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A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.



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Monday, December 9, 2013

"Epic" by Ange Mlinko, Part II (the poem)

from Poetry (Dec. 2013)
poem found here
 

first lines:
It’s you I’d like to see Greece again with
You I’d like to take to bed of cyclamen

 

god lies in the details

– some heavy editing, Feb 5, 2015
 
This post has been added to the Hatter's Cabinet site via its Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page
 

A comment added after writing: I am unsatisfied with that below, especially with the points about the poem, as I find often inadequately explained. But to fully explain them would require many, many more words, and this is long enough as it is. Hopefully, with the poem open, the points offered make sense. Or, at least, make enough sense.

 

A second comment added after re-reading: I feel a need to wholly establish the stance of this post: one that exists because of this post's relationship to the previous; also, one that does occasionally rise throughout this blog. While my subject of attention is here the poem "Epic," the criticisms that arise out of the exploration of the poem are ultimately directed not at the poem, nor at the poet as writer of the poem. Rather they are directed at Poetry Magazine, and other such magazines, who would give a poem such as this a standing that far exceeds what it merits, an act which, in turn, can serve only to diminish the sophistication of writing in the U.S. The target of critique is the discourse of poetry that exists today; one which praises mediocrity (and, often, as we have seen on this blog, sheer bad writing), and which seems to intentionally steer itself away from any discourse or comparison that might point out that reality.

 

• For bookkeeping's sake, I will mention that "Epic" did make its way onto the Poetry Daily site, on December 16 (here).

 

This poem – or at least this poem's title – appears in the previous post (here's a link). But that post, really, is about Poetry Magazine, and "Epic" served in the discussion only as an adequate stand-in for the whole of the poetic contents of Poetry Magazine, "Epic" being the first poem in the table of contents as presented on the Poetry website.

In the comments on that post, however, attention was turned from the discussion about the mag to the poem itself; and, I was asked what I thought about the poem specifically. Rather than post what would be by necessity but a brief statement of unsupported conclusions (or, by consequence of it being in the "Replies" a long and optically difficult read), I will start a new post on the subject.

And I do need the space here to speak to my conclusions, because my conclusions are not praising of the poem. In fact, the post previous was spurred by a discussion on Facebook that arose when I posted about Poetry Magazine announcing their new issue, and how on their site I was greeted, at the very beginning, with this aural clunker of a line

It’s you I’d like to see Greece again with

and the mess of the poem that lay below it, pondering (in so many words) what such a greeting said about Poetry Magazine, that they would lead off with such.

In the ensuing discussion there was voice or two in defense of the line and the poem that followed, with the question of "what is so bad about the poem?" My response was, in essence, "There are so many problems interwoven within this poem I don't think I could competently go through it."

Why do I say that again here?

Because what follows will not be – nor will be able to be – something formally organized and precisely argued. (At least, not without far more space and time than I wish to put to this post, or that this post even merits.) Indeed, many of the points below, if taken solely on their own, would not speak much as to the character of the poem. But as a whole, as an aggregate, they say an awful lot (pun intended). So while the presentation below may not be most efficiently organized point by point, it is, as a whole, intending to speak to that aggregate.

But also – and this goes to why I decided to write this post – because some of the responses to the poem spoke of the poem through the presumed or observed general effect of the poem. Such statements are not in themselves a bad thing. Indeed, how can you speak of a poem without also speaking of the poem in general. But that event seems to me to have been taken (and here I move from the specific replies to a broader discourse about literature) to an extreme, one that is wholly normal within a nomic culture of poetry, and one that can thus be used to push statements such as "there is so much bad about this poem" into nigh irrelevance. For it is the standard fare in the culture of poppoetry to permit general effect to supplant the details of a poem: many poppoetry conventions function to that end; and much poppoetry (and praise for what is poppoetry) exists wholly within and depends upon that rhetorical context.

My reply here is thus to give example of how "general effect" or tone or meaning on its own is an inadequate a response to a poem: not only because (1) one can talk about the general effect of a really bad poem without ever acknowledging how bad the poem is (in fact, while actively ignoring its condition); but also because (2) without attention to the details of the poem, that rhetoric of general effect is often used to speak of and elevate as "poetry" what is but the shallow effect of a shallow poem.

For those who think otherwise, let me contextualize: my qualification of meritable poetry – which is in this context publishable poetry – is that it will bear close reading. That which cannot want such, that which cannot stand up to such, is but pop (or simply bad) poetry. And my concern with this blog and these posts is rather about literature as an aesthetic endeavor, as the endeavor to craft out of words beautiful things. Poppoetry is antithetical to that endeavor: indeed, such an endeavor is by its nature damning of poppoetry; and, when it comes to it, poppoetry stands in at best an uncomfortable relationship with the aesthetic. But if that is your thing, go crazy with it.

 

That said, I have a couple notes before I begin: the "initial conditions" of this post.

First, I have intentionally not looked at any other poem by Mlinko. I say that so you know this poem is being treated wholly in isolation. Everything stated here is about this poem and this poem alone.

Also, it is of no small importance to the context here to remember that this poem has been published in Poetry Magazine. As such, it has been through two very important points of decision making: in reverse temporal order, (1) the editorship of the magazine felt the poem good enough to merit printing; and (2) the author felt the poem good enough to submit to Poetry. Note that the latter is not independent of the former, and may be wholly defined there by.

Finally, as stated above, I am here simply going to start looking at the poem and then keep going until I stop. I will maintain order as I can, but for the most part this is going to be a rather free flowing. Also, as I frequently do on this blog, I will work through questions and observations as much as through analytical statements. Speaking about poetry purely analytically is a self-defeating process: there is nothing I can "prove" about a poem that is not in some way dependent upon the reader's sophistication and individual reading of the poem. I can only present, and see if you agree.

 

So, let me start with generalities. There is rhyme here. Is there supposed to be meter? Taking a quick look, is it supposed to be quadrameter?

You can not settle on the idea of it being quadrameter without forcing (awkwardly) the reading of some lines. For example,

after CENturies miGRAtion INland

the natural reading can be very easily (and still naturally) pushed to

after CENtuRIES miGRAtion INland.

where the IES is but slightly stressed. But the question rises, if you are going to (naturally) stress syllables that (naturally) fall upon stressed beats, then you would you would read other lines as

"and AM part THRAciAN or MAceDOniAN"

or

YOU i'd LIKE to TAKE to BED of CYclaMEN ?

If it were to be quadrameter, I would have to read line 2 as

you i'd LIKE to TAKE to BED of CYclamen

Except it creates an extremely forced scansion: noone would ever naturally de-stress "You," especially in that it is the focus of the phrase: "it is YOU i'd like to take to Greece."

So, that's a long way around to a somewhat obvious conclusion; and I discard the idea of meter.

 

So then, what about the rhymes?

Yes, the lines rhyme. Though, the line endings have issues with clashes because of the stresses: for example "CYclamen" (it is not "CYclaMEN") and "deSCEND." Now, if the lines were more formally metered, this would be of more importance: that clash between a stressed and unstressed rhyme is much stronger, aurally, in formal meter. But as this is not formally metered, it is not as great a problem. Except, I will say, it still requires attention, though at a more subtle level. The "clashes" that can be (and always are) created are those heard most loudly by more developed ears. Those without such will mostly be oblivious to them. It takes a subtle ear to successfully rhyme stressed and unstressed syllables.

Are there problems with such in this poem? I would say yes. But, in that I believe they are brought about by issues other than a poetic ear, I will pass on them here and let them wait upon those other issues.

 

Notice how there is no punctuation; there is, instead, spaces within the lines. As well, lines are written to use the end of the line to the purpose of punctuation. That too I will let pass until later.

 

Let's move then to specifics, and right to line 5.

What am I supposed to do with "de tribus d'origine asiatique"? It reads as a mongrel mixture of languages. I ask, am I supposed to get something out of the intentional abutting of Latin and French? If so, what? If there is a game going on here I am blind to it (and giving the web a not-too-quick look I cannot find any justification from the phrases themselves). Putting it into English: "of three of asiatic origin"? "I descend of three of asiatic origin"? "I descend, of the three, of asiatic origin"? I am not at all sure where to go, semantically.

Leading off the line with the phrase "de tribus" makes it look like a title, as with De Rerum Natura, meaning, literally, "On the Nature of Things" or "About the Nature of Things." As such, "de tribus" rather naturally reads "on the three." That gets us "on the three things of asiatic origin," which doesn't really help us out that much. So let's keep the full phrase

I descend of three [things] of asiatic origin.

(We will skip the question of whether the mix of languages is in fact creating a grammatic/syntactic mess, except to say that the mere want to ask the question may signify a problem.)

Three what? Is it supposed to be that the speaker comes from three cultural regions, all of which are Asian? Greece is not Asia. Nor, obviously is France or Latin Rome. In fact, using the phrase "d'origine asiatique" in the French rather implies "French with asian origins." In turn, using the Latin "de tribus" rather inputes into "of three things" the idea "Latin," so now we have "of three Latin things, French of asian origin." Which is still getting us nowhere except deeper into the conclusion that the line is a poorly executed attempt at, to wit, sounding continental.

Besides, as said, neither France, nor Latin Rome, nor Thrace nor Macedonia, nor Greece for that matter, is in Asia. (Well, parts of Greece and Thrace, if you back up in time far enough. But that context is not supported by the poem.) So I have no idea as to the function of "asiatique" within the poem (both in the sense of "what idea am I supposed to generate out of it?" and "why is it at all in the poem in the first place?" Does Mlinko mean to say "oriental"?).

Also, how am I supposed to read "after centuries' migration inland"?[FN] This is a very forced phrase. First there is the geographical issue: "migration inland from Greece"? Would anyone ever naturally use that phrase in language? It is not like "Greece" is a ten mile deep strip of coast on east Africa and "inland" is then the whole of the Sahara. Nor that Greece is a small, shoreline port where people naturally land ships for ventures inland. "Inland" from Greece would presumably mean north into the area of Bulgaria. But if we are going to speak at the size of nations, can that be called "inland" what with the whole of the region being called the Balkan Peninsula? I guess you can move up to Romania; but would anyone ever call Romania "inland" from Greece? I think the relationship has rather fallen apart by that point. Besides, "migration" is an action: am I to read this sentence as saying that there were a people who somehow were actively migrating in a direction inland from Greece for centuries?

*********************************
[FN] I do not think the apostraphe is defendable. As I hear it, the phrase "centuries migration inland" elides the "of" of "centuries of migration inland." I cannot come up with a way a possessive apostraphe works. To bring it into context, I have to ask, how did that apostrophe get by the editors of Poetry?
*********************************

 

Look at the end of the second stanza. Why have that "I" dangling out there at the end of the line? Whatever reason you come up with to justify it, I will defeat it with a simple observation: it is cast so far off from "darkness" that it looks like a printing error (or something like a line marker). I would bet more readers than not naturally miss it completely in their reading, moving directly from "darkness" to the next line, then having to go back to figure out what happened: "Oh, I mised that 'I'." It is not like it is creating anything special in the poem. In fact, I would argue the I out there has far more to do with having the line rhyme with "July" than anything else. Unfortunately, the combination of end-lined "I" and the gap in the line creates a visual oddity that just looks bad.

The point is, whatever justification for the "I" you may have, the fact that it looks like an error always trumps it, because of this simple idea: Why would I want any part of my poem to look like a mistake?

Follow me through this. The attentive reader sees the "I" and asks

"Why would you have something so visually awkward in the poem?"

So the reader looks:

"I cannot find anything created out of it; the only reason I see for it is the consequence of the rhyme and the use of spaces in the lines."

So then the reader asks:

"If there is nothing so important about the "I" at the and of the line, why write the line so that it creates something so visually clumsy? Why not write the lines differently?"

To which the reader concludes:

"Either the poet did not care enough or the poet was not sophisticated enough to recognize just how awkward the line is. Either way, the line reeks of lack of effort and attention. As such, how can I at all praise a poem written without effort and attention? Why am I even reading it?"

The only time I could myelf justify such a thing is when the event offers a positive of such magnitude as to dwarf the visual issue. And even then I would still kill it because of that visual issue. Why would I want what looks like a typographical mistake in my poem?

Keep in mind, this is not some text found on a piece of paper in the street. This is a poem published in Poetry Magazine. There is a presumption of quality. A poem found on the street carries no expectation of praise. A poem published in a journal, especially on such as Poetry, implicitly does. And yet here the reader is confronted, within a forum that one would think would be seeking and publishing poems of a certain degree of quality, care, attention, sophistication, with evidence to the contrary: lines in a poem that are willingly (or blindly) awkward and poorly written.

 

Let's move back just a touch: what about that phrase, "pulled like roots from darkness"? First, there is a problem in the lines created by the chosen absence of grammatical marks. The lines read:

The doors that opened to lovers pulled like tree roots from darkness

Because of the lack of a comma, "pulled" is the verb with "the doors" the subject: "the doors pulled." The reader is looking for a verb in the line. Except the intent is for the phrase to refer instead to "lovers." The writing creates a clumsiness in the reading.

Look at the whole of it:

The doors that opened to lovers pulled like tree roots from darkness I close upon us now like book covers

Adding some punctuation:

The doors, that opened to lovers pulled like tree roots from darkness, I close upon us now like book covers

How is this clause bad? Let me count the ways:

  1. Atrocious syntax. Honestly: would any masters student teaching a freshman comp class not mark that sentence as written? The "pulled" phrase is still forced: even with the necessary commas it still wants to refer to the "doors" because of the absence of a parallel "who":

    The doors, that opened to lovers who were pulled like tree roots from darkness, I close upon us now like book covers
  2. Irrespective of whether we tie the "pulled" phrase to the doors or to the lovers, what the hell is it supposed to mean?! How are lovers (or doors) like tree roots to be pulled from darkness? Do people normally feel the urge to liberate tree roots from the darkness underground? Is it generally considered a net positive to pull tree roots out of the ground? (Oh my god, look at those poor tree roots in the darkness of the ground! We must free them!) Obviously not the case, so I therefore assume the phrase is to be read as a negative. So if the act is a negative act, why are the lovers "pulled from darkness"? Is the darkness to be understood as a good? At a more simple level, how are tree roots like lovers, or lovers like tree roots? Also, since the speaker closes the doors, I read the above phrase as intending that the doors were doing the pulling. Which reads against the natural reading of the sentence as written: something else did the pulling. But what? And why?
  3. Ok, yes, the next stanza begins "The alcove in which we embrace." The doors then are the doors to an alcove? Essentially, to a closet? "The doors that opened to lovers": something was being opened upon the lovers. Only, the doors to a closet opened to lovers? Would somebody ever say "I have opened the closet doors upon the bedroom"? (That is, unless by some bizarre misfortue the narrative world begins for you with you standing inside the closet. But even then, it comes off as bad writing. Standing in a hallway a door can open upon a bedroom. Not from an alcove.)
  4. Wasn't the whole point of the opening of the stanza – five lines describing a moonlit tarverna overlooking the Acropolis – to present a scene that would be at its best only if the second person was there with the speaker? Isn't it creating a wished for scene? Shouldn't then "pulled like tree roots from darkness" be a positive (contrary to the semantics)? And why, if it is the wished for dream, does the stanza end with the two closing themselves off from it as though the scene overlooking the Acropolis was a negative, or, at least, nothing terribly important? Basic writing: don't set something up if you are then going to ignore it.
  5. How did we get, within but nine words, from "roots" to "book covers"? After the above people liberate the roots from hell that is underground darkness, do they then cover them up with face-down, open books? Could you have a more blatant example of mixed – if not wholly out of control – metaphors?
  6. If the doors were doing the pulling, are we supposed to be reading that the doors of the closet pulled lovers out of darkness? If so, that is a damn well-lit closet.

I could continue, but hopefully you get the point. The stanza is a mess. And that is my only point. The problems are not something that can be fixed with tweaking: do not look at the above list as points for spot edits. The whole of the stanza is a mess.

Let's instead move on.

  • Why is "a full moon" in small caps?[FN] Is there any reason for me to think it is not an error? Is there any positive benefit to this wholly isolated event? Every time I read the poem I want to correct it, since I can come up with no reason for the typography. (On the Poetry Magazine site it looks very much like a formatting error.)

    *********************************
    [FN] To note, the small caps do not appear on the mobile version of the page. But then I have not infrequently come upon graphical issues with the mobile versions of poetryfoundation.org pages.
    *********************************
  • "This time à deux as then I had no one to kiss": also bad syntax, as the structure implies "this time à deux, because before I had no one to kiss." But "had no one to kiss" is not causal in nature. The sentence should read, simply, "this time à deux; before, I had no one to kiss" The "as then" is not only superfluous but error-creating. (And, again, something that might be pointed out in a comp course.)
  • "Hullabaloo"? The scene in a taverna was a hullabaloo? (A very not-Greek word; a very not-lovers-and-doves-calls word.) And it is also a scene of "lovers pulled like tree roots from dakrness"? So then that phrase is a positive? So then there are people out there liberating tree roots? (What the hell am I supposed to do with "tree roots"?!?! I have no idea. I cannot even figure out of it is a positive or negative image. I can pick one – pick either for that matter – and make it work. But that is not good writing, is it.)

 

Let's branch out:

  • How exactly does a "dove's note" weird a scene? Would a "dove's note" normally weird a scene? If the scene has been "weirded," are we to expect the two are going to come out of their closet in mutual embarrassment saying "that got weird"?
  • How do we get from a scene which is defined by a dove's note to an Uzi? Slight clash in imagery there. Are there frequently juntas in Greece? Has there ever been a junta in Greece?
  • Do you see how we are, as with "de tribus" etc., again globe hopping: from Greece [uozo] to Israel [Uzi] to Central America [junta]? For a poem that is romanticizing Greece, there is sure a lot of energy about things not Greek.
  • Why is the third to last or second to last line not written in the manner of:
    Not        we think        like the epoch
    Everywhere else in the poem the spaces are used in place of punctuation marks. Why not here, where they very much needed? Notice how the absence of commas – present or implied – creates a different meaning to the lines?
  • How the holy topic shifts did we get from a poem that is fantasizing about seeing Greece with a lover to "History makes its noise"? What does anything that precedes "Uzi" have to do with "history makes its noise"? How am I not to read this moment of the poem as "Oh, here's the requisite poppoetry turn to some profound political statement"?
  • In fact, if the poem is supposed to be a fantasy about Greece, why is the poem closing the doors upon the taverna above the Acropolis. And, more importantly, why does the poem shut off the the imagined lovers from Greece by covering them with a book? Does that not that all rather overtly diminish the reality of Greece in preference to some irreal fiction? If Greece is so little a deal that the Acropolis is both cut off physically by doors and metaphorically by fiction, when what is the point of placing the poem in Greece? What is the point of all those energies about heritage? Indeed, if this is a fantasy about being in Greece with a lover, why does the poem wholly drop the lovers to make some shallow, non sequitur statement about history?

 

We skipped the best part, that first line. (And here we circle back around.)

It's you I'd like to see Greece again with[.]

How can that strained construction be justified? When, ever, in that freshmen composition, would that sentence escape this comment, before the class: "Sentences like this make you sound at worst semi-illiterate, at best like you do not care enough about your work to clean it up from what is universally recognized as poor English."

How can that line be justified, it being so aurally painful to hear? The work being poetry does not excuse the writer from basic English. And recognize that the problem is, in the end, not that the construction is not "the King's English." It is not an issue of "rules and their breaking" (another wholly misconceived and misused workshop aphorism). It is that it sounds terrible to an ear of any degree of sophistication. I ask again: why would I put in my poem a line that sounds so terrible, that has so obviously been forced into a bad construction?

The answer is, of course, I would not. The only valid reason I have been able to come up with for such a construction is if the whole of the poem was going to be written in that nature (whether for purposes of comedy or purposes of voice). But that does not apply here. So why then does the poem open with such a aural mess of a line?

I would posit because it rhymes with "myth." Very possibly the same reason the word "hullabaloo" shows up. Very possibly the same reason you have the "de tribus d'origine asiatique" mess. Very possibly the same reason why, in a dark alcove, the scene is described by its "brilliant tile." Same reason why you have that "I" cast out from being part of the poem. Same reason why the poem ends with a preposition.

Indeed, the poem very much reads like a person who is rhyming and is not yet good at it. The lines and wording of the poem read not infrequently as though they were forced by the writer in an effort to meet or make the rhymes. Now, I should say, I believe the brevity of the poem adds to the issue. It would be much easier to write the scene at the taverna – and I am sure it would make much more sense – if more than eight lines were spent on it. But that is the nature of poetry these days. Get in –heritage!– get out, get in –taverna!– get out, get in –something about roots and a book!– get out, get in –profound something or other about history!– get out. There's the framework here for an interesting and well developed poem. Unfortunatley, it was given twenty-four lines when it should have gotten closer to two hundred and forty.

 

So, what do I think about this poem? I think it is a poem whose ideation is totally out of control and so briefly and rapidly presented as to amount to little more than tissue paper depth. It is a poem that occasionally sounds ugly, and not infrequently contrived. I think it is a poem that hangs its hat on a number of poppoetry conventions (and wholly believe it was thus recognized through such by Poetry Magazine's editorship). I think it attempts at a rhyme scheme, but the attempt mostly backfires on the poem. I think it is a poem that suffers from one of primary maladies of poppoetry: it is happy at being short and shallow, with no real development, no real drive to create something of depth or vibrance. It has its little political/philosophical tag at the end, and considers itself profound because of it (but really, if you give it any thought, it is as shallow as a Rick Santorum talking point). And, of course, it is written in the manner of poppoetry: with little real attention to detail; and the hope that its readers will read it with little real attention. Because otherwise, well.

Now is this saying Mlinko is a really bad poet? or merely that this is a really bad poem that somehow got published? After writing the above I did look about, in curiosity, at other poems by Mlinko. But I am refusing comment: not because of the poems but because to say anything at all would open the door to speculation about subjects beyond the context of the above. In the end, whether I found something interesting or found something just as bad, or found something in the middle, my concern here – and my words here – are only about this one poem. And it must be remembered, to understand the context of this post it must be read knowing that this poem is definingly a poem published in Poetry Magazine.

With that, we can here return to the "initial conditions" established above, and ask: what does the fact that it was published say about Poetry Magazine? Note that that statement implies that this poem merited publication over the 10,000 odd poems that were rejected. Second, what does it say about the author that they considered this poem meritable enough to submit to Poetry Magazine? Recognize, though, that question turns right back around and again asks, What does it say about Poetry Magazine, and what this author thought about Poetry Magazine?

And in that turning back around, we get to the most important question: what does the publication of this poem in a premier literary journal like Poetry Magazine say about the state of poetry in the U.S.? What does it say that a poem would be published whose only possible successful reception requires that the reader not pay attention to the words, not hear how the poem sounds when read, and be utterly forgiving about issues with semantics or grammar? What does it say that, to "appreciate" this poem, the reader has to not think about it?

Because once they do, well.

 


A final note, one that might create a greater context to the above: a question that, perhaps, people will ask with this post, or with other posts in this blog.

What do I get out of the above? What do get out of tearing apart the negative (or positive) elements of this or other poems?

In the broad, it is to develop a discourse about poetry and poetics, and about literature as an aesthetic endeavor, not only with other people, but also – and more fundamentally – with myself. Through these posts I create a dialogue between myself and these poems, between myself and other works of literature, between myself and my own creative projects.

For in the narrow, it is only through tearing apart literature – both in the positive and the negative – that one can learn about writing literature. You have to dismantle a clock (either by tool or by pencil) to learn how a clock works. In writing the above I more than thrice began a point, and got well into that point, when I realized that my point was entirely wrong because I missed what Mlinko intended in the poem. Which is not a good thing, by the by: your poem should not prompt a reader to first go "oi, that's bad" and then have to work out why it was bad to then figure out that they were misreading the poem. Your poem should at worst prompt "what's happening here? I don't understand," which then creates the effort to understanding. There is, after all, a difference between a text that is difficult to read because it is complex or subtle, and a text that is difficult to read because it was poorly or imprecisely written.

It is in those searches for understanding, and in putting understanding and exploration into words, that is what makes this blog a benefit to me. (And you will always learn the most when you make the effort to put into words.) Superficially reading poems for the their general mood teaches nothing except how to write superficial poetry and the habit of reading superficially. Exploring, both the good and the bad, the successful and the failing, however: now there is a learning experience. (One can only learn to attend to details by attending to details. And I gave much thought to line endings as punctuation in writing the above.)

Of course, there are other reasons why I started this project. The one that provides the most energy is the one that is alluded to within the last post, that on Poetry Magazine: the want to develop a site (and, perhaps, in the future, other sites) for conversation and exploration about literature as an aesthetic object. Such a conversation requisites, though, its mirror image: such a conversation must also be about the differences between the aesthetic and pop, and must in defense of itself decry the culture of poppoetry.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"Epic" by Ange Mlinko -- Poetry Magazine (December 2013)

poem found here
 

first lines:
It’s you I’d like to see Greece again with
You I’d like to take to bed of cyclamen

 

more is not better; ergo, the few are not the best

– minor editing Feb. 5, 2015
 
This post has been added to the Hatter's Cabinet site via its Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page
 

Those of you who read this blog probably already know (and for those of you who do not I will be up front about) that I have little respect for Poetry Magazine. Nor, for that matter, for most (if not nearly all) of the major poetry journals. That is because for all their posturing, they mostly fill themselves with generic, banal, and, far too often, plainly bad poetry -- but poetry which fits nicely and neatly into the category of pop. Poetry most of all, for it has become a serial issuing of poppoetry, and it should -- beyond all the others -- know better. Usually I can go through the newest issue on-line and point out with each poem the pop hook that got it past editorship despite the poem's many shortcomings. And, it does not take too critical a look at the magazine's web face to see that the magazine has become mostly a shill for the poppoetry/pop-culture-studies industries. (Just as Rolling Stone is now little more than such for the music/entertainment industries.)

However, the magazine does deserve one moment of pause in its defense.

Looking through the Poetry Magazine site, in the editorial statement by the new-ish (2011) editor, Don Share ("To Our Readers">, I see that the magazine gets upwards of "120,000 poems a year."

How, ever, could that statement be taken as a banner of excellence? How could any magazine that wades through 10,000 poems a month at all be able to succeed as a magazine seeking to print "indispensible reading" (as the 'About' page states)? One might think that such a large submission pool offers the magazine the ability to truly find exceptional writing. The reality of it, however, is that by permitting such an inundation, they decimate that very possibility, and nearly assure that they will be publishing quite the opposite.

How? Primarily in that the sheer numbers involved necessitate one or both of two editorial realities: (1) either they must have a large number of first-line readers, or (2) the individual readers must face a massive number of poems. Neither result is a positive. The issue with the second should be obvious: inundate a person with a thousand submissions and they will become numb to what they are reading. (Watch J.J. Abrams all day and you will start to think the Die Hard movies are really good.) Also, the time constraints create a situation where the readers cannot possibly approach each poem with a honestly critical eye. Considering aesthetic poetry usually takes far more effort than conventional poetry, you see the results. The readers start noticing hooks rather than poetics.

As for the first, a broad distribution of editorial labor means that your first-line readers are going to be your weakest readers: those least able to spot the wheat in the chaff, and, more importantly, those most likely to promote pop poetry: i.e., those most likely to pass a poem up the editorial ladder not because of its creative energies but because of is conventionality. It destroys the magazine's sophistication at the start, in an process that has no means of correcting it: the whole point of the distribution of labor is to lighten the load on the upper echelons, to leave to them the final decisions only. They are not going to go back through the piles to check to see if what was handed them is, indeed, the best to be found. They are simply going to accept it as such.

(This is why I generally have little interest in journals edited by university students: most of the time, the people who are working through the submissions are the people most entrenched in pop poetics. And those people are by definition the least capable of spotting the truly creative, because the truly creative is the least conventional.[FN])

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[FN] Which does not mean there is no place in poetry for such magazines. Only, those magazines should recognize that they are not upper tier journals. They should not behave as such, nor expect to be recognized as such. Rather, they should use the freedom offered them by not being an upper tier journal to be creative in the magazine itself. For example, they can get away with things like issues devoted to somewhat limited ideas. For example: "The Spring issue of next year will be wholly devoted to fiction about alien abduction: humorous, serious, poetry, prose, photography -- let's see what you can do with that." The results will be spread about in terms of sophistication; but it has the positive service of opening up -- and energizing -- avenues of creativity and creative exploration not normally available.
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So it should be no surprise that Poetry Magazine offers, month after month, little more than pop fare. Their practices -- their willingness to accept a reality of 10,000 submissions a month -- has to have sabotaged the magazine from the very start. How can there honestly be, in such a massive sample, any real possibility for the discovery and presentation of excellence, of "indispensible reading."

 

What to do about it? I can not help but think about the phrase learned in the economic crash and the profit gluttony that has followed: too big to fail means it has to be torn down. And 120,000 poems a year is definitely the label of a bloated sow. Of course, here, I am not saying Poetry Magazine should cease publication, but it should change its policies and procedures so as to make the idea of 120,000 a year a recognized issue, not a sign of success. Which is not to say they should find new means to successfully navigate the flood: the problem is the flood, not the issue of how to wade through it.

One possibility -- and I'm just going to throw out a couple of obvious ideas here -- is to have the magazine cycle through periods of editorial focus, to announce, "for the next five (or whatever) years, we will be heavily concentrating on X. Don't submit what does not apply." There are two benefits. First, it narrows the submission pool, obviously. But, second, since Poetry is so well established, it creates an atmosphere of mass exploration of poetics and poetry. Three or five (or whatever) years of absolute focus -- including web presence -- on a topic of poetics/aesthetics? Imagine the dialogue that could be created.

For that to escape pop poetry culture, however, such focusing would have to be on subjects of aesthetics and poetics. Topicality is pointless (as magazines such as something devoted to poetry about cats can demonstrate). Issues devoted to topicality (without a previously established focus on poetics/aesthetics) only generates a larger pool, because the focus is on content, not on poetics/aesthetics. And pretty much anyone can write and submit a poem about cats. Political/cultural topicality does not solve the issue: just because your theme carries political resonance does not mean the poetry is not banal: themes like "transgender poetry" or "poetry of the inner city" gets the same results -- sophistication wise -- as "poetry about cats." (The quicker the culture of poetry will admit to that truth, the better off the culture of poetry will be.)

Another obvious solution is dividing up the magazine into different titles of different focuses: Poetry/Lyricism, Poetry/Narrative, Poetry/Form, Poetry/Translation as examples. (Of course, rejecting submission to one because it also fits in another would be counter productive.) The magazine could easily divide its web presence into such, and have the primary (print) masthead be the best of the best. What it offers is not only that the submission pool is divided up, but that the reading process is performed by people whose own poetic interests are focused on that narrowed field: hopefully that results in better eyes looking over the submissions. (A reader with a aesthetic stake in narrative poetry will make for a better reader than someone who just like poetry.)

In truth, I believe the greatest weakness of most poetry/lit journals are that they are too expansive in their coverage: in being so they have watered down their own editorial talents. If you narrow coverage, you narrow the selection pool and make first-line-reader decisions much easier. But also, you present to the writers a statement of purpose: we want to see excellence in this. Can you successfully pull it off?

Now, of course, as with every awards show, for such a challenge to work there has to be the possibility of wholesale rejection. And here we get to the third suggestion, one which really underlies every other possible option with magazines that claim to be -- or, even better, strive to be -- indispensible reading: Don't print it if it's not brilliant.

As quoted on the "About" page, the purpose of the "open door" policy of Poetry Magazine is as such:

May the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius!

I think the key word there is "genius": the purpose of the open door is so as not to miss excellence because of "where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written." The point of the open door seems to me to say to the poets, "If you are willing to make the time and effort to write a brilliance like 'Prufrock' [one of Poetry's points of pride, and something would probably have no chance of being published today], then we will publish you."

But, if a magazine publishes conventional poetry, that intent and search for the "great poetry of genius" will get lost in the resulting flood. Publish only Prufrocks and Prufrocks will come your way. Publish velvet Elvises, and that is what you will get. And in far, far greater numbers.

Can you imagine an issue of a major magazine that had two poems in it?; that stated overtly, "out of 5,000 submissions, these are the only ones that were really worth publishing, that was not simply more of the same." Can you imagine if they wrote not the names of the people who they have published, but the names of the famous poets they rejected? And then prided themselves even more on the poets that came back with "oh, yeah? how about this!" and smacked one out of the park? Can you imagine a magazine that said (as so many do), "to be published in our pages means something," and then actually backed up the words with editorial actions?

Pipe dream, obviously. This is the U.S. of Mediocrity, where our major cultural awards are wholly subservient to the entertainment industry's bottom line. Where inaugural poems are at a level that invites drinking games. Where, if you are to believe the blurbs on the back, every third book of poetry published offers an experience of profound spirituality on the level of Faust or cultural insight on the level of Democracy in America.

When a poetry magazine fills its pages with what it has on hand, despite quality, it is doing a disservice to literature. That is because people read magazines as though they are printing the best of the best. People read Poetry Magazine thinking that they are reading the best poetry has to offer, which is not only not the case, it cannot be the case. The inevitable end result is a watering down of both the idea of excellence and the expectations for excellence, and an anchoring of the culture of poetry within mediocrity and pop. It leads us to accepting banality as excellence, conventionality as creativity.

Even beyond that, it creates a culture of poetry that offers bad poetry as examples of good poetics, conventionality as examples of creativity: it creates a school of creative writing whose exemplars need not hide their incompetency, because publishers of those exemplars are more than willing to ignore those incompetencies. Which tells the up and coming writers that they too can ignore incompetencies. Moreso, teaches new writers that brilliance is far easier attained than you might before have thought.

And I cannot help thinking about the Bridge of Death, and Sir Robin's enthusiatically shouted "That's Easy!"

Which leads us to today's poem, which is, if you go to the Poetry Magazine site for the newest (December) issue, the first poem on the table of contents page (here).

So, we've opened our magazine. It is the first page; it is the first poem. This time, however, let's read it differently. Let's read it without an assumption of excellence (of which there can be no real expectation). This time, read it against the grain, against the assertions of pop culture that "it is on the radio, so it must be good." Read it instead assuming, say, that the first line is an aural trainwreck. Read it instead assuming that the first stanza is laughably bad. Read it instead assuming that the poem as a whole is riddled with bad poetics and tone-deaf wording. Read it assuming that the poem's play is not clever poetics but cheap gimmickry. Read it looking for the poppoetry hooks that got it through the editorial process. Read it assuming that it is not a good poem, but something that is preying upon the fact that you are not sophisticated enough to see just how bad it is. Read it assuming that the magazine does not want a sophisticated readership, it wants a top-40 readership. Read it assuming that the poem wants you to write poems no better than it is, just as bad as it is, because then it will not need fear the comparison.

Read the poem with this expectation: prove to me you are as good as you claim, for I know most of the time that that is a lie.

Read the poem out of the natural conclusion of "120,000 poems a year": there is no way this could possibility an exceptional poem; there is every reason to believe that it is poppoetry, that it is probably mediocre at best, and that it probably got through the editorial process for reasons that have nothing to do with brilliant aesthetics or creative poetics.

When you read, demand that the poems show you they are worth reading. Where they do, you have found something to learn from. Where they do not, you very well may be wasting your time.

One of the interesting things I have noticed in reading the Poetry Daily and Verse Daily sites, in writing these posts, is that, when taken on the whole, poems that come from books tend to be better than poems that come from journals; even the prestigious ones. (Now, this an observance, not scientifically acquired data. But, one with which I am comfortable at the moment.) This does not suprise me: 120,000 poems a year makes for a poor magazine. That is the underlying truth of it. How could it possibly be otherwise?

So when pick up a Poetry Magazine, you should read its contents with this idea in mind:

 
My endeavor is to write better poetry than this.
 

That is all Poetry Magazine has to offer a poet who is striving for something beyond pop.

 


I want to add a note on the idea of "tiers" brought up in the footnote above. I believe one of the problems with poetry publishing in the U.S. is that they are all far too ecumenical, and yet so many of them still want to claim status as being a publisher of important poetry. A great number of Poetry Magazine's submissions would disappear if they simply took the stance of "We are an top-most tier journal. We only publish the best of the best." It would be a very interesting event if journals were to divide themselves into tiers, and expected from their submissions work of the level of their tier. There would be in the submissions itself a great deal of self-ordering. A poet that knows they are only of whatever degree of sophistication would not expect to be published in journals of higher tiers.

It would not be such a bad thing for the poets either; for they would know where to go to find journals that offered them something fruitful in their development; a journal that offered (perhaps in online presence) a place for dialogue at their level of exploration. Also, on the part of journals, it would prompt the end what to me is self-limited publication strategy: to go national. There needs to be more local journals: that is, that journals only reach out to their areas. Then writers of the region have journals that are interesting in their development. Does, say, Southern Review really have a stake in developing the liteary culture of its region if its eyes are all over the globe? Wouldn't it be better for both the journal and the region if they brought their eyes in?

I believe this to be a lesson learned in bookstores, both local and chain. The more a store interacts with its customer base, responds to the customer base, is developing the readership in its customer base, the more successful the store tends to be. Why does this not apply to literary journals?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Free Verse by Charles O. Hartman (sort of)

Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (Northwestern UP, 1980)

 

Two Thoughts (and a Note) on the Poetic After Having Barely Started to Read Charles O. Hartman's Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody

-- corrected a terminological error, Nov. 20, 2013

And when I say "barely started to read" I mean only as far as the second paragraph. So, before I continue, for those of you who are unfamiliar with what the phrase "thoughts on reading" indicates, keep in mind I have only read two paragraphs of Hartman's book. This is not, then, an engagement with the ideas therein but only ponderings prompted by that little bit that I have read. As such, it is very much the thoughts that I am bringing into the book (and, as such, it rather prompts a follow up essay after the fact, to speak out of the ideas of the book).

To note, this post is the post on terminology that was cued in the post two back on "Rocket" by Todd Boss. Though, it obviously because something larger when happenstance had me pick up the Hartman book.



 
Thought #1
back to top

This is from the second paragraph:

That year [1908] Y.S. Omond wrote a short article on the subject of verse for a widely read intellectual journal, Living Age. [. . .] In the article, he poses an innocent question: "It is not uninteresting to ask what determines the length of verse-lines." Omond observed that the length of lines readers were willing to accept, and poets were therefore willing to try, had gradually increased until "Tennyson ventured at last on nine beats." The progress might be sustained, but Omond dared to doubt that is "can be considerably prolonged without substantial other modification."

There is an interesting though not at all uncommon phrasing within that sentence: "what determines." The phrasing speaks an assumption within the question: an assumption that is in the limited context only presumed in the Osmond quotation, but which is nearly ubiquitous in conversations on poetry and its writing. It is an assumption that in a great measure predetermines both the nature of the answer to the question and that answer's invariable and inevitable failure as a lasting solution to the question.

The assumption is that both the question and the answer, and the subject of the two lie within the domain of the quantifiable and qualifiable. To say it again, when you hear this question asked and explored in contemporary poetical circles, it generally carries the assumption that "if one is to ask a question as to the length of line-verses (or anything else about poetics for that matter), then that question is an exploration of the measurable, the discretely identifiable, the definitionally qualifiable." The question, as it is written in the quotation is then the search for that some thing that "determines the length of verse-lines."

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Poetry that Writers of Poetry Have No Excuse Not Reading, Parts 1 and 2

Poetry that Writers of Poetry Have No Excuse Not Reading, Studying, and Reading Again, Parts 1 and 2

 
-- minor edits and changes, Nov. 15, 2013

I began this list earlier this year on the sister blog, The Poetical Works of Alfred Tennyson Loaded Successfully. Unfortunately, you need only glance at the blog to see that my web attentions have primarily been here. (I never even got around to editing the little thing.) Since it fits well in this realm, I am going to bring it over here.

The idea is rather explained in the title: poetry that is as good as it gets in English, but which so called students of poetry -- writers of poetry -- seem to continually ignore in favor of things more contemporarily seminal[FN], like newest and latest from whoever's in what journal. There has been floating on the web a little spat of reading lists created by this that and whoever poet or filmmaker or scholar. This is my contribution to the ferver.

But I should restate the key point: this is not merely an ongoing Top 100 list of poetic works. The point here is that these are works that should be requisite canon within the particular field of the writers of poetry. At least, of those writers who aspire to something greater than conventional pop. These are works that open the doors to the high art of poetry. Their value is beyond the cultural or the literary-historical. They are works of beauty.

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[FN] And by "seminal" I mean "poetry whose style you should copy if you want to try to get published in the poetry journals."
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I title this entry "Parts 1 and 2" because the first five come from the post on Tennyson. The rest are here added. More will come, as they come to mind or to attention.

"Rocket" by Todd Boss -- Poetry Daily, 11/13/2013

from Poetry (Nov. 2013)
poem found here
 

first lines:
Despite that you
wrote your name

 

the very important importance of lines

 

Lines, again, I know. I am constantly returning to lines or line breaks. But in truth no matter how I might want to go explore and strengthen other arguments to different conclusions, I invariably return to the primacy of the "line" in poetry and for poetry. If there is to be any sophistication to the writing of poetry, then it must begin in the idea of the "line."
 

--- And immediately I recognize that there is in the above an issue with terminology as to the word poetry. Though, rather than address it here in very-brief, I will give it its due in a separate post, to follow this one. ---
 

Now, why the quotation marks around the word line? Because I want to leave open exactly what a "line" is, and give definition to it that only goes as far as "a discrete visual unit on the page." That way, the idea includes such things as vertically typeset text (where a line more narrowly defined might only include a single letter); visually broken or stepped lines; concrete typesetting (which I consider mostly a gimmick but which inhernetly proposes the idea of the visual structure being a "line"); and even, possibly, the prose poem (which, in its finer forms, might be considered a very long but nonetheless one-line poem).

To me, not crafting lines is the equivalent of etching an image into the side of a large block of marble and calling it "sculpture."

    "You do realize that sculpture is rather inherently an exploration of three dimensions?
    "I'm postmodern."
    "You're a looney."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Lost Civilization" by Henry Hart -- Poetry Daily, 10/26/13

from Familiar Ghosts (Orchises Press)
poem found here
 

first lines:
Wine festered at the bottom of my skull.
            Wind blew the night's big ideas off the trees.

 

the structure of the content

 

How content is structured -- which is includes what content is included -- is as important to poetry as is poetics, just as it is important in any art form. In fact, I do not think it too far afield to talk about content in literature in the same manner that we talk about composition within the visual arts: a scene does not a sophisticated painting make. It is what you do with the scene.

In prose writing, one of the common errors of people just entering writing is, when writing from life, to include information (and to write it a certain way) because "that is how it happened." The error derives from the desire to narrate: the lower the sophistication of the writer, the more that narration tends toward reportage, or the exact narrating of the facts and the facts alone. Sophisticated writing, however, does not lie in the facts -- even in the "facts" of fiction. Facts and details are but tools to the greater composition. So also narration itself. Aesthetic writing is not narration: it is creating a unified piece (of whatever size and shape). The result of writing is not the story or the scene (or even the idea), but the poem, the short, the prose poem, the seven-hundred-page epic, the whatever.

When Pound and the Imagists made the statement

To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.[FN]

as their second rule of poetry, they were stating what is to more sophisticated readers an obviousness. Something that does not belong reads like something that does not belong to a sophisticated reader. For example, if you start something and then drop it -- let's say you start a poem describing a dress, and then that dress never returns to the poem -- you have created an event in the poem. A sophisticated reader will notice that you spent lines talking about a dress, and they will notice that you then never again talked about the dress. They will look for a reason why. And if they cannot find a reason why, for both aspects, that moment will read like a mistake. And superfluity is a mistake.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Lo Mein" by August Kleinzahler -- Poetry Daily, 10/14/2013

from The Hotel Oneira (Farrar. Straiss amd Giroux)
poem found here
 

first lines:
You were still only a child,
I, nineteen, the age of your eldest boy now.

 

creative writing versus reportage and description (and the "mayonnaise jar" trope)

 

There is an interesting thing that happens at the end of this poem.

40 years ago, 40 years . . .
You don't remember all that, do you?
How could you? I'm making it up,
the two of us both there at the same time.

For the most part, writing a poem or story or what what suddenly goes, "surprise! it is not what you think at all!" is one of the cheapest effects you can see in writing. Yet, it is common enough in writers on the lower side of the learning curve that it has a name: the "Mayonnaise Jar" trope.[FN] In long form, it goes something like: "it is an 'But in Reality, Everything Is Actually Happening Within a Mayonnaise Jar' story." The phrase comes from fantasy/science fiction writing, and refers to stories where, at its end, it is suddenly revealed that the whole of everything has been occurring within some grossly defining context: for example, the entire bloody, society-shattering war between the Glumps and the Grogs has really been occurring within a mayonnaise jar. Its most common form in white-bread fiction and poetry is, "But it was all only a dream." It can also occur in more subtle forms. Or, in reverse forms, for example, take the poem that spends thirty lines describing a scene and only two lines on the action/ideation; and when it comes to it, the scene was actually entirely irrelevant to the critical-action. The poem was really two lines long; the rest was fluff. (I remind myself of the "But she is dead, now," line not infrequent to pop poetry, which I talk about in my "#Poppoetry" essay: same basic idea.)

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[FN] Ok, Ok. It might not be a phrase so established you'll read it everywhere you look. But I do see it, or things similar to it, here and there.
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The reason it is such a failing trope is that it is mostly just an attempt at surprise.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Bad Sheep" by Hailey Leithauser -- Poetry Daily, 10/6/2013

from Swoop (Greywolf Press)
poem found here
 

first lines:
Midnight's merely blue,
but me, me, me, I'm

 

wording and context, and poetic gameplay

"Bad Sheep" is playing a game by running the poem through with synonyms and metaphors for the color black. Which is wholly a good thing. Games are good; it is through games that we organize our world and be creative. To be honest, I don't understand why some people hear the word "game" and immediately think pejorative intent: it is unfortunate for them that they have condemned the word, so.

I am sure that a large percentage of poets have played, whether successfully or not, or whether or not the results go any farther than their desk, synonym games like the one here. And, with reason. There is definitely something fun to it, even when the intent is merely to play around and not strive for quality. (It is, after all, very much is the same game as list-making.)

But when you are striving for something beyond goofing-with-words, you should realize that a game, in itself, is not enough to the success of a poem. You still have to create the poem. Always this means that the synonyms game has to be embedded within an ideational matrix, that which turns the game from a list to a poem. Here, you have the play with the idea of black sheep, and the simple idea of "search as you might, you will find me black through and through."

Thursday, October 3, 2013

"A Fold in Time" by Ann Lauterbach -- Verse Daily, 9/29/2013

from Under the Sign (Penquin Books)
poem found here
 

first lines:
Not to swerve off the road
dust runs in the family

 

asking the question: "why should I read this?"

-- framing paragraph and minor text additions, 10/8/2013
 

Let me add a statement for framing. If you read the following -- or the header question -- as pointing to a specific answer, that is not the intended end. The end here are the questions. The nature of this poem is a good one for prompting questions. What is important here is that to be honest with your own poetic explorations (as reader and writer), these questions should be asked.

Yes. The very nature of blog speaks that I believe there is not enough critique -- and I mean critique as in questioning -- of contemporary poems. But there is another side to it: There is also not enough -- not nearly enough -- defense of poems.

Of course, I am talking about poets defending their poems. If a poet is serious about poetry they should be able to offer with their poetry justification, purpose, the reason why we as intelligent readers should be interested in the poem. Indeed, it might be argued that the very definition of serious poetry (I mean serious in intent, not in tone) is that the poet has an aim, a purpose, an exploration of poetry qua poetry with whatever they are working on at the moment. (That is, there primary projects; not every throwaway ditty.[FN]) Far too much poetry these days is written simply because the poet had an idea and broke up some lines. But, then, any poet, writer, artist, has little ideas, little moments of exploration that result in no more than sketches in notebooks (or posts on facebook). Except, with artists they stay in the notebooks. While it seems with poets everything is worthy of submission -- and acceptance. It's a poem; it looks like other poems; that's good enough. So maybe it is more correct to say far too much praise is offered to poetry simply on the merits of that it is poetry. (The "I wrote a poem! Praise me!" syndrome.) It seems the half of the time the line break is a thing meritorious in and of itself. It's a book of poems; I'll slap some praise on its cover. Where ever is the question on the part of the critic of "Why should I care? Why should this deserve my time? Why should I speak the name of this particular poem, this particular book of poems, rather than that of some other?"

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[FN] Though, it could be argued, and I would indeed argue it, that even in the throwaways there will still be some sense, some taste, some echo of those major explorations occupying the poet's mind. And I should say, these explorations need not be "I'm going to change the face of poetry on this planet!" explorations. They can be quite simple and fundamental: "I'm exploring the relationship between syntax and line breaks," for example.
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It is the "rather than" in that last question that is important here.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"The Mind After Everything Has Happened" by Rowan Ricardo Phillips -- Poetry Daily, 9/25/13

from The Paris Review (fall 2013)
poem found here
 

first lines:
Perpetual peace. Perpetual light.
From a distance it all seems graffiti.

 

explorations in punctuation and ideation

This poem offers a couple points for exploration and questioning. I'll just take a couple, one at a time.

 
(1)

Have you ever written a poem like this, that is made of short (often verbless) phrases which you want to keep separated in equal measure? Have you ever given serious play to the possibilities? There are actually quite a few. Here, the decision was to go with periods. But, since the poem moves to full statements at the end, it might have been possible to use semi-colons. (I am going to resist changing any wording or lines.)

Perpetual peace; perpetual light;
From a distance it all seems graffiti;
Gold on gold; iridescent, torqued phosphors;
But still graffiti; someone's smear on space;
A name; a neighborhood; X; X was Here;
X in the House. A two-handed engine
Of aerosols hissing Thou Shalt Not Pass
On fiery ground. A shot-down Aurora

I stop it there because that's the first of the long statements, and the shift to a period seems justified. You have to recognize, however, that when the poem shifts to fuller statements separated by periods, it creates a difference between the weight of the elements of the first part of the poem and those of the latter. I wonder if it works to greater success killing the first letter capitals?

Monday, September 23, 2013

"How to Make Love in the Garden of Good and Evil" by Lo Kwa Mei-en -- Verse Daily, 9/18/2013

from Ninth Letter (Spring/Summer 2013)
poem found here
 

first lines:
Your nimbus is pouring. Your halo shows off from under my dress,
         bird of light. Unwit cage. In a beginning there was a fruit & a noose

 

asking why? and not just what?

-- footnote on source added 9/23/2013
-- editing and some small rewriting done 1/15/2014

I came upon the "Hand in Hand" little "writer's advice" curiosity from Wofford College during one of my tumblr respites. Most of the hands I find to be little more than bumper sticker writer-theology, though a couple have strength beyond their brevity. One that pops up more than once -- something also that is frequently heard said by peddlers of writing advice -- is the "Read Everything" exhortation.

Yet, it can be argued that there is no quicker sign of a shallow writer than that they "read everything."

When Wallace Stevens was asked what he thought about Ezra Pound (and, if I remember it correctly, the same here is for Ezra Pound when asked about Wallace Stevens -- I believe I have the ordering right), he answered that he did not read Ezra Pound's works. And when asked why, he answered that he did not have the time. Which was not an underhanded slur, but a statement of truth: to successfully read either of their works takes time and effort. And both were unwilling to read shallowly works that merited reading deeply. (Keep in mind, by the time of this asking, both writers had a large body of work.) (I am trying to track down the source of that story.[FN])

********************
I found it. It is from page 1 of Marjorie Perloff's The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition. She tells it -- with much more detail -- from the side of Pound being asked to speak about Stevens by William Carlos Williams.
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Read, yes. Read a lot, yes. But read "everything"? No.

Monday, September 16, 2013

#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture of Poetry in the U.S. -- Part IV

The final part of the essay. In one way, a Defense of Poetry. In another, an Offense of Poetry. Either way, it is very much a statement of belief for both myself and the project that is this blog.

With this post, the entire essay can now be found on the website, here (including the pdf).

 
Here is the jump table for the previous parts, as they appear on this blog:

  • Part I. Introduction: That which Should be Assumed
  • Part II. Emotionality, Authority, and Morality
  • Part III. The Poem and the Replies: Structure and Ideation

The full essay is also on my Hatters Cabinet site, here.


 

#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture
of Poetry in the U.S.

Part IV. Summation, Conclusion, and the Inevitable J'accuse

Yes, the saying that "99% of anything is crap" is a touch hyperbolic in the use of the word "crap": there is in every society some degree of quality control, and so most of the 99% would actually lie within the mediocre rather than the god-awful. (Though, mediocre is a relative term -- something directly to my point.) It is nonetheless worth the while keeping the phrase to heart lest you forget and you the words "J.J. Abrams" and "auteur" in the same sentence.

Let's take as a for instance Major League Baseball. It might not seem to apply to MLB that "99% of anything is crap" -- presumably meaning 99% of all Major League baseball players are crap. It does, however, but you need to expand the context to its fullest. Every Major League team has beneath it seven or eight or so minor league teams. (And below that there are the college teams, and then independent leagues, etc.) And while I would still not call those players crap, they are for the majority well set within the mediocre, or even the sub-par, when they are compared to the players of the major league. Like an iceberg, Major League Baseball is but the more visible top ninth of a much larger mass.

What is important is to recognize that Major League Baseball has a vested interest in bringing the best players to the top: it is, bluntly, to their financial gain.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture of Poetry in the U.S. -- Part III.2

This is the second half of Part III of the essay. The first half (with introductory comments) is here.

In Part II I give links to a small number of pages that are set up as support to the essay (including links to the poem as it stands on Verse Daily and the original post). Here they are again:


Here are the links to the other pages as posted on this site:

  • Part I. Introduction: That which Should be Assumed
  • Part II. Emotionality, Authority, and Morality
  • Part III. The Poem and the Replies: Structure and Ideation
  • Part IV. Summation, Conclusion, and the Inevitable J'accuse

The full essay is also on my Hatters Cabinet site, here.


 

#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture
of Poetry in the U.S.

Part III. The Poem and the Replies: Structure and Ideation (2d Half)

"If you had bothered to think about the poem": it is not a passing phrase. It is establishing the poem within the idea of intellectuality -- a positive trait for a poem in any context. It is echoed in the next sentence: "rather than simply being a poem about death": there is a greater reading, a more subtle reading, a more profound reading than what I have seen myself. Which is to say from within the authority structures of the nomos of poetry, than what I am capable of seeing myself -- which is not merely a slur.[FN1] The statement is effort to establishing the quality of the poem, and is performed in the standard way: the Replies as a whole are just such performance: the poem’s quality is established in that an authority (the poet, who is also a professor of literature) is speaking the poem as quality, and the attacks upon that quality are dismissed through the diminishment of the authority and presence of the questioner. This is quality throughout any nomic culture: quality and importance exists wholly within the ascription of that character to a text by authorities: quality -- just as with meaning -- is performed. The text need only support through shallow reading that ascription. All that is needed after that is for that quality to be performed by someone else: which establishes the meaning as truth within the nomos. The Review of Books says a book is important; the readers accept the truth of the statement and reiterate it through their own words or wallets, and the book is, thus, important. “Spook House” is a smart poem. Its meaning is about “trauma and uncertainty.” All I needed to do is “think about the poem” and I would have seen it.[FN2]

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[FN1] The granting of the ability to see the correct meaning points back to Part II: only a person of accepted authority has the ability to see the correct meaning. Everyone else accepts the meaning in a pedagogical disposition.
 
[FN] This is something you can watch happen at poetry readings.
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Except, can the poem really sustain that reading?

#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture of Poetry in the U.S. -- Part III.1

This is Part III of the essay. Here, things get much more directed toward the poem itself. Also, the essay turns more directly toward the normal subject of this blog: the writing of poetry. Within Part III, this will be primarily how pop poetry is written, and, equally importantly, is read. This essay is, after all, about the U.S. poetry culture as a culture of pop poetry. But to me this section is not terribly unlike a normal post here: only much longer, and a bit more academic.

Because this part is centered upon analysis of the poem itself and of the "meaning" of the poem, it is more grounded than the previous two parts. Unfortunately, because I don't want to continually repeat what I previously said, there is to me the sensation of moving a touch too quickly at times. But, I don't think it too serious a flaw.

Part III ended up very long, so I decided to split it in two. But in that there is no firm breaking point near the middle, I'm posting the two parts back to back, split at what is merely a convenient spot. It ended up a curious debate with myself in what order to post them -- one of the intriguiging aspects of things like blogs and tumblr is that the order of the posting is the opposite of the order of the reading. I decided in keeping the already established order, so that the "next" buttons follow through.

To be clear, there may be a pause but there is no true section break at the end of this post -- the train of thought continues directely into the next post. To note, with the posting of Part III here, Part II is now up on the website.

 

In Part II I gave links to a small number of pages that are set up as support to the essay (including links to the poem as it stands on Verse Daily and the original post). Here they are again:

Hopefully you find this interesting not only as a discussion about pop poetry, but also as an exploration of writing poetry. Section IV will bring this all firmly into that latter idea.


Here are the other parts are posted on this site:

  • Part I. Introduction: That which Should be Assumed
  • Part II. Emotionality, Authority, and Morality
  • Part III. The Poem and the Replies: Structure and Ideation
  • Part IV. Summation, Conclusion, and the Inevitable J'accuse

The full essay is also on my Hatters Cabinet site, here.


 

#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture
of Poetry in the U.S.

Part III. The Poem and the Replies: Structure and Ideation (1st Half)

 

Before continuing, I want to give a moment to the poem itself, to set up what follows. A little effort here might save much effort later.

I take "Spook House" to be fairly stereotypical, contemporary poem; it finds its identity quite comfortably among the greater mass of poetry seen today. Though, it is larger than your average fare (51 lines). It is written, as are most contemporary poems, as sentences broken up into lines. Even as prose the sentences are not terribly interesting: the only real wordplay in the poem occurs at the end of the first stanza, with the mirrors; there is no rhyme or metrical attention; aurally and semantically it is at best non-descript. In fact, when written out as prose (which can be seen here), issues are readily appear, as with the opening lines:

The first I heard of Dante was at the county fair when I was ten, Dante's Inferno slashed in red on a black [. . .]

The visual "slashed" clashes with the aural "heard," and the use of the comma does not make for a smooth read. This is probably apparent to most attentive ears even when read as lines, but is more apparent when put as a sentence.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture of Poetry in the U.S. -- Part II

This is Part II of IV of the "#Poppoetry" essay. (Though probably of five posts, as Part III is long, and I will probably split it in two.)

This essay ended up having a much more academic tone than is normal for this blog -- as might have been expected. Though there has been a couple such long excursions prior here, this is a thing I would normally not post to this blog (and would instead to my other blog, if not directly to the Hatters Cabinet site). Obviously, it is here because it is directly tied to the blog. And, by midway through Part III it will have returned greatly to the main project here: talking about writing poetry.

However, I admit it is a more difficult read than you will normally find here, especially in that there was no intent for the Intro to do any of the heavy lifting: the explaining, the explicating. That starts here, in Part II. But even then, by choice I will not go specifically into defining the nomic (the social modality of our being) and the aesthetic (the individual modality of our being) beyond letting the ideas develop through the essay. In part, the essay is long enough as it is without that added labor. But also because in the end those ideas can not be defined in short form: in fact, the very nature of the ideas are they they are most readily explained by simply presenting them and letting the ideas build upon themselves. Especially in a format like this -- the written word -- where there can be no step by step "ok, did you get that? can we move on or are there questions?" (Not to say I'm not open to responding to such questions.)

In truth, the more you understand the ideas abou the nomic and the aesthetic, the more you recognize that they are very "big" ideas, and are not at all easily condensible into simple description. They have to be developed simply by talking about them and letting the ideas build on their own. I would argue they require turning away from the discussion to watch and experience the ideas as they play out in society and the world. (Thus my hoped for rhetoric and style for this blog.)

Indeed, across the blog thus far I have only slowly offered bit and piece explanations of the nomic and the aesthetic. However, on my site there is a short text titled "A Basic Statement on the Aesthetic" (here) that might give some small aid. Also, there is in another longer essay of mine, "Noble Blasphemy," also on my site, a more direct discussion of the nomic. It can be found on this page, if you scroll down to the paragraph that begins "That it offends the grammatical aspect of being." (Here is a direct link to the paragraph.)


This part of the essay links to other files which I have set up to aid in the reading. In that the essay itself will find final, official home on my site, Hatter's Cabinet of Curiosities, I have put those files up there. (In fact, Part I has already been put up on the site.)


Finally, I want to take a moment to remind readers of the premise of this essay: the culture of poetry in the U.S. is a convention driven, nomic culture, not at all unlike pop music -- thus my title, #poppoetry. Only, this essay is not argument to that end, but demonstration of what is the expected case with any established culture. I wrote this essay because the events having to do with my post on the poem "Spook House" give demonstration to that greatly nomic culture. Part II, here, begins the direct examination of that performance.


For reference, here are the links to the other parts of the essay as posted on this blog.
  • Part I. Introduction: That which Should be Assumed
  • Part III. The Poem and the Replies: Structure and Ideation
  • Part IV. Summation, Conclusion, and the Inevitable J'accuse

The full essay is also on my Hatters Cabinet site, here.


 

#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture
of Poetry in the U.S.

II. Emotionality, Authority, and Morality

 

The post that began all this was posted on May 18, 2013, on my Poetry Daily Critique blog. The post was an exploratory look at structure and ideation using the poem "Spook House" by Benjamin Myers as subject matter. "Spook House" had appeared on the Verse Daily site three days prior. Myers is a professor of literature at Oklahoma Baptist University. Outside his academic work, he has published two volumes of poetry, one of which won the Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry. I assume he also teaches creative writing. (To my knowledge I had never before heard of Benjamin Myers or read any of his poetry.[FN])

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[FN] Which I say only because I believe in maintaining transparency. Outside of that, it means nothing that I had never heard of Myers previously.
********************

Myers's first reply to my post came a month later, on June 25, and the exchange between us lasted but a couple of days. There was an audience to the exchange (which I know both by the blog's statistics and Myers's own comments); I think it is safe to assume that that audience consisted primarily of students. Which is important, as it establishes that Myers was performing for an audience not in the sense of an entertainer but in the sense of a person publically defending their work and station. It also gives no small energy to the idea that Myers was performing a nomos.