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

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



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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review: Poetry Magazine (Oct. 2015) – Part II: Eleanor Hooker, Franz Wright

The October 2015 issue of Poetry Magazine can be found here.

links to individual texts:
Eleanor Hooker, "Nailing Wings to the Dead"
Franz Wright, "The Raising of Lazarus"
section headers are also links

 


the other posts in this series


 

breaking lines vs. writing lines

– editing and an added footnote, Apr. 3, 2016

 

This was slow in coming. In part, I have been in that peculiar situation of being in a bout with an illness whose medications create more and more severe symptoms than the illness. Though, also, there is that this is yet the beginning of the project from the writing side: as such, there is not only the exploration of the texts but also the search for the ideas and themes will be carried forward through the project. Hopefully, the tempo will pick up after this, as the texts in the issue are used more and more as examples to points already made than used to the much longer effort of establishing the points.

I am exploring two texts from the October issue in this part. Since Eleanor Hooker, the author of the first, "Nailing Wings to the Dead," is another holdover Irish author, I want to add to it the first text by a U.S. writer, "The Raising of Lazarus" by Franz Wright. The two also create a usefully contrasting pair: the first is loosely formal verse, the second free verse; as well, the second is a much stronger piece than the first.

The primary effort here will be toward the groundwork for exploring lines and line breaks in the texts to come: it is one of the greatest weaknesses in contemporary verse culture, and perhaps the most tell-tale sign of writing sophistication – or absence thereof – in contemporary verse. For the moment I set aside the question of a work's being ideationally dead or living and focus on technical issues. Though, with both works, I will also look at some moments in their construction. I will start with examing such issues in "Nailing Wings" then turn to such in "Raising Lazarus." It is in the latter I will turn to the exploration of lines, carrying that exploration back to "Nailing Wings."

Yet, the central thesis of this exploration of an issue Poetry Magazine is that contemporary verse, unlike Leavis's description of the popular verse of his time, is not merely dead but indeed bad, so I will begin – as I generally will throughout the project – speaking to the quality of the works. In keeping with the thesis of this blog, however, the approach will remain exploratory, from the viewpoint not solely of a general reader but also of a writer.

 

 

Eleanor Hooker, "Nailing Wings to the Dead"

 

I start, right at the start, at the first word, with a very common event in contemporary verse: the incorrect use of connecting words: here, "since."

Since we nail
wings to the dead,
she calls ravens
from the sky
to inspect our work. "For flight,"
they say, "first remove their boots."

Using the wrong adverb or conjunction or using one where one is neither needed nor wanted is a common error in writing, verse or prose. (It is one I have to constantly watch for in my own writing.) Either the trend has been increasing over the years or I have become more and more alert to it, for it seems the mis-use of such adverbs and conjunctions has become sloppier and sloppier both in speech and in the writing of persons supposedly intelligent and alert enough to catch the event. The worst is with the word but. On television, especially live, in news broadcasts, sports channels, and commercials, you will very frequently hear the word but used where there is no 'but' relationship, where either an and or nothing at all should have been used. I am sure that most of these errors exist by way of spoken speech habits invading the drafting of texts. Frequently, the words are used as filler material, something similar to ums, a means to connect one thought to the next without letting any silence appear in between. Though, I also believe, considering commercials and most broadcasts are not free-wheeled but scripted, that they are also, simply, symptomatic of a lack of attention and poor language skills on the part of writers: poor skills because they are exactly the type of thing that good editing would catch.[FN]

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[FN] Curiously, in commercials it seems that but may be being used to falsely create tension, anticipation, energy, where no such energy exists in the spoken text outside of the but.
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The "since" here may very well be such a word: it may have entered the text to satisfy the spoken-word habit of having some connecting word filling in empty space – here being used as a lead in to the meaningful text. However, as written, the use of the word is in error.

Since we nail wings to the dead, she calls ravens from the sky.

The "since" creates a limiting causality between the two events: the latter occurs because the former occurs, in context of it being the opening statement only because the former occurs. The two people nail wings to the dead, because of and primarily in connection to that action, the elder one calls ravens. Only, the ravens – and the idea of a relationship between the people and the ravens – is present throughout the text, and the interaction between the two women and the ravens is far broader than the singular act of nailing wings. The "since" creates an incorrectly restrictive relationship. Compare what was written to what was not written:

We nail wings to the dead; and she calls ravens from the sky to inspect our work.

The correct relationship between the two clauses is not a "since" relationship but the basic "and." (An "and" which need not be present.) The "since" is both unnecessary and semantically misleading – not to mention contradictory to the later text – and should have been left off.

There is a similar issue with the last lines of the stanza:

                        "For flight,"
they say, "first remove the boots."

That is more instructive than "inspecting." By the construction of the stanza, the two characters in the work know what they are doing. The ravens are called not to tell them what to do, but to inspect the finished product. As such, the quote clashes: as I reader I ask, "why did the writer say 'inspect' and then have the ravens not inspect but give basic instruction?" The answer is that the writer failed to see the contradiction in their own text.

What is happening in terms of the writing of the text? The writer is stringing together ideas that each in themselves have some imaginative attraction – "we nail wings to the dead," "ravens inspect our work," "for flight, first remove the boots" – but they are connected without consideration for how they act upon each other. Attention is to the parts, not to the whole, at least not beyond the trivial work of "stringing."

"For flight, first remove the boots."

Is a somewhat interesting line, but it does not at all fit the context of the action: inspection of work done by people who know what they are doing. As such, there is an fault in the text: the text reads that the writer was not paying attention to what was being written.

The event is endemic within pop writing. Indeed, it is descriptive if not defining of pop writing: texts are written by stringing together parts without attention to how the parts function against or with each other, or as to the whole that is created, whether it be ideationally, prosodically, semantically, even grammatically.

A second example immediately follows with "She leans in." The phrase is used to narratively connect what comes before with what comes after, intended to work to the flow of action: again, filling in the empty space between what are the more important statements, the "nailing wings" scene in stanza one and the hex scene in stanza two. Only, the phrase creates a clumsiness because the writer is paying attention to how the phrase works with what follows but not with how the phrase works with what precedes. Taking them in reverse order (and looking at the text as prose to make the reading easier),

She leans in, inspects a fresh hex behind my eyes, takes my feet and lays them on the fire to burn it out.

(I removed the bad comma after "fire.") The scene, in itself, is simple enough. Within context, "she leans in" speaks to the intended action of the older woman to look within the younger's eyes. (I am here assuming the younger person is female, though there is no reason it could not be male.) Now the first:

Since we nail wings to the dead, she calls ravens from the sky to inspect our work. "For flight," they say, "first remove the boots." She leans in [. . .]

Notice the change in the meaning of the phrase: where within the context of stanza 2 "she leans in" speaks that the older woman is intentionally leaning in toward the younger's face to look in her eyes, within the context of the stanza 1 "she leans in" echos the already stated inspecting of the work by the ravens": that is, "she leans in to inspect my work with the ravens," or, more loosely, "she leans in to see how or what I am doing." In both contexts the phrase works, only the two contexts create two different meaning for the phrase. As well, in that the scene has already been set by the first stanza, the action of the second stanza, by way of the connecting phrase, is brought into that context. I creates a silliness: there is the implication created by "takes my feet" that the older woman literally takes the younger's feet, as though detachable, and sets them on the fire while they are at work nailing wings. The elements are being strung together without attention to how they work together.

Even within the sentence there is a problem of wording: the use of the word "inspects" implies a previous knowledge of the existence of the hex: one does not lean in to inspect something that one does not already know is there. As such, the implication is that the older woman herself put the hex in the younger's eye, which is in conflict with the notion of healing implied by the "burn it out." (I question whether it is a lazy re-using of the same word from the previous stanza?)

Again, in Part I, rather than trying to justify what is in the text, compare it to what was not written. If the hex was negative, unwanted (keeping the first stanza as written, and ignoring for convenience stanza structure):

Since we nail wings to the dead, she calls ravens from the sky to inspect our work. "For flight," they say, "first remove the boots."

There is something new and unwanted behind my eyes; she stands me on flames to burn the hex out.

Or, if positive, put there by the older woman:

Since we nail wings to the dead, she calls ravens from the sky to inspect our work. "For flight," they say, "first remove the boots."

She is dissatisfied with the hex behind my eyes; sets me with my feet upon the fire to burn it out.

The question brought to the fore is, is it even necessary to work that "she leans in" be present in the text?

She inspects a fresh hex behind my eyes.

If not, why is it there? The answer can only be that the text is poorly written.{FN]

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Aside: There recently arose for me what may be a fairly simple and hopefully demonstrative example of abrupt changes in ideation in the lyrics of the song "Honey Don't Think" by Grant Lee Buffalo (from their Mighty Joe Moon album); or, it is more accurate to say, found in my constant mis-remembering of the lyrics. The opening of the song goes:

It's the luck of the draw
How you wound up with me I don't know how at all
But I beg you to stay

I continually mis-remember the lines with the pronouns reversed

How I wound up with you I don't know how at all

most likely because the vowel sound in "you" fits with that of "draw" more than does that of "me." However, to the point here, "how I wound up with you" is the weaker line, semantically; even bordering, were it in verse, on being a flaw. The reason lies in its relation to the line "I beg you to stay." First

I beg you to stay.

The plead is for the other person not to leave. Now the two options. First the original, the more correct.

How you wound up with me.

The 'motion,' as it were, is of the other person – the subject of the action in the clause – coming to the narrator. The narrative moment holds the narrative voice at origin, and marks the arrival of the other person. In opposition

How I wound up with you

works in the other direction. It was the narrator that was in motion, ending up with the other person. As such, with the latter case, the following phrase

But I beg you to stay

would create a reversal in the motion in mid stream: why would the "I" beg the "you" to stay if in the line before it was the "I" that was in motion. Paring down the events to compare, original first:

You wound up with me
I beg you to stay

I wound up with you
I beg you to stay

The latter, the original is the better, is correct within the sematic context. The former, my mis-remembering, creates a clumsiness in the reading. A correct phrasing for the second would be:

I wound up with you
I beg you not to go

To note, I make no claims here as regards Grant Lee Buffalo's lyrics as written verse. Indeed, lyrics in contemporary music generally make for poor verse, and with band's like Grant Lee Buffalo with reason: their lyrics are written to the ends of the song not to exist independently of the music: it's one of the aspects of the album that I find intriguing.

***************************

A close-knit example of broken flow is found in the older woman's "story":

"This dark stain,
passed kiss to kiss-stained
fevered mouth,

The text reads as though the writer got caught up in moment of the a phrase – "kiss-stained, fevered mouth" – and failed to attend to the construction as a whole. Remove the descriptive words and your have:

"This dark stain, passed kiss to mouth

which is silly, and bad writing.

A final example stretches farther across the text. The first half appears at the crossing from stanza 3 to 4:

We've survived on
chance and bread
baked from the last store of grain.
And we're out of both,

we will die soon.

The construction of the statement is one of statement of fact. There is no more grain to be had, and their luck has run dry. They will soon die. Yet, the finality there presented is in complete contradiction to how the narrative plays out. First in the word "promise" in the older woman's story:

The ravens keep watch,
they say the contagion's here,
they promise to take us first."

Second in the action at the very end of the story:

but the ravens are swift, and swoop.

Yes, within the limited moment of stanzas 3 and 4, the phrase "we will die soon" does fit. But it does not so fit with the rest of the text. Again, what was not written:

We're out of both // and death nears.

There are simple solutions to the clash created by the word choice. It is false reading to try to justify a line against both the clash created and the readiness of solutions. This is not a meticulously written text, after all. In no way can it be claimed that every word is the best word. Though, a casual voice does excuses a writer from poor attention to the construction of the work as a whole. If it would not be acceptable in prose, it cannot be acceptable in verse. Sloppy writing is sloppy writing. More importantly, a text given insufficient or inadequate attention reads like sloppy writing to a more sophisticated reader.

Which as an observation is very descriptive of verse culture. Who is the intended readership for such works? The question is asked both of the writer and the publisher of the work. If a work looks sloppy to a sophisticated reader – and I am not speaking about complexity or depth of ideation or stylistic choices, I am speaking solely of a work looking as thought it was not given sufficient or adequate attention, a work looking sloppy – then should that not in itself be sign to the writer that their own level of writing is still that of the amateur and not the professional? and, is that not in itself sign to the magazine editor of the same? Taking it out a step, does that not say that the intended audience of such work – speaking either of the writer or the editor – is an unsophisticated audience? And taking it out even one more step, considering the source of the text – and there is nothing about this text that is not rampant through the issue of Poetry under discussion – is it not then demonstration of a desire and intention for an unsophisticated culture of verse as the permanent audience? Thus the group hug mantra of contemporary verse culture: If you don't point out the inadequacies of my verse I won't point out the inadequacies in yours. Cookies and milk for everybody!

 

I want to get to lines and stanzas, but before I do I want to take a look at couple of moments in the text that speak also to the general weakness of the text, yes, but also offer opportunity of exploration within the context of writing.

(1) Did you notice the set up and then broken aural repetition that runs through the lines?

We're the last,
babička and me.
We've survived on
chance and bread
baked from the last store of grain.
And as we're out of both,

we will die soon.

I would not go so far as to call this a fault in the text: though, it is worth saying that I heard positive sound of the repetition, and then heard the break from the repetition.

We're the last [. . .]
We've survived [. . .]
And as we're out of both
we will die soon.

While the break caught my ear, I could find no positive justification for the break: which is to say no positive justification – if we think about this like music – for breaking away from the established melodic repetition. Indeed, to me it looks like the decision to break from the rhythm of the contractions was so the line "we will die soon" would fit the two beat line.

we WILL die SOON
we'll DIE soon.

and yet there's an easy fix:

We're the last
We've survived on chance and bread
And as we're out of both
we're soon to die

What is lost is something aurally noticeable that only points to a weakness in the work. What is gained a repetition of sound that punctuates the development of thought to the culminating idea of approaching death.

(2) There is the at best questionable, more likely poor grammar in the stanza in the older woman's story.

They know this.
They wait by water,
gulping despair.
The ravens keep watch,
they say the contagion's here,
they promise to take us first."

Why the commas in lines 4 and 5? My guess is that the writer wanted to increase the speed and flow of the final lines relative to the first two sentences. Something on first flush that sounds like a good idea. But the commas are grammatically clumsy, and, something inseparable from that, are not supported by any alternate grammar established in the text. If a text reads as following the rules of grammar, a sudden break from those rules, from already offered examples, comes off not as inventive but as sloppy and/or unsophisticated writing. Far better would be:

They know this.
They wait by water,
gulping despair.
The ravens keep watch:
they say the contagion's here;
they promise to take us first."

The semi-colons, keeping the last three lines as one sentence, also keeps the desired quicker pace.

To say, the failure to use colons and semi-colons in obvious spots is quite often a sign of the language-sophistication of the writer. That is, they poor use, or more importantly their lack of use when their use is called for, reads like a tell, reads as though revealing that the reason the punctuation was not used was because the writer was not a strong enough prose writer to use them. That is how this text is reads to me, which is the far more important point: the truth of how the text was created is irrelevant next to how the text comes off. If a text looks like it is unsophisticated, then it will read like the writer was unsophisticated. Nobody wants that, not in a national magazine.

(3) Back in the third stanza:

We've survived on
chance and bread
baked from the last store of grain.

Does the text need the word "bread"? Does it even need the word "store"? No. Everything from "bread" to "store" is unnecessary padding. Compare:

We've survived on chance
and the last of the grain.

Again, the extra words most likely have to do with padding out the sentences to fit rhythmic structure. So let's move forward.

 

 

Franz Wright, "The Raising of Lazarus"

 

"The Raising of Lazarus" is easily the strongest piece in the October issue (discounting from all consideration the Apollinaire).[FN] Though, I am not sure I would go as far to say it would still be considered strong if in another context. There are some moments that bother me. For example, the moment with "Logos"

He called them "my friends." The Logos, God's
creating word, – the same voice that said
Let there be light.

breaks in point of view from the flow of the action into kind of theological digression. While I see the opposition being created, I don't I find relevance or value enough in the lines to overweigh the break from the narrative flow, nor do I find the opposition either convincing (is there some reason due to "Logos" that Jesus could not have friends?) nor all that interesting (is anything done with it outside of the digression?). The questions: Is the idea of "Logos" necessary to the work? Is the whole of the sentence necessary to the work? It comes off as digression intended to make the work feel theological, something counter to the more intimate feel of the rest of the work.

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[FN] Like "Dialogue with an Artist," this work is also marked by the epigram as using another text as a direct source. Though, here, "adapted from" sets up a very different type of usage than Sweeney's "incorporating the words of." However, in that my use of this work mostly concerns line breaks, which I doubt appear in Rilke's notebook, I feel confident the use of source material has no bearing on my comments.
***************************

Another: The appearance of the name of Brueghel

By then other Brueghelian grotesques
had gathered, toothlessly sneering
across at each other and stalled
at some porpoise or pig stage
of ontogenetical horrorshow,

is wholly a flaw: in its being anachronistic, in its being the only such direct reference to something outside the moment in the work (except, perhaps, the "Logos" moment), and in that except for those lines there is nothing in the work to suggest a Breughelian grotesque mise-en-scene; finally, and most simply, it is unnecessary, as

By then other grotesques had gathered,

rings all the better. As well, the removal of the word brings "grotesques" back down into the permissible of the general scene: it is no longer defining, but merely and passingly observational of but an aspect of the whole, if, also, judgmental. Having "Breughelian" forces the entirety of the scenario to be viewed as a gathering of grotesques.

Finally, while for the most part I can enjoy the quasi-biblical rhythms, there are aspects of the flow of words that bother me, reading experiences similar to those as when I am reading a piece of semi-formal verse and cannot find the rhythm of a line, ultimately concluding that the problem is not mine but the texts, a problem that cannot be pinned down to any one word or syllable: it is the whole of the line that is mis-cast; no healing correction to any one part of the line can be made.

For example, the opening lines continually bothered me.

Evidently, this was needed. Because people need
to be screamed at with proof.
But he knew his friends. Before they were
he knew them. And they knew
that he would never leave them
there, desolate. So he let his exhausted eyes close
at first glimpse of the village fringed with tall fig
trees –

There is a clumsiness within the flow of the first phrases. Re-read after re-read the text would not click into a well organized, aural flow. It was not the punctilious nature of the sentences. Nor was it the line breaks per se, though I do believe the line breaks here and at other times at times work to conceal problems in the chosen language.

And then I saw it:

But he knew his friends.

It was not hidden by the line breaks but by the beginning of the work, by "evidently" being the first word, and by its being able to evade attention by hiding in that initial spot.

Evidently, this was needed.
But he knew his friends.

Those two idea are not at all in a "but" relationship. There is nothing leading up to "But he knew his friends" that legitimates the use of that conjunction. Rather, the "but" is being used here as chewing gum to help gerry-rig the opening sentences together. It becomes clearer when you do remove the line breaks.

Evidently, this was needed. Because people need to be screamed at with proof. But he knew his friends. Before they were he knew them. And they knew that he would never leave them there, desolate. So he let his exhausted eyes close at first glimpse of the village fringed with tall fig trees –

There are three ideas presented before "So he let his eyes":

1. Evidently, this was needed.

Which is a solid first stone from which to launch into the narrative.

2. He knew his friends. Before they were he knew them.

The second sentence falls toward hackney. The issue here however is how the two ideas relate. Bringing in possible elided phrases reveals the difficulty.

To one side, if the first idea is meant to point outward and broadly:

Evidently, this was needed for everybody. But he knew his friends.

There is a shift of subject between the sentences. The first points to everybody, the second points only to his friends. As well, the first establishes an idea that covers the whole of the narrative scene to come. The second abruptly turns away from the establishing and established idea and starts a completely new idea that is hand-wavingly conjoined to the first by the "but." The construction is not saying

Evidently, this was needed for everybody, though not his friends.

Indeed, even assuming such intent the "but" still fails:

Evidently, this was needed for everybody, though not his friends. But he knew his friends.

And even without the "but," there is still the immediate change in subject

Evidently, this was needed for everybody, though not his friends. He knew is friends.

The first sentence does not require the second. Nor does the second act as direct qualification on the first.

And if we take the other option,

Evidently, this was needed for his friends. But he knew his friends.

we find a direct contradiction: it was needed for his friends, but it was not needed for his friends. I doubt this was the intent, though. The first sentence fairly strongly implies by being the first sentence that "this was needed by everybody," and it does not take much knowledge of the Gospels to know that "everybody" would include the familiar retinue.

Then there is the third idea:

3. They knew that he would never leave them there, desolate.

A third idea that again has little bearing on the first two, and is again essentially a wholly new thought affixed to the first two by another ad hoc conjunction.

But what I want to use "The Raising of Lazarus" for – in conjunction with a return to "Nailing Wings to the Dead" – is to open the discussion that will run through much of the exploration of this issue of Poetry: lines and line breaks (and stanzas and stanza breaks).

I find the generally demonstrated inability of writers in contemporary verse culture to see their text beyond a string of moments problematic, yes. However, I find the more pronounced inability – and to all appearances it is an inability, and by a lot of evidence a willing inability, especially in free verse – to engage line (and stanza) construction flabbergasting. It speaks to the arid dearth of technical sophistication in both readership and writership in verse culture. It is in this – in both, but more greatly within the technical aspects – that lies why I break from Leavis's observations about popular verse in his time and say that contemporary verse is not but dead but indeed overwhelmingly bad.

The two, of course, are interrelated. A person who is technically unsophisticated will be limited in what they can do ideationally. One would think that a person who is developing ideationally – who is actively climbing the learning curve – will seek to develop technically so that they can create texts that meet – and not only meet but help to increase – their ideational sophistication. Thus my comment about colons and semi-colons above: verse sophistication is built upon the base of prose sophistication. As such, if in prose a writer is not knowledged or sophisticated with their grammar and syntax tools, that weakness will be magnified under the lens of the more difficult endeavor of verse, particularly when their efforts calls out for such ability and fails to find it. [FN] In this is found the grounding beneath Pound's various comments about verse and bad prose, for example:

Don't think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.

Which forces to the fore the question that verse culture forces to the rear: what does it say about verse culture when the readers thereof – readers that ostensibly are being cultivated by verse culture – are continually so deceived?

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[FN] To be clear, this should not be read as directed at Eleanor Hooker as regards the observed moment in "Nailing Wings to the Dead." I am speaking here to the general.
***************************

It may be argued – it may well should be argued – that attention to the line is the sine qua non of publishable verse: if the work cannot demonstrate not merely consideration as to the where of line breaks but also as to the construction of lines (and stanzas) in themselves, both in their own identity and in regards for neighboring lines (and, beyond, in some recognition therein of the work as a whole), then the work has failed to demonstrate even the most basic technical skills of verse writing, formal or free. It is an argument I would gladly make, as irrespective of the ideation, such a work is undeniably poor verse. I am hoping to be able to give demonstration to this technical aspect moving forward, if anything to create a demonstration that a paragraph does not become verse simply by adding line breaks. A paragraph is written to be a paragraph; verse is written to be lines and stanzas.

"The Raising of Lazarus" offers a good opportunity toward setting up the thread of line breaks in part because it is one of the stronger pieces but also because it is a longer piece, and as such offers moments of comparison within the text itself. For example, take this extended moment starting around midway through the work:

"By now the body must stink,"
some helpfully suggested. But it was true
that the body had lain in its grave four days.
He heard the voice as if from far away,
beginning to fill with that gesture
which rose through him: no hand that heavy
had ever reached this height, shining
an instant in air. Then
all at once clenching
and cramped – the fingers
shrunk crookedly
into themselves,
and irreparably fixed there,
like a hand with scars of ghastly
slashing lacerations
and the usual deep sawing
across the wrist's fret,
through all major nerves,
the frail hair-like nerves –
so his hand
at the thought
all the dead might return
from that tomb

"Some helpfully suggested" falls to the wrong side of droll; and yet another conversational "but." The suicide visuals comes off to me unnecessary to the moment and to the whole and for it it comes off as topical hackney. But focus on general semantics and rhythms. The question asked is why the change from the longer lines to the shorter lines? Is there anything gained by it? Within the shorter lines, by the time I get to "into themselves" I am no longer reading lines but prose squeezed between narrow margins, racing down the column in a tempo that clashes with the content. My doubts as to the attention to the shorter lines is created (here) not by the lines themselves but in comparison to the longer, steadier lines that precede them.

"By now the body must stink,"
some helpfully suggested. But it was true
that the body had lain in its grave four days.
He heard the voice as if from far away,
beginning to fill with that gesture
which rose through him: no hand that heavy
had ever reached this height, shining
an instant in air.

Not to say that these are the best of lines (especially those first three), however, there is yet a self-directedness within them, as with the rhyme of "days" and "away" with the off-rhyme of "heavy." The lines have some strength of individual purpose and identity; and the play of "shining" at the end of the line could not exist without the longer lines (in contrast, to say, to the clunk of "heavy // had" in the same spot on the line preceding.

no hand that heavy had ever reached this height

The word's presence is due to the want for consonance; but the extended phrase comes off like dropped stones. "Then, all at once" – the text is self descriptive – the lines shift to the short.

                 Then
all at once clenching
and cramped – the fingers
shrunk crookedly
into themselves,
and irreparably fixed there,

What justification exists for any choice in line breaks that leaves "into themselves" as a single line? (Did the fingers truly "irreparably" fix?)

For the sake of comparison:

He heard the voice as if from far away,
beginning to fill with that gesture
which rose through him: no hand that heavy
had ever reached this height, shining
an instant in air. Then,
all at once clenching and cramped –
the fingers shrunk crookedly into themselves,
and irreparably fixed there, like a hand
with scars of ghastly slashing lacerations
and the usual deep sawing across the wrist's fret,
through all major nerves,
the frail hair-like nerves –
so his hand at the thought all the dead
might return from that tomb

The point is not to say that the rewrite is good verse[FN]: it is merely to bring to the fore the necessary question of why?: why shift to short lines when the semantics very naturally leads to lines of such length, lines that then create by contrast energy in and a rhythmic directedness toward the now infrequent short lines of "an instant in air. Then" and "through all major nerves, / the frail hair-like nerves – ." The question of why? should exist in every aspect of writing: why do it this way and not some other way? As well, in reading: why did the writer do it this way and not some other way? When, as a reader, I cannot find a justification for the way a text is presented, for a way that reads as a mediocre effort or as poorly conceived or poorly executed, or as inattentive or sloppy, or as, simply, bad, then I have to make the conclusion that the work is indeed mediocre, poorly conceived or executed, sloppy, or bad. Very simply, strong writing does not leave open such doors. With strong writing the question why? reveals strong writing.

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[FN] To note, my quick effort to rewrite the lines revealed and ran into a handful of problems within the words. It has to be considered that the reason the original text fell into its original brevity of line was in that it concealed those problems.

"By now the body must stink,"
some helpfully suggested. But it was true
that the body had lain in its grave four days.

"Some helpfully suggested" must go as silly, as well the superfluous and incorrect "but." Which leaves

             It was true
that the body had lain in its grave four days.

which carries a clumsiness first in the oral pun of "four/for" ("had lain in its grave for days") and second in the resulting rhythmic awkwardness

that the BO dy had LAIN in its GRAVE FOUR DAYS

The removing the stress from "four" comes only with mis-reading the word as "for."

that the BO dy had LAIN in its GRAVE for DAYS

In comparison, is not this

             It was true,
the body had lain for four days in its grave.

more self-assured? Then (I move to prose as the issue is in the ideation):

He heard the voice as if from far away, beginning to fill with that gesture which rose through him: no hand that heavy had ever reached this height,

"That" has no referent. As heavy as what? As well, it creates a contradiction: the preceding phrase is "to fill with that gesture which rose through him," which creates an idea in opposite motion to weight.

Then there is the sentence veiled behind the short lines. Remove the dashed aside and you get:

Then all at once clenching and cramped

Sloppy grammar: it should be "clenched and cramped" or (weaker) "clenching and cramping." It is not creative wording when it rings in the ears as the bad writing of a middle school student. For comparison:

Then all at once clenching and cramped, so his hand at the thought all the dead might return from that tomb [. . .].

Though, there is still, yet another superfluous transitional word that only serves to create issues: "then." Rewriting the lines to the ends (ignoring the ideational issues with "heavy"). Again, for comparison:

no hand that heavy had ever reached this height,
shining an instant in air,
all at once clenching and cramped –
so his hand at the thought all the dead
might return from that tomb [. . .].
***************************

Keeping that questioning in mind, look earlier (the italics are in the original):

Even the two
slowly backing away, as though
from concern for their good name.
Then he began to hear voices;
whispering
quite distinctly,
or thinking:
Lord,
if you had been here
our friend might not have died.

Short lines like these – that work to punctuate individual words – are hackney, a convention within contemporary free verse. The justification of these lines lies not in the text itself: the text itself both establishes itself from the start and through its own rhythms calls for the use longer lines. Justification for the use of convention only ever lies in the appeal to convention: everyone else is doing it so I'm doing it as well, and since everyone else it doing it that means it's good. The contraction here is all too familiar; I've seen it a thousand times if once.

Then he began to hear voices;
whispering
distinctly,
thinking:
Lord,
if you had been here

I could sense the convention in the leading up, as though the text itself was going, "Ooooh, now we're going to do that thing where we shrink the lines down to single words! (And a billion Chinese can't be wrong . . . .)" This construction long ago became trite of such degree that writers should actively avoid it, for it is almost impossible not to read it as but copying the billion instances that preceded it. The return of the monster in the to-all-appearances denouement of Alien was something new – and very well executed – with Alien.[FN] Now, when every horror film ends with a "surprise" return of the monster, it is never not dead convention, and cannot, right now, ever not so be.

*************************
[FN] I have also read the convention originating with Carrie, which came out three years earlier. There is a difference in the ideation of the endings. The question is decided in which you believe began the trend.
*************************

It is worth, for contrast, looking at the lines that close the work.

Yet nobody stood there –
only the one young man,
pale as though bled,
stooping at the entrance
and squinting at the light,
picking at his face, loose
strips of rotting shroud.
All that he could think of
was a dark place to lie down,
and hide that wasted body.
And tears rolled up his cheek
and back into his eyes,
and then his eyes began
rolling back into his head . . . [FN]

(The comma after "down" is an error.) The flow of the narrative is slowing down as it approaches the end of the text. It is becoming more contemplative in its pacing, even in its action, as though down shifting to the closing thought, a down-shifting announced by the dash in that first line. Here, the shorter lines work well, even if they are bordering on that dangerous line of sounding too grammatically defined, too much coming to a thumping stop at ever break. (Though I don't believe the text here crosses that border.) Here the lines work with the text, work to the purpose of the text, and are successful in that end. It is very different from the hackney contractions that appeared earlier in the text.

Indeed, the naturalness of the lines as presented is emphasized in that, for it, the positioning of both the words "loose" and "rolling" come off as clumsinesses within the flow. Compare this construction, which lets the decelerating pacing wholly govern the deliver:

Yet nobody stood there –
only the one young man,
pale as though bled,
stooping at the entrance
and squinting at the light,
picking at his face,
loose strips of rotting shroud.
All that he could think of
was a dark place to lie down,
and hide that wasted body.
And tears rolled up his cheek
and back into his eyes,
and then his eyes began rolling
back into his head . . . [FN]

That observation, though, getting us to our point, works both ways. In that "loose" and "rolling" work in the original text against the natural flow of the words and ideas, their presence speaks a lack of or dimished attention to the lines themselves. Whether or not their presence was caused by such is irrelevant: they come off, to this reader, as such. The deceleration is executed well enough that "loose" and "rolling," which work against the grace of that deceleration, come off as mistakes. From the reader's side, within the context of the whole of the text, it does not speak that they are errors within a better whole, they speak that the whole was not given as much attention as my words above may insinuate, that the lines were being broken, not being written; the breaks are make defining the lines as opposed to the lines creating their breaks. Perhaps, then, my earlier judgment that the lines were not being crafted out of grammatical definition was hasty, and the success of the lines is but lucky chance.

***************************

[FN] On the Poetry site, that line of text looks like this:

rolling back into his head ...

Some may think this a minor point, but I assure you it is not. Moments like this speak to the whole. That line, the dots at the end of the line, are incorrectly formatted. If you look at the source html it is written as

.[space].[space].

However, because of how html works, the spaces between the periods disappear. It should have been formatted with the   character code, which would preserve the spaces:

. . .

One of the reasons why I do not have much affinity – or even support – for the majority of online, verse-oriented e-zines is the initial, on-the-face response to presentation, which is often quite unprofessional in appearance, both as regards the general page design and in how they handle the texts. How good could the contained collection of verse be, I think, if so little attention has been paid to the formatting of the site, and more so the presentation of the text on the screen? It is an expansion of the permitted mediocrity and sloppiness, the "everyone get's a cookie for trying" attitude, that dominates verse culture. Would a person submit to a printed volume that looked like it was printed not only by amateurs but amateurs who could not bothered enough to learn the fundamentals of printing and layout?

I say this as note to those people who have or have started or are considering starting online projects: the visuals are important. I would never submit – or even if invited give work to – a online journal whose visuals spoke only of amateur hour.

Which points back to Poetry's site. Attention to detail is important, and speaks to overall quality.

Also, to say, those of you writing, please do not use the single character ellipsis. (Such as Microsoft Office creates in its automatic text correcting.) An ellipsis is made of five, typed characters: period space period space period. Letting Microsoft office change that to the single character pseudo-'ellipsis' is one of those minor details that speaks more than you realize. The second I see that in a text I know something about the writer of the text, and am rarely wrong in the judgment.

***************************

 

That opposition between "natural" and "conventional" is surprisingly dominant within contemporary free verse, as the former is so rarely come upon and the latter is so often the governing rule as regards lines and line breaks, where any sense of real decision making is evident. I have wondered (though this could not be explored through printed verse because the visual details do not generally lie in the hands of the writer) if line breaks have become so conventional in free verse that there now exists a convention of measurable length governing the breaking of lines: that is, something of the nature of a conventional sense that "good free verse breaks at approximately two and five-eighths inches in length." Or, perhaps there are three sizes: one for short lines, one for medium, one for long. Granted, yes, those peculiar occurrences in formal verse where length and measure are at odds cannot help but create a sense of visual strangeness – even a faint sense of error. First to the long, from Keats's Endymion

                 whence one could only see
Stems thronging all around between the swell
Of turf and slanting branches; who could tell
The freshness of the space of heaven above,
Edged round with dark tree-tops? through which a dove
Would often beat its wings, and often too
A little cloud would move actoss the blue.

and then to the short, from Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.

Though I should dream, I could even sleep with grief
If slumber were denied not  . . . I would fain
Be what it is my destiny to be,
The saviour and the strength of suffering man,
Or sink into the original gulph of things. . . .

The visual character of the lines works against the aural character: the line in the first example looks to have have more than five feet; and the line in the second looks to have less.[FN] I am sure – though, as said, difficult to prove – that with the majority of free verse writers that "oddity" feels to them far stronger than with more sophisticated writers, and as such, they are far more willing to truncate a line in a manner that clashes with the text's ideation, semantics, etc., but preserves the governing conventionality of a measured line length.

***************************

[FN] As possible example to the contrary, there is this short line from Wordsworth's 1850 Prelude:

A mile-stone propped him; I could also ken
That he was clothed in military garb,
Though faded, yet entire. Companionless,
No dog attending, by no staff sustained,
He stood, and in his very dress appeared
A desolation, a simplicity,
To which the trappings of a gaudy world
Make a strange background. From his lips, ere long

Did Wordsworth, in seeing how the shortness of the line punctuated the construction and meaning, go, "Oh, yeah, baby; that's good."

***************************

Simply because a text is "free verse" does not exempt the formal properties of the verse from the operations of convention and hackney. Most pop free verse today is overwhelmingly conventional as regards form. Hopefully I will be able to give some evidence to that claim while working through the texts in Poetry.

"Nailing Wings to the Dead" – returning now to the Hooker work – is formal verse. It is built – if loosely – upon six line stanzas, each made of four, two-beat lines and two mostly three-beat but occasionally four-beat lines. It could be, though, that the occasional four-beat lines are meant to be forced into three beat readings, for example, the natural reading of

BAKED from the LAST STORE of GRAIN

might be meant to be read as

BAKED from the LAST store of GRAIN

and the natural reading

she TELLS me a TALE, her LAST GIFT

is meant to be read as

she TELLS me a TALE, her last GIFT

or "her LAST gift."[FN] However, the possibly 'intended' readings are not a soft bending of the rhythm into an alternate reading, they are both forced.

I am not sure how you can get three beats out of

by death-watch beetle's

without forcing a triple stress. Indeed, the metrics fall apart entirely in the last stanza:

Her TALE done,
we go WINGED and NAKed
to the WELL.
We HEAR them
CLIMBing the WALLS, CAterWAULing,
but RAvens are SWIFT, and SWOOP.

Note that it is not "TO the WELL" because the line follows the previous, and natural reading is to follow the cue of "we go WINGED."

***************************
[FN] In that Hooker is Irish, accent may be playing a part here. I will assume otherwise, however, as I don't believe accent could account for all of the issues.
***************************

Once you start seeing the problems with maintaining the meter – and I consider it very likely that the problems exist because Hooker was only counting stresses, not thinking in 'feet' of whatever nature – more and more of the text begins to weaken. Going back to the first stanza, it is very easy – and perhaps more naturally, to read the lines as playing around a /- - '/ sequence.

Since we NAIL
WINGS to the DEAD,
she calls RAvens
from the SKY
to inSPECT our WORK. "For FLIGHT,"
they say, "FIRST reMOVE their BOOTS."

The triple, unstressed syllables of "RAvens / from the SKY" speak a weakness within such a reading – which is actually to the point. For there is weakness in whatever reading might be adopted. The probable cause of the weakness lies in that Hooker was not writing lines but breaking lines. Even though the work is formal in nature, it still suffers from the same deficiencies one finds across contemporary free verse: a failure to attend to the line as a line, a failure to write lines.

For it is not
that hard a thing
to break a sentence
into lines
of short phrases that fit
a scheme (and rhyme a bit!).

That is not writing lines, or writing a stanza: that is breaking a sentence into lines, even if the result lies comfortably within the formal. It may be verse, yes; but it is poor verse, unworthy of publication. It is not at all terrifically difficult to break prose up into counted lines of loose iambs, neither with blank verse nor even with stanza structures; such is merely a task equivalent to learning to waltz, learning to count one-two-break, one-two-break. Yes, you might be counting the steps correctly, but that is a far cry from dancing.

The tell-tale moment within "Nailing Wings" is the run-over between the third and fourth stanza.

We're the last,
babička and me.
We've survived on
chance and bread
baked from the last store of grain.
And as we're out of both,

we will die soon.

Now, I am sure a person versed in workshop idiom would be able to come up with a handful of reasons why having a phrase (and thought) from one stanza carry over into the next can be 'legitimate.' But all such would only be justification through appeal to what is only a possibility: it has been done before successfully, ergo (if a fallacious ergo) it is done here successfully. Such appeals exist to give justification to texts through means that don't involve the text itself. Looking at the text, however, it is quite clear that the over-running line is a flaw, one created through poor crafting of the previous stanza.

The usual defense of the construction of that the over-running line is that it creates energy by the thought being delayed to the next stanza and by the "variation" from the norm of thoughts ending a the end of a stanza. If only it were that easy.[FN] First, there is no idea in "we will die soon" that is not already present in the previous stanza: the line merely states overtly what has already been implied. Second, there is nothing so interesting in the construction of "we will die soon" that might be brought to greater energy by isolating the line.

***************************
[FN] Though, within pop poetry culture, it is.
***************************

Rather than trying to defend the construction – and if a construction like this needs to be defended, if the value of the construction is not obvious from the text, that in itself should bring question to its legitimacy – ask the far simpler question: could the stanza have been successfully written to no loss and to the gain of avoiding the awkward, over-running line? The answer is yes as we have already seen from the previous examination of the stanza.

We're the last,
babička and me.
We've survived on chance
and the last of the bread;
and as we're out of both,
death is soon to come.

There is no reason to write the run-over; as such, it is weak writing. As well, the weakness of the run-over calls into question the attention paid to the writing of the stanzas (and the lines), which opens the door for what is the probable explanation for the run-over: it was a consequence of the attempt to fit the words to the metric scheme, and there were too many stressed syllables to fit the stanza: so, some had to be dropped into the next.

A stanza, in verse, is a type of paragraph. I have seen the distinction made between the two to distinguish the ideational unit (the paragraph) from the verse unit (the stanza). But that distinction is generally made only when a particular text necessitates it, as with stanza forms that are designed for long, narrative works (e.g., the terza rima of Dante). However, stanza forms with a more independent structural identity, from simple ballad form to more complex forms as those found in odes, create for stanzas their own independent structural identity. The statement is not solipsistic, but an emphasizing of what should be obvious: a self-contained structure should be treated like a self-contained structure. Indeed, any structure should be recognized as a structure: permitting unwanted structures to form is as poor writing as not attending to wanted structures. (I cannot help but think here of the issue of unwanted faces in drawing/painting. The human mind is constantly on the alert for faces, constantly searching for their appearance. As such, a artist has to be careful not to accidently create faces in their works.)

Writing a stanza – as opposed to breaking a stanza – recognizes the structure of the stanza and recognizes that the ideational elements of the stanza will and should interact with the material elements of the stanza. The most basic result being that of shaping thoughts to fit within the container of a stanza. The more complex goes to the shaping of ideation to fit as well substructures within the stanza. This applies both to formal and free verse: it is not for naught that "Raising Lazarus" is a single, long stanza. For the most part, "Nailing Wings" works toward this, which is why the break from the norm with the over-running "we will die soon" stands out so much. There is no real reason for that over-run to exist; the natural conclusion as a reader, once the weakness of the rhythms is recognized, is that the over-run was created mostly by their being too many syllables to fit into the line before.

Yes, it is entirely possible that Hooker believed that carrying the line over created emphasis to the idea of death. However, intent is irrelevant against the actual reading. And, in the reading, in the reading of the whole of the text, the over-run line reads like the result of fitting – or being unable to fit – words to the stanza's structure. There is nothing significantly gained by having the phrase start a stanza that is not equaled if not excelled by having the phrase end a stanza. At the core, the wording of "Nailing Wings" is no where strong enough to insist that the text could not have been written any other way.

Even though the text of "Nailing Wings" is formal, it still speaks the same weaknesses that runs through pop free verse: the lines and stanzas were being broken, phrases were being written and broken to fit the form; the lines and stanzas were not being written.

 

Let me try to bring this to a conclusion.

"Nailing Wings to the Dead" is not by a U.S. author, but it is imported into the contemporary culture of verse by Poetry. And, there is nothing about it that is atypical of what is commonly found within the contemporary verse scene in the U.S. It does attempt a formal structure, and contemporary verse in the U.S. is still predominantly free verse (the main reason, I continually argue, lies mostly in most verse writers are incapable of writing formal verse of any quality, so they hide behind the lack of standards in pop free verse; and, until proven otherwise, that judgment will stand). There are a couple other attempts at formal structure within this issue of Poetry, and I expect to pull them together into one post.

Being imported does not excuse "Nailing Wings" from judgments of quality. (Indeed, I considered the September, Irish issue to be as poor a collection of verse as is normally found on Poetry's pages these days.) That judgement is mostly to the negative: while the subject matter is an interesting one – and I am always eager to find imaginative themes poking out from the ocean of the quotidian realism that dominates today – the handling of it is poor at best, both technically and ideationally. Issues abound on both points. Were a draft of the text handed to me for comment, my main urging would have been that the subject matter demanded far more words than was offered it: another trait of contemporary verse: a being too quick in the delivery; or, if we were posit the likely underlying cause, an inability or unwillingness to think the subject of the verse in progress beyond the thinnest of surface details.

"Raising Lazarus from the Dead" was far stronger, yes. Like "Nailing Wings" it also breaks of quotidian realism. But the more I look at the text with any seriousness, the more issues and clumsinesses and questions as to decision-making arise: the slower, the more carefully I read the work the worse the work reads. That is it probably the strongest piece in the issue speaks mostly about the quality of the rest of the issue.

The focus in this post was primarily to be the setting up of the exploration of lines and line breaks, setting up the difference between breaking a line (should the phrase be "breaking off" a line?) and writing a line.

With the emphasis directed toward lines, I mostly passed up the exploration of live/dead verse, ideationally or materially. "Nailing Wings" is a good example of dead verse, though I believe that the simple criticism of "this should have been longer, more in depth" diminishes the fruitfulness of such discussion. "Raising Lazarus" in its length would have offered good examples to that discussion: indeed, the pointing out of superfluous or irrelevant phrases, above, is steps to that end. But, there will be many more opportunities in the texts to come.

 

 

One final note.

I have been reading recently criticism written between the World Wars, criticism that directly analyses verse to what may be considered the normal ends of criticism: to bring out their qualities while admitting to their flaws, all the time speaking to some theme that functions within the greater discourse on verse and literature in general. I have been at times chided – in differing degrees of kindness – for not putting my critical efforts directed towards the verse being written today (or, at least, in the last number of decades) into such criticism.

I do not believe such criticism is neither of any value in today's culture of verse nor even possible to any great degree: simply, the field is far too swamped by poor if not plainly bad verse for it to merit such an effort, far too populated by people who are unable or unwilling to recognize the mediocre as mediocre, the bad as bad. There is far too much upholding of bad verse as good – one need only read a list of Pulitzer winners for an ample supply. In a culture that is dominated by tone deaf, technically incompetent, and often out and out fraudulent verse, in a culture that breeds praises and high valuations of such verse based wholly on its (nonetheless trivially thin) content, in a culture of which a major part is a degree-making machine that is in itself and for its own profitability greatly invested in the lowering of standards of literature, there can only be one honest critical approach: pointing out, in an academic way, in the manner in which critics of past engaged the great works of English literature, just how bad contemporary verse – just how unsophisticated the contemporary, public discourse on verse – is.

Only then, only upon such a groundwork, could any praising of meritable verse carry any genuineness. Indeed, even within this blog, the minority of times where I have spoken to the literary merits of a text have value only because of the majority of times where I have spoken to the opposite.

2 comments:

  1. You may want to consider this from Gloria Klein: SELECTIONS FROM GLORIA KLEIN”S NOTEBOOK:
    http://www.poetryrepairs.com/v11/066.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Let me make that a link:

      "Selections from Gloria Stein's 'Poetry Notebook'"

      (It's the second entry on the page.)

      Will definitely give a look.

      Delete