Statement of Philosophy

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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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Three Poems by Sarah Arvio -- Poetrty Daily, 2/27/13

from night thoughts: 70 dream poems & notes from an analysis (Alfred A. Knopf)
poem found here

First lines:
there are still the bad dreams I have to say
a dram in the thought of a bad bad night


poetry and the dream; technique and the poetic whole

— reformatted, minor editing 1/26/2014
— this post has been added to the "Best of the PDC" page on my Hatter's Cabinet site.

Now, if you haven't looked it up yet, the book from which these poems come is a collection of poems created from actual dreams, with accompanying notes as to how those dreams played out in psychoanalysis. As such, the poems within the book as a whole probably has a context that is not carried outside the book. As such, there is no reason not to permit that the poems do not work as well outside the book as they would within. (Same as often happens when a chapter is excerpted out of a novel.) In fact, and especially because of the nature of the book, I rather expect it to be so. (Possibly, even, dramatically so.)

Nonetheless, I believe these poems offer something of interest for discussion as they stand on their own, either singly or as a triplet. But before that, a comment on dreams and creative writing.

As a general rule, it is a false step, a very poor approach, to translate your dreams into stories or poems. While the dream may have -- and obviously will have -- unity in your head, where is is an extension of your unconscious, that unity rarely translates onto the page. The exceptions to this rule prove the rule, because in most every exception the writer has used the dream as material to the making of a work (as opposed to simply writing down the dream). (If I remember correctly, Yeats's "The Cap and Bells" is such a poem.) And notice here I am not in any way saying do not let your dreams be source material. In fact, I insist that a writer should be listening to their dreams for source material -- it is in your unconscious, after all, where true creating originates. What I am saying is do not simply transcribe a dream onto paper and expect it to work some dream-like, mysterious effect. That effect must be created by the writer; it won't simply be carried in as dream by the mere fact that it originated as a dream. (There is also the obverse of this: don't write stories or poems that are, in context, a dream. It rarely works, almost always is a bad idea from the get go. Do it to try it out if you want. But recognize it will probably be far more interesting to you than to any sophisticated reader.)


That said, what do we have here? Most obviously, they are not dream journal. They are worked poems. She is not transcribing: the events of the source dreams are, for the most part, but raw material to a creating of micrcosmoi. (Let's hold for the moment the question whether or not they are wholly successful in this creating.) Narrative, such as the dreams offer it, is not at the forefront of these poems. And it should be acknowledge that narrative is not a necessary constituent of a poem-as-microcosmos. It is but a tool, and raw material, to such creating. In fact, when narrative becomes the central point of a creative writing, it will lead you away from the aesthetic, not toward it. (Such is genre, after all.)

What, then, is the nature her creating? There is, of course, a degree of control over the lines: the Amazon blurb calls them "irregular sonnets." Though, in that they hold to sonnet form only in their being fourteen lines, and in the lines hovering around but in no way clinging to five accented syllables per line (I wouldn't even say they were iambic), I have trouble calling them sonnets of any manner. What makes a sonnet is less the count of fourteen lines and more what happens within those fourteen lines. But that quibble is with the blurb; there is, nonetheless, a formality to these poems. (Perhaps my quibble is with the need to call them anything? Why can't it simply be that she is playing with a form of her own?)

But the real energy of Ms. Arvio's poems -- and looking at the Amazon preview of her second book, Sono, it may be this is very much her style -- is in the play along the lines. There are three techniques, here. First, stringing out sounds, as with "a bad potion potent with impotence" in the first poem, and "in a quarrel a quarrel of squirrels / showing their teeth I feel queasy & sick" in the third. Second, there is stringing out ideas, as with "cat . . . wildcat . . . manxman . . . catpal . . . kittened" in the second poem, or the play with "heart," "hole," and "hell" in the first.

But, what for me is the dominating technique (or should I say over-arching, or over-guiding technique) is the syntactic stringing together of phrases, as with the first poem's first four lines. On this, it is not simply that she eschews punctuation. She crafts the lines so that not only is punctuation not needed, but is not wanted. (There is a huge distinction between leaving out commas and writing lines that do not want commas, something which so many poets do not seem to understand.) 

What is the result? Obviously, every poem has a running, non-stop flow to it, without pause, without break. Also, the continual presence of her techniques creates a kind of mesentery that pulls the various elements of each poem together into a unity: they are not best described as a running, linear flow of words. The words, the sounds, the ideas, all interconnect within each poem. They are, to use Joyce's word, a great word (and these poems do remind me of Joyce's own manner of play), wordspiderwebs, something which very much gives description to the organic nature of the aesthetic work.

What I am inartfully trying to get at is that these poems are not merely technique. Three comments on technique:

  1. Technique is but a tool. I have seen many works (in literary and other media) that are built with attention to technique but to no purpose of a greater creating. This very often with artists playing with mixed media, as though they believe that the technique of mixing the media is sufficient to a successful work. (And while we're here, let's accept it, people: most of John Cage's works are experiments of technique: essentially, he was a creative explorer, constantly asking, "what happens when I do this?", but not equally concerned with the unity of the result. They are often wonderful, intriguing, thought provoking experiments; but, still experiments.) The idea that technique is not sufficient to itself to art is why it is said, in the plastic arts, that mere reproduction of life is the lowest form of art (so also as I say with mere narrative and reportage): such art is, in the end, nothing but technique. 
  2. Nonetheless, there can also be true creativity in technique, in that without technique, without interesting technique, the poem (or whatever) will rather lack in life, and become extremely vulnerable in its making to banality or conventionality. This may be what distinguishes the accessible to the inaccessible composition: the more complex, the more irregular the technique, the less easy it will be for someone unsophisticated in the medium to enter the experience of the work. (Consider the difference in compositional technique between Brahms, who is very accessible, and Mahler, who is less so, and then Schnittke, who is far less yet again.)
  3. Technique made a purpose unto itself falls into conventionality and genre. Genre works are readily accessible to their readers because their technique is readily recognized and understood, and rarely changes. (U.S. drama is ridden with technique substituted as art. As a quick example to that rather sweeping statement: listen to the music of Rent; listen to the music of Hair. The former is a direct descendant of the conventions that were created out of the techniques brought to play in the latter. I will admit I have only seen the film and perfmormed scenes/exceprts of the play: but to me it is apparent Rent is a remarkably un-creative, derivitive, generic play.)

The question always to be thrown at technique is, "ok, there is a technique; but what are you going to do with it?" Which is the question which must be cast upon these three poems. There is fascinating technique here, very playful, very experiential; and the poems are brought into a kind of unity with those techniques. But do they truly succeed as individual and whole poems? or, are they more what I call "five-finger exercises": works imperfect in that they are not unified, independent creations, but which still perform to a somewhat-worthy degree, usually as a demonstration of some technique or form of play? A more common word is to call them fragments rather than poems. 

(I pause to remind you we are artificially taking these poem as we find them, outside the context of the book as whole.)

In that they play with dream-like experience, are they of the nature of surrealist experiments: interesting, but (as Batailles would point out to Breton's consternation) incomplete and insufficient as true poetry (true literature)?

Art, that is, the aesthetic when it is concerned in the creating of art (including literature and music), is inextricably about medium. This is much of what lies behind the truism that an aesthetic painter paints (in the end and most honestly) for other painters, a writer writes for other writers: that is, for the people who would most be able to appreciate their creations out of whatever medium, those people who themselves have dedicated themselves to the study and exploration of that medium. A poet, a writer, is supposed to be a lover of words and language. If not, then they are not a literary person, they are a diarist, a documentarian, a reporter merely. So, when someone does things like the play you see in these three poems, true literary people get off on it. It goes to the jouissance of literature; it is the very pleasure of literature (see Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads if you don't believe Derrida, Barthes, et al), it is the experience of the aesthetic. More simply, it is the point of it all. But not only: there is also -- there is more greatly -- the making of the microsmoi that are works of the aesthetic, the enjoyment of that wholeness, of the being, as it were, of the work. More accurately, the engagement of the individual with that work.

Literature as an aethetic endeavor is the attempt to create a cosmos out of words. (I resist the want to say 'create something new' because, in aesthetic creation, every work is, by definition, something new, is its own microcosmos, is its own experience. Thus the distinction between the aesthetic and the generic/conventional/cultural: the aesthetic creates microcosmoi, the generic reproduces the set conventions of the nomoi.) It is in organic that creative works have the most to offer the reader.

Thus the question: are these poems successful poems, or are they fragments? Do we have, here, three successful microcosmoi? My answer to that question is no: I believe the true microcosmoi being attempted here is not the individual poems but the book as a whole: and, as I said, I am very interested to see if that whole is successful. But, irrespective of that question, these poems (and we'll permit the word) are fascinating, enjoyable experiences, carrying even with only this small number of them much to discuss about poetry and the aesthetic, as I hope I have demonstrated. So, while I may not accept them as successful wholes, I gladly accept them as successful explorations of the aesthetic. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"A Moment" by Philip Schultz -- Poetry Daily, 2/24/13

from The Southern Review (Winter 2013)
poem found here

first lines:
A measurement of time
In which dogs live


lists and short lines

-- reformatted, editing and some rewriting 1/10/2014

A note after editing: while on rereading I stand by my observations, here. I should point out that it is a nearly unavoidable effect of speaking to points as "unsuccessful" that it sounds like you mean "glaring unsuccessful." Such is not the case, here. Much of the below is speaking about effects that are less than glaring, perhaps merely "present." But, as a reader, a stumbling point is a stumbling point is a stumbling point, irrespective of the size of the stone. And as a writer (speaking here in the general), finding such is a key skill. Sophistication develops when you learn to see and here stumbling points to which you were previously you were blind and deaf.

I should also add that I do not think the below is itself at all successful in what it wanted to do. Not one of my better posts. Possibly one of the worst. -- 1/10/2014

Lists. A staple of literature. I will admit, I love them. (I have not yet read Rabelais, the first great master of the list, but I have Joyce.) And not just lists qua lists, but lists as syntactic and semantic devices as well. (French literature (fiction and non) is filled with such.)

So, here, a list. What do I think of this poem?

First, starting with the obvious, there is the line length. Why so short? This is how the poem reads to me: "A measurement of time." "In which dogs live." "Without regret." "Or desire to enhance." "Their reputation." "And personal worth." "An idea designed." "To shelter contentment." "And regulate fretfulness."

Do you hear how clunky it is? To my eyes and ears, this is not a poem that is intentionally designed to to have short lines. It is sentences broken into short lines: there is no organic interaction between the line length and syntax (or rhythm). "Oh, but you should read it smoothly," one might say in defense. Then why break it into short lines? What was supposed to be gained in the act? Why not have longer lines (Whitman style); even, one line per sentence? In the least that would be recognizing the structure of the wording of the poem.

"Well, it creates a visual effect," one might try again. Except that poetry is by its nature aural. You have to give the reader overt reasons to not read a work aurally (as with much concrete poetry). So the response is, how can you justify a visual effect that creates such a terrible aural effect? 

"Well, then, it creates an emphasis on the phrases in the poem." Nice try, but no. Yes, it does create an emphasis on phrasing -- that is, perhaps, the fundamental effect of line breaks: to create, visually, "phrasing." Except, here, where so much of the language is abstract, if not of syntactic purpose alone, the idea can not stand justified by the poem: really, what is being highlighted, is that the "phrases" of the poem are actually quite uninspired, banal, even trivial. It is worth noticing, also, how, far down the poem, periods suddenly start appearing within the lines: a giveaway that structure was mis-attended to by a poet. Perhaps the phrasing would be more justifiable if the whole of the poem continued like the first half. But by the time you get to

of sanity. An end
a beginning. A room
in which bad news
resides. A wall

can there be said to be any reason behind the short lines except that the nature of the poem was simply "the lines will be short lines"? Now, that trailing away in short lines is somethin of a pop-postry convention, so you do see it. But the issue is does it work? Even the first half of the poem, do the short lines work? Is that over-punctuated aural effect a success for the poem?

(To note, I am not, actually, stating as fact that "phrasing" as such is the fundamental effect or purpose of line breaks. Nor am I saying it is not. But that statement is definitely something to throw into the ring to ponder and discuss.)

And what of the sentences? (Yes, obviously they are not proper sentences, but they are still sentences: the repeated "it is" -- or something such -- is implied.) There is a decreasing length of sentences, which is an oft seen structure. Of course, that structure is betrayed by the line lengths, which cuts everything down into short choppy phrases. But there is also the content of the sentences to examine. (It is not a bad idea to write the poem out into its constituent sentences. Not a bad idea to do this with any such poem, so as to see clearly the ideas that are -- or are not -- being generated.) So, we can presume the title is the first organizing element: so, what does it say? A moment. Singular. But what do we have in the body? 

Sentences two through seven ("An idea" through "A plea") work well together. (I am passing over phrasing: "a horrid memory or fear of the corner" does not work for me.) The first six are all descriptions of a moment's pause, which can work in their differences as creating a more complex idea than might be generated with a single statement. (Though, not a wholly successful execution thereof.) The final sentence of the group, "A plea," begins to expand out from the small container or the other six, moving out of "moment" into more an action.

But then the next one: "A ubiquitous cave of sanity." That phrase only works when you don't think about it. The minute you do, it becomes daft. There is the ideational clash between "ubiquitous" and "cave": one is expansive, one contractive. There is then the off-syntax: normal English would be "ubiquitous caves." (Or "ubiquitous cavey-ness" or such. And not that you have to stick with normal syntax: but when you vary, it has to work, and here it doesn't.) Then there is the ideational clash with the earlier lines, for example, "in order to regain one's reasonableness and equilibrium." The earlier line is a positive emotional idea, like the general tone of the others, giving the idea of "a moment" taken to move to the positive. But then you have "cave" -- which is not exactly something that fits with a theme of "coming out of a bad place into a good" -- and the longer "cave of sanity" -- which, even with the loosely positive idea of sanity is itself internally contradictory, again in that cave is contractive, while sanity is expansive.

From that point on, the sentences deteriorate. "An end without a beginning." Could you have a more trite usage? Yes, it is something that could very easily appear in "Four Quartets," say; but such a poem is crafted to generate ideas that fill phrases like "an end without a beginning" with complex, vibrant meaning. Throwing out phrases like that to do the heavy lifting rarely works. Here, it is little more than a cheap ploy to to bring in some koan-like profoundity. Besides, how does that fit with sentences 2-6? Does it even carry a successful idea? It should have been killed the moment it was written.

"A wall behind which nothing more waits to happen": possibly an interesting phrase on its own -- though its poetic utility I would question until proven otherwise. Here, it does not work for me. It does not meld with what precedes it. It doesn't aid to poetic unity. (There is even a clash in semantic rhythms, but that is something too subtle for this context.)

And the rest? How are they anything but a jumble of clashing phrases? The aim of a poem structured like this would be (generally) to have the ideation be both developing and congealing as the poem moves along. But can either be said here? especially when the title frames the poems as "a moment"? Far more accurate a statement is that the poem loses control of itself and becomes, merely, a list. And not a very interesting, nor very good one at that.

But, again, this is very much a type of poem you see in pop-poetry, both in subject and in form, from the short lines to the shifting rhetoric. So I can see how it looks like a successful poem. And, because it follows a type, that type will for many readers be sufficient to its success. But that is a poor way to read anything.

So, to go back to the first question, why the short lines? First, I would say, because of the influence of pop conventionality. But also, perhaps, because once implemented, it they serve to hide the problems with the language of the poem. But then I could also say the problems of the poem were created by the short lines, no?

And it is very important that: I see it not infrequently how arbitrary lines create an effect that hides what a natural reading would reveal; and also how they create as many problems as they artificially cure. So care with those line breaks. They very well may be getting in the way of your own crafting of the poem.

To say it a different way, if you are crafting a poem with short line breaks, and you are not intentionally designing each line to succeed as a short line, then you are failing.

To say it yet another way: Don't make line breaks; craft lines.

So what do I think about this poem? All in all I think it fails. Though, breaking a bit from the above, it does read to me like an interesting experiment that did not work -- which makes it a profitable poem from which to learn.


On the positive -- though, because of the distance involved it is underplayed here -- I want to point out the two phrases "regret" and "regulate fretfulness." Do you notice how well they work together aurally? Not just work together, but play together. That is some of the goodness of poetry right there, I tell ya', bud.

Friday, February 22, 2013

"The Caravaggio Room" by Ron Smith -- Poetry Daily, 2/22/13

from Plume (Issue 19)
poem found here

first lines:
"Yuck," you heace in front of that sick boy
with the grey face. "Bacchus, my ass," you say


center formatting

-- reformatted, some editing 1/10/2014

All you poets, all you poets in training, all you poets-to-be, let it be known throughout the realm:


Do Not Center. Ever.


Never ever. Never ever ever. Those occasions where center formatting works -- which is to say is a benefit to the organic whole of the poem -- are such rare occasions they are truly exceptions that prove the rule. The urge to center is a giveaway for poetic immaturity -- which is reason enough not to do it. It can make a good poem look like a fourteen-year-old's personal discovery blog. Do it in private to get a feel for the effect; but do not ever do it in public. Trust me on this. Nothing will deflate a sophisticated reader's anticipation, a reader you are hoping to get advice and constructive critique from, more quickly than being handed a page with a centered poem.

Most of the time, centering accomplishes little more than making the poem difficult to read. Not infrequently, very difficult to read. Especially, as here, where line lengths vary greatly, when your eyes have to work to find the beginning of the every next line. Even when the visual of the poem has the words spread about the page, you have to consider how easy it is to read, whether the poem flows with or against the natural, anticipatory reading movements of the eyes. This is, atually, an important consideration with poetry -- you can make a poem suck by making the reader have to work to hard to read it. Successfully working the space of the page takes practice, exploration. It is just like developing your ear. There are far greater issues that should be the concerns of people climbing the learning curve. Which is why you should take the advice and just don't do it.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"The Ruin" by Jacob Polley -- Poetry Daily, 2/21/13

from The Havocs (Picador)
poem found here

first lines:
What walls and gables, wonders still of workmanship.
Whoever's stronghold this was, havoc's jumbled it


lines and line breaks

-- reformatted, a lot of editing, and a footnote added 1/10/2014

In a guesture toward transparency: As I have said, every moment in a writer's work is burdened with the task of leaving the reader wanting the next moment. Mr. Polley succeeded in that task with me: The Havocs is now on ye old wishlist. But that does not mean I don't have comment.

I hate . . . . I cannot understate this, I hate "muscle women." It is far too slangy a phrase for the tone of the poem. Why not "muscled women"? Same idea, but in vein.[FN]

[FN] Now, interesting question, does "muscle women" sound the same on the other side of the ocean? But I should add, within the context of this blog, where texts are explored through engagement, that question is irrelevant.

But let's move to something a little more fruitful: the opening lines of the second stanza.

What happened? Ruin already had root. Plague came, within
and without. No one, however high, whatever wit,

I have been writing a lot about line breaks. It is not merely incidence of the poems presented. I find the issue of lines and line breaks to be a fundamental issue of the medium of poetry -- and one that is grossly unstudied and unquestioned by most poets of the level you normally see in journals sites such as Poetry Daily. In most poetry, it seems a given that the line breaks were acts of convenience, or are typographical considerations rather than aesthetic considerations. Yes, line lenght is a consideration: poems are visual as well. But you do not simply pull out pruning shears and hack off the lines two inches above the 'V.' If line length is important, you craft lines that fit the length (as, for example, did William Carlos Williams).

In blunt: the visual aspect can never be allowed to override the more elemental notion of crafting a line.

It is one of those peculiarities of the English language that even with formal meter line lengths can vary greatly. After all, "end" and "strength" are both one syllable, no? (Same goes with the aural aspect, which is one of the reasons why it is impossible to write true haiku in English. But, that's beside the point.)[FN] And I find it a peculiarly humorous when, with a sonnet, for example, one line sticks out an inch beyond the others. But that is just how it goes. English is a very strange language when it comes down to it, and for it there is created a great many peculiarities in literature.

[FN] Unless, that is, they actually paid attention to writing syllables that, in English, had nearly the same aural length. Something I have never seen, and yet something that, to me, seems obvious.

So I wonder, then, if it there was influence from the visual side of things that led Mr. Polley to split the phrase "within or without" at the line break. Unfortunately, for me it created an odd reading. Yes, you can say that the line break creates a pause -- which one often hears when such a phrase is spoken in conversation. But that pause sounds for me rather against the rhythms of the rest of the poem. (Indeed, more than rather: wholly against it.)

Also, the pause as written is against how the poem is written. Usually, you make such a pause in speech in order to accentuate the second word: a pregnant pause, as it were. But, here, it is the first word that is the more unexpected.

Because of the break, the reading is put off a touch. And in an otherwise smooth read that little bit off comes off as a big bit off. A well crafted poem establishes and holds to (even with variation) its rhythms. A sophisticated reader looks for those rhythms, and reads the poem within them. A break from that sound can only sound like a mistake -- if it is not crafted to sound intention (which, in the end, is still of the rhythms of the poem). Yet, if Polley had not made the break, that first line would have been a long one, visually. (There is not a set measure for each line, so that is not in consideration.) So, again, I wonder if the visual pushed him into a slight clumsiness. Which is odd, because it seems to me there is an elegant solution: cut "came" to get "Plague, within and without," and keep it on one line.

But, then, would line two have looked, felt, seemed too short?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Cup of Water Turns Into a Rose (excerpt) by Lawrence Raab -- Poetry Daily, 2/20/13

from A Cup of Water Turns Into a Rose (Adastra Press)
poem found here

first lines:
On the radio a choir was singing
"I want to be a crocus"


line breaks and poetic structure

-- reformatted, with some editing 12/10/2013

First off, a note on my choice of texts: I will generally avoid commenting on fragments (unless, as here, my point has only to do with some small detail within the fragment) and with translations (since I rather want to avoid the (weak but bothersome) defense, "well, that is how the original goes"). Both situations carry a context that usually makes explorations too problematic to be worth the while. Though, with the former, there is still an avenue of approach: simply pretend the fragment offered is the whole of the poem: something completely valid when the point is not to make comment about the poem but to explore poetics or such, in which case the limits of source text can be whatever aids the exploration.

Two days in a row with grammar, though, this time with both a negative and a positive example.

First, the negative: line 4: "One of the three men who wasn't me."

Did you catch it? The verb should be "weren't."

As written, the restrictive who-clause applies only to the one man, which rather doesn't make sense because then the restrictive nature of the syntax as regards the "the" in "the three" is isolating the group of three from . . . well . . . there's no larger group from which to isolate them. Also, in that the who clause is restrictive, it needs to apply to the group, not just the one man, other wise the syntax -- not necessarily is incorrect -- but feels slightly off.

So, now it's "One of the three men who weren't me." Is there now a problem with the restrictive clause? No: the three men are being isolated within the larger group of four people, the three plus the speaker. Now, it should be noticed that it does limit the total of the group to four. Which is not a problem, here; that is the case. But I wanted to complete the thought.

Now to the positive: the first stanza. Notice that there is an absense of commas where they would normally be with regular grammar as concerns quoted speech. This is ok here -- especially ok here -- in that Mr. Raab uses the line breaks to substitute for the commas. It works well enough.[FN]

[FN] Personally, I would be unsatisfied with the overall result, and would indent that second line. If no indent, I'd include the commas. Except in that I wouldn't write it that way at all: I hate the sound -- and visual -- of the whole stanza. "I want to be a crocus" doesn't seem to me strong enough to merit occupying the whole of the line. But that's me.

And, yes, there should, technically, be a comma after "mournful"; but that is often dropped under the law of "poetic license." Not necessarily correctly so, though; and, here, I think it should be there.

Except that it is rather odd that the writer decided here not to use commas when the fragment as a whole is replete with them, flooded with them (with the occasional dash substituting at points for reasons I of which I can't quite convince myself their validity). Talk about runaway run-ons, I tell ya.

But there is now a problem. In the first stanza of his poem, he establishes that he is willing to use line breaks as a kind of punctuation. Yet, within the rest of the fragment of the poem (as presented) -- which comes to some 85 lines if I didn't miscount -- there is no evidence that he at all is paying attention to line breaks. So, as a reader who is paying attention, what do I get: first, the use of line breaks as punctuation in the first stanza now stands out as an aberration in the poem; even, an error, in the sense that the first stanza does not follow the rules of the rest of the poem.

This creates a new problem. So maybe, then, the reading that the line breaks are substituting for commas is incorrect (since it is not repeated), and the words in quotation marks is not the words the choir was singing, but the title of what the choir was singing -- the grammar for which would not require commas. But, then, the words are not capitalized, so that's not right either. But then there is a problem in that the stanza is not using the same rules as the rest of the poem . . . so I am still left in a quandary.

Then, of course, as a reader who is paying attention, I also ask myself, why the hell isn't he paying attention to line breaks? Especially when the nature of the syntax of the poem (i.e., the stringing together of phrases into long runs) would greatly benefit from such: it would make the reading a bit easier. With line breaks being meaningless, I am looking to the syntax to help me guide the reading rhythms of the poem; and with the grammar being that the text is, essentially, run on sentences, the poem reads with the same not-right-ness of prose constructed out of run-on sentences.

Yes, you can successfully create poems that have run-ons. Often this is accomplished by having the semantics be of lists; and, there are other ways. Here, however? I am not sure how successful it is. It seems out of control to me. But, again, it is but a fragment, and I wanted to limit myself to the points of grammar. So I will stop here. (Except to say you would think someone would catch a basic grammar error like on line 4.)

"Ars Poetica" by Natania Rosenfeld -- Poetry Daily, 2/19/13

from The Gettysburg Review (Spring 2013)
poem found here

first lines:
"Peace," says the soprano,
retired to the sea, "is the tide


free verse and the poetic ear (and grammar)

— reformatted, some editing 12/10/2013
— This post has been added to the "Best of the PDC" page on my Hatter's Cabinet site.

Note after the fact: I wrote this still early on in finding my sea legs. I rather don't like the tone because it is ambiguous as to whether I am speaking of the poet or the poem -- and I generally want to speak of the latter more than the former. Most definitely, the end of the stanza is terrible. But the cause behind the problem I wanted to leave open, and merely posit ideas to ponder. There is benefit to exploring the question of whether a poet is writing above or below their ability: a question I believe one should always be asking oneself. (Also made a couple of text corrections.) -- April 16, 2013

I'll begin in grammar . . . for in that the commas in lines 4 and 5 break so far from basic grammar, and because the syntax and the grammar, both before and after, are conventional, those commas are wrong. Incorrect.

Now, normally, I try to avoid using words in the domain of incorrect  -- terms that are of the modality of yes/no -- when talking about literature. I try to stay in the realm of sophistication and validity -- terms that reside in discourse and function only as and towards discourse, rather than truth. But there are time when, flatly, something is incorrect. Here, because

  1. it involves grammar, which is not wholly manipulatable, being part of the medium of the work (specifically, here, the English language);
  2. the work establishes itself within fairly conventional grammar; which is also to say, the work does not make effort to establish variations in conventional grammar;
  3. the break from conventional grammar is severe.

As a sophisticated reader, there are two consequences. First, the reading is greatly disrupted. The lines are as clumsy as a drunk, bow-legged ox on platform shoes. Second, more importantly, I am left with the impression that either (1) the poet doesn't know how to use a semi-colon; or (2) the poet doesn't have a developed enough ear to hear the problem for themselves; or (3) the poet has an attitude toward their art that permits such laxity and apathy that they don't feel the need or obligation to learn their medium, or the need or obligation to give the degree of attention to their art to eliminate such problems. Whichever the reason, it makes the poem something not worth reading (or, greatly less worth reading), and diminishes the interest in the poem's maker. (Which is not a good thing.)

Of course, I could try to say it more simply by saying the writer of such a work is not terribly sophisticated (which is not the same as saying that the work does not show great sophistication, which is true); except that saying such eliminates an important distinction: there is a difference between a person whose work is unsophisticated but still at the level of the poet (or, hopefully, at the level of the poet striving to be better then where they are) and a person who is not bothering, who uses reasons and rationales (or a fundamental apathy) to permit a lackadaisical method and style. Which is why people like me condemn the permissibility in creative writing instruction of free verse: a poet has to develop their ear and ability through formal verse. I will give two general (and associated) reasons:

  • First, it is harder to hear elegance, fluidity, control, in free verse than it is in formal verse (or, in reverse, it is easier to develop your poetic ear through formal verse).
  • Second, it is far easier to develop bad habits -- and rationales for inattentiveness -- through free verse. (I should say, I have known many instances of such rationales being propagated through workshops and formal classes.)
  • (If you need a more formal reason, then I point you again to Gombrich and his Art and Illusion, to the idea that an artist develops through education through schema, and learns in sophistication to break from schema.)

To sum (and we have been for a while wholly in the general): there is no excuse to not know your medium-language; there is no excuse for getting grammar wrong (which is to say, there is no excuse to not being proficient in grammar, and well-equipped in syntax); and, once again, such errors come off to sophisticated readers wholly to the disfavor of the poet. Always.

Which brings me once again to the question of publication: the editor in this case failed their journal, pure and simple. There is sophistication also in editorship, and, unlike the poem, which speaks only of itself, in terms of editorship such lack of attention speaks to the whole of the publication.


An aside: I toy every once in a while with this question: "is it possible to tell from reading a poem whether the poet is of a lesser sophistication and trying something difficult to them, or whether the poet is simply not trying very hard." Given a large enough sample I think the usual case is yes. On a smaller sample, however, I flip flop. Sometimes it is obvious, as when errors are obviously mistakes (seen in comparison to the rest of the poem), or when the the nature of the attempted work speaks of exploration beyond the poet's current ability. Sometimes it is not so obvious. I am not sure what you can take home with this other than awareness of the question, which I think is more important than you might at first realize. And there you go.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

My Website:

I have launched my website: Hatter's Cabinet of Curiosities -- here.

It is just starting; not much there now. But will hopefully become a site about literature and the aesthetic, but in me presenting ideas and theory there about, and as a site for discussion and promotion of aesthetic creative writing.

While it is young, now; I have hopes for it to blossom into a community, interested in the aesthetic in general, and literature in specific.

Friday, February 15, 2013

"The Joy That Tends Toward Unbecoming" by Joseph Fasano -- Verse Daily, 2/15/13

from Fugue for Other Hands (Cider Press Review)
poem found here

first lines:
Say five men carried a sixth from the birches.
He is thin from his night inside the river.


ideation (and a note on the punchline poem)

-- reformatted, minor edits 12/10/2013

Let's look at the sudden appearance of new information at the end of the poem: the "you"; something I have ranted upon (about?) previously. But not here, because this is most definitely not a punchline poem. Why not?

First, this poem breaks away from the flat linearity to which most punchline poems adhere. Thus the frequent nature of punchline poems as having little if any development, and the punchline is meant to function as a kind of injection of energy into the whole poem through a single phrase. Thus the nature of the "mayonnaise jar" category of unsophisticated imaginative fiction (i.e., a story that twists at the end with a revelation of the nature of "but, in truth, they all really live in a mayonnaise jar!" -- which is, indeed, of the same type of structure as punchline poems).

This poem, rather, develops energies through repetition (birds, hands given the look of plants, killing) and by refusing direct narrative. It starts with the opening "Say," which is not "it is thus." We begin in metaphoricity, not documentation: and idea of the body of a man murdered, of a man's murder, of murder and killing and death. Then a bird which exists only in thinking, and so also the speaker picking up its carcass. More death, but the deepening of the ideas (e.g., with the entrance of Christian themes). 

Then, finding the boy, and the event of the previous night's battle with a black swan. The opening ideas are coming together through the tightening of the ideational complex upon this one event. And then the appearance of "you." Which comes in both to finalize the coalescing of ideas, and to bring into the mix that unifying idea: "Say you were the wild gift." And notice the swan is called a gift -- more to the play, without denying anything previous, and still integrating into the whole (just as with a well-crafted sonnet). Here, the last lines make a "you" out of the boy, and connects the swan and the dead man, and more.

So then the contrast with the punchline, which does not enter into a poem but gives it new definition (frequently its only definition) -- definition being a word to set in opposition to experience. There is no integration in a punchline poem, there is no ideational unity; there is only a joke (hidden by the supposed gravity of the injected idea), and, usually, a bad one at that.

"What does it mean?" you may be asking? Contrary to popular belief, the aesthetic is not concerned with meaning -- except as part of the medium used in making a literary object. Don't look for meaning in literature. Look for experience. Not the experience of narrative, but the experience of the literary object itself. The experience of this poem, for example. Give it a few close readings. Pay attention to the ideas being offered, developed. See how it weaves itself into a whole, in no small part by the entrance of that "you" in the final lines. Explore that event of successfully bringing in information at the end that does not change but fulfills all that preceded.

Especially you other writers. I followed links to other poems by Mr. Fasano ("October," "Sudden Hymn to Autumn," "Mahler in New York"). This, I believe, was the best of them. Others behaved similarly, but couldn't achieve the unity found here. In the others, the play of stringing together strange ideas overtook the unity of the poems as a whole (which I say merely to give possible comparison, something for those who wish to look might finder worthy of ponder). 

But, I did look. 

One of the fundamental rules of literary endeavor: every word should leave the reader wanting the next word; every line, every sentence, the next line or sentence; every stanza, paragraph and page, the next likewise; and every poem, book, or story should leave the reader wanting to read that poem, book, or story again, and to seek out others by you. If ever not, you have in that moment failed.


Titles are an occasional bugbear of mine. At times I think they should be either trivial, or wholly integrated. This poem's title is the latter, and well written, I do believe.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Conversion Figure" by Mary Szybist -- Poetry Daily, 2/13/13

from Incarnadine (Graywolf Press)
poem found here

first lines:
I spent a long time falling
toward your slender, tremulous face—


is there a bar in poetry publishing?

— reformatted, with some editing 12/10/2013
— this post has been added to the "Best of the PDC" page on my Hatter's Cabinet site.

If you were paying attention, you should have felt a jolt at "I fell toward the pulse in your thighs." That jolt would have been brought about by an abrupt change in the situation of the poem. Specifically, the line contradicts the opening stanza: "falling / toward your [. . .] face." It is made even more jarring because the structure of the opening of the poem reinforces that fixed point: the first stanza establishes the target of a descent and, with its dash, cues the purpose of what follows: three stanzas describing approach, assumedly to the already named target of the face.

Can it be argued that the target has changed? You can try, but there is nothing in the ideation of the poem that gives support to that. So, you might as well be arguing that "the target would have continued to be her face except before the falling reached its target the girl's head fell off and rolled down the hill." Which is, actually, a somewhat loaded joke, there. After all, that is rather what has happened: the face and all its importance (after all, the faller spends "a long time falling toward her face") have disappeared from the poem. "Forget the face," the speaker essentially implies, "I'm gettin' me some."

Crude, but not an unwarranted reading. The contradiction was an obvious error -- and there is no other word for it -- I caught it in my first reading. Now, such a thing would not be tolerated in prose: especially conventional, narrative prose, where what is said is wholly expected to be what is, unless overtly corrected. Why should it be tolerated then in poetry? (especially poetry of like modality?) What justification is there for accepting in poetry -- a form of language that is almost universally characterized as being controlled language (in whatever form) -- something that any competent prose editor would catch and mark?

I am not asking this facetiously or sardonically, but honestly, toward an honest debate on what could stand as an acceptable bar for any linguistic endeavor. I would like to hear the author give defense as to why this quite apparent contradiction within the flow of ideas is acceptable within the domain of this poem (as is defined, of course, by this poem). I would expect that there is no workable justification; but, I would also expect that comparing the poem as presented to the intended result would create an interesting discussion as to how to write such an idea that begins in the face but moves to the sex, without using a jump cut. If I was teaching a poetry writing class, it would be a weekend assignment, and probably create a wonderful class discussion as to what methods were attempted and their degrees of success.

Which is to one of the purposes of aesthetic endeavor: to enter into the discussion of the aesthetic.

In fact, I would also like to hear Ms. Szybist's defense on why she did not break in half the line in the seventh stanza ("Girl on the lawn . . ."). I actually do have a reason to keep it as such: because the two clauses are a descriptive list that lead into the primary though beginning with the next line. Though, I also think that that justification then points to there being a problem in the stanza as a whole, for that line desperately wants to be broken in two. (Is there another line like it -- in combination of length and construction -- elsewhere in the poem?

Probably another worthwhile discussion from that, though briefer.

Am I coming down hard on Ms. Szybist? Only in submitting such a poem for publication (not in writing it). In fact, if I knew she was listening and would answer, I would be very interested in her defense of the poem -- which includes defense of publication of the poem -- and would hope a public discussion could rise from it. And, my disagreement with the poem in no way is near my questioning of whatever editor from Greywolf Press oversaw publishing of Incarnadine, if one did. Or, in between the two, whoever from Poetry Daily chose the poem for their site. Again: would such a contradiction pass merit with, say, the editor of a short story mag?

But let's close this, and by expanding the indictment to include its source: today's culture of poetry that would permit and accept such a thing -- ironically, contradictorily so -- in the name of poetry" (or "poetic expression," or some other crap like that).

Monday, February 11, 2013

"Bethany Man" by Ricardo Pau-Llosa -- Verse Daily, 2/11/13

from Beloit Poetry Journal (Winter 2103)
poem found here

first lines:
From afar it looks like the bus is stranded
by a field, the tourists mulling about with cameras


grammar, and syntax too

-- reformatted, minor edits 12/10/2013

Fair warning: I'm going to dump on this one.

Just because it is a poem does not mean you get to ignore grammar. It does mean you get to be creative with grammar, if you establish your new rules for the grammar within the poem (or, possibly, within the context of poems collected together). One of the more fascinating experiments in grammar I've come upon is Olson's use of an open parenthesis without its closing partner. (I say Olson, here, because it is in his work first I saw it, and through his work most deeply thought about it.) I have come to use it myself, in places where I wanted to have that insertion of an idea into an idea, but then have the two ideas continue together, rather than the inserted idea ending, giving way to the interrupted ideas whole return.

But that license to play is not universal. You cannot simply flop in some creative grammar in a short poem and make it work. This is why Felicia Hemans, however much the social critics try to trump her as a great poet, wrote mostly unsophisticated crap: she had no control over her grammar (not to mention her metaphors, but that's another story. And I say mostly because I cannot say to have read the whole of her work, so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt that she got something right somewhere along the way.)

The same goes for syntax. And I would not be surprised if you had less ability to modify syntax than you do grammar: after all, line breaks and white space can work grammatical wonders, if cleverly wielded. Though, don't hold me to that. I've no data at hand.

Here, the clause

from afar it looks like the bus is stranded by a field

is a terrible misconstruction. It actual meaning is: 'it appears that the site where is bus is stranded is a field (as opposed to a forest, or a beach, or what).' It is not saying it appears that the bus is stranded. (Alternatively, it could be read as saying that, somehow, a field managed to strand the bus. But that's just silly.)

Also, the clause

waiting for the replacement bus to take them into town

carries the meaning that the replacement bus is already there. If it was not already there, they would actually be waiting for the bus to arrive. This may seem to be a little restictive of a reading, but in context it is, at every effort, my natural reading. The replacement bus is there. Which is one of the reasons why you need good test readers for your work -- to see the misreadings that you as the writer are missing (or suspecting).

Another curiosity: Mr. Pau-Llosa gives six events that happen in the field, eight events and things beckoning the viewfinders of the tourists' cameras: birds, crickets, seeds, sprigs and blooms, a moth, beetles, lizards, and ants. Yet, of those eight, only two (birds and sprigs and blooms) are really things that are readily photographable. But the poem, by its syntax, by the sentence not breaking after "where they think it came from," makes the list an extension of what the tourists are looking to photograph.

Also, did you notice that "the weeds that spring here" clashes with the opening "from afar"? (Unless what was meant was that the plants were "springing here" as one summers in the Hamptons? Nah, that can't be. It doesn't really work, anyway.)

Finally, how do the tourists (or the birds or bugs or lizards for that matter) "not believe in escape"? That idea is wholly new to the the poem: after all, (1) the tourists know that a replacement bus is coming (or is already there); and (2) they are where they want to be, so they are not really imprisoned in any way. "Believe in escape" is thus a pure non sequitur punchline. There is nothing in the poem previous that supports its sudden appearance, and, unfortunately, plenty to reject it.

Some might say I'm reading to closely. I don't I don't think that that is terribly close reading at all. I think that is basic, capable reading, that's it. Some may say I should permit a bit of play -- after all, it's poetry. I say bullshit: poetry is about control. Even in its most free it is still about control. As I've said before: if you don't show control, it only ever looks sloppy -- and unsophisticated; or, worse, incompetent.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

"Women Looking Up Into a Plum Tree," by Melanie McCabe -- Poetry Daily, 2/9/13

from History of the Body (David Robert Books)
poem found here

first lines:
Strung with whistle bones, frail reeds fledged, a bird
can fly or fold in, tuck beneath the wing the skull's


perfection in miniature

-- reformatted 12/10/2013

We seem to be running a string of posts on line breaks. Take a look here at the fourth stanza, the first line ending in "on." For me, it is a failure to recognize the rhythms of the language. First, there is nothing to be gained by having the line end on an unaccented preposition -- and such are like commas: unless there is a purpose for it, get rid of it. Second, by hanging the preposition the natural rhythm of the second line is destroyed: move the "on" down and what do you get?

on the BACK of her TONGUE, a LATE SEED con SI der (ing)

a wonderfully flowing sequence of syllables, starting off with a pair of two anapests (which are more lengthened iambs), followed by a nice continuing of play on iambs:

/ a LATE / SEED / con SI / der (ing)

So, not only was there something done with no gain, there was also something lost. (Actually, there is something lost in the first line as well, I nice iambic line destroyed with a superfluous and unnecessary iambic foot.)

I will say it again. Poetry is unavoidably an aural art. You have to take great pains to take the aural out of a written piece (such as with those instances of concrete poetry where the text is prosaic, if not easily recognized, and the true point of the work is the visual effect; or with Cage's "Writing Through Finnegans Wake" or such, which are intriguing language experiments but don't take you much farther than where they go). And if you are using line breaks, then they are part of the aural aspect of the poem, and must be recognized, controlled, and manipulated.

Now I admit that the use of a hanging "to" in "Nostalgia™" (yesterday's Poetry Daily) is within the context of a humorous poem, which this is not. But that retort is in honestly little more than a feint: while you may have made a distinction between the poems, you have not justified the use of "on" in "Women Looking Up."

I will here begin to use a phrase I most recently read on the cover of Ciaran Carson's Collected Works: "perfection in miniature." What does it mean as a statement on the aesthetic: the smaller the work, the more control is demanded. Yes, you can argue, "well, I am trying for a looser style." Well, that style still needs to be controlled, and, more to the point, created. Everything in a poem is created -- even the 'appearance' of looseness. (I point back to the moment in Impromptu, as regards composing an impromptu, in a post below.) And with sophisticated writers is very apparent how the feel of a piece may be loose, but the piece itself is still very crafted. (Look, perhaps, at Browning's poetry, like the ubiquitous "My Last Duchess," which people can read all the way through without realizing it is rhymed. It's a brilliant poem, in its working of meter and rhyme.)

You may try to fall back on the defense of a 'looser' style or such, but in the end you are really falling on a sword. Moments of lack of control, to a sophisticated reader, looks only like that: like lack of control. I'll repeat myself: the smaller the work, the more control is demanded. Why? Because you can. Failure to do so does nothing but make it look like you can't.


A couple smaller comments. I believe it should be "riddled" not "riddle" I can't get a successful reading where desire is doing the riddling -- if that is meant, I would think the lines unsuccessful, not for being a little opaque, but for being conflicting. But, I want to say at some point that I realize that there is always the possibility that Poetry Daily mistyped a poem. Still, it is the poem as presented that I want to discuss. And, many times, an error points out something interesting.

Also, I enjoy that first stanza (the second half a lot). Except for the word can. And I am prompted to write on that word in exploration, but that would be many pages, and I am not sure if I could put into words what I want to say. Alas.

Friday, February 8, 2013

"Eviction Notice" by Dan Gerber -- Verse Daily, 2/8/13

from Sailing Through Cassiopeia (Copper Canyon Press)
poem found here

first lines:
The spider from the rug suddenly
Wondered where he was


line breaks

-- edited 5/23/13
-- reformatted 12/10/2013


There's a couple of moments in this poem worth exploring, commenting on, critiquing: the "suddenly" in the first line (rhythm and semantics); whether line three needs desperately to be deleted as cheap gimmick; whether the "on" in "on which" is incorrect; possible syntax problems. But I will limit myself to line breaks, considering the post on today's Poetry Daily offering, below. The two poems create a great compare/contrast, worth the reader's exploration.

This poem has very strong, very punched line breaks, and pretty much on every line. It has the effect of making every line distinct (especially in that every line is a single, simple phrase), and it is difficult for me not to put near-emphatic pauses between the lines. A very different effect that goes to amping up a touch the humor of the last lines. Is it wholly successful? I don't think it wholly successful: the lines are too punchy to me. But, perhaps, that is more a result of the other clumsinesses in the poem. (I can't quite decide as of yet.)

Nonetheless, the poem makes for interesting exploration set beside "Nostalgia™," on Poetry Daily (subject of my post previous). Totally different approach to line endings: subtle manipulation there versus hammer-like pounding here. Not saying one is better than the other: that would be absurd, as the question of success of either approach lies wholly within the poem at issue. But interesting contrast nonetheless, worth contemplating.

"Nostalgia™" by Robert Hershon -- Poetry Daily, 2/8/13

from Goldfish and Rose (Hanging Loose Press)
poem found here

first lines:
At Uncle Li's
Golden Lotus New


the poetic ear (and line breaks)

— edited 5/23/13
— reformatted, minor edits 12/10/2013

— This post has been added to the "Best of the PDC" page on my Hatter's Cabinet site.

Good fortune that this poem follows behind "Geckos in Obscure Light," two days ago, and my comment about punchline poems, which I can now amend: there is nothing wrong with punchlines in a poem, if you are telling a joke.

Nothing to complain about with this little poem. The rhythm of the last three lines of the first stanza feels a little off to me with the present line endings -- I've spent a few minutes now exploring alternatives. But that's for discussion about rhythms and sound and line endings, a discussion that usually comes to a positive net result (and inevitable between poets with sensitive ears). Love the break up of the opening lines and continue to all the way up to those last three.

And then there is that line break after the "to" in the middle of the second stanza. Which wholly works, because the break is to a purpose that is natural to and an inherent extension of the poem: something nice to see what with my having seen so many poets justify their ending a line with a preposition with pedantic mantras taught them at their workshops and MFAs, yet who are utterly oblivious to a fundamental critique: it sounds terrible. That is, unless that awkwardness of sound is, as here, being put to a purpose.

Let's propose a couple natural laws, to wit, of poetic sound:

  • There is no excuse for not developing your poetic ear (which includes not just sound but rhythm).
  • There is no substitute for developing your poetic ear.
  • The poetic ear is essential to poetic sophistication (insofar as there is any aural aspect to the poet's work).
  • The sophisticated, developed poetic ear always trumps a poetic technique or rule (which means realizing workshop/MFA taught technique is ersatz poetics and little more -- read Gombrich's Art and Illusion, especially as concerns schema).
  • Line breaks are unavoidably part of the aural experience of a poem. When they are not, it is with poems that are little more than paragraphs with close margins, left justified. And such poems may technically be poems, but they are nearly invariably not that terribly much of a poem, and are, thus, mostly disposable. (If not ignorable.)
  • Ergo, a poet must pay attention to the aural aspects of line breaks.

Yes, Virginia, there is talent necessary to poetic sophistication, just as with everything else in the world. And if A.E. Housman says your line break is clumsy, shove your workshop wisdom deep in your pocket and read and read and more importantly study and study (perhaps I should say sing and sing?) until you can hear that clumsiness too. There's a lot to learn about line endings in comparing this poem with less successful (or flat bad) poems. I recommend the effort.


I could also talk about the ideation, and want to. This little joke-poem (I mean that in the good sense) would make for a great class discussion about literary ideation (and how not to screw it up). But enough for one post, except to say I laughed. Out loud.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Geckos in Obscure Light" by William Logan, Poetry Daily, 2/6/13

from Madame X (Viking)
poem found here

first lines:
     Tentatively, greedy, by night they came,
     Drawn to the insects drawn to the light


close reading

-- reformatted, minor edits 12/10/2013

(A nice opening couplet, that, what with the playful iambic quadrameter and the doubling up within the second line.)

I read the blurb about Madame X before I read the poem; and I want to like this poem, and gave it every benefit of the doubt to that end. But by the third -- and closest reading . . . well . . . 

I'll start in the general: there is great fault to be held against English departments these days in their unwillingness and inability to teach close reading. Which is odd -- which is unbelievably odd -- since it is the pit and pith of literature and language. (Though, if students were taught close reading, then they might pull pull back the curtain on the academic handwaving necessary to most of cultural criticism; so I see the careerist impetus behind the act of self-preservation.) This especially so with creative writing departments: how can they write literature if they can't read literature? I'm not saying is applies directly to Mr. Logan, here; what I am saying that the poem does not hold up to close reading, and it should.

Argument by example alone: 

"Shadow organs pulsed"? First guess was throat sacs, but geckos don't have them. Second guess is the actual organs inside the geckos, somehow visible through the skin . . . at night. (Perhaps that is possible, but the word "shadows" rather betrays the possibility. And then the title does say, "Obscure Light," a phrase in itself that finds no justification in the poem.) But then it is "beneath" bellies: so I'm back to shadows. And the throats of most lizards (that I've seen) do expand a touch, even if they are not a sac per se. But, still, under the bellies? I can't get those lines to make sense.

"Armor" with "disease": even in its most metaphorical (and the idea here does not dip terribly far into the metaphorical) it wouldn't ever work unless the moment in the poem was about armor, and the giving the armor the idea of disease was a means to impart a more complex idea to the wearer of the armor. But is there any intent to create any such metaphorical ideation here? No. It comes off merely as a surface description, each idea not permitted to extend beyond the two or three words that create it.

The insects are simultaneously "Welsh" "cannon fodder" and "F-16s": an obvious and glaring -- and more glaringly unresolved, and thus sloppy -- contradiction.

The geckos are "great officers and kings," when, earlier, they are given "bellies distended as Falstaff's" (who was neither, and thus its applicability to fat bellies, and thus the contrast between Falstaff and Prince Hal).

And of course, a punchline on the last line: which in itself is a dead giveaway of an unsophisticated and/or ill-executed work. (Another situation where the exceptions so invariably and starkly prove the rule.) 

So, despite hopes, and as is so often the case an intriguing opening, little more here than an uncontrolled, inattentive poem.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"The Horses Are Fighting" by Jill Osier -- Poetry Daily, 2/5/13

from Green Mountains Review (2012)
poem found here

first lines:
They stand scattered and not
facing each other. Like black-eyed


the emotion bomb

-- edits made 4/25/13
-- reformatted, minor edits 11/24/2013


I will be honest here, since this will come up quite frequently.

I have come to the point where I hold little more than contempt for poems such as this, poems whose entire merit hangs upon the sudden appearance in the poem of some emotional bomb or hook. So much so, that I can not really enjoy very much any more even the ones that are well written: and there are very, very few of those.

Why: because, almost always, all the rest of the poem is trivial, banal, not well written, or otherwise forgettable. Those few that make up the rest of the group might actually have been good poems, if reconceived without the bomb, without what has go be the cheapest, least artistic, least aesthetic, and  least effort-filled trick in the book.

Bombs show only that the poem has no organic whole. It usually shows that the poem had no where to go without the bomb. And the thing is, this poem actually has the energies for something good: horses, goats, and a funeral. Why the cheap bomb -- except literary laziness? And if I don't stop I am going to tirade.

Let me make it clear, though. I am not talking about a twist -- a volta, as it were -- otherwise I would be condemning the whole of the sonnet tradition. I am talking about trying to state worthiness of a poem through dropping an until then unforeseen and unforeseeable emotional powderkeg. (OK, I admit, you do get to the point where you start to see bombs coming in texts, because of the absence of value or depth in the text thus far. Makes for good, mass plot spoilage when you see it coming in a film.)

I thought of a successful bomb: the closet death scene in Jude the Obscure. Though, the reason why it is skillful is that --  as with all such -- it is not a true bomb. There is warning of such before hand; and, when it comes it is delivered with skill, so that even foreshadowed it delivers a level of violence wholly unexpected.

Final statement: this type of poem is one of the variety of poems for which the word bathos was invented. A word every poet needs to study, hard, and make part of their vocabulary and aesthetic reality.

Monday, February 4, 2013

"The Evil Key" by Sinéad Morrissey -- Poetry Daily, 2/4/13

from Poetry Ireland Review (Dec. 2012)
poem found here

first lines:
In woods and lakes, car boots, freezers, huts,
in ministers' apartments where their flailing last


examining examining a poem

-- minor edits 6/30/13
-- reformatted, with more minor edits 11/24/2013

This post has been added to the "Best of the PDC" page on my Hatter's Cabinet site.

An observation: the more sophisticated an artist is, the more idiosyncratic their work tends to be. The less sophisticated, the more generic. This is not wholly reversible: I do not know if I would be willing to say that idiosyncracy is necessarily a sign of aesthetic sophistication. Ed Wood was pretty idiosyncratic, after all -- though I would be willing to consider that such like he are the exceptions that prove the rule.

(Keep in mind, the generic is the opposite of the aesthetic: the former is convention driven, the latter is about individual experience/engagement.)

There are, loosely speaking, two paths to examining a poem. One is to explore it generally, through the lens of general poetics and the aesthetic. The other is to examine it more individually, through the lens of a writer reading the poem. The more sophisticated that reading writer, the more they tend to talk about poems from the point of view of "how would I have done this; how could I do it better?" While back on the general side, the question is more "how do I experience this poem to its fullest; what is it teaching me about aesthetic experience?"

From this comes two things. First, the more sophisticated is the reader, the less interest they will have in less sophisticated literature. It has nothing to offer them. Especially so with the aesthetic writer, who is always on the lookout for something to amaze them, something that will make their own work better -- either through demonstration/instruction ("what can I learn from this?), or through direct challenge ("dammit, I could do better than that").

(Note, though, do not confuse, there, the writer reading for experience and the writer talking about a poem, though those two ideas do overlap.)

Second, you have to watch the words of a more sophisticated reading writer: are they talking about general poetics, or are they talking to (I say "to" not "out of") their own aesthetic vision? Both can be instructive to other readers; but, the latter threatens confusion if you try to make generalizations out of it.

Saying that, I am unsure to what degree my response to today's poem is talking about general aesthetics or about my own poetic perception. Specifically, I am speaking about line structure. Now, off the top, I will say I have an allergy to poems that are sentences broken up into lines. The exceeding majority of the time such an approach reveals nothing except that the writer of the poem has no ear whatsoever for the poetic line. They have never developed an ear for rhythm, sound, rhyme, anything. In a way, such poems have become a kind of genre of poetry -- but it is a genre of dismissiveness rather than convention. That is to say, the governing convention is "the actual purpose of a poetic line is irrelevant, and can be ignored." Of course, the source and basis of this genre is laziness -- if any old line can be accepted within the genre, then "poetry," as such, becomes a fairly easy enterprise, and the writer can concern themselves with diarrhetically (diaretically) documenting the emotions they felt when their puppy died.

But, then, that is not really poetry. The whole point of poetry -- in fact, the whole point of any art aesthetically approached -- is the manipulation of the medium to the end of experience.

So poems like "The Evil Key" can be for me irritating little buggers. The first six lines begin a wonderful excursion into iambic pentameter -- except, I might say, for an aural stumble at "the LAKE, CAR boots." Sometimes I can read it smoothly; most of the time, it reads like a sudden -- and jarring -- reversal from iambs to trochees. But, otherwise, I love the sound: the occasional alliteration; the flow and play of vowels (notice lines 2 and 3, where two lines of rather subdued vowels both end with an upturn to slant-rhymed 'a's -- love it); the excellent "last"; the lightly manipulated syntax; the varied words -- but controlled words -- that gives both energy and expansion to the opening ideation.

But then line 7, and an extra foot. Here is what is absolutely a near universal rule of poetics: don't start something and not keep it up. You readers who do not have an ear will not notice such; but, your more sophisticated readers will notice the change. And to them it sounds like the writer lost control -- or abandoned control, or never really had control to begin with. Think of it this way: I am reading it, and I am thinking, "ooh, she's actually trying something with a little difficulty and calculation"; but, then, line seven and following, and what resides in my reading experience is disappointment. A big, "oh, never mind; this poem is just more of the same old same old, only a slightly more interesting at the start."

And this poem does rather decay from that point. Rhythm and line control laxen greatly. It gets sloppy in its sound: "Eurovision Song Contest" is a rather ugly phrase. "Denmark and Sweden's" is the exact opposite of the ideational lists in the opening, falling to basic factual statement. (Not to mention grammatically incorrect: the phrase is saying the whole of Denmark and the cleverest women of Sweden are on the way. It should be "Denmark's and Sweden's" -- but, then, do you notice how the phrase becomes even less ideational and more factual sounding? Something to ponder.)

And yet,

and wired as no man with them ever is
to sense, without exactly evidence, where corpses

have been left

is wonderful. But then the lines following about flats and shafts are themselves rather flat, and banal. And F# is a very interesting insertion -- but I don't find it brought in deftly at all.

So you see my irritation. And perhaps you see how in re-reading the poem what I would be doing, primarily, would no longer be experiencing the poem as is, but looking at it for how I would make it better, do it better. Create something better. (Especially with the F# -- "it will invert anything" is too good an idea to permit half-handed use, too energy filled an idea to be a minor player.)

I find it endlessly curious how many poems I read that start off strong but lose control. It is often said -- and truly -- that the hardest parts of any literary work is the ending. Perhaps the second hardest part is everything else beyond the beginning. It speaks to the degree the writer is creating ideational unity, the microcosmos of the aesthetic work. I actually have much to say with that, but that's for another time.

Friday, February 1, 2013

"Five White Birds" by Catharine Savage Brosman -- Poetry Daily, 2/1/13

from Southern Review (Spring 04)
poem found here

first lines:
Having seared the sky, the sun -- a brazier --
Smolders though the crmbling clouds.


suddenly, no depth

reformatted, many minor edits 11/24/2013
This post has been added to the "Best of the PDC" page on my Hatter's Cabinet site.

A word on the word suddenly (line 5).

Rarely is the word suddenly of value, in either poetry or prose. It is terrificaly over used word, not unlike just. The great fault with the word is revealed in a simple question: why, as a manipulator of words, is the poet using the weak word suddenly instead of creating for the reader the actual experience of surprise? Such is the very point of creative writing, no? Many of you, I am sure, are thinking now that equally over used phrase "show don't tell": and I say "equally over used" to precisely the same end: hack phrasing in place of depth.

I have much to say on "show don't tell." Most of it is critical, pointing out how that phrase, and the workshop meaning attached to it, exactly misses the point, and is in fact more perpetrating bad writing than developing good. Here, I will speak indirectly to the phrase as I speak directly to the word.

The word, in essence within the context of narrative, functions like a stage direction: where the latter tells the actor how to act, the former tells the reader how to experience, eliminating from the direct experience of reading the 'actor' of the poem, which is, in the end, the poem itself. Rather than stage directions, the reader should be being offered direct experience. Create the experience of suprise: don't cue it.

Curiously, most of the time suddenly is misused, it need merely be deleted. The natural context -- which is usually some kind of shift in the ideational moment -- is sufficient to the event. The shift itself creates a notion of surprise. Such is the case, here, where the ideational flow shifts from scenic description to focusing on birds. All that might be changed is the verb, rise: perhaps to something that carries a connotation of suddenness. Don't overdo it, however; it is an equal error to cue the reader through exaggerated wording. You must maintain the gestalt of the piece-as-a-whole.

Of course, there are exceptions. When the point of the text is not experiential but informational, for example. Also, where the experience of suddenness is created without the word, but the word is successfully used to a separate purpose, either with rhythm, rhyme, or subtle manipulation of the experience. Keep your eyes open, you will occasionally see such.

Another way too look at this -- the way that leads to the examination of "show don't tell" -- is to recognize that the use of the word is the creation of a surface effect. Though, as a creative writer, a poet's every word should be crafted and dedicated to the creating of the depth of the poem. But I'll save that for another time.

To note, the use of the word "signifying" is to similar fault. (Compare with Shakespeare's more semantically alive "signifying nothing.")


Other, smaller notes:

(1) I do not like the use of the word scrim: I do not think the semantics are correct for the word. In fact, I find that whole sentence to be something of a mess. (There are other moments here and where I find word use weak or improper to the semantic whole, as with pentimento.)

(2) Is there not a conflict of events between "crumbling clouds" and "signifying rain tomorrow"? (That is, between diminishing humidity and increasing humidity?)