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
The Rational and SpiritualitySomething I Read #21 – C.K. Stead
Something I Read #20 – Carl JungSomething I Read #19 – Carl Jung

Monday, May 27, 2013

"Ecstasy" by Jane Miller -- Poetry Daily, 5/27/2013

from Boston Review (May/June 2013)
poem found here

First lines:
As the ancients detail it
ecstasy passes over us


the small poem (and a bit about the unexpectedly hackneyed)

reformatted with editing — 8/27/14

It wasn't but a few posts ago I made passing comment on poems that exist most naturally in a context, and which are taken out of that context when published in a mag or on a site (this one). That thought has been dancing in my head since, and I have been occasionally pulling poems off the shelf in casual exploration. This poem permits a little more thought to that end. (Interestingly, it also pairs up well with my last post, on abstraction.)

Now, it should be noted up front that that this poem, "Ecstasy," was published without accompaniment in Boston Review, I do not know if the poem has a natural context. So part of what follows is hypothetical. So play along as necessary.

I should also point out that "context" is not the primary subject about which I want to talk: really, it is the small poem.

So, that said, take a look at this poem. Ideationally, you can hopefully see there is really very little going on.

  • lines 1-5 introduce the idea of this "ancient" concept of ecstasy, and gives it a three part description: (1) it is a "mist of particles"; (2) it "lives bare"; (3) it "dies unburied"
  • line 6 is a statement that anchors the "ancients" reference in the mind of the speaker
  • line 7 is a second statement, parallelling that in line 6
  • lines 8-9 is a physical idea, a statement apparently in explication of the lines preceeding

The difficulty here lies in how the parts interreact.

  • Physically, the three elements in lines 1-5 are a description. Ecstasy is a mist. The mist lives bare, in the sense that a mist is unconcealed (and, even, transparent). Finally, The mist dies unburied, in that it just falls to the ground and is no longer mist. But, really, that's rain, not mist: mist just seems rather to dissipate into the air. (You don't see a mist running across a field drop down to the ground — it just kind of goes away.) So, yes, unburied, but does it then really die? There's a bit of an ideational difficulty, here.

    The lines also work with the idea of ecstasy. Ecstasy (equated to a mist) lives bare: in that it is played out for everyone to see. Ecstasy dies unburied . . . . well, there's that same ideational problem. Does ecstasy "die"? (I don't really see where Miller is trying to go.)

  • And then line 6 brings in, overtly, the idea of rain. Which is not, really, mist. So that ideational confusion in 1-7 can now no longer be avoided. (And if "the ancients" said "mist," I'm pretty sure they meant mist, not rain. So this change is in no small way a rejection of what philosophical authority was intended in the reference to "the ancients.")

  • And line 7 is very unclear as to how it is to be used. Is it a restating of "it is raining" in line 6? Is it a description of the scene of lines 8-9? Is it meant to be taken as a comment on the mist/rain of ecstasy? Or, is it stating a synonym for ecstasy? Or, all of the above?

  • And then you have lines 8-9: a visually oriented statement, and, a visually orienting statement. But is it at all clear how it is supposed to work with the rest of the poem? To take one example, how does "a couple of hawks in a tree / and not the tree entire" work with "ecstasy[/mist . . .] dies unburied"?

    Even, how does the clarification of "it's only the hawks, not the tree and the hawks as a whole" have anything to do with anything that precedes it?

Now, I have a guess: the scene of the hawks is a visual moment, but one not meant to be taken as demonstration. Rather, it is simply an arbitrary moment, at which the speaker looks. The speaker sees it as beautiful; the speaker's experience of the beauty is ecstatic.

And that's pretty much it. As I said, content-wise, there is very little in this poem, And what is there does not build upon itself into a greater whole.

But — and here's the hypothetical: What if this poem was part of a book (or sequence) of such small poems, where the ideas of mist, and rain, and ecstasy, and hawks and trees appear and reappear and over the sequence develop into a vibrant ideational field? Let's assume that this poem is in fact part of such a book of poems. What questions then arise?

First, can you then say of this poem, "this is a successful poem"? For me, if the greater context of the poem were that important to engaging the poem, I would answer no. It is not a successful poem . . . . on its own. But, if the sequence as a whole is successful, I would say it is a part of a successful, greater poem, and the "sequence" of poems should, then, be better understood as the poem per se, as a single poem made up of many parts.

Second, considering how the elements of this poem really fail to coalesce, could it be said to even be a successful part of that greater poem? To which I would answer yes, but only if the greater poem gives not only energy to the elements, but creates the field of play in which the elements of this one part can coalesce. That is, the greater poem gives the ideational and structural guidance to the reader that shows how this one part is in itself a structural whole. If, in the greater poem, this one part still can not find its own structural and ideational unity, then no, it is not a successful part.[FN]

[FN] Now, it must be recognized that that unity being sought could be functional rather than ideational. That is, for example, the purpose of this part might be simply to abut the "hawk" idea and the "ecstasy" idea, but the real relationship of the ideas is not then to link them in other poems, but to play them against each other. That's not the best description — but hopefully you get my drift.

The poet that has been in my head since I first brought up this idea a week ago, the poet that gives example and food for thought to these questions, is Paul Celan. Celan was a Romanian born poet (1920-1970), who has become one of the foremost poets in German of the latter half of the 20th century. He is far better known in Europe than he is in the US, and one does not always find his works on your local shelves. But he is very much worth chasing down. (Though, do not be deceived by the nature of the poetry: he is not an easily accessible writer. His poetry demands effort on the part of the reader.)[FN]

[FN] When I was first picking up his books, I did a little footwork on comparing editions. I prefer the Michael Hamburger bilingual volume, The Poems of Paul Celan, for a general collection. (That is not meant to be a statement on the translations: Celan's poetry is of that type where it is good to have numerous translations, to see how they succeed or fail as poems of their own merit. I like this volume as a collection).

Now, if you have or pick up a volume of Celan, you will see that the majority of his poems are rather short. And they can also be rather ideationally sparse. However, there are are for me two characteristics of his poetry that raise Celan above the crowd:

  1. His poems, even if short and sparse (one might argue a better word is terse), nonetheless are unified wholes. They are each successful on their own part, to however diminuitive an effect.
  2. His poems also speak to each other stylistically and ideationally. That is not to say they are dependent upon each other. Rather, I am saying that Celan is best read by reading his collections, not the individual poems. Entering into one of his books — say, Breathturn — is entering into an extended field of play, an extended engagement with a certain style, a certain play of words, and a certain field of ideation. I do not enjoy Celan's poetry one at a time nearly as much as I enjoy reading them in large numbers. Indeed, if I were an anthologist, I would publish his poetry in a large enough number to create a sustained field of effect.[FN]
[FN] Let me say again to be clear: the poems speak to each other. They are not dependent upon each other. They work not unlike instruments in a string quartet, where each has its independent existence within the piece.

Since the early work in the 20th century, the small poem is not firmly entrenched in the poetic tradition. But I would argue that that tradition has been greatly undermined by a laxity on the part of poets: if you look at the small poems of the greats — Celan, or H.D., or William Carlos Williams — there may be a diminuitiveness of ideation, a delicacy of play (as in H.D.), a focusing on the ideational moment (as in Williams[FN]) — but there is still great attention paid to the poem itself, to its control, to its play of words, to its sound, etc., etc. Small in size is not considered permission for looseness: in fact, I would say it is the opposite. Again I offer the phrase "perfection in miniature": not as a description, but as a commandment. The smaller your work, the more attention must be paid, the more the elements of the poem must strive for perfect coordination. Failure results in pretty emptiness, and shallow experience. Depth is created by interaction, after all; not by mere statement.

[FN] To avoid any midreading I have to add that while I think Williams was integral in exploring the structure and potential success of small poetry, I do not believe that the majority of his work is terribly interesting poetry. Reading his collections is for me not unlike reading Celan — an extended ideational field. The difference is that Williams's books are extended explorations of what can be done structurally and ideationally with small poems. They are for me like scientific field journals. As such, most of his poetry, being exploratory, is not, on its own, for me, terribly successful, or, often, outside the context of the book, terribly interesting.


A little note on the hidden hackneyed:

The opening line of this poem ("As the ancients detail it"), even for its little cleverness of using "detail," is a hackneyed phrase. That is, a fall-back upon the quotidian. It is half-assed line that serves to enter an idea the easiest way possible. How this line reads to me is as intellectual and creative laziness, and as such it makes me immediately decrease the amount of "good faith," as it were, in whatever it is that the ancients believed or said. Not faith in the sense of veracity, but faith in the sense of depth. That is, I now fully expect what follows the line to be as shallow as the introductory phrase.

Possibly the direct opposite example is the lines from "Dover Beach":

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; [. . .]

It is not known to what Arnold was there referring, if anything. Does it matter that it could be wholly fictional? No. Why? Because of the specificity of Sophocles's name, yes. Also, because the specificity of Sophocles as an individual brings direct parallel to the individual speaker of the poem, looking out over the Channel. But also because that specificity brings into the poem ideational energies, for me, most specifically, of Greek Tragedy (and the whole of that context). Now, what if it were written this way:

The ancients long ago
Heard it on the Ægaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; [. . .]

Kind of rather emptied those lines right out, didn't it.

So, a writing hint: avoid ever saying something like "the ancients said" (or, even, "the ancient Greeks said"). To be honest, such phrasing most reminds me of that oft seen phrase in student compositions: "Since the beginning of history . . ." (which, invariably (if unintentionally) makes for something very funny).

Sunday, May 26, 2013

"The Other One" by Nadine Botha -- Verse Daily, 05/26/2013

from The Commons
poem found here


First lines:
I could find a million nuances for how to improve me and influence my life,
as though, if I could just identify that one—like The One, the love—


abstraction and control

— edited 5/27/13; expanding explanations beginning at "For example:"
— reformatted 9/30/15

What I would like to show here is how excessive abstraction is not just poor writing because it iss excessive abstraction, but also how abstraction opens the door for other poems throughout the poem. Specifically, I want to try to show that when a person is too abstract in their writing, they tend to have less control over their ideation and wording.

The more effort that is put into filling a poem with solidity, the more those solid elements create, within the writing mind, points of control. By "solidity" here I mean moments of ideational strength, moments where ideational energy is put into the poem, energy that will then seek to interact with other moments of ideational energy, both to build on each other and to weave the micro-cosmos of the poem.

To take a nearly wholly random example, look that the first two verses (and half a line) of Thomas Hardy's "Channel Firing" (full poem found here):

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled.

Look at the second stanza, both at the ideational energies developed and how they interact. The first stanza sets up the event: the guns firing in the Channel. The second is the immediate consequences in the graveyard/church. But also it is in the second stanza that the actual scene is established. Notice the difference in response of the characters present: the skeletal dead sit up in positive anticipation, while the mice, worms, and hounds -- and the utterly uncaring cow -- react in rather quotidian responses.[FN] This opposition is the primary place where the energies of the falseness of the dead's belief in Judgement Day lie is developed. Also, it is in this opposition that one finds the birth of the humor of the poem -- that humor that takes play in the later lines about Parson Thirdly: "I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer."

[FN] It is worth pointing out, as well, how Hardy emphasised both the humor and the opposition by dropping the action of "and sat upright" down into the second stanza: out of the stanza about the noise of the guns, and into the stanza of the reactions to the noise.

But look also at how the strength of the lines also create ideational stability and an anchoring in the poem. You have four animal responses given in opposition to that of the skeletons. Four moments across five lines given to establish the actual scene (as opposed to the imagined scene) of the poem. And four moments that, though equivalent in their quotidian response, are also different in their particulars (dogs are disturbed, mice skittish, worms burrow to their safe homes, and the cow could care less). So it's not just an abstract "but the world did not so much care," it is an interweaving of concrete moments and demonstrations of that idea.

So do you see what I mean as to how that second stanza grounds the whole poem, and establishes a moment of control in its concrete ideational strength -- even while generating the overarching humor of the false belief of the dead? But also, how that concrete strength demands and creates control over the flow of the poem, not only in the early verses but throughout?

"The Other One," however, offers no such moments. it is almost entirely abstract. (To be honest, I can't find a concrete moment anywhere.) And it is because of that over-dominant abstraction, I argue, that the poem never gains control over itself.

(Now, I recognize I am asking you to see in the final results what, really, would best be evidenced in watching the actual writing of the poem. As such, there is something of an argumentative leap I am asking of you. You'll just have to trust me. If you pay attention to your own writing, you will see it demonstrated.)

So, now, the lack of control. Obviously, there is absolutely no notion or control of line in this poem. There is a loose idea of stanza, in that each stanza is in a way a contained moment. (Every stanza ends in a period.) Grammatically and syntactically there are problems all over the place:

  • The phrase "how to improve me" should be "improve myself" -- not only because of grammar but also because the rhythm/sound is so much better.
  • The "it" in line 5 has no natural referent (the sentence changes in mid-stream from "I have not grasped one" to "I have not come close to wondering if it is the One").
  • The fourth stanza haw two sentences that change subject: "one has in my whole life" and "one realizes that [. . .] I had no idea.
  • Let's write the second sentence in the seventh stanza out:
    I can be grateful for getting more than I thought I might have or could try for, and didn’t.
    So what do have we have with that?
    I can be grateful for getting more than I thought I might have and didn’t.
    which makes no sense, and
    I can be grateful for getting more than I thought I could try for, and didn’t.
    which makes less sense.

Semantically, ideationally, and structurally:

  • The first sentence contradicts itself at line 2: "I could find a million nuances as though, if I could just identify that one": how can it be "if I could just identify that one" if you start the sentence by saying "I could find?
  • In line 2, why is "The One" capitalized, and not the immediately following "the love"? By not capitalizing it you have changed the idea, so that "the love" is no longer equivalent to the individual who is The One, but is now an abstract notion of love: which creates an ideational conflict in the poem.
  • So, exactly how does one "come closer to wondering" (line 5)? That does not mean what Botha wants it to mean. What it means is the speaker is not yet wondering, but is very close to beginning to wonder.
  • I have a feeling line 13 does not mean what Botha thinks it means: "I still don't always like to get my feet wet" means that most of the time the speaker does like it: which doesn't fit with the general idea of the mostly forgettable adulthood.
  • Indeed, the whole of the sixth stanza makes little sense.
  • And, possibly, the worst moment: the last line: "So where, then?" Which is exactly my question: Where previously in that poem is there anything that at all relates to "where"?

Now, if I had to make a guess, I would say this poem was written rather in a spurt, rather blurted out upon the page (describing the manner of production, not the time taken in production), and the only "development" of the poem in writing was in organizing the thoughts and stanzas and some editing. Which actually goes to my point: with the poem being so abstract, it is very easy for the poet to so blurt. When a poem is anchored in the concrete, there is in the words themselve the demand for attention to detail. In the abstract, that demand-on-the-page is mostly lacking: and thus the tendency to loss of control.

For example: do you see how the argumentative "conclusion" in line 6 really comes out of nowhere? I don't think anybody else on the planet would have arrived at that conclusion considering 1-5. If everything is abstract and loose, it's very easy for a poet to lose track of what is on the page; it is quite easy for the poem (or whatever text) to exist more clearly in the writer's mind than on the text. Much of this is because, if the text is too abstract, it is usually loose also in the writer's head, so it ends up even looser on the page. Also, the more abstract, the more difficult it is for the writer to keep focused on the words on the page. If I had to make a guess why, it is because the writer does not really have in their head a precise and controlled way to say what they want to say, so it cannot be translated onto the page, and because of the disconnect the action of their writing never really leaves their head.

But, also, the more abstract the text, the far more difficult it is to write the text. Every writer of theoretic texts will attest. But it is not just on the writer's side, the scam. In an highly abstract text, it is easy to write down such a fallacious statement as that in line and expect the reader to accept it: because with all the sloppy abstraction, the reader has, really, been given nothing by which to reject it.

But, more importantly, neither have they been given anything by which to accept it! And that is the key point. An overly abstract poem, in the end, offers nothing to the reader. The reader will glide through with little effort, little necessitated thought, in fact following a demand on the poem's part for little thought (because once you start to think, you realize what it is your reading), and in the end get very little in return for the attention spent. As well, as I argue, as a result of all the abstraction, a poem will then toward being wholly out of control. And you cannot justify the language of this poem with the claim of "style": it's just bad writing.

Our concluding results? Two ideas:

  1. Over-abstraction is bad because it offers the reader very little on its own.
  2. Over-abstraction is very bad because it creates, on its own, the opportunity and impetus for sloppy writing.

Kind of rather sounds stupid when you wind it down to two sentences. And yet the issue of abstraction is so very fundamental to poetics: not as rules of writing, but as rules of how words work during writing (especially when you are not even paying attention to the aural nature of language, or playing with poetic elements of structure and phrase, which is what raises the philosophical content of Pope into the accomplished). Even in non-fiction prose these come into play: the more abstract the subject, the more precision is demanded in aspect of the writing. Or the presentation quickly disintegrates.


I would think very arguable that the issue of abstraction and concreteness (and the heightened requirement of control with the abstract) is the first great hurdle a writer must overcome -- with any medium, but especially with poetry. If you look at amateur poetry on the web, you will see it is overwhelmingly abstract: even, curiously, when the subject of the poem sits in the concrete. To choose a banal example, an "I find you beautiful, let me say why" poem prompts direct approach to concrete example; yet the amateur poet will still set those examples in the abstract. You do not find "Your arms are the swaying reeds at the river's edge" but "You arms are like a reed," or "Your arms are lithe and flowing." Metaphors fall into similes, and similes disappear into basic adjectival description. This is part of why I think beginning poets should stay away from emotion-oriented and I-oriented projects, and move to narrative or situational or scene-oriented: to get their heads into the concrete and out of the abstract, and to get them to see what they can do with the concrete when they concentrate thereon.


As a last thought, it should be apparent by now that this a not very good poem. Indeed, it's flat bad. So I am brought to wonder why Verse Daily would decide to put it on their site? And it's not just Verse Daily: I've seen such poems presented on other such sites. As I've asked before: was there not something better? But, more to the point, if you are wanting to be a site whose purpose is to promote poetry, why would you post sub-par poetry? Is there a justifiable answer to that question? One that is not defeated by the simple counter: "Why not give the praise inherent to your "choosing" of a poem to poems that merit praise?"

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Because There Is No Ending" by Pimone Triplett -- Poetry Daily, 5/23/2013

from Ploughshares (Spring 2013)
poem found here


First lines:
we are not asked to see, the ridged folds
of the black walnuts, fallen, come veined


accidental meter and rhyme

— edited, with a paragraph that was somehow lost in the writing put back at the end 5/28/13
— reformatted 9/30/15

I've commented on this before, I believe. And I always find it very funny when it happens. What I am usure of is how many other people hear it. I am sure the poet here doesn't hear it, or it wouldn't exist.*see note at end (I know full well if I caught it in one of my own works and did not want to structure the poem around it, I would squelch it, so the words on the page were not working against my aims.)

What I'm talking about is accidental rhythm and rhyme. Let me give you the first seven lines:

we are not asked to see, the ridged folds
of the black walnuts, fallen, come veined
as any mind split from its skull, leaching
what little parades as peace. Rot
and wet. My right instep, sneaker's
underneath, crushes a once greener skin
gone brackish at the cap. Looking up,

Did you hear it?

Starting with line 4:

gone BRACKish AT the CAP.

It's ballad measure, though only with an internal rhyme. Except not only, because it there is also a partial stanza above it. Let me redo, with slightly different stanza breaks, typing it as two partial stanzas:

what LITtle paRADES as PEACE

gone BRACKish AT the CAP.

So it's set up both by the wet/instep rhyme, and by the peace/-neath rhyme. And notice I'm not forcing the phrasing: the phrasing matches the lines quite naturally. And believe, the first time I read the poem, I fell right into the rhythms. (How could I not with the wet/step rhythms?)

But there's more! It actually keeps going, only this time with the XAXA rhyme:

in an ARCH you CAN walk UNder,
when I HEAR the PAtient FAther

Now, I'm sure you are saying that kind of has to be a rather easy thing to have occur, especially if you are writing verse with a rhythm (as this poem is pretty much iambic). And I may -- may -- agree with you. But, as I said, if I was writing this and caught it, I would either change the lines so they fit with the meter and play with the meter, or rewrite to get rid of the meter. I don't want metered (and rhymed) stanzas existing within my free verse poem, if only because people like me are going to hear it and say, "Are you so tone and rhythm deaf you don't hear the ballad measure in the middle of your own poem?"

There are other problems with this poem, some grammar issues, but especially with wording (there, not so much error-type problems as problems with flow and rhythms). Those problems rather reinforce the idea that the poet wasn't listening to their own poem. But even without it: it's got to be a little embarrassing; for it is definitely very funny.


Of course, there's another question: how did the editors of the vaunted Ploughshares not hear it?


I see two possibilities as concerns the making of this poem worth mentioning. (1) That Triplett started the poem writing in rhymed rhythm, and abandoned the effort, and hoped those moments of meter that survived rewrite would not be found. And (2) that Triplett actually has a natural ear for rhythm/rhyme, and her writing wants to go there. If the latter was the guess, my only comment would be "Charge forth!"

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

30 More Things to Say from Matt Haig, So Let's Talk About Grammar

from the Booktrust site
article found here



some editing 5/24/13

          I am afraid we cannot get rid of God because
          we still believe in grammar.

                -- Nietzsche. Twilight of the Idols

Your opening question: How many tenses are there in English?

Well, it seems that Matt Haig, the resident blogger at booktrust, has followed up his "30 Things to Tell a Book Snob" (my response here) with "30 Things to Tell a Grammar Snob." And, really, I've no desire to directly respond point by point again -- except perhaps to quietly say that, perhaps, he should stop these little efforts, stop talking about things that are outside his wheelhouse. (If it makes your stomach ache, don't do it. Rather obvious, that.) In truth, I would call his second "30" list more mis-informed and mal-conceived than his first, which is unfortunate, as he is -- either intentionally or by accident -- white washing over what is a very important subject, and a subject that, in truth, has much more to offer in its exploration than another list. (Not to mention just getting a lot of things wrong.)

So, I want to give a moment to the issue of grammar and "grammar snobs." (Mostly, grammar.) And, yes, unlike the quasi-mythical book snob that Haig took to fight in his previous Booktrust post (yes, there are book snobs; but not like he described them that I've heard heard of), grammar snobs very much do exist, in a number of forms. People who say they have never encountered one either (1) are not so very much part of the world of the written word, or (2) are not paying attention. (Or, perhaps, (3) are very lucky.)

But, the fallacy in Haig's approach and assumptions is to assume (or at least demonstrate) that "grammar snob = bad," and therefore whatever lies at the other end of the spectrum = good.[FN] Which is far from the truth. Most very especially if you are a writer.

[FN] And, if you were paying attention, you would have seen that that pretty much was the rhetorical/argumentative stance he took on his first list of 30.

In a way, you can speak about grammar as a kind of spectrum, with one end being the grammar fetishists, the other end being the wholly unattentive: though it would be one like the specturm of light, where the colors actually change along the way, as opposed to something like a volume nob, where the spectrum is merely more or less. So let me try this out, and see if you want to bite.

Here's a first go:

---- grammatical illiteracy
Does not necessarily mean complete illiteracy: you can read some without understanding grammar at all. You're not reading Kant, mind you. (Admittedly, that is something of an imagined person, or, perhaps, a person who can recognize words in a language but not the grammar, and have to guess and sentence/phrase meanings by order and context.)
---- grammatical semi-literacy
Just to note, semi-literacy can be willful, not just a result of lack of education.
---- natural competence
Knows enough about grammar to write sentences with periods and commas; is capable enough with quotation marks. But their execution is mostly intuitive: punctuation marks go where they feel like they should go -- and so, lots of commas. Unfortunately, I would say the majority of U.S. high school graduates do not move beyond this level.
---- skilled competence
This level has put effort into learning grammar. They've got commas mostly down. They'll catch subject-verb clashes. This is the level that will get you through a collegiate writing exam. It's what you need to survive at a job. Now, to people who can see such things, your limits will still be apparent; but, considering most everyone else you'll be dealing with will be this level of sophistication or lower, that's not such a big deal.
---- advanced skilled competence
These people can present the rules of how to use semi-colons and colons. They know the more arcane rules, like when to use a comma with quotation marks and when not to. They can hear dangling phrases and split infinitives and faulty parallelism when they come upon them, and retype sentences before they reach the period when they realize it's about to end in a preposition. They rarely look in the Chicago Manual of Style and are surprised. (That does not mean they don't ever look; but looking is for remembering, not learning.)
---- the grammatically compulsive
These people don't present the rules to semi-colons, they recite them. They actually worry about starting a sentence with a conjunction, and probably avoid doing so. And the use of contractions in writing is a serious issue of faith. They check and check again their handbooks. But they also take some pride in the results, seeing something to be said for a well ordered paragraph. When they mark up someone's writing, they are not only finding errors, they are also putting the world in order.
---- grammar nazis
Here is where the direction of the concern for grammar is fully turned about. Grammar nazis see grammar as a Victorian spinster sees social mores: grammar is the very meaning and ordering of the universe, and to break their rules is to speak blasphemy against Harry, George, and England. And, as such, they are egually -- if not more -- concerned with the grammatical mores of others as they are with their own.

Notice, that no where on the chart is snobbery. That was a conscious decision, for I have met grammar snobs at pretty much every level of sophistication starting at low skilled competence. You don't actually have to be good at grammar to be a grammar snob. You just have to think you're better at grammar than the person to which you're being snobbish, and see in that belief an opportunity for superiority. In fact, you can be a grammar nazi and not be a grammar snob. And that points out a problem with this one-dimensional spectrum: it begins with in individual's grammatical competence, and ends with the individual's attitudes toward grammar. So maybe my chart above is, in truth, two charts meshed together: one of degree of knowledge, and one of attitude.


---- mostly ignorant of grammar
---- uses grammar mostly through observing, and primarily coming out of how language 'sounds'
---- has been taught (or taught themselves) basic grammar
---- has been taught (or taught themselves) advanced grammar
---- is an expert at grammar (can recite the rules)

---- couldn't care less
---- satisfied with all they need to get by with their daily lives
---- desires skill in writing / wants to be good at writing
---- desires complex skill in writing / wants to be accomplished and capable of complexity in writing
---- demands perfection

But something has been dropped from that first line: the question as to whether these attitudes are directed toward the self or toward others. That issue lies in the aesthetic/nomic divide.

A nomic thinking individual is a rule centered individual. Not in the sense of OCD, but in the sense of understanding reality as being defined by truths. Rules are a primary way in which those truths are defended. Grammar is -- or can be wielded as -- such a set of rules. The more nomic the thinking of the individual, the more their approach to grammar is going to be that of an approach to fact: this is how English is, and this is how English is meant to be. The more a person demands perfection in grammar, the more grammar is, for that person, part of the means by which they define their world.[FN] And so we come to the quotation by Nietzsche, at the start of this post.

[FN] That sentence is probably going to be misread. I mean "demand" as in "demand of others."

The aesthetic, however, recognizes that facts and rules are abstractions, and serve a social purpose; and, as such, a purpose within language. It is in part through the rules of grammar that we are able to communicate with each other with any degree of effectiveness and efficiency. Without grammar, language becomes something like a charades game, where the speaker is putting out subjunctive, or adjectival, ideas, and the listener has to somehow bring those ideas together into an organized thought.

But in that the aesthetic recognizes that truth -- and rules -- are abstractions, the aesthetic approach to grammar is different: the rules of grammar are but tools that can be used to a number of purposes. If I wish to write a technical manual, I will follow the rules of grammar tightly, because I want to be as clearly understood as is possible. But, if I am writing a 300-line lyrical poem about avalanches and obsession, grammar becomes something that is used to the aesthetic ends of that poem: so I decide how strictly I follow it and where, and I twist it, and I bend it, add to it, and subtract from it.

But, never can I ignore it: or I end up, again, with that sort-of-charades game. As soon as I make a line break, I am effectuating grammar. Which, when it comes to creative writing, is the point. For there are a lot of "grammars" in language. There is grammar grammar, yes; but, then also, there are the "grammars" of rhetoric, of style. The grammar of narrative. Of metaphoricity. Of rhythm and rhyme. There is the grammar of the structure of poetry, be it formal, short, long, stanzad. There is the grammar of the short story, the grammar of the novella, of the novellette and of the novel. (And, of course, the grammar of genre, where the former is definitional of the latter.) Within, the grammars of characters, scenes, descriptions, and the grammar that oversees how they are all utilized with each other.[FN]

[FN] Keep in mind, as I am using the word grammar, I am talking about rules created out of convention. But I am also talking about rules that are created out of the nature of the medium itself. A 20-line dimetric poem as a wholly different structural grammar than a 40-line poem of alexandrines. And then, also, there is the grammar created by the writer themselves.

And so, in the "Attitudes" graph, above, when we get to "demands perfection," there is still the question of why? Is it because the individual's relationship to grammar is nomic in nature? That is the kind of person who sees grammar as the rules of the King's English, rules to be defended as though defending the very fabric of reality. (Which it, in fact, is.) Taken to its extreme, you have your grammar nazis, who demand adherence to grammar in the way of the spinster, above. But, then, is the individual's relationship to language aesthetic? Then, the demand for perfection is more personal: for example, it is demanded simply because that is the aesthetic demands the individual places upon themselves: their chosen medium is the King's English.

So, hopefully, you can see by now that there is another category -- another axis -- that has mostly been left out thus far: that is, grammatical creativity. One might say it is an oxymoron: but only if you define grammar within a nomic modality: that the world it truths and rules are needed to define, defend, and live by those truths. If you define it from the aesthetic, then the attitude towards grammar becomes a creative one. (And, I guess, we could also make a spectrum of grammar creativity. Simplified, I think it would look like this:

---- know what a semi-colon is supposed to do
That is, writing in accordance with and replicating/performing/reinforcing the various rules of the various elements of grammar. Grammar as prescriptive rules.

---- exploring/knowing what you can do with a semi-colon
Ergo the word, "creativity." Grammar as toolbox, as descriptive rules.

Now, creativity does not in any way relieve you from the necessity -- if language is your chosen creative medium -- of learning grammar. Going back to the first graph, above, a writer should strive to be deep within the "advanced skilled competence" category, with a touch of grammatical compulsiveness thrown in for flavor. On the "Attitude Towards Grammar" line, a writer should be well entrenched in the "desires compled skill" category. And there is no admissible excuse for any other attitude. So let me say that again:

If you are a writer, there is
for you not being
very well versed in grammar.

Why? I will give you a couple of reasons. First: language is directly related to thought. They are two sides of the same coin. In fact, the sophistication of your thought is both measured by and developed in part through the sophistication of your language. If you do not know how to use a semi-colon, you almost assuredly do not know how to think a semi-colon thought.

I will give you an example in demonstration. One of the things I liked to take time to talk about in composition/essay classes was the use of dashes and parentheses (in conjunction with the use of commas). Most college students have no real grasp of why or how to use those forms of punctuation. Then, I tell them to explore their use in their writing. So, throughout the remainder of the term, I will get a lot of writing with with dashes and parens, as the students are exploring how to use a new toolset. But also, they are learning how to think with that new toolset. Which is very much to say: they are learning new ways of thinking. By expanding your grammar skills, you are expanding your ability to think. Your writing cannot but improve as your writing becomes more capable of speaking more complex and complexly ordered thoughts.[FN]

[FN] And so I am sure there are English teachers now wondering how to grade that. The answer is, you don't. You simply let students explore, and give comment here and there (preferably in class, where everyone can hear and participate). Even if they are turning in papers where every third sentence has an aside slipped into it. So what. Let them explore. Talk about examples in class: because that is how you learn writing, by exploring and talking about it. Language (and creative) skills are learning in exploring while doing, looking at example, and discussion. Not, in the least, by any thought or effort by the teacher put into grading.

Second reason: Because grammar is your primary box of tools. Why it is that English majors and creative writing majors make up excuse after excuse for why they don't have to learn advanced grammar, why they don't have to study form, why they don't have to learn the major writers in the language, is utterly beyond me. I am flummoxed by it. (And, to be honest, it pisses me off to no end when I hear a poet talk about how you don't have to study Pound, Eliot, Donne, Tennyson, etc., because they are not "contemporary," whatever that means. Or they don't have to study Donne because they write free verse.) I guarantee you: your poetry speaks to the world your ignorance in your field.

Imagine, if you will, a cabinet maker who only knew how to use a hammer, a screwdriver, and a handsaw. Imagine the nature of the cabinets that kind of person would make. Believe me, master carpenters have tools upon tools. Tools sometimes that get used once every three months. But, because they have that tool, because they are good at using that tool, they can both make things and imagine things that the simple cabinet maker can not begin to conceive, or even know how to execute.

Here is the blunt, ugly truth. If you have never given serious thought to the theory of the line, your poetry speaks that ignorance. If you have never given serious thought and experiment to the use of semi-colons, colons, and dashes in the poetic line, your poetry speaks that ignorance -- even in the absence of such usage. If you have never given serious study, practice, and experimentation to rhythm and sound, you poetry speaks that ignorance.

So, grammar. When it comes down to it, the charts above are fun, and they may help in recognizing different people's different attitudes toward grammar. And help a bit in understanding how to approach grammar (and where you currently stand in your approach to grammar.) But, in the end, if you are writer, then really there is only one attitude: to know and master the tools in your toolbox; and to be creative with them once they are mastered.

Now, it should be noted, that part of being a writer is knowing what you are not good at doing. As you develop, your learn those fallibilities so you can also learn to watch for them and correct them on their own. For example, in my writing, I have a major problem in introductory adjective phrases. If I never edited, every other sentence would have one. So I know I need to go through and take pretty much all of them out. But this is why you have readers/editors: to have someone find where you goofed, have someone who reins in your problem areas. Because the more creative you are, the more "creative" you are, if you get my drift.

Now, who do you want to be your editor? Someone who is in the advanced class of grammar people. But also someone who is creative with grammar in a way that they can understand what you are trying to do and, equally importantly if not more importantly, can yet tell you when you are failing. Grammar nazis are, actually, in certain ways limited in their editing ability for creative writing (indeed, for any writing, if they let grammar get in the way of ideation): that because they can not be creative enough on their own. (However, they are still worth using: it becomes your job to know which of their comments to ignore. That said, if they made a comment, you should still be paying attention, even if in the end you decide in your favor.)

Oh, the answer to the question: there are only two tenses in English: Past and Present. That is, root+(e)d and root+∅ (respectively, and obviously ignoring irregulars). A tense is a part of the conjugation of verbs. I live; I lived. That's it. "I will live" is not part of the conjugation of "to live," it is a construction; it is not tense, it is time.[FN] And there are more ways to give future time that with a "will." "I live tomorrow." "I live today, then I live longer." Etc. Now, have you ever thought about that you can do future in different ways? That there are more possibilities than just "will"? If not, a door has just been opened for you to expand your writing toolbox.

[FN] Let your kids bring that tidbit of grammatical truth to school if you dare.

By the by, it's tense and lax, not long and short. A long vowel is a vowel that is held for a longer duration.

And if you really want your kid to be sent to the principle's office for insurrection against the grammar of education, explain to them that a square is a rectangle; and a square is also a rhumbus; and a rectangle is a parallelogram (and so also then is a square). So: a square = a rhumbus, a rectangle, a parallelogram, and a quadilateral.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"Going Back to Bimble" by Maurice Manning -- Poetry Daily, 5/20/2013

from Smartish Pace (#20)
poem found here


First lines:
If I went I'd go through Shepherdtown
and Burning Springs; I'd cross the stream


exploring content and structure, and poetic laziness (with, first, a grammar/syntax point)

— reformatted, with some, small editing 9/30/15

First, a brief grammar/syntax point. I want to bring it up because it opens the door for something beyond a basic grammar comment. Hopefully on your own you stumbled when it occurred. Line 11 (I give 9-12)

another rope and took in twice
the tithes of the last two months
and said, hellfire, he ought to shoot
that bell more often; and then in a mile

The site of stumbling is the "he." It should be I, as the natural reading is that it is the preacher who shot the bell, it is the preacher who is speaking, and "hellfire" is the introductory interjection to that speaking: thus, it should be

another rope and took in twice
the tithes of the last two months
and said, hellfire, I ought to shoot
that bell more often; and then in a mile

Now there is another possibility in asking: what if the only part meant to be dialogue was "hellfire"? In that case, the "he" would be correct, as it would be the narrator saying "he ought to shoot that bell more often." But, if that is the case, then there arises a need for a semi-colon after "hellfire," like this:

another rope and took in twice
the tithes of the last two months
and said, hellfire; he ought to shoot
that bell more often; and then in a mile

Do you see why? Two reasons: (1) it serves the purpose of eliminating the appearance of a grammatical error with the he/I issue; and (2) there is a strong enough break in flow and ideation that the system of the poem demands it. That is the purpose of semi-colons in the poem: to divide the thoughts/moments. And, even though the "he ought to" phrase is still very tied in to the story leading up to it, the fact that it changes from mere narration to commentary on the event justifies the semi-colon.

Now, you could also do a dash:

another rope and took in twice
the tithes of the last two months
and said, hellfire – he ought to shoot
that bell more often; and then in a mile

Which kind of works but I don't think as well. Also, being the only dash in the poem sould give unwanted emphasis to the fact that that phrase is the only commentary on the narrative in the poem. Parentheses are also a possiblity:

another rope and took in twice
the tithes of the last two months
and said, hellfire (he ought to shoot
that bell more often); and then in a mile

But it has the same end result. In fact, in experimenting with the grammar, I am now wholly burdened with the idea that there would be a problem with it being the only direct commentary in the poem. Which is enough, for me, to say it should be spoken by the preacher, and it should be an "I" after all.


Complete aside: shouldn't it be "twice the tithing"? That is, am I correct in the "twice the tithing" means twice as much net money, while "twice the tithes" means twice as many donations? Now, I'm not saying "tithes" is an error; I'm just pondering words.


Now onto the relationship of content and structure. I really like the flow of this poem: the iambic quadrameter gives a great rhythm to a poem that is a flowing journey of places – places with lively names (which is important). But let's look at the content.

Most of the poem is the movement from one place to the next, as though you were listening to someone talking about a trip, and visually following their finger funning a line across a map. As I said, because of the liveliness of the names (lively without becoming comedic), and, because of the care taken in connecting the places, it works very well. Look at the different "and then there was" phrases:

I'd cross the stream / some people still call
and pass through
then in a mile / or so I'd go through
till it crosses
and then / in no time I'd be at
and that's about halfway to

And so on. The pleasure of the poem is not just in the list of places (and their relationship to each other) but also in how the list is presented. Very worth attending to – both in reading and in writing. I cannot tell you how many published and online poems I read that have a halfway decent idea but utterly fail in their execution of the idea. Pretending this was such a poem, it is as though the poets think that the idea itself – the idea of a travelogue of a journey – is sufficient to the writing of the poem, and so the execution of the poem gets half effort (if that much).

Indeed, if there was one complaint about contemporary poetry that I would scream out above all others, it is that the exceeding majority of it seems the result of not trying very hard, of not trying to do something that is very hard, of not trying to do something that merits a loud "look, ma! no hands!" I tell you, I would love to have a symposium with this subject to debate: "Contemporary poetry is a culture of literary laziness." We'll take Tennyson as exemplar: comparing the grand efforts of the Idylls and In Memorium to the lackadaisical efforts after being named poet laureate. Begin . . . .

In that vein, but removing any sense of accusation and turning instead to exploration and pondering, let me ask a question of Manning's poem: This is a 39-line poem. Within those lines there are twenty-two place names (including naming Bimble and Shephardtown twice). Which speaks much to the success of the diction of the poem, in that it never gets repetitive or silly. But of those twenty places, only five get discussion: Pinhook Chapel (with the bell), Bad Jack Branch (with the ancestor), the Fork (the best stretch), Big Rock House (a marvel of design) and Bimble/Redbird bottom (and Mrs. Jonsee).

This is the question (and it rather is a similar if not the same question I asked of the Jill Osier poem, here): is that the right balance? Would it be a better poem – even if somewhat different poem – if there was more description given to more of the places? Then, with more description, would there need also be more places? Or, would adding more kill the rhythms of the poem? Would you be able to sustain the rhythms by keeping descriptions and their diction short-ish?

Let's rephrase the question. Is this a poem that is about description, or is this a poem that is a journey through places, and descriptions are added to decorate and make interesting the connections between the places? With that question, I have to ask of the poem as it stands: is the preacher/bell story too long for the poem? Does it get far too much time and energy for the size of the poem and thus does it imbalance the poem? Notice, also, how, unlike the other places, the story drifts away from "why it's a place worth mentioning" to the subplot of "I ought to shoot things more often" – which I, personally, think is an error in the poem, and an ideational problem that does imbalance the poem. And if the answer to the question is "yes," that it does imbalance the poem, is the problem in that the preacher/bell story is too long, or is it in the poem is too short? (or both?)

If this were my poem – and I mean that as stated not by a critic looking at "Brimble" but as a writer brought to thought by "Brimble" – and I noticed that problem in the drafting, my solution in the error would be to expand the poem, to see if I could write not a 30 line poem but a 150 or 200 line poem that sustains this flowing rhythm and style: that is, focusing on the places being passed through, and only ever very indirectly refering to the person passing through.

But, then, that would also have been my initial approach: I would naturally start such a project long, and contract. And, now, with saying that, it is my impulse to write, "But that is my personal writing style/method, not necessarily those of others." Except for what I wrote above: maybe it is important to start big and contract, because only then are you pushing yourself beyond something easy. There is a curious aspect in the development of a person's composition writing as they move through education: it starts off with writing 300 words, and those 300 words are difficult. Then they are pushed up to the 6-page essay, and 300 words becomes easy.[FN] Then, when the 12 and 15 page essays come along in college, 6-pages are what you write just brainstorming in the library. And then comes 30-pagers and beyond . . . .

[FN] And, you know, if hight school juniors and seniors were constantly writing 6-page essays, they would probably have a far better understanding of the paragraph by the time they reached the U than they do now. And before you teachers start bitching about "but we have so much work we have to do already" blah blah blah, let met explain to you: grading them would be nigh irrelevant to the learning process (as grading papers are now, actually, nigh irrelevant to the learning process); the learning would be in the doing. (And the discussions, in class, before and after.)

(Or, at least, if we had an education system that actually focused on writing and thinking skills, that is how it would be. But don't get me started.)

It seems to me, that in this culture of 50-words-or-less poetry, that what you see in print is a result of the extent of the poets' striving. And I wonder if, in creative writing education, there should be a lot more effort in getting people to write long works: because if a poet can conceive of writing a 500-line work, can approach a task with confidence, then writing a 100-line work (instead of a 15-line work) would no longer the huge task it now seems to so many. And then, in learning to struggle with sustaining value and intensity through 100 lines, they can learn how to really pack 30 lines with power. And then, perhaps contemporary poetry would be more about "I had an idea and I took it to its limit (whatever the final size)," rather than what it seems like, today: "I had an idea and I jotted something down."

To offer example, in the current issue of Poetry we can find these poems by Kay Ryan: "Party Ship," "Album," and Still Start." My most honest question to Poetry: how do they at all pass the "So what?" test?

Anyway – let me say again: don't apply those accusations to "Going Back to Bimble," which I think is well executed poem, one given ample thought and playtesting. Apply only the questions, and, most importantly, the pondering. (And, then, hopefully, the experimenting.)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"Dusk in the Ruins" by Ernest Hilbert -- Verse Daily, 5/19/2013

from All of You on the Good Earth
poem found here


First lines:
I arrive, one more uninvited guest.
A June storm coasts down the horizon


a bit about the process

— reformatted 9/30/15

So, to be straight, this poem irks me. I don't think it succeeds: I find it flops about a bit ideationally, and the phrasing seems to come straight out of the shoebox of trite. (There needs to be a noun form for trite: tritoids? trits? tritialities?) But I can't put my finger on anything that I can put into words (with merit) so instead I want to take a moment on how I approached the poem, and what happened. My aim is to give a moment to how I work this blog.

First reading, I thought the poem was god-awful. Even second and third. At about fifth my opinion of it was raised substantially, but I still am not that fond.

Now, I usually like to see if the poet has other poems on the web. (Also, I will look at the source book on Amazon.) Sometimes, it will show me that while the poem at hand is bad, it's an outlier of what is out there. (Or, sometimes, that a good poem is an apparent outlier.) Sometimes, it confirms that it is in fact that that poet just isn't very good.

Sometimes – and this I think is the most fruitful moments – I find other poems that point out that there is something that I am missing in approaching the poem. One of the problems with publishing poems one at a time is the poem put forward can lack necessary context: I'm talking not so much about topical context (although, I have more than once had a poem suddenly improve greatly once I knew the context of the book from which it came), but stylistic context. Sometimes the experiments the poet is working with is not evident in a single poem. Sometimes you can't find the poet's voice in only one poem. Sometimes a poem is taken out of a book that is an ordered book, where the poems are in a sequence, and you have to know the sequence to get the poem. (Something I have never understood – taking a poem out of a sequence, that is.)

So there is much to learn from looking at other poems. (And, on this one, to me it is an outlier from the other poems on the web, both in success and in verbiage. But, really, that's not my point here.)

But, moreso, sometimes you come upon other projects: for example, Ernest Hilbert, here, is the driving force behind the E-Verse Radio blog (here). Which is something worth checking out.[FN]

[FN] I feel I should clarify that I treat blogs like I treat magazines: I do not any more subscribe to magazines, because they only end up stacked on the floor. I buy them in the stores when I see or discover or hear about an article I am interested in. So also with blogs.

And, what do I find on the E-Verse blog? Right at the top, a poem by D.A. Powell (this one). And how very interesting a poem it is. And I can't say I have ever heard of D.A. Powell before -- so with a little looking about, even though I did not think much of Hilbert's poem, I have found two other things much worth the effort.

So what's the moral to the story, here? Really, just wanted to show you a touch of what I do with poems when I approach them (that they are not generally accepted in their isolation). But, also, perhaps there is here a demonstration of something fundamental to good writing: that is,


"Canticle of Clouds" by Jennifer Atkinson -- Poetry Daily, 5/18/2013

from Canticle of the Night Path
poem found here


First lines:
Stratus—stuff and nonsense;
                                           how things tear and frazzle;


writing habits, and not writing about yourself

— reformatted with one important edit 9/30/15

So I stumbled upon an article on the The The Poetry blog – an excellent blog, in the sense that it would be easy to loose an entire afternoon exploring it, and many doors would be opened to you – a four part article titled "Towards a Different Kind of Workshop" (here), written by Joe Weil. I don't agree with some of what he puts forward (the conflict lying in what underlies his thoughts); but, I very much do get behind the general idea of what he is proposing. (It is worth exploring, even if you are yourself a beginning or early-on explorer of words, as thoughts on a building your path of development.)

My favorite moment is in the first installment, down near the bottom: Weil's stated "goals I have for a beginning poet." I'll list them out, for their own merit, and, perhaps to prod you toward the articles:

  1. To find out if they truly like poetry, or only write it to “express” themselves.
  2. Find out what their aesthetics are, the limits of their aesthetics, and how these may be expanded.
  3. Learn to be responsive to language both as written and performed text.
  4. Gain exposure to major poems without having to take a lecture class.
  5. Have a learning experience with their own minds and with the teacher far more concentrated than is usually possible in a class that consists of lecture, papers, exam.
  6. Learn to write daily, rather than waiting for the last minute. This means they are not feeling they are doing a lot of work, but are, in fact, doing far more—minus bibliography, and all that formal stuff.

And bravo, Mr. Weil. That is a list I will put in many places so I never lose it.

I should say, though, I don't wholly jump behind the last, the sixth. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that it should be more apparent that the sixth is not quite of the same modality as the others: the first five stand also as general statements about aesthetic practice. That sixth, though, is more for the workshop runners than the students. And yes, with beginners, getting them to write every day is a very good class praxis. But when talking with people beyond that first class, I prefer to rather say, "discover how your pysche writes, and make your life such that you are as productive (productively productive) as you dare to be." Are you a morning writer? an evening writer? Do you need isolation and silence? or music? or white noise? bedroom? livingroom? den? coffeeshop? park? do you need to sit and dedicate time to write every day, or is it sometimes you need only to have paper at hand, to jot notes, while the idea for a poem develops in your head? I believe it was Charles Darwin that had a circular path in the woods behind his house that he would walk, monkishly, nearly every day, to work out his thoughts. (I think I have the correct person – I know there are others with similar.) James Dickey once said he kept a typewriter in every room, each with a different project, and he would go to where his thinking led him. (But that's Dickey, so take that with a grain of salt.) F. Scott Fitzgerald, when he was ready to write a novel, would move into a hotel in a different town, and bunker down, hole up, and isolate himself until the novel was done. Harlan Ellison perfers to write with music playing screamingly loud. (And often writes sans clothes . . . . and you might be surprised how important clothing – or lack thereof – can be to your creative self. I've known people who prefered to write in a robe, in a sweatshirt, or only in long pants, and even, once, in a bikini.)

So while I very much agree with the pedagogical philosophy of #6, once beyond beginner status, I find it very important that writers find how their independent psyche works best, and creates praxis out of where that leads them. (Which means, very much also, finding out where they are kidding themselves about where and how they are productive, and destroying those habits.)

That said, really and truly, what wholly flipped my flapjack with this list was #1. And let's all read it again:

  1. To find out if they truly like poetry, or only write it to “express” themselves.

This is of supreme importance. This is in no small way an indirect definition of literature (and aesthetic literature). Because it is pointing out that writing poetry is NOT about expressing yourself. It is about making things out of words. I know I bring him up a lot (and that is because I am working with him, currently), but it would behoove every "poet" to read the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth details how in writing a poem about an experience it is of critical importance to recognize that the poem is not a documentation of the experience: rather, the poet must step away from the experience, contemplate it, and change the direct experience into raw material for a poem, the latter of which is not, itself, experience..[FN]

[FN] Obviously, Wordsworth is not the only person to say this. But I find his presentation very helpful, even for the 200-year language gap. Frequently, when writers speak of this, they tend to speak more 'poetically' (mythically) as it were. The Preface is meant for everyone.

Poetry is not diary with line breaks. Diary with line breaks is diary with line breaks, and nothing more. Poetry – literature – is creating out of language, not dictating out of memory.

[FN] I am reminded of the line from Stardust Memories: "Well, I thought it was terrible...Sea gulls! Dead cars!...He has no balance left…garbage!…He’s pretentious. His filming style is too fancy. His insights are shallow and morbid. I’ve seen it all before. They try to document their private suffering and fob it off as art." (Which, by the way, was true. And that was the point of that moment in the movie: the central character, Sandy (Woody Allen), could not escape his own internal chaos in making the film, so it was wholly diaretic.

That said, and giving but brief comment to each, leaving the work of pondering the whole to you, let me tell you why I like this Poetry Daily poem, "Canticle of Clouds," a lot:

attention to sound
"how things tendril, spindle, and tuft" – and in case your forgot, the staggered line opens with "cirrus"
(important to note also how she never betrays the ideational moment or flow for a sound effect)
attention to line
look at the very effective (which means not at all trivial) split of "swell and rush / to judgment" (which might be hard to see if you can't already see it, so approach it from that side: why is it not trivial, silly, pointless? why does it work, why does it add to the poem? even, why is it demanded by the poem?)
attention to phrase
why did she write "see no, speak no evil," rather than write it in full? (A hint, because she is creating out of words)
exploration of structure
look at all that is going on: types of clouds, pithy sayings, the purpose of each line of each triplet – and most importantly, all effectively, and none betraying or being betrayed by any other
most importantly – it is not structured around, and reliant upon, some sentimental, emotional crap

This needs to be printed on posters and put on the walls of every poetry classroom:


(This means you.)

If writers would start their works assuming that that is true, and then create their works striving to defeat that accusation – which means hitting the books, but which also means recognizing that there are a million million other things to write about – U.S. poetics would be sooooooo much stronger. Not to mention your own poetics.

Here's the brute lesson: write poetry that is not about yourself; learn through writing not about yourself. Nothing transforms "writing poetry" into "expressing yourself" faster than writing about yourself. So until you have figured out how to write poetry – stay far, far away from your own emotions. You'll thank me in the end.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Spook House" by Benjamin Myers -- Verse Daily, 5/12/2013

from: Lapse Americana
poem found here

first lines:
The first. I heard of Dante
was at the county fair when I was ten,

(Obviously, Verse Daily has shown us again their love for laxity.)


ideation, depth, and bombs

-- text added, 5/16/2013
-- reformatted to current style, and italicized text added up front, 9/23/13

Note: this post, and the comments that follow it, spawned a full-length essay on poetry culture posted to this blog: "#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture of Poetry in the U.S." The essay can also be found on my website, here.


Another poem with a emotion bomb, here. It's probably obvious of what I am speaking: the single-lined, fifth stanza, "But there wasn't a war then." Though, unlike your most blatant bombs this bomb does have some ideational play within the rest of the poem. I still identify it as a bomb, however, because of the structure of the poem.

I'll start on why it is not a pure bomb (a line that has no or trivial ideational unity with the rest of the poem): the obvious presence of death throughout the poem: there is Dante's Inferno; there are the cars like gravestones in the sixth stanza; there is the suicide in the fifth; there is the drought and its dead grass; and there is the executioner; and, finally, the final lines:

as we watched our friends
before us disappear around a dark curve.

So there is a fudge swirl of death throughout the poem. But, there is still that the war line is one line, a lone-lined stanza, sitting in the middle of the poem all by itself, very much heavily accentuated by the structure. So let's explore:

First, take out the line. Does the poem significantly change outside of giving it an historical moment? In all the references to death, there is only one that can be said to engage a pre-war historical moment: that of the final image of the disappearing cars in the dark of the ride the Inferno. As such, the entirety of the "war" energies lies only in those two moments. Because of that, such things as the suicide moment lose their potency.[FN] Indeed, if you keep the war idea fully in mind while re-reading, the suicide moment feels quite out of place, as though the poem has a split identity: is it a war poem? or is it a mild suicide poem? (I don't think it can tell.)

[FN] Indeed, if you take out the war line, is there anything else in the poem that engages the suicide moment? Is there anything about the drought that moves beyond basic scene setting? One could say the Inferno, but then really the drought just becomes a hell-like scene-setting: but still nothing more than scene-setting, since the Inferno idea is never taken anywhere.

Or is it that the poem is only supposed to be a poem generally about death? and all the death ideas are supposed to be equal in power? Which is a possibility, but it fails against the fact that the structural isolating of the war line gives it so much power that it nigh demands to be the ideational locus of the poem. (And I do see the structure of the poem as stating that everything is meant to flow out of and into the war line.)

But then there is the problem with the reference to the Inferno. There is the bookended references of the fair ride, and then at the end there is the reference to the multiple translations on the speaker's shelf and desk. That reference, actually, is never flushed out. In fact, it is so thin it makes me wonder if Myers has even read the Inferno, or, if he did, whether he understood what it was. Because, in truth, nothing in this poem flows out of the nature and ideas of Inferno. In fact, when I look at the end of the first stanza:

and booths with stacks of old-fashioned
milk bottles: two dollars for
three throws and you could win
a mirror painted with the rebel
flag or with a half-naked lady,
or with a naked lady half-wrapped
in the rebel flag. [. . .]

I am rather taken with how much energy and time that one little moment gets. It's not like it goes anywhere: what does a naked woman and a rebel flag have to do with war? Or death? But that one scene gets more energy even than the Infernos owned by the speaker. In fact, it gets far more effort and energy than the contents of Dante's Inferno: and you would think that if the poem intentionally moves to emphasizing that since the time of the primary scene the speaker has now collected multiple translations of the work, then the text of the Inferno would actually have influence on the poem.[FN]

[FN] And, in truth, the closing idea of the cars going into the dark of the ride -- in its metaphoric energies of death -- really could not be said to exist at all within the Inferno.

Finally, it should be noted that there is a problem with the line that exacerbates the bomb aspect. A conjuctive "but" works in the idea of "X, but Y." So here, Y is "there wasn't a war then." What is the X? What in the previous lines sets up a "but"? With what can the "war" idea interact with through a "but"? In fact, the immediately preceding stanza is the suicide and drought. So we have

suicide and drought . . . . . . BUT . . . . . there wasn't a war yet

That is not a negative, but a positive: there was suicide and drought, yes; but at least there wasn't the war. Not exactly the idea that is meant to be carried forward into the final scene. (Or into a book on a desk.) And however I try, I cannot get the "but" to work any other way.

Let's bring it together. Hopefully by now you can see that while there is effort within the poem to have ideas flow into and out of the "war" idea, the poem itself betrays and defeats that effort in a number of ways. As such, the war line becomes a bomb: the single line's ideational and emotional energy works in an attempt to make up for the poem's poetic and ideational failures. (And if the poem was not meant to flow through that one line, the structure of the poem brings that in turn to failure.)

The curious thing is what if the war line were taken out? Let me refer you to another poem: James Wright's "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," which can be found here.[FN] It is a short little poem flooded to the fill with the ideas of ego and humility, in both their positive and negative aspects. And what is present in "Spook House" that is absent in "Autumn Begins"? The overt, anchoring statement. "Autumn Begins" is a powerhouse of ideational energy: precisely because it avoids explicative statements, and it weaves together, quite delicately, the ideas that are presented. Yes, it can be said that the "All the proud fathers" equates, in a way, to the war line in "Spook House." But the line is not isolated by the poem's structure (in fact, it is immediately brought into balance with the two following lines), and the line does not attempt to become a focus of the poem. The fathers, the wives, and the sons all play equal ideational roles; and, they all serve the ultimate goal of the unified poem.

[FN] I am going to here talk about "Autum Begins" through an assumed stance of it being a perfect poem. I leave it to you to question just how effective is the ideation of "Autumn Begins." Though, you have to admit, it is a damn good poem.

"Autumn Begins" is a great poem to intruduce the idea of depth. Depth in common parlance -- and by common I include MFA/workshop parlance -- refers to some emotional poingancy, or some socio-political statement, or some form a moral that lies beneath a text. In reality, at best, that nature of "depth" never achieves more than a second level signification (what Barthes talks about in Mythologies), or a pallid second level metaphoricity, or sentimental emotionalism. True depth, organic depth, aesthetic depth, is a depth that is best described as that ideational/emotional field created by the words of poem (or whatever work), that exists as an ideational field that does not lie in the surface of the words themselves.

And I am dissatisfied with that statement, but it will have to do for now. It's an idea difficult to paraphrase or make compact. But imagine if you will two forms of text, one each for the two modes of being/thinking/language, the aesthetic and the nomic. The latter functions as a plane: everything operates on the surface; and, if there is depth, that depth is merely a second plane lying on the first. The aesthetic, however, is better pictures as a sphere of finite surface area (the actual physical words on the page) with infinite radius (the ideational field of play created out of those words). Critical to this geometric metaphor is recognizing that the surface of a sphere has zero depth; and that the depth is not visible from above the surface.

Again, not really going very far right now, but I'm only beginning my presentation of this idea. So it is enough for now.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

"Risk Management Memo: Small Enterprise" by Mary Biddinger -- Verse Daily, 5/9/2013

from Gulf Coast
poem found here


First lines:
You wanted to open a café called
Rimbaud’s Helicopter. I just kept telling


clothesline poetry and unity (with a bit about Surrealism)

— reformatted 9/30/15

This is a good example of a certain kind of poetry, what I have called and what I have heard called "clothesline poems": called such in that it is, essentially a list of phrases or sentences clipped to a clothesline. (Do not expect to find that word in any poetry dictionary or glossary: the term is wholly conversational.) And, as far as these kinds of poems go, it is cleanly written (except for the problem with the "Our entire city" line, which is either suddenly surreal or has an issue with its construction; and then the minor problem with the italicized "look loveable" – which I don't think works as well as it could as internal dialogue what with the "to.")

I would very much like to hear Ms. Biddinger defend this poem. In fact, this poem would make a launching point for a wonderful discussion on poetics and aesthetics, either in printed word or in person (though, if in person I believe it would take some mad projection screen skills).

This would be my framing question for such a debate: In the general, what makes this poem of merit? In the more specific, how does this poem function, and does it at all rise above the poetic level of somewhat arbitrary sentences strung along a clothesline?

So let's take a look. Structurally, the lines are arbitrary as regards the words (they are quite obviously broken for their length, and that alone), and the stanzas are also an arbitrary application of three line stanzas. (It is curious to me how the final line came in within tolerations.) The content of the poem is entirely made of grammatically normal sentences, at times related to each other in idea.

My critique of this poem is that it goes nowhere fast. There is no development of any nature – ideational, aural, structural, whatever. Reading it is like reading a laundry list, or like listening to my daughter tell me about her magazine cut-out, Christmas list: "I want this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this." There is no development; no one sentence has any more or less importance than any other sentence; and all the sentences pretty much have only one type of importance: "I exist." As such, by the time I get to the fifth stanza (and rarely with these poems do I get farther than about 15 lines) I don't care anymore. Why should I care when every burgeoning moment of development is thwarted, almost at its inception, by a subject change?

I am exaggerating a touch, so let's pause and actually look. The poem can actually be broken, fairly easily, into its constituent ideas. (I put it back into sentences, since the lines are purposeless. I number them for reference.)

  1. You wanted to open a café called Rimbaud’s Helicopter.
  2. I just kept telling myself to look loveable.
  3. We watched Apocalypse Now in two sleeping bags zipped together incorrectly.
  4. I confessed how I was making a bejeweled saddle for a racehorse I would never own. His name would be Look Loveable. He would think about killing all the other jockeys because I rode him so right.
  5. And this was the only true benefit of being small.
  6. In camp they buried me first, then poured the curdled cider into my hair. My mother joined in, but only in my imagination.
  7. You wanted to give me an outrageous hickey and to drown yourself before turning twenty.
  8. All my friends knew better than to try swimming in hayfields.
  9. I met you at the gun house.
  10. Somebody had put new curtains up, but nothing could take away the head-marks on the walls.
  11. Our entire city became a place that turned its back on coffee, even marzipan ducklings.
  12. There’s a reason everyone loves the same things. That reason will never be you.

(Since the last thing is the most recent, I want to here quickly point hout how the end lines of the poem an emotion bomb: which is usually an attempt to bring something emotionally profound (that said tongue-in-cheek) to an otherwise blasé poem. It's not a huge bomb, as far as bombs go; but the character of the lines is somewhat different than that of those preceding it.)

I split #5 from #4 even though it flows out of #4, because there is in #5 a strong sense of stand-alone-ness. (That is, while it flows out of #4, it tries to declares a new idea.) But, I would equally accept having it as part of #4. Similarly with #9 and #10, except that I think the tie between them is much thinner, and would argue against bringing them together. Similarly again, my argument with #4 and #5 could be used to separate #12 into two statements: but to me the energies speak more to their needing to be together.

Now, it is easy to come to the idea that the first three are tied together by setting, one established in #3. In fact, it could be argued that the whole of the poem occurs in the setting. Except for three points:

  1. The sentence of #3 is in the same past time – and same past moment – as every other sentence. Verb-wise, time-wise, all the sentences are equal, and as such there is no real justification in picking out #3 as that establishing the narrative setting.
  2. The same argument to have #3 be setting can be used to have #9 be setting. Since both are equal, and you can't have both, then are struck as scene setting moments.
  3. Even if you do accept #3's setting as the establishing of a narrative scene, it is irrelevant to the reading of the poem: that scene does not engage with any other element in the poem to generate new ideational energies. You might as well have written "in the grotto of the centaur Charon" as a epigram under the title to set the scene: it would still be irrelevant to the ideation of any of the lines. Scene only functions as ideational energies with the other elements of the text feed and feed from those energies. But, here, there is no such energy created.

So there is no narrative flow connecting the sentences, and the ideational connectivity exists only in brief spurts. #11, to chose an easy one, can not be said to bring any development to #1-10. There is an idea there, but that idea is lost in the chaos. Perhaps a better phrase is: that idea falls limp among the clutter. There is no point to any sentence except to read it, be done with it, and move on to the next sentence.

So the, as regards the sentences, I must ask, is there really anything present poetics-wise other than the oddity of the words, the pseudo-surrealist play. (I say pseudo- there not in any negative sense.) For example, #three is a simple sentence – "We watched Apocalypse Now in two sleeping bags zipped together." – given a twist with "incorrectly." But that twist has no energetic play outside the moment of the singular sentence. So what poetic energies created by the twist, ends as soon as you get to the period.

Now, Surrealism is very much to the point her. And anyone who at all has studied poetry should be familiar with the experiments of Surrealism, experiments that would result in poetry with disjunctive lines, like these, the opening lines from Breton's "Blotter of Ash":

The birds will be bored

If I'd forgotten something

Ring the bell of those last schooldays in the sea
What we'll call the pensive borage

The success of the Surrealist experiments is that they are demonstration of how abutting (nearly) any two ideas will create new energies that exist in neither of the ideas independently. (To give but two examples of how this idea is not "Surrealist" specifically, but more accurately that fundamental aspect of the aesthetic upon which Surrealism focused, this is the same idea behind EIsenstein's techniques in film, and the same idea that played (if in smaller degree) in Symbolist painting in the 19th century.) Such experiments were (and are) interesting – indeed, important – techniques, methods, and explorations within the worlds of the aesthetic and the poetic. But, that does not mean that these methods result in successful poetry. In fact, the argument over whether such poems were successful poems or merely demonstrations of technique was part of the split between Breton and Batailles: Batailles being the one that argued that a successful aesthetic object still required a sense of unity, still required that sense of the creator creating a microcosmos. (These are his ideas, but not his words). And, later in life, Breton would come around to accept such.

This is the idea of unity that gives success to what is, perhaps, Breton's most well-known poem: "Free Union."[FN] Yes, "Free Union" is a list poem, but it has two elements that pulls it out of a mere list of elements and into a unified, organic (if surrealistic surrealistic) poem: (1) it is about a single woman; and (2) every line conveys an aspect of the nature of the speaker's desire for that woman. While the descriptive element of the specific lines may seem to be random, they come together in that they are not, in the end, a list of metaphors for body parts, but in that they are about about the experience of the beauty of a particular female body, spoken through desire, if not also lust.

[FN] I prefer the Zavatsky/Bogow translation, which begins "My woman with the forest-fire hair" – not that I am saying it is more representative a translation, rather that I think the result is aesthetically better. The translation is found the collection Earthlight, wholly translated by Zavatsky and Bogow. To note, some may argue it is really about a specific woman's body, and not about the actual woman as a whole being. I think that artificially shrinks the reading of the poem and artificially categorizes and restricts the nature of the idea of desire that energizes the poem. But that's a different discussion.

Now, does "Risk Management," here, offer such a union? Or does it fail to escape the status of mere list? That is my primary question. And, my answer, is that it does not. Yes, these poems carry the same curiousness and interest as do the Surrealist experiments; but it is not a successful poem. In fact, it might as well be broken up in into twelve separate poems, as I have done above; even if under one grouping title. (But, then, that would make arbitrary line breaks and three line stanzas rather difficult, no?)

And this point would be where, in the imagined debate, I would turn to the other party.

Though, it should be recognized, there is a second question, which should not be confused with the above, through which one can find a different path to discussion. That is, is there some other way that this poem unifies and I am missing it? Or, what I would argue in response, is the poet saying that this form in itself is justification for the poem? To which I would respond: yes, it is justification for the poem. But, that is not saying terribly much. Which is what Batailles would have said to Breton: yes, surrealist experiments make for at times interesting results, and there is much to be learned about ideation and metaphoricity through those experiments, and you can justify the results as poems because what they demonstrate. But as poems, as created objects, they are in the end rather unsophisticated things, perhaps with a lot of bluster but not really going anywhere, because they lack the over all unity of being a thing created, of being a thing calculated.