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.



★★ The Latest Posts on Hatter's Adversaria
Something I Read #17 – D.S. SavageDelillo's Underworld – a Review/Response
Visual Labyrinths in Body DoubleSomething I Read #16 – David Perkins


Friday, March 29, 2013

"Butterfly With Parachute" by Stephen Burt -- Poetry Daily, 3/29/13

from Boston Review (Mar/Apr 2013)
poem found here
 

First lines:
A real one wouldn't need one,
but the one Nathan draws surely does:

 

line breaks

— note added 6/2/13
— reformatted 4/23/14

 

Straight to the point: lins 5 & 6 of the second stanza.

What possible defense for that line break can there possibly be? To be blunt, it is an atrociously bad line break. One could not create a clumsier poetic aberration: and I am not talking out of some Salon-esque 'rules of poetry,' but, simply, about how poetry is read by a sophisticated mind. These lines are astoundingly bad. So bad, if a friend of mine tried to defend it I would have had to beat them over the head. So bad, that if an acquaintance poet had brought it to me for consideration, I would have mocked them until they changed it. It is so bad that if I was on whatever editorial committee oversaw poem selection for the Boston Review, I would seriously be considering quitting. Because if such is the quality of their editorial decisions, I would want nothing more to do with that rag.

This is the only justification for this that I can find that might be offered for the lines: "Well, isn't it clever how the the line breaks isolate 'of the real'?"

NO. It is NOT. It is daft. It is shallow. It is making a desicion about a poem with utter disregard for how that decision effects the rest of the poem. The line break creates an unbelievably huge stumbling block in breaking "real world" in two. Also, in the short sidedness of giving spotlight to "in the real," there was also created the god-awful line "world only slowly." And if you can't see that — and I mean by "you" that editorial committee — then go back and read Tennyson, Donne, and Yeats, Housman, Pound, Eliot, H.D., anybody non-contemporary until you can see why. I am embarassed for you that this made print. Those lines a so bad.

(And it's not like this poem has anything else in it that might make that poetic atrocity forgivable. It's a goddam, sentimental, dead puppy poem. It's a Hallmark card. Nothing more. Only, Hallmark pays more attention.)

 

Note added long after the fact: Oi, must I have been in a mood when I wrote this one. Not backing down on the line break: it is terrible. The poem itself not very good. I would love to hear the editor of Boston Review justify their printing of this poem. But, I will admit, there is way too much anger here. Only defense: some days, bad poetry can really piss me off. (6/2/2013)

Three Poems by Ron Smith -- Poetry Daily, 3/27/13

from Its Ghostly Workshop (Southern Messenger Poets)
poem found here
 

First lines:
Our general was elsewhere, but we drowned.
While he rested, he shipped us home

 

the chorus

— reformatted 4/23/14
 

A short thought, spawned by the first poem, "Edgar Poe Tries to Get His Act Together."

I will be honest: on the first read, the poem was failing for me . . . and then came that first chorus. It is a chorus, yes (though a chorus that is linked to the other choruses primarily in form). The poem was, up to that point, in possibly the most exact phrase I can offer, nothing special to me. And then the chorus.

A greatly under-used thing, the chorus. Here, the chorus stanzas fire into the the veins of poem a horse-sized syringe of creative energy: simply in that they offer something for the verses to work against. They offer the poem an otherness. All energy is the flow between different things. (It can be argued that all energy arises in the contrast between opposites: that is a interesting and possibly true thought, but it is a condensation I do not think necessary to the idea of the aesthetic.) This idea is key to any aesthetic endeavor: there must be difference created within the poem for the poem to have energy. It is in creating a complex of difference that a poem develops depth. Very important, that. A work of only one idea is dead on the (writing) table. Thus this poem: is was merely narrative for me . . . . until came the chorus.

So again, give thought to the idea of the chorus. So much they can do. A very underused and under-explored poetic technique. But, then, in these days of arbitrary line breaks and arbitrary stanza breaks, where is there room for something as enriching as a chorus?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"When the Men Go Off to War" by Victoria Kelly -- Verse Daily, 3/26/13

from Southwest Review
poem found here
 

First lines:
What happens when they leave
is that the houses fold up like paper dolls,

 

the first line of the poem

— reformatted, with minor edits 4/23/14
 

Why that first line, I ask? It is the exact same idea as the title, though stated in an utterly banal fashion. It takes to the ninth word of the poem for there to be a word of any substance whatsoever. After reading that first line, I had totally lost interest in reading the rest of the poem, because that first line pretty much told me what was to follow.

And I was right.

Could it not have started with this opening line:

Houses fold up like paper dolls

instead? I mean, it's somewhat a trite idea that has been said a hundred times before, but it's still monstrously better than the current first line.

 

If there is emotion in my brief little critique here, it is not really directed at Ms. Kelly so much as at the editors of the Southwest Review. My only concerns for Ms. Kelly would be, should be, and hopefully are only two in number.

  1. Is this poem a greater accomplishment than the poems you were writing, say, a year ago? If it is, yay for you; if it isn't, boo on you.
  2. Will the poems you write, say, next year be a greater accomplishment than this poem? If they are, yay for you; if they aren't, boo for you.

Those two concerns should be the concern for every poet, and are the concern of every poet of merit.

But as for those editors — This is what you chose to print? The first stanza is out of control, not to mention rather unimaginative. Are you such poor editors that you cannot see that? Come on, people. I am sure there was something better in the offering.

(At least, I hope there was.)

Monday, March 25, 2013

"A Road in the Sky" by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers -- Verse Daily, 3/23/13

from Chord Box (University of Arkansas Press)
poem found here
 

First lines:
It wouldn't be held—
this notion, slipknot

 

on multiple readings, and entrances into poems

— modified 3/26/13
— reformatted with minor editing 4/23/14
— this post has been added to the "Best of the PDC" page on my Hatter's Cabinet site.
 

First time I read this poem, my response was PPPPttt. I didn't know what to do with "slipknot spring." And the ending seemed trite sexuality. Second time, PPPPttt again. Perhaps it was because I did not find the day's Poetry Daily offering much to consider, and it had tainted my palette. But instinct said give it another go: "O North / I've never understood" gave me a ring, and pulled me back in for one more go.

And happy therefore, too. For then I saw, clearly, "or lace that ripped / if spoken too soon." And the whole poem came alive.

(OK. Except for "slipknot spring," which I still do not know what to do with; and because of it the lines up to the period.)

It's a wonderful idea in that line, and a nice delivery thereof : what with the three s-sounds, the iambic rhythm, the length of "too soo" to close it off — its all good. But why did that line — of all the lines — open up the poem? It's not exactly a key line ideationally (though, it is very much an important part of the microcosmos of the poem). Somehow, it was my invitation in, my entrance into the workings of the poem.

I have often said that people who do not like or understand poetry most likely have never found an entrance into poetry. And, I tell you, what they teach in high school is usually a piss poor choice for developing appreciation of poetry — no entrance material, only the stuff you are "supposed to be familiar with." Why the hell would you teach E.E. Cummings in high school, especially when you are teaching his more difficult, experimental poems. Teach his earlier stuff — I've had great success opening doors with it. Teach "Who," not "she being Brand / -new." What does it matter that your are teaching Shakespeare's sonnets — which are difficult — when your students do not even a basic appreciation for sound, meter, play of words. Teach "My Last Duchess." or "Terrence, This Is Stupid Stuff." Something fun. OR, what I've had the most success with: "Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti. Of course, you have to be able to deal with all the wet, dripping sex . . . . but that wonderful, imaginative, sing-songy, supposed-children's poem (wink wink nudge nudge) never failed for me in gathering up some new poetry lovers.

There are parts of this poem I have small issue with. Yes, "slipknot spring." "Buttercups' fevered form" is not my favorite phrase ever. (Really, if face to face, I would simply want to ask "so why did you do it this way?" just to hear the answer, not to critique the choices. Ok, except for "slipknot spring.") In fact, once the poem opened up, the end of the poem took on whole new life. The sexuality got pulled into the poem, lost its life as mere sexuality and became energy within a greater ideation, a greater experience.

But, really, my point with this poem is to give both permission and warning. Permission in that it is normal to come upon a poem and, simply, not 'get it,' as it were, for some reason that has nothing to do with anything but the pointing of the weather vane. Sometimes, you need to find a doorway in; sometimes, the poem has to open itself too you.

And thus, in turn, the warning: give poems a second chance, even a third chance, to speak. Sometimes you aren't in the right place, psychically, to get into the poem. Sometimes, the poem is too sophisticated for you, or sophisticated in a manner you are not, or perhaps you are missing knowledge the work requires. There are many possibilities why a poem is not always immediately accessible. Sometimes, it is, simply, that you just need to find the entrance. (This happened with me recently with Atsuro Riley's collection Romey's Order. The poems were, simply, not working for me. Until I got to "Tablet": for whatever reason, that was the poem that invited me in, brought me to look closely, to read the poems the way they want to be read. For it I was then able to understand Riley's rhythms, and the whole of the book came alive.)

Basic aesthetic philosophy (re Barthes): no text can be read the first time. It has be known before it can be really read, known from first to end before it can be experienced. An aesthetic text, after all, works as a microcosmos, as a unity: the beginning can not be understood without also understanding the end; the middle cannot be experienced without that which comes before and after. (A nomic work, however, basic narrative, conventional genre, an ordinary work meant for consumption, to use Barthes's words in "From Work to Text"[FN]), is linear, which means also surface only, without depth, without resonance. Indeed, without life.) Since the more aesthetic a work is, the more it is a unity, you might be able to see how you have to find an entrance into that world, and that that entrance may not be in the beginning.

---------------
[FN] Barthes's essay is readily found on-line: here is but one link. The essay is from Barthes's Image, Music, Text. It is, actually, a rather worthwhile essay to read for anyone interesting in literature. And, near essential for anyone interested in writing literature.
---------------

 

(You know, while typing the sentence about needing to read the whole to understand the part, I was suddenly brought to mind of the story of Sir Richard Burton examining the body of his future (or was it present?) wife Isabel by candlelight in the film Mountains of the Moon. Whether or not it actually did happen — and I have faint thought it might have, but no proof on hand — it is a curious, sudden association.)

"Housebound" by Jacquelyn Pope -- Poetry Daily, 3/23/13

from Harvard Review (no. 43)
poem found here
 

First lines:
You've made your bed they said
now you must lie in it lean

 

a moment on prosody

— reformatted, with added note 4/23/14
 

Coming back to this post to reformat it I realize three things.

(1) The first line can be read two ways, anapestic or iambic:

YOU’VE made your BED they said
or
you’ve MADE your BED they SAID

depending on how you interpret the line. Though, I do believe the presence or absence of commas effect the reading: without the commas that would normally set off “they said" the line for me wants to be anapestic. If the commas were present, it would be unavoidably iambic, even if you put the emphasis on the“YOU’VE."

YOU’VE made / your BED, / they SAID, / now

The absence of the comma after “bed" acts to pull “they said" into a single unbroken line of words, transforming the line into anapestic rhythm.

(2) The post below is a complete botch. (I even misspelled her name in the title.) Though, without having access to the original poem any more (Poetry Daily only archives for a year), I cannot correct myself beyond the few, opening lines of the poem I can find online. As such, I leave the below as it is. Though, I do say the far more interesting question with those lines (beyond and in contrast to what I do say below) is to point out how line three, which on its own can readily be scanned “DOWN the LENGTH of it SINK“ is forced into a dactyls by the two opening lines, which are anapestic. That established anapestic rhythm maintains itself across the successive lines, making an interesting play between lines that are dactylic — “down the LENGTH of it SINK" — and phrasing that is anapestic — “LEAN down the LENGTH of it SINK through the." The effect is dactyls that are really syncopated anapests. Or is it anapests that are syncopated dactyls? Either way, it makes for interesting demonstration on how line breaks do effect reading.

(3) A question I wholly missed was that pointed out above: does the absence of grammar work to the better or the worse.


A poem of anapests. Not dactyls: the anapests are set up in the first line. If they are supposed to be read as dactyls, then the opening line is a huge problem (not to mention the whole of the third stanza). Here's the question: is this is the best structure for this poem? To give example, why not Dr. Seuss it and anapest away:

You've made your bed they said
now you must lie in it
lean down the length of it
sink through the half of it
mind you find rest in it
now that you've settled it
stop finding fault with it
thread after thread

I can give you three reasons why you should: lines 1-2, 4, and 9. I present them with the lines scanned as the line breaks direct:

1 You've MADE your BED they SAID
2 NOW you must LIE in it LEAN

That "now" should be on the first line, other wise it betrays the opening rhythm of the first line and makes dactyls. (And they do really need to be established as anapests.)

4 through the HALF of it MIND you FIND

The normal reading.

9 MADE it you'll MARK it STAKE

Again, the normal reading. Break the lines with the rhythm, as is done in the third stanza (which are anapests! By line 9 the breaks are trying to force you into dactyls; but they need to be anapests.) Break the lines without attending to the rhythm the words create (rather than the rhythm you want them to be), and your reader stumbles.

(As she does on that really clumsy last line.)

Friday, March 22, 2013

"Elegy" by Jaswinder Bolina -- Verse Daily, 3/22/13

from Phantom Camera (New Issues Poetry and Prose)
poem found here
 

First lines:
In sun the sunburned skin sloughs off the sunburned shoulder.
Most folks believe this is the body's slow mend.

 

superfluous words and poetic lines

— reformatted 4/23/14
 

Couldn't not talk a moment about line 7.

I step into the garden and arrange a crooked line of birdbaths to skip stones across

This poem tugs at my poetic curiosity with its sometimes very long lines — and the question of whether they work. Line 5 seems to be the deciding factor: does that long phrase work as well if broken up? Personally, I think it works best as a unbroken line. (I guess you could break it after "exposure" — but it loses some of the running-on play of it when you do.) Since that that line is insisting on remaining long, it rather establishes permission for long lines throughout the poem. . . . . But they still have to work.

The two long lines in the last two stanzas work wonderfully — and exactly within the style and permissions created by line 5. (And the short lines they are set against work to give them even more identity and aural punch.)

But, then here is line 12 ("I believe I'll . . ."): I think that one wavers. And, I think you should be able to see that when you compare it to the two long lines at the end of the poem, The latter two are solid, strong, direct line. They are basic "X is Y," copula sentences, even if the X and Y are themselves long. But Line 12, it has that "and" in it, and there feels a weakening of the sentence because of that "and."

Tied into that "and" there is the semantics of the sentence as presented. First, there is that annoying "I believe." Such phrases weaken any sentence in which they appear since it takes what follows out of the realm of definitiveness and into the realm of only possibility. (Of course, this does not apply when the most important point of the clause/sentence is the "believe" part.) Also, while it is not incorrect, it is somewhat irregular — or should I say uncommon? — to say "I will go and be greeted by you." What makes it feel odd is that the subject — that is to say the thing doing the action — shifts from "I" to "you."

This perceived weakness is made even more palpable because of the strength of most of the other lines. Which is the point: context can reveal — and conceal — weaknesses. Line 12 feels so weak in no small part because most of the rest of the lines of the poem are so strong. If those other lines were not so definitive, were not, for example, to-the-point, copula sentences, the weakness might be less weakness and more style.

To come back around, the long lines in this poem are also a type of context. And, I wonder how many of you, like me, got to the end of line 7, got to that "across," and came to full stop laughing at how the length of the line hyper-emphasized that the line ends in a preposition. The awkwardness of it makes me laugh every time I read it. (Even the sound of the line seems to emphasize it to me — though I can not find a way to successfully describe what I am hearing.)

And yet, it is a very simple fix. No, not by pulling that preposition in to where it belongs, by writing the line as "a crooked line of birdbaths across which to skip stones." That, to me, creates the same kind of weakness we saw in line 12. There's a lot of merely functional words in that phrasing; something very different from the nigh in your face phrases like "silent lightning outrunning its noise." (Which, I should say, is a phrase I love.)

Tbe answer, rather, is to simply leave "across" off. It is quite obvious from the context toward what the skipping stones would be thrown, off what the skipping stones would skip. As such, "across" is an utterly superfluous word; and, without having to change anything else, removing it would make the line much stronger, and much more interesting. Which is the point of it all, no?

 

Just to say: line 1 shoots for some aural play, but I think it over shoots . . . that first "sun" is just too much. The play of meaning in the line is sacrificed for the sound of the line: which should never happen.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Augenblick" by Mark Irwin -- Verse Daily, 3/19/13

from Large White House Speaking (New Issues Poetry and Prose)
poem found here
 

First lines:
By the drainpipe beneath the viburnum, just
giving way to small white flowers, the open eye

 

unity and energy

— reformatted 4/23/14
 

Let's do a little exploration of lines 7-8:

glances: mine, and its—gone, though a tiny gong
of light still lingers, one I must squint to see,

Primarily line 7; specifically, "tiny gong." Here's the question: does it work?

Obviously, there is the aural effect of the rhyme between "gone" and "gong." Plus, you have the repetition of the hard g thrice (extended even onto the next line's "lingers"), and of the terse i twice. You also have the homonymic pun working in "its": that coupling "its — gone" and "it's gone." All in all, it is a poetically lively line, with a lot of goodness going on.

Except for the conflict between "tiny" and "gong." Generally, perhaps even overwhelmingly, the word gong carries with it a connotation of bigness. Even if a person does not naturally associate the word with a physically large instrument — as with the huge, temple gongs of the orient — then they at least will think of the large sound of a gong (even a small gong will overwhelm a room with its sound). Gong's are large. Very large. When you go with "gong" rather than "bell" it is because you want to bring into your text largeness.

Now, above, in line 3, you have "wherein the sun, minuscule": a very large thing brought down to tininess. Except that the ideation of "sun" is rarely to the purpose of largeness: it is either simply in identification of the circle in the sky, or to present the idea of light, or warmth (or other weather concepts), or other such as that. Unlike with "gong" and "bell," there is no natural and common comparative that attaches to "sun" an unavoidable or immediate connotation of largeness. If you want to ue "sun" to carry in the idea of largeness, you generally have to establish that intent through the text. Also, in this poem, "sun" is being used literally: the sun is visible in the dead bird's eye. But "gong" is being used metaphorically. There is no gong.

But, now that we say that, if gong is metaphoric, what is its purpose? What is it carrying into the poem?

First, notice that in line 8 you have "squint": the only word or phrase I see in the poem that is connected to "tiny gong." And yet it is about tininess, not largeness. Nor about sound. After line 8 you have the confusing "while the red arm of a wound, its wing will / not veer, never, except into a closer far." I have no problem with "closer far"; the "while" phrase, however, creates all kind of problems. Looking beyond the semantic issues, I read the lines as being about the deadness of the bird. Then there is the jump to remembering Katherine, which concludes — which is pulled into the ideation of the poem — with "Some things you can never hold," which I read as tying back into the deadness — or, more accurately, the absence and or brevity of life — of the bird.

So what about "gong"? It is a metaphoric insertion into the poem. But does it feed the poem? Does its energies enter into a unity with the energies of the rest of the poem? If it doesn't, then it is disrupting that unity and those energies. And that is the point, here. With literature, and especially with poetry, you have to pay attention to how your words interact with the rest of the poem. If it is not part of the poem, if it is not creating energies in unity with the rest of the poem, it is not merely empty calories (so to speak): it is creating conflict. A good reader will see "gong" and want to do something with it, something that will increase the aesthetic energies of the poem-as-a-whole. If there are no energies to create, the reader has a dead spot — dead pixels on the screen, as it were, which does effect the viewing of the image on the screen. Yes, "gong" helps to create the nice sound-play in the line. But, this is not Dada, nor is this poem solely for the purpose of sound: ideation is central to the poem. And gong is generally used twith the intent of either bringing in a cultural reference or bringing in the idea of largeness, and to no trivial degree.

For example, what if "gob" was used instead?

glances: mine, and its—gone, though a tiny gob
of light still lingers, one I must squint to see,

There is no entrance of any largeness, the g sounds are preserved, and the b of "gob" is as aurally innocuous to the line as is the ng of "gong" (if not more benficial, with ending the line with a solid but unintrusive b). Plus, "gob" brings in the idea of being unformed, or, in context, of a thing having lost its form, which would fit well with the coming remembrance of what once was but no longer is.

So I leave it to you: is "gong" successful or detrimental?

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Two Poems" by Charles Simic -- Poetry Daily, 3/18/13; and "Ealuscerwen" by Edward Mayes -- Verse Daily, 3/18/13

Simic's two poems ("Fear" and "Note Slipped Under a Door") are from Selected Early Poems
and is found here

"Ealuscerwen" is from Crazyhorse (Fall, 2012)
and is found here

 

line breaks

— reformatted with editing, April 8, 2014
 

OK, I admit it, I am perhaps over attentive to line breaks. Except that, it seems to me most poets today are severely if not chronically under-attentive to line breaks — if attentive at all. In that vein, the poems offered today on the two sites (Poetry Daily and Verse Daily) make for an interesting contrast. So let me look at both.

Yes, the poems are different in style. I want to focus only on line breaks and poetic flow. Yes, Simic's poems are, perhaps hyper attentive to flow: but it is to an end, which we will see.

I should also say in effort to maintain transparency that I am not a terribly big fan of Charles Simic, though that is more a statement about taste than anything else. He is, simply, not a poet that floats my boat in the manner such that I would pull him off the shelf solely for pleasure's sake. (Though, I will sooner or later purchase and read his collected/selected. And, actually, I rather like "Fear," for the short little thing it is.)

 

Let's start with Simic's two poems.

"Fear" is a short, imagist poem. It uses one image, moving of leaves on a tree, to generate an idea: that of the self-energizing contagiousness of fear. What I love about the ideation of the poem is that the core idea generated by the image: that of fear being self-energizing (when caught as a contagion), is never directly expressed in the poem — ergo the imagist aspect. (Something people who study H.D., particularly Trilogy, very frequently forget.)

The structure of the poem also emphasizes that imagist flavor: the first stanza setting up the image, the second opening the image to reveal the idea being generated thereby. But let's look specifically at the lines.

First stanza: four lines of four stress, two stress, four stress, two. Stanza two: two five stress lines. No, it is not necessary that you as a reader notice that on the first reading. What is necessary is that you look for it, as you should be looking to every poem for structure in meter and rhyme. Why? Because once you see it, it should then modify how the poem sounds. This is the musicality of the poem, and it should not be missed, otherwise, you are missing a great part of the poem. Poetry is an aural art. To not look for aural structure is tantamount to playing sheet music with no attention whatsoever to the length of the notes.

Let me see if I can describe it. Even though the lines can be called accentual meter (though, to me it reads as though the lines were designed by sound, not by meter), it is sort-of-kind-of iambic, and four-beat lines have that certain sing-song quality that is utilized by ballad measure. (Popular music, after all, is primarily 4/4 measure, no?) Of course, the shortened, two-beat lines create a kind of staccato-esque emphasis: this made all the greater because of the structure of the lines and the line breaks. Each four-beat line (and the two-beat lines) stands naturally as a poetic phrase (the second slightly less so, but within the norm). The two-beat lines are modifiers of the idea in the 4-beat phrase. The end result is that the stanza's structure is not merely visual, nor is it merely aural, but it works with the reading of the poem to emphasize the ideation of the phrases in the poem.

Then you have a stanza break, and the more conversational sound of an iambic pentameter couplet (even with a soft rhyme). It creates an aural difference from the first stanza. It also gives nod to sonnet form, and the two line couplet that closes such in Shakespearean sonnets. In such, it also gives nod to the idea of the volta, which the two line couplet is meant to emphasize. Finally, in that the stanza is a well crafted unit, soft rhyme and all, it gives emphasis that it is there that the central ideation will be worked; in turn, giving aural echo to the ideational structure of the poem.

In sum, line structure, rhythm, rhyme, stanza forms, stanza breaks, the linear flow, and image and ideation, all work together to generate an organically whole poem, a poem with experiential depth and aesthetic pleasure. Even though the idea presented is relatively simple (it is, after all, only a twenty-syllable poem), I enjoy reading it, I get pleasure from reading it, again and again, to experience how it all comes together . . . . . which is not quite the right phrase, but it is difficult not to fall into phrases that beg the question of what it is that is being experienced. If I may risk it: it is the pleasure of experiencing a whole and vital poetic microcosmos.

"Note Slipped under a Door" is a list poem, and as such will from the start probably be not as tight as "Fear"; but, then, I don't think it tries to be. The experience here is more linear, the following of a list; there is not very much ideational development up and down the list, not very much development into unifying the list elements into a whole (outside of the flow of a non-random list). But, that's ok; that is not what it is trying to do. It is being its list-self, and should be accepted as such. (In fact, it works for me quite well.)

But let's look at stanzas and lines. Simply enough, notice how, again, every line is sufficient in itself, and in itself defines itself as a line. Also, every idea has its own stanza. There is no attempt or want to force the poem into a regularized stanza length. To say it again, there is no need in the poet to force regularized stanzas upon a poem that does not require or want it. There is no attempt to break the lines into lines of generally equal length. The decisions on lines and stanzas was generated from within the creating of the poem, not applied to the words as a kind of forced structure.

Which leads us to "Ealuscerwen."

(But, first, I can not help myself to point out "from a great purple distance." It's a simple idea, but wonderful. Do you get it, in that at a distance mountains, hills, whatevers, tend to move into purplish hues? It's a natural event. But, here, completely unexplained. And dammitall if poets and writers would strive figure out that you do not have to explain everything. Actually, you rarely have to — or should — explain anything. Poems are so much more fascinating when you do not. This event in its larger, prosaic forms it is called an "information dump" in creative writing circles. (Its origin lies, I believe, in science fiction/fantasy, where the need and want to explain are often greatly felt by the writer.) Information dumps are a no-no in prose. Likewise, and even more so, in poetry, where it occurs just as often, but on a smaller scale. But I've digressed. My point is, merely, what a great line, that.)


So, "Ealuscerwen." A quick look reveals no rhyme. Also, no meter or measured stress count. Also, no apparent relationship between semantics and lines. It is a sentence/paragraph organized text broken into relatively even lines and four-line stanzas. (Should I have pointed out how sentence/phrasing and line structure informed each other's creation in Simic's poems? Too late now.)

Here are the questions to be asked:

  • Is there anything in the poem's text, semantics, flow, or ideation, that gives purpose to the presented structure?
  • To say it a different way, as a reader, what attention can be seen, here, to have been given to the line breaks and stanzas outside of the application of some arbitrarily chosen visual structure?
  • Is it not a natural assumption that, if a poem is broken into lines, then there should be some purpose behind those lines?
  • What effects on the reading of the poem is created by the line and stanza breaks?
  • Do the line and stanza breaks contribute to the reading and reception of the poem? Or do they hinder it?
  • Can there be said to be any poetic (or organic, or aesthetic) unity generated with the structure, the text, the sound, the ideation, etc.?

Consider this idea: if you are not using line and stanza breaks to an end that will generate an even more pleasurable reading of the poem, are you "using" them at all?

The follow-up to that: if you are not using them, why the hell not?

Inattentiveness is the accusation. An arbitrary structure applied to sentences/paragraphs is not "writing" lines, it is applying lines. (In fact, to me it looks like the visually clumsy hyphenated breaking of "hellkind" was generated out of the want to control visual line length.) Such structuring is, in its purest labeling, nothing less than striking lines and stanzas out of the writing process completely. As I have said in previous posts, this is little more than writing prose and shrinking the width of the page.

And the thing is, there is a proven negative effect to such writing. When a person reads, they are not moving from letter to letter, word to word. The mind naturally looks forward and back in order to generate a sense of the semantic and grammatical structure of the text, which permits the mind to more accurately and fully read the text. If it were not so, people would not be able to read a text without first reading the whole of the paragraph and getting the long list of words and their structure half memorized. (In fact, in a book, when you are reading a line, you mind is also giving faint attention to the lines above and below.)

The more you contract the length of the line in prose, the more and more difficult it becomes to read out of the structure and phrasing of the sentences. So, by breaking this poem into short lines like this without giving any thought to the lines themselves (or to the syntactic and grammatical structures of the text), the only thing being accomplished is making the text difficult to read.

For example, if you restructure the poem into normal prose, you will find that there is a very natural paragraph break right before "What we missed" (the first line of the fourth stanza). That very natural pause – that reading affected and reading effecting pause (I think I got those vowels right) – is lost, entirely, in the application of this arbitrary line/stanza structure. The line breaks also create problems with the flow of the sentences in the second half of the poem: especially with the last, beginning with "And we," in the third to last stanza.

Also, the fact that there are line breaks present creates in the reader an expectation of pause at the end of the line: the mind naturally looks for structure and organization; presenting organization through line breaks tells the mind there is a reading-structure to be found there. When that structure is not found, in fact when that structure is working against the natural reading of the words (as it is, so much so, with that last sentence), only bad things can happen.

Really, to read this poem successfully, you have to do what I said above: read it a couple, three, four times until you have a loosely memorized idea of how the sentences work, and ignore everything visual.

Another question: what value, what purpose can be said to exist in a chosen line structure when alternative choices have no real effect on the poem? Is there any difference to the reading of the poem if I make the lines slightly shorter:

We weren't there that fall in Rome,
476. Our terminus a quo for our
Middle age was much later, and
Ended with our terminus a quem,

Later too. Time to take the hem
Down again, we'll tell someone
With the sharpest pair of scissors,
Or take up the hem again we'll

Ask someone with the quickest
Stitch. Although we ourselves have
Starched our crinoline collars, we've
Never wanted to do anything more

or so that there are three lines per stanza, and the lines in each stanza decrease in length:

We weren't there that fall in Rome, 476.
Our terminus a quo for our middle age
Was much later, and ended with our

Terminus a quem, later too. Time to take
The hem down again, we'll tell someone
With the sharpest pair of scissors, or

Take up the hem gain we'll ask someone
With the quickest stitch. Although we
Ourselves have starched our crin-

or if we do this little visual shape:

We weren't there that fall in Rome, 476. Our
Terminus a quo for our
Middle age was much later,
And ended with our terminus a quem, later too.

Time to take the hem down again, we'll tell
Someone with the sharpest
Pair of scissors, or take up the
Hem again we'll ask someone with the quickest

Stitch. Although we ourselves have starched our
Crinoline collars, we've never
Wanted to do anything more
Exuberant than, let's say, the cancan. What we've

So the final question: if there is no apparent purpose to the chosen line and stanza structure, how are you not saying to your reader, "You know, poetically speaking, there isn't that much here; so, don't expect too much; you might even just want to move on to the next poem."?

 

(Final little note: the final little definitional paragraph is fun. Except for one point: at the very end, after the word canard, there is a colon. Seeing that, I immediately went back over it. "Did I miss other colons?" Not finding any, I ask, "Do I see places that would be a typo, where the Verse Daily people left out a colon?" And not finding any of that, either, I am then perplexed. "Why is that colon at the end of the line? Why wasn't that structure used throughout the list?" Well, perhaps that colon is the typo, and it should be a semi-colon (which is possible since they obviously typoed the italicizing of "our" in line 4). If so, what an unfortunate typo, because it throws the whole of the list into chaos.)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Tablet" by Chris Dombrowski -- Poetry Daily, 3/16/13

from Earth Again (Made in Michigan Writers Series)
poem found here
 

the narrative "I"

— reformatted 3/30/14
 

I wanted to take a break from OCDing with this blog for the weekend, but this poem has been pulling me back. Specifically with the presence of the word I in the poem. I have kept coming back to the page asking myself, “Could I rewrite this same poem to a greater success removing the ‘I’s?" I don’t think they are necessary to the poem, and I think they weaken the poem because of it. I think if they were removed, the reader would be brought to focus more on the ideational relationship between the nature elements of the poem and the ideas generated at the end. So, here’s a little writing on it, though I ended up approaching it from a different angle.

Let’s take a little look at the first few lines; an exploration of variations in wording, which means in no small part explorations guided by my own poetic sense and manner of sophistication, and as such will be unavoidably idiomatic. But such explorations are still, and always, worthwhile. That is in part why writers of poetry seek poetry — to ask, “How would I have done that?" and, “Can I write it better?"

The “striking stone" in line two never works for me, no matter how I concentrate on making striking a verb rather than an adjective. The natural reading of the sentence up to that point is for it to be an adjective. Then I realized a simple solution would be to remove the second comma:

Up the cutbank of a creek named after stone,
striking stone I came walking, my fingers

Without that second comma there is no signal to pause, no reason to want to have the phrase look backwards to the previous stone, thus, you naturally want it to connect to the soon coming walking. But I still don’t much like it: it feels forced, and “named after stone" feels weak. How about this?

Up the cutbank of the stone-named creek,
striking stone, I came walking, my fingers

Or, without the comma:

Up the cutbank of the stone-named creek,
striking stone I came walking, my fingers

Stress-wise, it’s a more graceful line, the clumsy triple stress of “creek named af-“ (which the mind tries to correct by de-stressing “named" but never quite pulls off) is gone, replaced with a more fluid, line-ending, solid-syllabled triple stress. (In solid-syllabled I mean no half-word “af-.") It eliminates the negative aspects of the “striking stone" ambiguity. And, by combining the triple stressed noun phrase with a comma, it creates a greater pause after the line, setting the reader up for the next line, and making easier that that line starts off with a fourth stressed syllable.

But I still don’t like it: primarily because of my allergies to the first person I — an allergy I suggest for every writer to acquire. For I have found that that I is an easy out. Poems become amazingly simpler to write when you have an I present, orienting it. Oddly enough, I am talking about the actual word I more than I am talking about having a speaking — even self-meditative — narrator. Consider the Romantic odes: the written Is establish the meditative aspect (and the moment of meditative capture), and then the actual "I" tends to get left behind, as the poem sinks wholly into the meditation. Also, if you begin your poems allergic to the first person pronoun, then, when you do realize the I is necessary, you have found a strength in the poem, and an integral part of the system of the poem. (Just as with commas: the simplest editing rule is to eliminate every one, and put back only the ones that are actually necessary.)

So I ask, is there value in this first "I"? Especially in that it clashes action-wise with the second "I" (one is walking, one is seated, writing). Come to think of it, do you even need “walking"? After all, you already have a direction- and movement-orienting “Up" right at the start of the poem?

Up the cutbank of a stone-named creek,
striking stone, fingers stained with pulp
of raspberries picked of branches arched

Or, perhaps, this, with (I think) better lines:

Up the cutbank of a stone-named creek, striking stone,
fingers stained with pulp of raspberries picked
of branches arched o’er a snowmelt

Or, perhaps,

of branches arched over snowmelt

I use "a" instead of "the" because the energy of the poem is about some specific creek; it is simply about the concept of "creek." Do you need descending? It doesn’t really fit aurally, and it’s not really adding anything to “snowmelt." To be honest, though, I don't quite understand the idea of the raspberry bushes arching over a run of water from melting snow; I can't quite get it to work, especially since I am already oriented upon a creek. (Is there a different, idiomatic meaning of "snowmelt"?) I like “of" rather than “off" or “from," but that’s very idiomatic. I also like “o’er" rather than “over," and the sound of "arched o'er a" a lot. Do not let some tone-deaf, small-minded poetry teacher tell you “we don’t do that any more." We very much do, when we are concerned with the sound of a poem. And if you are not concerned with the sound of your poems, what are you writing poetry for? Go run to pop-prose and stay there. Check out this little loverly: Derek Mahon’s “The Seasons," here. Notice the poetic contractions in line seven (they typoed the “I," it should be “i") — not an easy thing to pull off, and a wonderful sound. Makes my aesthetic drive tingle, I tell you what.

But back to the “I": there are the second and third “I"s, which are stronger than that first. Perhaps I dislike the first so much because the lines are simply setting a scene, and the “I" is unnecessary to it. Perhaps because the “I" is giving emphasis to the weakness of that scene setting, primarily in that it wholly puts the focus on movement, travel, where the rest of the poem (from the second sentence on) is more about stillness. So perhaps it is less the “I" than it is the “I came walking." Still, as I said in the opening bit, above, what pulls me back to this poem is the thought of a complete rewrite eliminating the “I" altogether. Not necessarily eliminating the individual, nor the meditative aspect. But getting rid of any and all first person pronouns. Might be an interesting experiment.

And as for what comes next, I do not like “beneath two clouds and blue sky," because up to that point the focus was very localized to the area of the creek. With that line the poem suddenly pulls back and away into a wide-angled picture. Yes, it is setting up the “extravagant quilt" in the next line: except do you see how the word extravagant does not really fit the idea of simplicity established in the previous description of the sky? And, do you need to describe the sky to keep the idea of the quilt? “Napped beneath an azure quilt on sunwarmed sand. Except, isn’t there an ideational clash between “sunwarmed" and “snowmelt"? After all, until that moment, the only word we have about the general weather conditions is “snowmelt" — so I am not thinking anything that would permit napping in warmth.

Final thought, I do think that the flow should be longer for this first moment. In fact, I think the flow should be longer for the whole poem. Since there is nothing being attempted formally or semantically that would make condensing the size of the poem a challenge — which would in turn offer more pleasure to the reader — there is no reason not to develop the scene a bit more. But not through rambling: I would keep it tight as possible.

And it could very well be — and I have a hint of a feeling of such — that if the scene setting were developed, it might be made apparently that, in fact, the poem should be tight and condensed. But, as I said at the fore, it would still be a good experiment. Even the first writing of a poem, its style and form should tested, no?

 

One last thing. “Poleaxed" seems kind of violent for the moment, no? And a clash also: poleaxes are huge; nickels are tiny.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"In Vitebsk There Lives a Cow" by Nuala Ní Chonchúir -- Poetry Daily, 3/14/2013

from Prairie Schooner (Spring 2013)
poem found here
 

Ekphrasis:

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

Ekphrasis: “the graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art." (Thank you, Wikipedia.) It is a subject for poetry for which I have a fondness, for in a great way it is can be one of the purer forms of aesthetic discourse: rather than a mere description of the physical, historical, generic, or stylistic qualities of a work of art there is engagement, there is experience brought into words. Hopefully, out of those words, there is a door opened to a new experience of that work of art.

(And, on the writer's side, it can be quite a challenge.)

But, that should not — and, indeed, can not — disqualify the consideration of the engagement with the poem itself. Ekphrasis is demonstration and performance of an engagement, and thus must itself present an engagement for anything to be offered to the reader. Otherwise, however much one might think they are presenting one’s own experience with the work, they are, in fact, collapsing that experience into the banal reiterations of convention: they are saying to the reader “this is what this painting means," concreting the painting (and the poem) in mere meaning when they should be creating for the reader an individual experience.

A dual experience, in a way: after all, the reader reads the poem, gains that experience; then the reader can go back to the painting, view the painting through the experience of the poem, and gain a new experience. This is aesthetic discourse (as concerns the painting). Not “this is what it means," or “this is why it is important," but “this is what I see in it; this is what I get out of it; this is the experience I have when viewing it." The test is not accuracy, not adherence to whatever version of “truth" one might claim, but validity.

Two people stand before a painting (or, two people read a poem). Each speaks their engagement with the painting. How do there two speeches compare? Can they be compared? Specifically, can one of say of either “that is correct"? Only from the viewpoint of the structures of genre and convention, from out the language of the nomic, which is about the making and assuring of truth. But not from the place of the individual: any true engagement with an aesthetic work is above all an individual engagement, an engagement based not in rational truth but in the unconscious.

So, then, there are two engagements: whereas to question either as truth is to efface engagement entirely, there is yet a means of comparison. That means lies in the idea of validity: i.e., to question is a response to a work valid? Really, this is no different that what we as individuals do any time we approach a work with any critical acumen: we read a poem, explore its ideas, test those ideas in re-reading, explore some, test some more, until we come to a place where we feel comfortable with the validity of our engagement. What we are adding, really, is the recognition that every individual is an individual, with their own level of sophistication, with their own knowledge, with their own psyche. Thus, with their own validity.

To explain by a wholly imagined and intentionally simplistic example, we return to our two people, who stand before a painting of two military bodies engaged in a battle. One viewer says, “With the energies of the image, I see in it the violence of war." But the other has noticed a figure on one side that is a depiction of Victory — something the first viewer would not recognize. As such, because of his knowledge, the second viewer has a different experience, a different engagement. He then says to the first, “But this side is marked as the soon-to-be victorious side, so I don't see it as simply violence." The first looks, accepts the information (perhaps after a question or two as to who Victory is) and his experience of the painting changes. What has happened is not a correction of truth, but a comparison of experiences — which, of course, includes knowledge. With the new knowledge, the experience for the first viewer has changed.

Now the first viewer has a new basis of experience, and takes a new look. And with the new focus on the figure of Victory, notices something new: “It seems to me that the woman is moving backwards, that the people around her are getting pushed back a bit." The second looks again as well, agrees, and, with the first, comes to a new experience: “The side used to be winning, but now it is not." And, suddenly, the violence of the picture brings on a new experience: “There is something about the violence in the image, it feels directed, as though generated within the side with Victory, wielded upon the other side."

“And that is why Victory is leaving," says the first in agreement. “They might be winning the battle, but they are not victorious, for they are losing the moral war." A new idea, one that fits the painting, and suddenly the painting comes alive with even more energy then before.

How is this validity, and not, simply, finding the meaning of the painting? The difference is found in two places: (1) whether the viewers were, themselves, engaging the painting, experiencing the painting, and letting their analyses modify and expand that experience and engagement, or whether they were, simply, trying to deduce some meaning, to reduce the painting — through analysis of its component parts — to meaning; and (2) whether we, here, in exploring the scene are doing the one or the other: will we reduce their anlysis to meaning, or will we recognize that at no point were either viewer wrong. More to the point, if it was a true aesethetic discourse, a speaking of engagements, at no point did the concept of “wrong" even enter the conversation. Every experience, at every point, was, essentially, “correct" . . . because — and this is the important part — it was their personal experience of the painting.

Nor was any subsequent engagement more “right" than any previous, nor was either person's engagement for correct than the other's. They were, merely, and only after the moments of comparison, more, or less, valid. Notice that validity -- as is correctness -- is always a comparison. Correctness is a comparison to whatever is accepted as established truth. Validity is, simply, comparison. Neither element bears any established truth-value, except within the context of the individual: that individual examines case A, compares it to case B, and decides, in a method as much unconscious as not, which offers the greater experience of the artwork in question. As such, even the 'truth' of whether it is, in fact, Victory in the painting is irrelevant. That is, until some other person comes along and offers knowledge that will again offer the possibility of a more valid engagement. Even if the information is incorrect, it is still a 'valid' engagement, as it is for them the most productive engagement.

This comes into play in works where the artist's or writer's intent does not match the result: for example, the artist with this work intended to insert into the painting an image of Aphrodite taken from some sculpture he saw in a museum, but he botched the job and for it nearly everyone who looks at the painting sees Victory. The 'fact' of the woman may be she was intended to be Aphrodite; but the more valid engagement of the woman is Victory.


So, then, we return to our ekphrasis, and to what most readers of literature already recognize: that an ekphrasis can be (I would say usually is) the speaking of an engagement with a painting or other work of art. And we do find such in this poem. It does create an ideation that both comes out of and, for me, adds to my viewing of Chagall’s painting. (I should say that I was relatively unfamiliar with the painting until this poem, and have intentionally refused to see if there is a connection between Vitebsk and Chagall, or something particularly special about shtibels and Chagall.) As such, as far as being an ekphrasis, the poem does succeed to some degree. (Though, to be fair, I must then clarify, since I was unfamiliar with the painting, it would not take much for a poem to add something to my engagement with it.)

But does our ekphrasis work as a poem? What does it offer in terms of engagement with itself? Here, the poem leaves me unfulfilled, mostly because it does not attempt to be very much, outside of a small handful of not to terribly interesting and not to terribly calculated lines. While the idea of the poem — as regards the painting — might be somewhat interesting, as a poem there’s really not much there. Which is too bad: the idea in “a room small as prayer" is a really interesting one, one perhaps that should have informed the whole of the poem to a greater degree than it currently does. (By the by, the choice not to say “small as a prayer" is excellent, and is the highpoint of the poem.)

But, even simpler, why not add meter and rhyme? Because the lines offered are unmeasured free verse (without rhyme), the potential of the poem is mostly undiscovered. In the end, it’s no different — and thus as trivial — as nearly every other free verse poem one finds in the poetic domain. Which is a shame, because the same idea, especially if fed upon “a room small as prayer," using measured and rhymed lines, would have made for a great little poem. Instead, there really is nothing special here.

 

(Note that I am not making a blanket pereference for formal verse over free verse here. I am saying that in this one case, formality seems called for, feels like a more profitable route.)

Monday, March 11, 2013

"Times Like These: Marianna, Florida" by L. Lamar Wilson -- Poetry Daily, 3/11/13

from Sacreligion (Carolina Wren Press Poetry Series)
poem found here
 

prose poems and paragraph poems

— reformatted 3/30/14
 

Come on, Poetry Daily. You couldn't do the simple fix to fix how that line looks? Rather the epitomy of laziness, there. Not cool at all.


I guess I ought to say more, but this poem is being persnickety. I will say that, for myself, as far as prose poems go, the bar for me is T.S. Eliot's "Hysteria." A prose poem is rather a peculiar hybrid: it is prose, but there is in the concept of it being not only prose the demand that it is something more than mere prose; even, something more than great prose. Something different than prose. What that means is that a prose poem is, then, in no small way, a kind of set piece (as the phrase is used in soccer), and demands not only precision   a different kind of precision than in poetry, and, perhaps, to an even hreater degree   but that kind of elegance that you see in a brilliant set piece in soccer.

Without the precision and the flourish of brilliance, it is nothing more than a paragraph.

As for this example, I leave it to you. I will say I like how travel is presented merely with "field," "another field"; but, I think the next sentence should begin with "so" or "as such" or such an organizing word, something that shifts the idea from single things along the road to actual movement along the road.

And skein is misused. I can't get it to work, with whatever metaphorical manipulations I might try. And, as I said, prose poems demand precision, for every flaw easily becomes glaring.

 

Goodnight, talk about imprecision and being persnickety: my sentences are fighting me today. Better quit while I can.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

"The Little Georgia Magnet" by R.T. Smith -- Poetry Daily, 3/10/13

from The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O'Connor (Louisiana Literature P)
poem found here
 

close reading and aesthetic sophistication

editing, and a little rewriting to try to fix some weaknesses -- 6/9/2013 (and Ogden Nash became Edward Lear, who was of whom I was thinking at the time, but came up with the wrong name)
— reformatted, minor editing 3/30/14
— this post has been added to the "Best of the PDC" page on my Hatter's Cabinet site.
 

This week I've had little opportunity for direct attention to this blog endeavor, so today I try to write out what has been brewing in my head.

Somehow -- actually, I know how* -- close reading has gotten a bad name in literature, when, in truth, every English major should be forced to take a class that is dedicated to the idea. Proof of the necessity of the class lies in that weakness of contemporary literature, of English departments, of poetry especially, but of creative writing cripplingly, is how great a many of the participants have never learned how to read. How to truly read: to pay attention to the words, to understand the consequences of the chosen semantics and syntactics, to see what is on the page, rather than, what is the majority case, to gloss through and see what is conventional, what is habitual, what they as readers have been told to see, what is easy.

When it comes to it, close reading is nothing more than learning to pay attention to the text. Which means, in no small part, learning about things like poetics, and narratology, and grammar (god forbid). But it also means learning to reject what has been said about a text and to see what is actually there for yourself.

One of the great jokes played upon the public based upon the inability of the public to read (and on that the public, rather, looks instead to convention to tell them what a text means) was the movie Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoeven. This film is a whole and unending play on the stereotypes and conventions that surround the 'hero' idea in film, particularly (but not exclusively) in the genre of war films. And the audience is magnificently manipulated as they bite on the hook of every convention, to the point of (in the two times I saw it in the theater) the audience cheering quite loudly at the appropriate moment of victory at the end.

Except that they are cheering for the bad guys. The humans in this film are a future version of the Nazis: if you but pay the slightest attention, that identification is put forward again and again and again. There is no doubt to be had: they are the equivalent of the Nazis. They are the self-acclaimed Aryans destroying an inferior race, simply because it is their destiny — their moral right, as it were — to do so. And when the audience cheered at Nazi victory, I laughed and laughed and laughed.

Simply, close reading is paying attention. More complexly, close reading is reading, is looking for oneself at the words on the page, seeing what those words make of themselves, ignoring conventions (or, recognizing that they are conventions), genre, the social layers plastered on the text (which is to say, ignoring any statement that begins with "what this means is"), and experiencing the text for oneself.

Now, where an aesthetic concept of close reading breaks from the, say, formalist, or New Criticism (U.S. style) idea of the concept (i.e., as it has concreted over time), is that the aesthetic recognizes that New Critical close reading has itself become rather convention laden — which is the exact opposite of the aesthetic want of those writers from out of whose works the idea of close reading developed. As such, an aesthetic close reader will beware of, pay attention to, and then ignore any conventions and genres that actually developed within close reading itself: for example, the idea that the more technical the text, the better; or, perhaps a better way to say it, the more the poem offers to close reading the better. Another such convention is the idea that great literature must be based on irony. Another, that great literature must have a specific psychological, moral, and/or emotional depth. Each idea does carry some true observation about literature, yes; but, once that idea has been turned into a rule, it fails literature.

An aesthetic approach to the idea of close reading will recognize that different readers — and different writers — will approach a poem with a different degree and nature of sophistication. Thus, a less sophisticated person will have difficulty entering a text of both high sophistication and high complexity. That does not make the text bad, in any way; nor does it make the response of the less sophisticated reader invalid; rather, it merely forces you to stay aware to the fact that all texts are not created equal, to wit, and nor are all readers, and to think otherwise leads only to falsities and confusions. Every reader approaches a text from out their own knowledge and sophistication. What close reading demands is not that hey get it "correct," but that what they get, they get on their own. That they engage, think about, and study the words and semantics and metaphor and structure on their own, with effort sufficient to the task. (Indeed, the very idea of a "correct" reading is counter to aesthetic close reading.)

But, this does not relieve the writer from the burdens of successful creating. A text, whatever the degree of complexity, whether it be Edward Lear or E.E. Cummings, must still be a successful text. Which is why we can equate Lear and Cummings as poets in the issues of creating successful works: Lear's poems may be much more accessible than Cummings's, but they both are still of a high degree of poetic sophistication.

Which is to say, there is a bar in writing. Or at least there should be. At least as far as publication — and critical approval — is concerned. A poem must succeed in what it is trying to do. And, there must be a certain degree of sophistication in the poem: and that degree of sophistication might most easily be described as being able to hold up against attentive reading.

You can not wave away the effects of the implied author of your text simply by claiming ignorance. If a close reading reveals your text to, say, have racist undertones, you can not simply wave it off by saying "well, I don't mean for someone to read the story that carefully." That is tantamount to saying, "I only write for idiots." (And if that is how you make your buck, go crazy. There are plenty of willing idiots out there. But do not then claim any quality for your work.) You cannot throw together a poem with lines that form no obvious purpose and defend the lines with "You are not supposed to make anything out of the lines," because a good reader will, that is what being a good reader is: it is saying, to every poem, "there are line breaks here, what is their purpose? what is their effect?" You can not write lines that form no coherent unity in the expectation that the reader of the poem will only surface read: that is nothing more than writing crap and hoping nobody notices.

But not only that, it is the absolute defeat of the idea of poetry, and literature, and any art form as a creative endeavor. A writer should always be striving to write beyond what they had written before, should always be striving to develop in sophistication. Not to do so is not being creative, it is being repetitive, or, worse, diaretic. To strive to write literature is to strive to be brilliant, which is to say to accomplish what, at the start of it, you could not before accomplish. It is to make something beautiful. It is to write by the philosophy "I strive to make brilliant things, and I want my readers to strive to be brilliant readers; and in that I write brilliantly I push them to read brilliantly, and in that they read brilliantly, they push me to write brilliantly."

Of course, not every piece can be a magnum opus, nor should they be. But every new collection should surpass the previous (i.e., should demonstrate a development in sophistication, even if it is, in the least, exploration of new areas). If not — I'll be honest — I don't, won't have much care for your work. And the lack of strive will show in each individual work: it absolutely does, do not deceive yourself. There is a difference between poetry that is written and poetry that is created — though, there does seem to be a relationship wherein the less sophisticated the poet, the more they are blind to the difference. I would argue it is most often that very lack of striving — of close reading while writing — that blinds them.

Writing is supposed to be very hard work. If it is not, you are wasting your time as well as mine. If you want to write whatevers, knock yourself out. Just don't submit them . . . to anything. When you put a poem out to be published, it should not be merely with the thought: I wrote something, hopefully you'll publish it. Rather, it should carry with it an implied declaration: I accomplished something here; it is worth publishing. And its quality should meet, if not exceed, that declaration.


That said, I offer these questions about today's poem. And the above is not meant to be directed critique against today's poem, it is merely broad background strokes, both for this post and for all posts here. And, in turn, these are merely questions intended to give you something to think about. If I write them with a critical tone, it is merely to give point to the prod.

In no particular order:

  1. Why have the words gee and haw in italics? They are words, after all, no more or less than the press or sweat that precedes or follows. 
  2. Assuming there is no valid reason for the italics, what is the consequence of the italics to the reading and reception of the poem?
  3. (Are they even used correctly? supposing they were not, what is the result to the reading and reception of the poem?)
  4. Near the bottom of the second stanza there are these lines:
    an inch. Furthermore, in a chair, she could not
    be raised. She had a power so much deeper
    than the naked eye can gaze. Magic or leverage,
    The two sentences beginning with "Furthermore" are, actually, on their own, a rhymed ballad stanza:
    Furthermore, in a chair,
    she could not be raised.
    She had a power so much deeper
    than the naked eye can gaze.
    (Yes, the second line is not the best as far as a ballad stanza goes, I know. But you get my point.) Though, there is no apparent use of it, or even awareness of it. In fact, the poem, as far as meter and rhythm go, is paying attention only to the visual length of the lines. What is the effect on the reading and reception of a poem that is free verse that has in its midst, apparently without the author realizing it, a rhymed ballad stanza?
  5. Finally, on that note, since the poem is sentences broken into lines, and, apparently, the primary consideration as to the line breaks is the visual length of the lines, why not simply write it as paragraphs and shrink in the margins? What is the effect on the reading and reception of a poem when, to all intents and purposes, it made up, simply enough, of paragraphs with left-justification and narrow margins?
  6. And, what would be the result to the reading and reception of the poem when, once attention is paid to the sentences that make up the poem, it realized they may not make such great paragraphs after all? To rephrase it, can arbitrary line breaks save a bad paragraph?

 

* The answer is: because close reading is an undefeatable threat to the majority of what falls for social criticism (and bibliography-as-criticism). As social critics rose, especially within the realm of post-colonialism and all is associates, they kept finding themselves being faced with the point of the simple sword of "except, if you pay attention to the text." Now, I am not using this as a blanket statement against social criticism: in fact, the difference between really good social criticism and run of the mill criticism (and that distinction is not to be confused with popularity of the critic) is, in fact, that very issue: whether the text can sustain the criticism. Unfortunately, post-colonial criticism and social criticism is really easy to write — and build a career upon — if one ignores the text and goes, instead, for grandiose, pc, socially 'enlightened' emotions about the oppressed state of, well, the oppressed. (If you wish one example, I offer Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives by Marianna Turgovnick, a lauded book by an established cultural critic that at nearly every turn fails against "except, if you pay attention to the text . . . .")

Monday, March 4, 2013

"Glass of Water and Coffee Pot" by Robin Robertson, -- Poetry Daily, 3/4/13

from Hill of Doors (Picador)
poem found here
 

First lines:
These rooms of wood, of tongue-and-groove, open out
on a garden of white-washed walls and a maple tree,

 

meter and the poetic line

-- reformatted with some editing/rewriting 1/26/2014
 

I just want to explore, freely, line lengths and meter with this poem. And I mean explore: nothing here is being decisively stated: I am read out loud and here thinking out loud about what I hear.

 

Some hexameter in action, here – except for line 5. And then there’s line 7 (“and the pot’s”), which can be read as hexameter, but is more naturally read as a kind of 5-beat sprung rhythm. Line 11 also, can be read hexameter, but is more natural pentameter. And line 12. So maybe not hexameter; which is a shame to me, because that would have been so much fun to read. Especially with the many plays on iambic put on by Mr. Robertson.

But, I can't complain. I've played around with writing a long poem with the rule "lines between six and nine feet" rather than regularizing -- and it worked well. And I'm not saying it does not work well here; I'm just saying, "Oh, so close to straight hexameter. You couldn't squeeze that one out?"

 

Reading Shakespeare (to pick a name off the floor) demonstrates two elements of good, metered poetry. (1) Knowing that the text your are reading is in iambic pentameter will guide you in reading the lines (i.e., you will be nudged into reading it correctly when you know where you meant to go). (2) you need not at all maintain a very recognizable, iambic ba-DUMP ba-DUMP for it to remain iambic. Take line 13:

on this STONE SHELF, || HAPpiNESS of the HAND and HEART

The stress of the first four syllables ( ∪ ∪ ' ' ) is an often used substitute for two iambic feet. Then, after the caesura (which is strengthened by the difficulty in anunciating "shelf") you have an abbreviated foot ( ' ) before a normal iamb, an iamb with a lead-in unaccented syllable, and then two normal iambs:

on this STONE SHELF, / HAP / piNESS /of the HAND / and HEART

Note how the triple stress is aided in its reading by the pause at the comma. Though, that’s just one method, the next line has a straight string of stresses:

to KEEP its HEAT and STILL POUR CLEAN and TRUE.

You can read that line with an unstressed “pour,” but it changes the meaning of the line: the semantic emphasis moves from “pour” to “still.”[FN]

*********************
[FN] See note added at the bottom.
*********************

(Of course, #1 does have its dark side: you can not, as a writer, use your established rhythm to force a line where it is not normally willing to go.)

Which is an interesting little bit of firewood to add to the question of using straight hexameter: the question of emphasis would be solved if the meter was fixed. But, with the poem not being regularized line lengths, a variability is made permissible, and there is an ambiguity as to how to read the line. (Note: "ambiguity," not "problem.")

The first line also has a modified foot:

These ROOMS / of WOOD, / of TONGUE- / and-GROOVE, / O- /pen OUT

But I will be honest with you: I don’t must like that line at that point. I think it stumbles over itself. Though, not because of the short foot, but because of the sound of /groove/ being followed immediately by the sound of an accented /o/. Every time I read it I stall there; which is not a great thing, but possibly a worse thing for it being in the first line of the poem.

OK, but, then, Robin Robertson is Scottish. So in his own rhythms, it might be a wholly different matter: something else to think about. (I was reading recently about William Carlos Williams’s idea of using as a measure of line length the amount of time it took to say the line, rather than counting beats. Unfortunately, that length can rather vary from place to place in this English speaking world, so I’m not sure the usefulness of that one. (And, again, we see why you cannot write haiku -- meter wise -- in English.) Though, the idea is something to think about.)

 

My original thought in exploring this poem was to go to the relationship between line length and the use of meter. I would argue that the longer the lines, the more attention has to be paid to the line’s rhythms, as the longer the line, the easier it is for the line to become unwieldy or clumsy. But the more you read this poem, the more the lines congeal into very nice lines indeed. (Except for those couple of exceptions.)

It is worth noticing, however, that even with the longer lines, the poem was crafted with the lines rather being one thought per line, the thought using the whole of the line. At least that is how it runs until line 5. But the break there is good use of the established form and toward a greater making than merely one line being different from the form. Then line 6 is another unit idea. And, then, line seven, another break that uses the established form to positive ends, here to an even better degree, as the break is a full colon (which, in reading, can sometimes carry a greater aural pause than a period). You see what’s on either side of the colon?: “darkness” vs. “luminous.” So, the line is unified after all, eh?! (Even with a touch of rhyme to boot: “-ness” and “-nous.”) Great stuff that.

Similarly with the next line, where those last two syllables are not permitted to break away from the thought they are amplifying/modifying. Lines 10, 12, and 13 are similar, in that there is a comma break, but they are a part of an extended thought that ties the lines together. (I fear I am inadequately defending those lines. My hope is that you see how the lines have a sense of independent existence, even when they are broken by punctuation.)


Note:

I recenty picked back up with intent to finish Charles O. Hartman's Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (after a shortened first start). Ultimately, I stopped reading it because I felt I was reading it mostly to develop arguments against Hartman rather than learn from him. Though, to understand that, most of what I found problematic with Hartman lay behind the arguments: things like unrecognized contradictions, or making a statement about the subject and then making another statement that seems to wholly forget the first was made.

One example of a statement made which didn't seem to deeply inform the rest of the book (insofar as I read it) was what may be the most intriquing and informing moment in the book:

[A]ll linguistic stress, in speech as well as verse, is relative stress. (36)

Which may sound obvious, but is actually quite profound in that it adds a depth to the fundamental observation about metered verse: There are two levels operating within verse: the abstract, measured pacing of the meter, and the sound of the text read as language. In any good verse the two operate in conjunction with each other to create the resonance and depth of sophisticated metered poetry.

Adding on the observation by Hartmann brings us to the realization that as such, the line in the poem refered to above

to KEEP its HEAT and STILL POUR CLEAN and TRUE.

Can still be read a iambic pentameter, even though the spoken stress on "pour" is stronger than on either "still" or "clean" -- so long as reader hears that the stress put on "pour" is wholly created out of the natural inflections of language, and hears that the word is also unstressed within the musical rhythm of the meter.

An observation with very fascinating possibilities. (Though for me still but an observation, yet to be tested to any great measure.)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

"Necessity Defense of Institutional Memory" by Camille Rankine -- Poetry Daily, 3/3/13

from Tin House (14.3)
poem found here
 

First lines:
So the free may remain free

     say the nightmare is

 

poetic structure, and poetic grammar

-- reformatted with some editing 1/26/2014
 

What I like, or find interesting, or say “good job!” to:

The use of spacing as a kind of punctuation.
They are well placed; there is not a one that is spurious or flippant in its use (which, as other poets seem to demonstrate, is harder than one might think). But they are not merely well placed: they are effectively used. Functioning even better than would commas, most likely because (1) the terseness of the statements (emphasized by the absence of a “that” after the “so”s), and (2) because of the visual lightness of the poem. This is related to:
The use of double line breaks as a kind of punctuation.
Before the indented lines, the double line break works in the manner of a comma, or a dash, or such. Coupled with the tab it creates a reading where it is not simply line, response, line, response; but, rather, isolates the lines to de-emphasize the line-response pairing, and give each part a bit more life of its own. (This also utilizes the lack of “that”s.) While the semantics (as guided by most of the pairings) is of line and response, the punctuating of the poem with space brings the lines more into juxtaposition rather than pairing. Note that this also means that it creates justapositions/pairings out of the indented lines and the non-indented lines that follow them, which might arguably be a weakness in the poem, disassembling, a bit, the ideational development. (I question whether that weakness could be cured, or if it is an understanding that can only be carried into the next poem-writing.)
The three-lined stanza (“so I may be replaced . . .”.
I tell you, I really really like how this stanza works. And you have to note how the effectiveness of this stanza is set up by the sparsity of the lines above it. The aural pauses created by the breaks and the gaps are perfect to the pacing of the poem, creating (in a musical sense) a kind of flourish, a momentary rise to fortissimo, though without making any more of the lines than they can bear.
The use . . . . no, not use, but presence of the colon.
It is the only formal punctuation in the poem. Many poets would leave it out, thinking that the rules of the poem are that there must be no punctuation. But the poem demands it, and you must listen to the poem. Why is it demanded? Because the colon is being used to announce a change in the reading of the poem: the lines are no longer soft line-response pairings. The colon announces the final statement, announces to reader to ignore what is the norm up to then, something different is happening. And, in that it is a colon, it naturally, in the normal nature of the colon, announces a concluding explanation or explication or expansion, often seen presented as a list, so you are ready to join together the final lines into a single statement. It is a small thing, but it is an excellent thing.

 

What I don’t like, or question, or say “what?!” to:

A weakness in the structure of the poem.
Because the line breaks create an equality between the margin-lined and indented lines, coupled with that the first pair does not readily cue to me the nature of line-response, I am choosing to read the poem as line-response. Which may not be the intent. Not every time I read the poem can I get the first pairing to work that way, and many times it wants to completely buck the idea of line-response. I think this is a weakness that should have been avoided at the beginning: if it is not meant to be line-response, then do not let it fall into such. And once a rhetoric is decided on, stick to it. Which leads to:
The lingering question of whether I am correct in reading it line-response.
Which should not exist. Once I figure out line-response (or whatever reading), the poem should be assuring me (even if subtly) that I am correct. The poem should, to wit, open up as a unified whole because of the decided approach. If it cannot do so, then either I have the wrong reading, or there is a problem with the poem. And, especially because of the first pairing, which I do not think works terribly well, I still, after however many readings, have doubts. Which leads to:
Abstractions.
The poem is too abstract. Let me restate that: because the poem is so abstract, there is only so far you can go with it. Depth, organic depth, the resonances of depth, are developed with ideation; and over-abstraction makes for shallow ideation. When it comes to it, the “preserved” in “so we are preserved” could mean many things, both positive and negative in nature. (The only way the poem is stabilized is by taking the most shallow, generic, conventional meaning of the word.) Walking away from the poem I find a very intriguing idea for the structuring of the poem, but one that was failed by the abstractions in this particular use of that formal idea. Abstractions are almost always laziness, and that is undeniable. Abstractions are but a loose paraphrasing of what should be being generated by fuller, more complex ideation. (Do not confuse sparsity with abstraction: the “so I may be replaced” lines are sparse, but far more concrete than the opening pairing.) Now, the challenge here: what would make this poem a true “Hey, wow” poem, would be if there could be such development without losing the general feel of the poem. Verbless phrases seems a potential path to explore.
And, for that thought, credit to the poem: something was attempted that speaks aesthetic creating, that creates and carries literary energy, that prompts in other writers the thought “that is an interesting idea . . . .”, whether or not this poem itself can be said to wholly succeed.
The title.
I hate it. I think she shot for something big and failed. Even at its most basic traits, I think it doesn’t fit the style of the poem. And, if that much explanation has to go into the title to make the poem work, it is a dead giveaway that either (1) the poem is too abstract and unanchored, and/or (2) the poem itself misses its intended mark, and the title is being put forward to aim the poem in the right direction (because it can't get there on its own). (I rather repeated myself, there, didn't I.)

Friday, March 1, 2013

"The Letters" by Jack Ridl -- Poetry Daily, 3/1/13

from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State UP)
poem found here
 

First lines:
This week the letter from my mother
is a half-page long, the handwriting

 

narrative poetry, and poetry as "calculation"

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

Wordsworth writes in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, writing as regards the popular poetry of his day:

[A]s it may be proper to remind the Reader, the distinction of metre is regular and uniform, and not like that which is produced by what is usually called poetic diction, arbitrary, and subject to infinite caprices upon which no calculation whatever can be made.

Taking it within the context of the time, recognizing that he is speaking about a specific body of poetry, in language that is his own and of his own (not-terribly-post-Enlightenment) time, this statement stands as what could be read as Wordsworth's base definition for poetry, as opposed to prose (and poor poetry): something calculated. When you sit down and give ponder to the idea, it is a tough one to refute or reject: after all, is that not the distinction between the banal and the good even in prose, that the good is controlled, manipulated, creative, and, in reverse, not lacking in control. (Note how good grammar is not generally considered good writing: it is merely clean writing.)

So, then, here: what can we say is calculated as regards this poem? The language is prose but broken into lines (as opposed to being crafted lines). And it is not even terribly clean prose, at that. The first sentence ("This week the letter from my mother is a half-page long, the handwriting shaking its way across the paper.") has two subjects, or, perhaps better said, it shifts its focus in mid sentence from the event of the letter arriving to the item of the handwriting on the paper. This is something which would be readily cured by changing the "the" to "it's" (and, even, might be less jarring if later in the poem, but don't hold me to that). Also, later ("'Good way to end the week,' our years connected from there, upper left corner, to here centered perfectly."), there is a grammar issue -- which is curious because he got the grammar correct in putting commas around "upper left corner"; so why leave them off "centered perfectly"? And then there is the question of what to do between "week" and "our": a comma is incorrect; a dash, or semi-colon would work, each to different ends (not a colon, however).

Should we try the general retort, "But it is poetry, not prose"? You can try, but better would be to start recognizing that that phrase is the last line of defense for otherwise indefensible poetry. Calling it poetry does not relieve the accusation of being sloppy; calling it poetry does not relieve the writer from the burden of following the rules of language, even if those rules are being tweaked, modified, or re-established within the work. (Which is not the case here: this is simply sloppiness.) Also, the rules generated by this poem are that of "prose broken into lines": so even by the rules of the moment there is yet the burden to get it right. Within the rules of the poem, the sentence beginning "I pour a cup" is an uncontrolled run-on. The arbitrary line breaks do not save it. (Indeed, they only serve to try to conceal it. Which is funny, because with a little poetic calculation, they might have been made into something interesting.

Can you defend the poem? (And, yes, we can still call it poetry, even if unsophisticated poetry.) What calculation can be found within this poem, other than, perhaps, the (to all appearances arbitrary) decision to have stanzas of four lines, breaking the lines into near equal length?

(You know, I should say here: You often here of people speaking as to how they have troubles finding the stanza length (and, in turn, line length) of a poem, and then of finding a stanza that suddenly makes the poem work. I always want to question the majority of those tales with this: Did the found stanza-line combination make the poem work? or did it most successfully hide its flaws? That is a good opening for a discussion around the defense of a poem.)

I can point out a place with mis-calculation (or glaring absence of calculation): between the third and fourth lines. There is a change in time (and tense) from present to past, meant to be a shift to compare the mother's current handwriting to her previous handwriting. (Having "this week" at the front creates the idea that the event of the letter -- and the handwriting in the letter -- is specific to this week. Thus, when the next sentence is about penmanship, one wants to read that she normally has good penmanship, but something is wrong this week. The past tense, then, is in error. But one then the reader realizes that if there is an error, it is not there, and the reader has to go back and reread the opening phrases against their semantic construction.) 

In prose, such a shift would want some kind of cue (be it semantic or syntactic or what) to give the reader notice that the change in tense is not a mistake, to tell the reader, "yes, there is a shift in idea, here": very simply, a paragraph break. Or, perhaps, a "before" at the end of the "she was" clause. Or, here, in a poem, there need be but a little calculation: a stanza break. In fact, the absence of the stanza break (or such similar) at this point reads to me as a bright sign saying "There Is Here No Purpose Behind The Line Breaks Here Except To Make Lines." 

So, again, can you defend this poem? Is there anything here of value? of merit? that gives any insistence that this poem deserves to be read as a poem? or, that the poem on the next page deserves to be read? any defense that this poem is, in fact, nothing more than ordinary and rather shallow and undeveloped prose masquerading as being more important than it really is by taking on the mask of "poetry"?

Let me ask it in a different way, in a way that posits an idea: why is it that people who write poetry think that they can take prose that would be rejected as undeveloped, uncoordinated, if not uninteresting prose and, by giving it line breaks, magically imbew it value and justification under the name of "poetry"? (Please don't notice that the words are undeveloped, uncoordinated, if not uninteresting; there are, after all, line breaks, and a trivial attempt at some closing profundity. Is that not enough?) 

One more time, with flair: why is being prosaically lazy made poetically creative merely by the introduction of line breaks?