting.

Second, here’s Rilke from the Duino Elegies:

Praise the world to the Angel, not the unsayable: you
can’t impress him with glories of feeling: in the universe,
where he feels more deeply, you are a novice. So show
him a simple thing, fashioned in age after age,
that lives close to hand and in sight.
Tell him things. He’ll be more amazed: as you were,
beside the rope-maker in Rome, or the potter beside the Nile.

It’s true that my own poetry doesn’t exactly follow that prescription,
but then, neither does Rilke’s!

Third, here are three short quotes from Charles Simic’s book of prose, Orphan Factory:

America is God crazy, as everyone knows. It’s impossible to be an American writer without taking that into account.

The secret ambition of every true poem is to ask about gods and devils even as it acknowledges their absence.

Aestheticism, humor, eroticism, and all the other manifestations of the free imagination are suspect and must be censored.
Obviously that last quote is Simic’s comment on the negative impact of the American critical bias.

Fourth, Adrienne Rich also has something to say about the “free imagination” in her great essay “When We Dead Awaken”:

For a poem to coalesce, ... there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is no way passive. And a certain freedom of the mind is needed—freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away. Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name. … To be a female human being trying to fulfill traditional female functions in a traditional way is in direct conflict with the subversive function of the imagination.

Finally, Yannis Ritsos’ poem “Motionless Swaying”:

As she jumped up to open the door,
she dropped the basket with the spools of thread—
they scattered under the table, under the chairs,
in improbable corners—one that was orange-red
got inside the glass lamp; a mauve one
deep in the mirror; that gold one—
she never had a spool of gold thread—where did it come from?
She was about to kneel, to pick them up one by one, to tidy up
before opening the door. She had no time. They knocked again.
She stood motionless, helpless, her hands dropped to her sides.
When she remembered to open—no one was there.

Is that how it is with poetry, then? Is this exactly how it is with poetry?

—Yannis Ritsos

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Top Five

I happened to read Wikipedia’s entry on Robert Hass, and I noticed this: “In Hass’ opinion, the five most important poets of the last 50 years were Chilean Pablo Neruda, Peruvian Cesar Vallejo, and Polish poets Zbigniew Herbert, Nobel-winner Wislawa Szymborska, and Nobel-winner Czesław Miłosz.” There’s no citation for the quote and I’m not sure Wikipedia can be trusted that Hass really said that, but it’s interesting. Were three of the five most important poets of the last fifty years Polish? Were none English-speaking? Is there no place for Seamus Heaney or Sylvia Plath? I’m not sure who my own picks for the Top Five would be, although I’d probably save a place for Tomas Tranströmer (see his poem “Grief Gondola, #2” here) and Yehuda Amichai (see his poem “A Jewish Cemetery in Germany” here, which by the way is interesting to compare with Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It”).

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Poetry — with integral bra support

I am on a lot of mailing lists: pleas for support from organizations (poetry and otherwise) that have never given a dime or a minute's worth of support to me, credit card come-ons, political organizations, and many, many catalogs. I used to get three or four catalogs a week; now I get three or four a day. Yesterday, I got one called Poetry. Is it an academic program, a summer conference, a new magazine--experimental, conventional, or slam? No, it's a clothing catalog — for women of a certain age, I infer, like yours truly. It's a UK company, and not bad stuff, some of it, with wearable clothes, mostly. But Poetry? What is up with that? Some marketing genius wake up in the middle of the night with this brainstorm? I can't decide if I'm offended, amused, or just dumbfounded. Geesh!

Meantime, in real life, things go from crisis to crisis, as things do. I am swimming, not drowning, at the moment, although it was hard to tell here for a while -- coming up for air, now that the teaching semester is ending (one more class!) and getting ready to jump into the pool for the duration. What I mean is, I've been offered a permanent full-time position (technical writing). Since July 2005, I've been contracting, and except when there's no work, too much work, mixed signals from addled supervisors, or other problems, I liked it. I'm looking out the window of my office now at the Japanese maple, the lavender, the iris, the rose bush in full bloom. I'm going to miss this! I'm going to have to work on site for this new position, and it's a nasty commute to boot. And yet, with John self-employed and no other benefits, it seems to make sense. I like the work and the people at this new job, and can honestly do with less stress. So there it is, I am -- or will be -- a worker bee once again.

Will I write, will I read, will I be able to be part of the poetry (writing, not wearing) community? I hope so. I know that the past six months I've scarcely had the available brain power to read through a poem, let alone write one. So I'm thinking this may be an improvement, or the way to go, for the moment.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Aesthetic Amniocentesis

Last night I dreamed I was at the beach rubbing suntan lotion on Ellen Bryant Voigt’s back—while discussing poetry, of course. I will try to take this as a good omen for my writing. If you’ve read Voigt’s wonderful poem “Plaza del Sol” from Shadow of Heaven (“a woman tanned already, dried fruit arranged on a towel …”), you’ll understand that whatever the dream was, it was not exactly erotic. Diane suggests it means I need to get more “hands on” with poetry, or at least with something.

Diane and I were also talking about Bemsha Swing’s recent post about “that overwritten Derek Walcott effect.” I tend to have a similar response as Jonathan’s to Walcott’s work, yet I am sensitive to the criticism because I’m sure some people would consider my own poetry overwritten. Whether one tends toward overwriting (fat, drunken language—think Dylan Thomas) or underwriting (anorexic language—think the exquisitely spare poems of William Carlos Williams) is another of those spectra along which poets define themselves.

What interests me about the spectra is that there’s a place for a judgmental attitude toward them and a place for a nonjudgmental attitude. In Twentieth Century Pleasures Robert Hass gives great examples of both. In his essay on Stanley Kunitz, he distinguishes between dramatic poetry (think Yeats) and meditative poetry (think Stevens):

[The dramatic lyric] goes into the crucible over and over again, goes into desire, not past it, and it’s anything but non-attached. Much of the original work done in the twentieth century has been in the meditative vein …. The dramatic lyric is a peculiarly Western form, I think. Yeats was its great modern practitioner, and in this he was Kunitz’s master. … I think [Kunitz] is the least non-attached poet I know of.
It’s fair to say that Hass himself is a meditative poet according to his own definition, yet there is no hint in this essay of his valuing the meditative over the dramatic or vice-versa. When I first read this, what struck me is that “the least non-attached poet” is precisely what I aspire to be!

On the other hand, in an essay in praise of James Wright, Hass condemns Wright’s weaker poems with almost an Old Testament (or Ginsburg-like “Moloch!”) prophetic fury:

Aestheticism is what I am talking about, decadence. It’s a cultural disease and it flourishes when the life of the spirit, especially the clear power of imagination and intelligence, retreats or is driven from public life, where it ought, naturally, to manifest itself. The artists of decadence turn away from a degraded social world and what they cling to, in their privacy, is beauty or pleasure. The pleasures are esoteric; the beauty is almost always gentle, melancholy, tinged with the erotic, tinged with self-pity.
Hass is one of the very few poets who seem capable of a non-judgmental description of the spectrum of mainstream to post-avant poetry, as in his introduction to Best American Poetry 2001:

There are roughly three traditions in American poetry at this point: a metrical tradition that can be very nervy and that is also basically classical in impulse; a strong central tradition of free verse made out of both romanticism and modernism, split between the impulses of an inward and psychological writing and an outward and realist one, at its best fusing the two; and an experimental tradition that is usually more passionate about form than content, perception than emotion, restless with the conventions of the art, skeptical about the political underpinnings of current practice, and intent on inventing a new one, or at least undermining what seems repressive in the current formed style.
I think it’s crucial for poets to ask themselves these questions with an open mind: “Am I more passionate about form or content, more passionate about perception or emotion?” Without that open mind poets will inevitably make choices that depend on superficial criteria—what’s fashionable, what’s stamped with academia’s seal of approval, what’s politically correct, etc.—rather than finding the answers within themselves. What is the poem within me that’s struggling to force its way out, whether or not it matches my latest intellectual convictions?

Your only responsibility when writing is to the poem, and if you’ve got post-avant opinions but (please God, not that) a Kooser-esque poem within you—or vice versa!—you need to be true to the poem. Anything else is like being a parent who rejects a child if they’re the “wrong” gender. I don’t think you can invent yourself as a poet. You can only discover that you’re a dramatic poet or a meditative poet or whatever. At some point you’ve just got to do the aesthetic amniocentesis and discover that “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” and celebrate!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Terrifying Angel

Reginald Shepherd has a wonderful essay, “Notes Toward Beauty,” on his blog. As he says, “It is very fashionable, indeed almost de rigueur, to condemn beauty as oppressive.” He goes on, “It was Edmund Burke who first distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime as that which submits to us versus that which overwhelms us,” and then he points out that genuine, “Rilkean” beauty is the sublime. I think Shepherd is profoundly right to make this personal—“I have felt haunted by the beauty of men that I did not possess and could not make mine”—because it is through such personal haunting that we are compelled to submit to beauty in our everyday lives.

In the myth of the judgment of Paris, Paris must choose between Athena, goddess of wisdom, Hera, goddess of marriage, and Aphrodite, goddess of beauty. It seems possible that, like us, Paris would have condemned beauty as oppressive. He would have wanted to choose the wisdom of Athena or the constancy of Hera. But he was overwhelmed and made the inevitable choice, and so began what Joyce called the nightmare of history: the Trojan War and ultimately all wars.

It seems to me that this is the connection between beauty and justice, beauty and truth, that Shepherd (and Keats!) are talking about. We can’t truthfully say that life is happy or just, only that it is beautiful. In that sense beauty and tragedy are intertwined, and the wariness people have of beauty is justified to the extent that beauty can be used to rationalize a complacency towards tragedy, as if it’s the way things will always be so you may as well not try to change anything.

The image of Aphrodite anadyomene (Aphrodite rising from the waves being born) is a classic image of beauty, but what do we mean by that? Is this beauty as “sublime” or beauty as “pretty”? There’s certainly an erotic component (Venus in wet T-shirt), but that’s not all. There’s something deeply moving and beautiful when contradictory elements are united (when “the fire and the rose are one,” as Eliot and Dante said), and in this case it’s something about how the water from which Aphrodite is rising is reflected in the watery texture of the gowns—and all of this communicated through the medium of stone!

There’s something about how the sculptor is learning to convey the presence of a human body beneath the pleated fabric of a gown—again, both the flesh and the fabric (that both conceals and reveals) created out of marble, out of nothing, a solid nothing. And there’s also something about how the illusion of flesh is more real because the illusion of fabric is real. Seeing the flesh through the fabric, we forget that all we are seeing is stone, and the flesh within the fabric becomes a metaphor for the real mystery, Rilke’s terrifying angel rising within the stone. If stone can become water and flesh, then what metamorphosis is impossible?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Profile Makers

I know I’ve been absent without leave for a long time, but I’m coming back because at Melissa’s urging, I’ve been reading The Profile Makers by Linda Bierds. I’m probably biased because Bierds so often seems to do so dazzlingly exactly what I try to do in my own poems but do somewhat less dazzlingly. I realize it’s a project that doesn’t interest many people at all, although those may be the sort of cynics who walk into Chartres Cathedral and say, “This God stuff is so yesterday’s news. Been there done that.”

As I’ve said before, I am always struck by poems with wheels within wheels of imagination. In “The Ghost Trio” by Bierds, for example, the poet imagines herself as Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) imagining a painting he’d once seen of ice skaters and imagining how the skate blades would look to imagined fish below in the imagined ice in the imagined painting in the imagined world of Erasmus Darwin—and indirectly imagining how Charles Darwin’s vision might have evolved from his grandfather’s imagination.

Perhaps they are stunned
by the strange heaven—dotted with

boot soles and chair legs
and are slumped on the mud-rich bottom—
waiting through time for a kind of shimmer,
an image perhaps, something
known and familiar, something

rushing above in their own likeness,
silver and blade-thin at the rim of the world.

Sometimes when imagination is fully realized, it seems there’s nothing more to ask of a poem. Any “epiphany” would be superfluous, as the simple act of immersing yourself so completely in the quiet winter of 1748 is already as meaningful and dramatic as, say, Juliet’s suicide: “This is thy sheath; there rust.”

Bierds’ poem “Balance” is about L.J.M. Daguerre, inventor of the daguerreotype, but only refers to photography briefly at the start of the poem: “before time balanced / on a silver plate.” The rest of the poem is about Daguerre as a youth balancing on a tightrope, his inevitable falls, and how the world looks to him on his back on the flagstone streets as he looks up at “the rooflines and eaves, / all the doves in their darkening chambers.” That image of “all the doves in their darkening chambers” suggests so exquisitely how the experience led him to photography. The earlier reference to “time balanced on a silver plate” seems almost superfluous. Daguerre was in theater when young so my guess is the poem is biographically accurate, but it’s wonderful to think that Bierds might have invented the whole tightrope-walking period of his life.

Bierds’ poem “Shawl: Dorothy Wordsworth at Eighty” describes Dorothy and her brother William coloring eggs as children, when suddenly violence enters the poem. Typically, it’s not anything Dorothy experienced but something she was told:

Once, I was told of a sharp-shinned hawk
who pursued the reflection of its fleeing prey
through three striations of greenhouse glass:
the arrow of its body cracking first into anteroom,
then desert, then the thick mist
of the fuchsias. It lay in a bloodshawl
of ruby flowers, while the petals of glass
on the brick-work floor repeated its image.
Again and again and again.
As all we have passed through sustains us.

What amazing language: “the thick mist / of the fuchsias”! What an amazing image! “As all we have passed through sustains us” seems unnecessary. What is wonderful is how the final image echoes another image repeated throughout the book: how the glass plate negatives of Mathew Brady’s “lesser” Civil War photos were used as greenhouse windows.

I’m still left with the question of whether imagination by itself can ever be enough. When I read a poem like “The Geographer”—“They are burning the flood fields—such a hissing, hissing, / like a landscape of toads”—it seems it could be. The poem imagines what the geographer in Vermeer’s painting sees outside his window, and also imagines how what he sees is colored by his heart disease: “When the flood waters crested, dark coffins / bobbed down through the cane stalks like blunt pirogues.” Sometimes imagination is wedded to such a passionate compassion that there’s nothing more to ask of a poem.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Never rains, it pours

Two weeks since I posted last, and nobody else, not even Robert, seems to post here lately. I've had a tremendous amount of work--on top of the ongoing problematic situation about which I can't post. On top of this, we had houseguests, people I really love, but still …. And John was away for days during their visit. I tried to be calm and forgiving about this, but it's not really my nature. Still, he stayed up last night with me as I worked until 1:30 a.m., so okay.

I got my copies of FIELD with my poem in it. I got it, but I haven't had the courage to actually look at it yet. I am, at least temporarily, changing the name of the manuscript, BTW, from Demimonde to Conjugated Visits. Maybe it will have better luck.

Gotta run!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Another garden post

Nothing actually poetry related to post here, though my NER came today, which is nice. All the poetry journals John got me for Xmas presents are coming home to roost, which is a good thing. I need to find time to read them before turning in at night, though. If I plan to read them in bed, I usually don't get very far before falling asleep. And I'm waiting for my FIELD to arrive -- with my poem in it, not that the world will change one bit, but it will be nice.

Today I am savoring being home and working in my office, overlooking our gorgeous garden that is sparkling in the sun after the morning's spring rain. I shouldn't say sun too loudly, or it will bring on the fog and the wind, no doubt. But you can't imagine how lovely it is to be here, especially with the very real possibility of not being here much longer. How I wish there were some way I could just work at home, editing or writing as the mood takes me. But it is not going to happen, and the stress of not having the wherewithal to pay the bills isn't fun either. I keep waiting for John to get that Great Big Contract that will lift us out of debt into the style to which we want to become accustomed, that of two not-so-young artists working at their art. I keep waiting to win the lottery too.

The Cecille Bruner rose bush has started to bloom. By May it will be covered with thousands of small, intensely pink, perfectly formed roses, no bigger than a quarter. The Douglas iris, the red Peruvian lilies, the periwinkle, the little pink and white daisy-looking things whose names I forgot--all these and more are blooming, and the Japanese maple, new green and tinged with red moves in the breeze like a creature breathing.

Greta likes her walks. And she likes nothing better on her walks than a well-kept lawn. Greta is a connoiseur of lawns. And she really shows her pleasure.