Statement of Philosophy

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

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



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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Review: Poetry Magazine (Oct. 2015) – Part VI: Randall Mann, Reginald Gibbons

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

links to individual texts:
Randall Mann, "Florida"
Randall Mann, "Almost"
Reginald Gibbons, from "Dark Honey"
— headers to the sections are also links to the texts

 


the other posts in this series


— some editing, Jan 29, 2016; particularly in exchanging the term "same-word rhyme" for "exact rhyme" in the section on "Almost." I have heard a handful of terms used for using the same word twice in making a rhyme, "exact rhyme" being one of them. But, since readers were thrown by the term, I switched to the new one.

— some editing and an added footnote, Apr. 4 2016

— footnote extended, Feb. 21, 2016


 

fragments and amalgams, similes and metaphors, and a bit on confidence

 

As I left off on the last post, my plan was to look at Catherine Staples's "Vert" as a second example of list verse. I have now decided to return "Vert" to its original place in the Poetry volume's ordering and to pick up with that which comes next in the table of contents: Randall Mann's "Florida" and "Almost" and Reginald Gibbon's excerpt from "Dark Honey." (Cynthia Cruz's "Midnight Office" was already given time in Part 4.) As it happens, "Florida" is a list, so there is yet continuity from the previous post.

 

 

"Florida"

 

With the second work by Mann, "Almost," we come upon our first example of formal verse. Or, at least, what would normally be considered the first example of formal verse. Yet what of "Florida"? There are no rhyming lines in "Florida"; nor are the lines measured. To all appearances the text is free verse in the sense of a-formal verse. Except: it is written in stanzas. After every three lines there is a stanza break: the text, therefore, has form, and a measured form at that.

The habit of writing free verse in equal-length stanzas is common within contemporary pop poetry. In this volume of Poetry there are by my count thirteen such works by eight different authors (fourteen by nine if you include the opening of "Arcadia"). Recently, when I am confronted by such texts (in this series and elsewhere) I am finding myself more and more questioning of my current stance on the event. I am now continually asking myself: Is there indeed a problem with free verse that is broken up into measured stanzas? Can it be considered as little more than a typographical choice, no different than font size? Is it possible that breaking up a free verse text in such a way does create benefits? Or, am I correct in holding that it is an imposed form, and when the text of the verse fails to recognize and to engage that form it is a weakness in the work?

The issue, I believe, lies in the implied word in the third question: Is it possible that breaking up a free verse text arbitrarily in such a way does create benefits? If the stanzas are not written, then the text is not written to stanzas: as such, the stanzas are arbitrary. Once a prof of mine (an established writer) told of a verse of his that he could not get to work, until he broke the text up into evenly measured stanzas. The added space changed the pace of reading of the text. Perhaps example to the positive. Only, the text of the verse is essentially prose with line breaks.[FN] So, while it very well could be that the stanza breaks did improve the reading of the text, the cause is that it was alleviating the difficulty created by reading prose set in a narrow column. It could also be the line breaks made the text not look like prose in a narrow column, so the reader has a more positive ("I recognize that as verse") immediate reaction. Either way or both, maybe not a positive after all.

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[FN] To say, I do enjoy the text of that work, which I intentionally leave anonymous. Though, I do think it prose with narrow columns.
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If a verse's stanzas are not written but arbitrarily broken, it is an inherent weakness to the text. That is, until the action can be defended. That defense is something I have never seen. When a text is broken into equal length stanzas, it is an immediate visual cue that the text has been organized a certain way. When the text itself betrays that visual cue, it is again a weakness in the text, unless the action can be defended, which, again, I have yet to see. Saying "it improves the reading of the text" is not in itself a defense, even if true. For the text must also be defended against the charge of if it is improving the reading of the text by aiding to conceal other weaknesses in the text. But this is all walking around the central accusation, which is, simply: why does the text have stanzas if the writer is not writing stanzas? If the text is not written to stanzas, then don't have them. When stanza breaks exist and the stanzas do not, there is an immediate an avoidable perceived weakness.

Of course, the companion accusation is: Why does the text have lines if you are not writing lines?

This is William Carlos Williams, the opening to the introduction he wrote for Byron Vazakas's collection, Transfigured Night (a book nominated for the 1947 Pulitzer).

Byron Vazakas is that important phenomenon among writers, an inventor. There are few inventors in the arts. He has been led, more by irritation, I think, than by anything else, to an investigation of the poetic line, to attack the problem of measure, of which the conventional line is such a very bad approximation, – the line in which the worst clichés of the art of poetry lie anchored – to see if something more could not be done with it than the past permitted.

I might return to this introduction at some point in the future, but this one paragraph serves here if but for what is assumed to be obvious to writers of verse: to be a serious writer of verse is to engage – perpetually – the problem of the line (and the stanza). Contemporary pop free verse is not freed from that issue. To all appearances, it has instead simply closed its eyes and pretended it didn't exist.

In "Florida," the equally measured stanzas are not the only element speaking of weakness. Two more such cues exists even in the first two lines. In reverse order, the second is the line break after "glass-." There is no reason to be found for the break. These are not metered lines, nor does the break serve rhyme (which, even then would be suspect). There is zero gained here by breaking the word over two lines, and much lost: it comes off entirely as a gimmick, an attempt at being clever.

Before even that there is the opening word: "Like." Any time my attention is brought to a simile my first question is always "is the writer" – and this also with my own writing – "being lazy through their use of a simile?" Opening up a work with "like" seems almost always to fall within the case. Most of the time (but not always), when put to thought, a simile in pop verse comes off as a lazy attempt to sound poetic or (as here, with the opening "like") an easy out to the more difficult task of metaphor. Generally, if you leaf through high end literature you will find similes are infrequently found. My own running belief with this is not that there is anything inherently wrong with similes, but that sophisticated writers will use a simile only when the simile is the best choice for the moment, and generally refuse their use because they are so readily suspect. Unsophisticated writers tend to fall into similes because they are easy and to unsophisticated readers look imaginatively poetic. But let me return to this later and get back to stanzas.

Let me make the effort at showing why the stanzas come off as a weakness in the verse. I am not here referring to the obvious event seen the first stanza break in "Florida", where one stanza leaks into another (either forwards or, as here, backwards):

Like eelgrass through a glass-
bottom boat on the Silver River,
I see the state, obscured yet pure. Derision,

a tattooed flame crackling
underneath the lewd, uncool

This instance – as do most instances – does immediately make me question the sophistication of the verse (as with the broken "glass-bottomed"). But I want to look first to the more fundamental, structural idea of arbitrary vs. crafted stanzas. Though I have long been – especially since starting this blog – on the watch for examples to the positive, I have yet to find any such example that speaks success for the arbitrary stanza break. Mostly I find counter example: either in the continual demonstration by arbitrarily spoken verse of the weakness of the convention, or in the counter-demonstration of verse that on its face may appear arbitrarily broken but speaks through variation against the practice. Simply, stronger writers avoid the practice; they are always writing stanzas.[FN1] For example, the last number of weeks I have been lackadaisically reading through the newest (2005)Collected of Muriel Rukeyser's work. In it, arbitrary stanzas are simply not to be found. (Or, I have not yet seen them.) Rather, there is not infrequent demonstration of the willingness to modify form to fit the text in its being written, as with the willingness to let a line within a primarily pentametric work run long or come short, or the readiness to have a stanza in an otherwise measured work do likewise. Indeed, it is the rule in Rukeyser that the stanza is defined by the containing text.[FN2] She is but one example, but to the point. I have yet to find an example in a major writer where stanzas were not written. Even, where I have found stanzas that were loosely written, the weakness of that one work is evident in comparison to those around it. The best I can ever say for a work with arbitrary stanzas is that the stanza breaks are pointless, merely making the text to "look more like" poetry; even, I often have the suspicion the real purpose of the stanza breaks – also arbitrarily short line breaks – is to make the text look longer than it actually is. (If I do find an example that can offers clear demonstration, which is the real difficulty, I will either add it here later or use it in a future post.)

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[FN1] Understand, that there are very few (wholly) post-WWII writers of verse in the U.S. that I consider a "strong" writer. Most of those who are held up as the excellence of that era I find to be at best minor writers, mostly forgettable, generally unable to bear the weight of any critical approach that did not come to the door with flowers in hand.

[FN2] It might be admitted that Rukeyser is an unfair example, as most of her works speak, even if in echo, of a formal sentiment. Even her free-est verse feels guided by some sense of meter. Though, in that, I see argument to my point, not against it.
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Now, "Florida" is constituted of a list of statements within the category established by the opening sentence: "I see the state [of Florida], obscured but pure." The list begins immediately and continues through to the end of the text (at the end becoming rather abstract). The work is a entirely a list. Which brings to question: if the work is constituted entirely by a list of statements of varying length, why the measured stanzas? Why not a structure that works to the ends of a list?

Yes, the first three stanzas do have some individual identity. All three of the stanzas are each a single sentence, a single thought. Though, the poor construction of the third sentence makes me to wonder whether it is one thought or two (divided not, however, at the dash but at the comma). After that point the relationship between the stanza form and the text falls apart, so much so I am led to wonder if the thought-to-stanza relationship in the first three stanzas were accidental, or, alternatively, if the writer simply stopped trying. The first two lines of the fourth stanza are independent statements, no more in union with each other than any other adjacent statements. And the third line of the stanza begins a statement that carries on for two lines beyond.

Then there is what I see as the telling sixth stanza, another example of a stanza that bleeds into its neighbor:

I made my acting debut with the red
dilettante down the street, "Rusty" Counts,
in Rusty Counts Presents: Suburbs of the Dead,

straight to VHS.

Yes, having "straight to VHS" hang over in the next stanza gives that touch of emphasis praised by way of such workshop idiom as "varying the rhythms of the text." Except, that gain has to be weighed against any and all loss, the primary source of which is brought to the fore by this question: Were the lines written the way they were written so as to get that little bit of emphasis, in conventional, workshop/MLA manner? The situation is the same as that often seen in pop formal verse: the awkward or clumsy line that was left awkward so that it would keep its end rhyme. (One example of such is found in Mann's other work in the Poetry issue, "Almost":

I won't forget the time he lent
      me Inches, which I gave up for Lent.

The rhyme is forced, the natural wording being I won't forget the time he loaned me Inches. As such, the line comes off as awkward.)

Ask: Did the stanza have to run long? For one, "down the street" is irrelevant, and strays from the text as given. There is nothing in the text that speaks that this is about the narrator's neighborhood: it is about Florida in general. In such, "down the street" clashes directly with "I-75 signage." Second, "presents" in the movie's title makes one of the two utterances of "Rusty Counts" superfluous. With but those recognitions, all we need do is change "the" to "that" and drop the now unnecessary "in" and we can get to:

I made my acting debut with that red dilettante:
Rusty Counts Presents: Suburbs of the Dead,
straight to VHS.

It is made apparent from context that "that" must refer to Rusty Counts. The isolating of "straight to VHS" is preserved; as well, the writing is tighter. Yes, that third line is shorter than the others in the text, but this is unmeasured free verse: unless you are thinking free verse according to pop-conventionality, in which line lengths are measured not in syllables but in inches.

This brings us back to that first stanza break. Once the breaking before "straight to VHS" begins looking like a cheap gimmick, I cannot but question if the same is true for "derision." Unfortunately, the difficulty in answering the question lies not in the line or stanza breaks but in the sloppy writing:

Derision, a tattooed flame crackling underneath the lewd, uncool khaki of an amused park worker.

If you saw the phrase

a tattooed flame crackling underneath the lewd, uncool khaki of an amused park worker.

would you at all come upon the idea of derision? No. It moves in quite a different direction. Indeed, "amused" on its own clashes with (if not contradicts) "derision." The sentence is either poorly written, grammatically speaking[FN], or it is an example of forcing a descriptor upon a noun.

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[FN] Considering the questionable if not poor use of a comma in

I was the sometimes boy on a leash,
my sliver of assent in 1984?—

I am quite willing to read the "derision" moment as nothing but sloppy writing. For the sake of discussion, however, I will here accept the alternative.

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The text attempts to force the idea of "derision" upon the reader by linking the two ideas together. As written, having "derision" be isolated in the previous stanza works both to give the word emphasis it would not normally merit within the containing sentence and to hide the poor construction of the sentence, including the effort to force the idea of "derision" upon the "tatooed flame." There is another example of forced labor in the last line of the text.

like the comfort of a diplomatic war

The line is artificially fusing the idea of "comfort" with the idea of "diplomatic war." If a reader came upon the phrase "diplomatic war" on its own, the idea of "comfort" would probably not come to mind. War is still war, whether it is through military or diplomatic channels (and the latter does not exclude the former): there is still pressures, tension, and almost assuredly loss, and not to the diplomats but to the people they represent. Here, the text has to revert to brute measures to press the two ideas into a single thought. As such, the thought ends up a trivial, weakly thing. I am brought to mind a passage from Eliot that I just read but yesterday.

The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets. It is something which had happened to the mind of England between the time of Donne or Lord Herbert of Cherbury and the time of Tennyson and Browning; it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.[FN]

To say, the passage can be misread in seeing a correlation between the experience of such as Tennyson and Browning and the experience of "the common man." Note that Tennyson and Browning, while not metaphysical, are nonetheless called "poets," and thus of the category set in opposition to "common man." It is not in their minds that Eliot distinguishes Tennyson and Browning from the metaphysicals, but in their resulting works.

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[FN] This is from Eliot's "The Metaphysical Poets" (which can be found in The Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot and elsewhere), though I came upon it in my continuing exploration of the works of F.R. Leavis, in English Literature in Our Time and the University (Chatto and Windus: 1969, p. 71-72). I cannot recommend Leavis more as meat to critical growth. It goes without saying that Eliot's critical work is likewise profitable.

To note, I disagree in part with Eliot's appraisal here of Tennyson and Browning. I would argue that they can, indeed, "feel their thought" in their works (if not in all), though the thoughts being felt are more broadly presented than with the metaphysicals. As such, though, they are yet taken out of the scope of Eliot's discussion, which is why I can only disagree in part.

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For us it is that distinction between "poets" and "the common man" that is here applicable, two terms that can be here replaced (imperfectly but here without loss) with "sophisticated" and "unsophisticated" writers and readers. The terminological change is not merely to pull the text into the language I am using. It serves also to bring the two under a single broader umbrella. I reject the idea that "poets are poets and the common man the common man and never the twain shall meet" and will instead place them at two ends of a spectrum. The change does not remove Eliot's point from the matter: there is writing/reading that is "fragmentary" and there is writing/reading that is "amalgamating."[FN] The unsophisticated reader will not have much complaint with forcing terms together as with "derision" and "tattooed flame" and "comfort" and "diplomatic war," for they will read the lines as fragmentedly as they are written. There is no uniting of the two into a thought. The "cleverness" of the line ends at merely placing the two ideas next to each other: amalgamation need never be achieved, nor, really, is it ever sought.

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[FN] The use of the word "amalgamating" is somewhat misleading if it is understood as saying "taking fragments and amalgamating them into a whole." For the poet, encountered ideas are always already amalgam, if unexplored amalgum.
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This also applies on the writing side. There is no reason found within the text that tells me "Florida" was not written fragmentarily, by abutting fragments within sentences, and abutting sentences one next to the other, finding "cleverness" in the selecting, without any attempt at – or thought to – creating a unified a whole. Consider the text, beginning at "the I-75 signage":

The I-75 signage, more than metaphor.
As if I had the right to vote.
The slumber parties then were hidden wood;

the tea so sweet, the saccharin
pink and artificial, like intelligence.
The science sponsored in part by chance.

I-75 signing is "more than metaphor." Look at the construction: it is not saying I-75 signage is metaphor, it is saying I-75 signage is more than metaphor. So it is in fact metaphor, but not merely metaphor. But that demands the question: how is I-75 signage metaphor? Being a fragmentary text, it requires no answer: the fragment alone bears its legitimacy. Then comes

As if I had the right to vote.

Which clashes with the previous sentence. The idea that signage is more than metaphor comes off as a positive thought. Yet, it is followed by "as if I had the right to vote": together they imply that if the narrator had right to vote they would eliminate metaphoricity and reduce the I-75 signs to blunt fact. And then

The slumber parties then were hidden wood;[FN]

Two more ideas forced together: or, more exactly, two fragments laid next to each other without need for or appeal to anything more. Yet, wholly conventional, wholly recognizable as pop poetics, so the unsophisticated reader, who reads only fragment then fragment then fragment, yet says"oh, how clever to lay "slumber parties" down next to "hidden wood." Hit the pieces with a hammer and you'd be surprised how easy jigsaw puzzles can be, especially when viewers see only pieces, not the pictures as a whole.

the tea so sweet

Would a reader normally think iced tea at slumber parties? (Well, it's one way to keep you up all night.)

pink and artificial, like intelligence

There is nothing for a reader to do with that line, nor is there any requirement for a reader to do anything with it, nor even any suggestion, hinting, subtle implication within the text for the reader to do anything with it except to recognize the conventionality and go "oh, how clever."

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[FN] Is that line meant to be read suggestively?
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It is all fragmentary writing looking for readers who read fragmentary writing. As such, the list nature of the text is revealed for what it is: an appeal to conventionality. The unsophisticated reader reads "Florida" and finds the elements of what is considered successful verse within pop-conventionality: it follows the pop-form of list verse; it is constituted of "clever" moments, the fragmentary nature of the moments removing the listed statements from any judgment of quality; and it is conventionally diced up into regularly measured rectangles.

Did you notice the simile?

pink and artificial, like intelligence

Notice how "like" works so readily to abut the two ideas (insuchas they are ideas). It is demonstration in miniature of why similes so quickly speak of weakness to a sophisticated reader. They are so very, very often a lazy out, a way to avoid the difficulty of creating a resonant metaphor. Similes are not metaphorical; they function through a mechanical linking. Where they work is when they are recognized as and used as such, as a technique to bring two ideas together. In "The Metaphysical Poets" (to continue with the happenstance text-at-hand) is found these lines (the closing stanzas) from Herbert's "An Ode Upon a Question Moved"

So when from hence we shall be gone,
   And be no more, nor you, nor I,
   As one anothers mystery,
Each shall be both, yet both but one.

This said, in her up-lifted face,
   Her eyes which did that beauty crown,
   Were like two starrs, that having faln down,
Look up again to find their place:

While such a moveless silent peace
   Did seize on their becalmed sense,
   One would have thought some influence
Their ravish'd spirits did possess.

Notice here how the moment of presentation of the simile – "were like two starrs" – is but a mechanical connecting of the two ideas, a connecting which is then developed into the complex energies of the metaphysical play. The first element in the simile ("eyes") is not merely restated or handed adjectives to wear like buttons on a lapel. My Harmon and Holman Handbook to Literature (to pluck a book from the shelves; I've the 7th ed.) describes a simile as "a figure in which a similarity between two objects is directly expressed": for ideational energies to be developed, however, there must be not solely similarity but (also) contrast.[FN] The common phrase within composition of "the compare and contrast essay" is grossly misguiding: there are no essays to be found – outside of encyclopedia entries – through comparing, only through contrasting. Similes, thus, are rarely if ever working in themselves to the central ideational energies of a text; they are mostly technical devices. In the above, the actual simile – "were like two stars" – is but a way to get to the ideational development of "starrs" as a means to speak of the woman: the simile is a technical device used to bring into the presentation the idea of astrological influence, of seeing within her eyes and thus in her passions the divine, governing presence imputed to astronomical bodies. The simile itself – "her eyes [. . .] like two starrs" – does none of this work. In my own sentence, above (with "handed adjectives to wear like buttons"), the work of ideation was already complete before the simile arrived. Again, the simile does not function to the central idea: there, it is used only for humorous ornament.

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[FN] The fundamental difference between simile and metaphor is a simile functions to link A and B by way of the common quality X: it is a mechanical operation. A metaphor, however, condenses the action through removing the doubly present quality. A metaphor is not pointing to a similarity, it is conjoining A and B, saying "A is B even thought A is not B." It is not a dual presentation but a duality of similarity and difference presented at once, in amalgam (to continue using the words offered by Eliot). In that simultaneous duality we have what makes symbolic thought, as opposed the mechanical mode of thought that is operated through simile.

That said, not all metaphors are living metaphors. But that is for another time.

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This is why similes in pop-poetry show themselves to be mostly lazy outs: the writer makes a linking and considers the linking itself a clever "poetic" device.

pink and artificial, like intelligence

Yet what has really happened is the writer has excused themselves from doing the work of developing the idea.

Consider again that opening simile:

Like eelgrass through a glass-
bottom boat on the Silver River,
I see the state, obscured yet pure.

It might be argued that the rest of the text of "Florida" is the ideational development of the comparison marked by the simile. Yet, look at the simile:

Like eelgrass

The verse is saying Florida has something in common with eelgrass? No. The text is not about the characteristic of eelgrass, it is about the characteristics of viewing things through a glass-bottom boat.

Like viewing [eelgrass] through a glass-bottom boat, I see the state.

What are those characteristics that is common to viewing eelgrass through a glass-bottom boat and viewing the state? They are

obscured yet pure

Which makes no sense: it is a glass-bottom boat; the whole concept is that what lies below is not obscured neither by the bottom of a regular boat nor by the reflections on the surface of the lake. "Yet pure," then, comes off as little more than a quickly thrown attempt to correct the error, as well as a cheap attempt to imbue to the moment with a charged word. As well, the simile is revealed as off target, as the rest of the text – taking the text at its word – is not about the "obscured yet pure" nature of how the narrator views Florida; it is about Florida itself. Which explains why the simile as presented is not "like viewing eelgrass" but "like eelgrass." Except Florida is nothing like eelgrass: there is no common characteristic pointed to by the simile between eel grass and Florida that can be developed through the rest of the text. The opening, primary conceit is completely botched, not at all thought out. The writer – so the text tells me – merely mimicked the pop-poetic convention of "doing a simile" (even, of "opening a text with a simile") without thinking through either how the simile would function within the text nor how the simile itself is constructed.

Conventions are, to go back to the above, by definition fragments. By nature they do not exist to amalgam into the unity that is a genuine poem. They exist entirely to be recognized as a point event: "ooh, look at the clever simile, this must be a good poem.' Only it is neither good nor a poem: it is merely a sloppily written piece of verse. Thus why in pop verse and other unsophisticated verse similes tend to come off as the writer lazying their way out of doing the work of writing; why they tend to be, to a sophisticated reader, always suspect.

What if rather than using the cheap out of the simile the writer instead went to the more difficult task of metaphor, if the text of the work was that of a person looking at the passing bottom of the Silver River and speaking of the things seen in terms of how the individual perceived Florida, where the experience of the boat trip is vehicle for the tenor of the experience of Florida? A much more difficult text to write; a much more sophisticated text to write; a much longer text to write: a text that would require approaching the writing (and reading of the text) as an amalgam rather than a collection of fragments. It would be a much more poetic text. Unfortunately, there is nothing in either "Florida" nor, as will be seen, in "Almost" that would give me any confidence that Mann could write such a text. Which is not at all to say he couldn't; it is solely and entirely to say that the result of reading "Almost" and "Florida" is I that I am left with no desire to find out. Thus the question that must be put to Poetry Magazine: why are these two works being published?

But I'm getting ahead of myself, as I've not yet addressed "Almost."

 

 

"Almost"

 

This is the first go in the issue of Poetry at a more strictly formal verse. With formal verse there is unavoidable structure, something that from the start is working to unify the work into some form of amalgam. But, will it be an ideational amalgam, or merely a material amalgam, a "unity" that lies only in the sound? Will it then even be an amalgam? For such unity need not unity at all, but can be yet another laying out of fragments: only, fragments that tend to repeat.

In that vein, the ground question as regards the success for any formal verse is always: do the form and content unify, or is the content merely fitted arbitrarily into the form? If the latter is true, it is no different than the use of arbitrary stanza and line breaks that make up so much of pop free verse; indeed, it is the same thing: the text is still disconnected from the formal structure, the one does not inform the other, the other does not inform the one. There is merely a text, and it is pushed into a container. Again, with a small hammer, it is amazing what can be done.

Briefly: Well written, sophisticated formal verse recognizes the character of the guiding form. Stanzas are written to be a stanza. Lines that rhyme create internal unities. To use an obvious example, take a Shakespearean sonnet:

a b a b c d c d e f e f g g

The structure speaks an organization, and the writing of the text should recognize, utilize, and be of that organization. In the Shakespearean sonnet there are three quatrains. That prompts three thoughts. The quatrains themselves prompt lesser organizations: two halves (ab / ab) or two linkings (a-a, b-b). Finally the three quatrains are set against a final couplet of its own structure and unity.

Well written formal verse finds the stanza form that fits the ideation of the work. If ever the text starts to feel forced into the form, it should be considered a signal that the chosen form might not fit the developing ideation of the work.

Let's go back to "Almost." In truth, I find the idea to have same-word rhymes on the first two lines of every verse the most interesting part of "Almost." Not in how it is executed but in the question raised: What is the effect on a text – on the writing of a text – of same-word rhymes leading off stanzas structured AAbbcc? The question is left unanswered and unexplored here, because "Almost" fails to get past the initial hurdle of having the choice of structure actually work. Of the five couplets, one of them is (as already noted above) forced. Three of the other four are merely negations.

the positive of "family style," having yet "suspect style"
the attempt to "kill the myth" being itself a "myth"
"punctuation – no wait, the lack of punctuation"

The fifth (in the second stanza) is straight repetition.

it is "a dream" – "we were [. . .] living the dream"

Such are the weakest of methods for pulling off the duplication, if they are even "methods" to that end. For the negations to succeed in any way, it would need be that the negation itself was the important part, not the concepts being negated. But, there is nothing about "punctuation – no wait, the lack of punctuation" that goes any farther than the writing of two lines that have the same last word. As such, the opening couplets come off only as weaknesses in the text. The couplets mostly only say the same thing twice. So, the puzzle of the use of the same-word rhymes goes mostly unexplored in "Almost."

Indeed, across the board, "Almost" is not a terribly successful attempt at rhymed verse. For the most part, the rhymed couplets are formed in the much the same way as was the elements of "Florida": abutted fragments.

Every intonation, one more pact
          with injury; my latest one-act:
"Flossing in Public."
          In the spattered glass of the republic.

Can those lines escape the accusation of putting together phrases more for the rhyme than for any real ideational unity, flow, or development? Notice that the last line – the last line of the text – is a fragment: it reads as though the writer simply stopped; made the rhyme and, it being the end of a stanza, decided that that was enough and the verse could end. Though, there is no real development or progression to be found across "Almost": it is itself mostly a list of discongruous elements that might in some way be said to fall under the rubric of "statements either about a relationship the narrator is in or about the narrator themelves."

It is very easy to rhyme when the thoughts in the stanzas are each only a few words long.

Our love was threat, like phantom pain.
          An almost-plan for a bullet train.
I'm weaning myself off graphic tees,
          not taking on any new disease.

Hopefully you can see how it is but an assembly of fragments: there is no amalgamation between – or at times even within – the statements.

threat, like phantom pain

Again: Would "threat" be an idea one would normally come to through the idea of "phantom pain"? It seems to me the whole idea of "phantom pain" is that it simply exists; it's a irritant, an annoyance (if potentially a supreme annoyance), not a threat. What could a phantom pain offer in threat except for itself? The four lines are five independent fragments. As such, the rhymes are pointless, arbitrary: they accomplish nothing since nothing was invested in their execution. Indeed, "pointless" may be an accurate description of every statement in the verse. It is worthwhile asking and thinking through: What is the point of a statement in a text if the ideation of the statement is dropped as soon as the statement ends? Can there be, say, a positive use to non sequiturs beyond creating absurdity? The answers might lie greatly in the idea of ornament: elements that add to the experience of the text (artwork, construction) but are not part of the main structure. Though, if one were to apply the idea of ornament to a text like "Almost" all that would be found would be ornament: there is no underlying main body. What structure was even intended when there are lines like

The motel life is all a dream –
          we were, as they say, living the dream.
I appreciate our quandary,

Is it a dream or is it a quandary? With such demonstrated lack of attention to how lines relate to each other, what confidence can be had in the text or the writer's demonstrated ability?

Let me digress for a moment. What does it mean to lose confidence in a work, in the writer of the work? It means losing the belief that the work can claim the expected level of sophistication. What that level is depends on the situation, is defined by the context within which the work is being judged. When I speak of confidence in a work I am speaking of at least a competent (if not just above competent) level of technical ability, intelligence, and creative effort.[FN] With a volume such as a published volume of poetry, the text demonstrates a level of attention to the material aspects of the text (the grammar, semantics, form, etc.) and to the ideational aspects of the text above the level of "clean" prose, and of a degree of creative effort that raises the text from the common to the uncommon.

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[FN]I am sure that triplet is not all encompassing, but they will do for the moment.)
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When a text shows a lack of attention to grammar, I lose confidence in the writer's ability in and attention to the material aspect of writing. ("Ability in" and "attention to" are not able to be separated.) When a text shows triviality of thought or seems to eschew development beyond abutted fragments (which includes straight narrative), I lose confidence in the writer's ability in and attention to the ideational aspect. Both such instances, as well as a writer's constantly falling into lazinesses and conventionality bring me to lose confidence in the literary merit of the work in general.

Key to the idea of confidence, however, is the recognition that confidence requires a certain level of sophistication on the part of the reader. An unsophisticated reader will tend to most enjoy writing of a degree near their own sophistication – as it should be. If the sophistication of the writing is too far beyond the sophistication of the reader, the reader will not be able to read the writing and will probably not truly enjoy it (even though they find the writing intriguing) – again, as it should be. As the sophistication of the reader develops, so does their ability to read and appreciate more sophisticated works; so also does their ability to see the flaws, inadequacies, incompetencies, lazinesses, etc. in less sophisticated writing, and so should they lose appreciation for less sophisticated writing. If the sophistication of the writing is too far below the sophistication of the reader, the text will look to the reader unsophisticated – as it should be.

An unsophisticated reader cannot "have confidence" in a text: they are naïve readers; they do not yet have the knowledge, experience, etc. requisite to the ability to judge. A person cannot be confident in another person's abilities if they cannot (for whatever reason; even, simply, lack of information) judge that person's abilities. That "confidence" is only ever really blind faith.

Confidence in a text is very important. I will not give a text energy and effort when I lose confidence in it. Indeed, I generally will no longer want to or continue to read such a text: which is a failure on the part of the author. The inability of a text to generate confidence (or, since most sophisticated readers approach texts with an expectation of some degree of sophistication, the text's undermining of the reader's confidence) is really but a consequence of the genuineness of the text, of the efforts of the writer: something that always informs the whole of a text, even when a text fails.

In truth, it takes very little for a sophisticated reader to lose confidence in a text. It is not infrequent that one page is enough to speak to me the sophistication of a prose work; five or ten lines enough to speak it in a verse work. Granted, that is greatly a factor of low publishing standards, which has in turn lowered writing standards. Except for this project, I would never have read beyond a sampling of lines from but a couple of pages in this edition of Poetry Magazine: there is almost nothing in it (excluding the Apollinaire) that gives me confidence as to either the actual contents or the editorial policies of the issue. Indeed, the verse offered here is generally of such poor quality I have no confidence that I would ever see anything different in any other contemporary issue of Poetry: the mere question of how the contents of this issue ever were considered as meriting publishing is enough to not only create but assure the belief that Poetry is incapable of presenting a volume of genuine verse; the belief that the editorial staff of Poetry is, as a staff, themselves far too unsophisticated readers to be able to recognize poor verse.

Unless, of course, as I've said before, Poetry Magazine knows exactly what it is doing, and is presenting unsophisticated verse to an unsophisticated readership to up the odds of making a sale. What such policy does to the culture of literature in general should be obvious: it guts it of standards, of quality, of the expectation of sophistication.

 

 

from "Dark Honey"

 

"Dark Honey" is the only work in the Poetry issue by Reginald Gibbons. I am reticent to speak upon it as it is presented as an excerpt from a larger work. That in itself creates issues for any critical approach, as the text is from the start already being taken out of context. Flaws seen in an excerpt might not be flaws when seen in the greater context; so also merits might not be merits. As well, because of the structure of what is offered, it is not clear if the first lines here are the beginning of the offered text, or if this is three, contiguous sections plucked out of the middle of a running text.

As such, I will limit myself to but some simple observations.

1) As would be expected, the short line lengths immediately signal to me that the text is probably arbitrarily broken. Looking at the text, I see no real attention to writing lines. Can the work be defended against being called straight prose with a one-and-a-half inch margin? Not that I can find. For me, the short lines only get in the way of reading the text. There is a reason why advertisers avoid narrow columns of text: I'm not quite sure why pop poets think they've somehow solved the basic problem of that it makes any text (not written to the lines) difficult to read. That difficulty here is not a benefit, it is only an obstacle. And, to be sure, if the whole of “Dark Honey” was like this, I would not bother beyond the first pages. As verse, it is very poor verse.

2) The second section is a list. Lists are very curious things. They usually tend, within larger texts, to ornament. They need not, when part of a larger text, carry the same strength of purpose as that list verse – a text constituted entirely or predominantly of a list – must carry. Obviously, because of the greater context, they are permitted lives solely as digressions from the main text, written and read for the pleasure of enjoying a well-crafted list

I have recently started Gravity's Rainbow – a book I started once before years ago but read too slowly, and as a result I half way through got too lost to continue. Gravity's Rainbow is full of lists, lists within lists, lists that bend and turn over themselves. It is one of the primary tropes by which Pynchon develops scene, atmosphere, ideation. Consider this sentence as example:

Constant saw, and not only with his heart, that stone hand pointing out of the secular clouds, pointing directly at him, its edges traced in unbearable light, above the whispering of his river and slopes of his long blue Berkshires, as would his son, Variable Slothrop, indeed all of the Slopthrop blood one way or another, the nine or ten generations tumbling back, branching inward: every one, except for William the very first, lying under fallen leaves, mint and purpose loosestrife, chilly elm and willow shadows over the swamp-edge graveyard in a long gradient of rot, leaching, assimilation with the earth, the stones showing round-faced angels with the long noses of dogs, toothy and deep-socketed death's heads, Masonic emblems, flowery urns, feathery willows upright and broken, exhausted hourglasses, sunfaces about to rise or set with eyes peeking Kilroy-style over their horizon, and memorial verse running from straight-on and foursquare, as for Constant Slothrop, through bouncy Star Spangled Banner meter for Mrs. Elizabeth, wife of Lt. Isaiah Slothrop (d. 1812)[. . .].

(p. 27 in my Viking edition; what I cut out at the end is the lyrics of the refered to song.) A list is successful – assuming the list does not have a purely pragmatic purpose; though, even then – when the list is a joy to read. Which is also to say, a list is a place for a writer to show off their skills. Now, that statement in itself is a question unanswered.

I have found lists to be a very fruitful place for contemplation on writing, for exploration of texts that are pleasurable almost entirely for the word play (lists don't generally have, for example, plots; though, they can). It's very worth asking with lists: When is a list a successfully crafted list? When is it not? What makes a weak point in a list? When is a list too short or too long? When is a list clever, and when does it become self-indulgence on the part of the author? When should a list not exist?

3) I cannot at all explain or justify the quotation marks at the beginning of each line in the third section. For me, it is an failure of typography, and, simply, grammatically incorrect. Grammatically, with a continuing section of dialogue, you do not put a quotation mark at the beginning of a new line of verse unless that is also visibly marked as a new paragraph. Thus why you sometimes see quotation marks at the beginnings of stanzas. Though, personally, I see purpose in doing so only when the text without the added marks becomes difficult to read or when the quotation mark is marking a new paragraph within the verse.

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[FN] This is not to say I have not seen elsewhere the use of quotation marks before every line. Though, that in turn does not mean that even there it was not still problematic. (From my albeit faulty memory, I want to say it was used when dialogue was so long that a reader could not otherwise easily recognize what was dialogue and what was not without having to go back and search carefully through many pages. Though, if I remember correctly, the quotation marks tended to be separated from the text proper by a little space so as to appear a visual aid, not a grammatical necessity.)

 

Note added Feb. 21, 2017: Since writing this I have seen quotation marks used in the way Gibbons uses them – a new mark with each line – a small handful of times, most notably by Eliot in the "Game of Chess" section in The Waste Land and in Pound's Cantos (though he is not consistent with it). For example:

O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag –
It's so elegant
So intelligent
"What shall I do now? What shall I do?"
"I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
"With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow?
"What shall we ever do?" (128-134)

Curiously, though, at the end of the next section, "The Fire Sermon," he marks dialogue only at the beginning and ending, not at every line. For example:

    "On Margate Sands
I can connect
Nothing with nothing
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
Nothing." (300-5)

I do not see in the text a reason for the change in style. And throughout the rest of his poetry he marks direct speech normally, only at the beginning and ending.

Whatever there is to say about The Waste Land, marking speech at every new line is something scene only infrequently. And nothing I have seen makes me change my mind about the usage here, in Gibbons's work. Yes, it may be false for me to say that it is grammatically incorrect (though, in a way it is). But as a stylistic choice I still find it very distracting, even detrimental to the work, especially with how short the lines are and with the length of the dialogue. The quotation marks begin to look like a border design rather than a grammatical mark.

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There is the possibility that within the original text the quotation marks somehow work. (And I have thought of one way it might work; though, it's just a possibility, not a tested success.). As an excerpt, though, it comes off – irrespective of the original text – as amateur hour: for the writer, but far more so for the editors of Poetry.

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