Thursday, December 16, 2010


If I may digress from reviews of poetry for a moment, I’d like to continue some thoughts on what does (and should) make poetry poetry.
I suppose it’s a discussion that every art form has, but poetry seems to have it most. Though we may grumble about others’ music preferences, John Cage never really succeeded in convincing the mainstream culture that four minutes and thirty-three seconds of not playing the piano actually counted as music. But the modernists managed to kick poetry’s door so far open that it let in everything and anything, so that by the time Slate magazine ironically took Donald Rumsfeld’s press briefings and arranged them on the page with irregular line breaks and called them poetry, the response wasn’t, “Oh, that’s clever in its silliness,” but rather, “Wow—that’s so deep,” as evinced by the fact that a college textbook included one such arrangement utterly unironically in its section on poetry. Poetry used to mean something different from everyday speech. Typically this had to do with sound. Depending on the culture, poetry used syllables, rhythm, sound and pattern to distinguish itself from everyday language.

James Fenton writes in An Introduction to English Poetry about the swing (in English language poetry) towards free verse around the turn of the 20th century. He quotes Ford Maddox Ford’s account of a dreadful poetry reading:

“The most horrible changes overcame these nice people… They held their heads at unnatural angles and appeared to be suffering the tortures of agonizing souls… And it went on and on – and on! A long rolling stream of words no one would use, to endless monotonous polysyllabic unchanging rhythms, in which rhymes went unmeaningly by like the telegraph posts, every fifty yards, of a railway journey.”
Ford’s solution was to propose that verse be written ‘in exactly the same vocabulary as that which one used for one’s prose.’”

If poetry should be prose, why should we talk about poetry any more? Ford (if this is truly what he had in mind) might as well have criticized a dog for not being a cat. What should distinguish poetry?

I’m unsure whether to proceed in a descriptive or a prescriptive vein. If I had to define poetry empirically, based on what the rest of the world calls poetry, here are the criteria:

1) it calls itself poetry
2) it uses words
3) it is not written in normal paragraph format (optional—see Carolyn Forché and the previous review on Jonathan Ball).
4) it is fairly short, usually not over two pages (again, optional)
That’s it. That’s all I can find to define the word poetry as currently used.

po • em (pō′ em) n. Anything that is called a poem.

The prescriptivist in me wishes to recategorize some works recognized as poetry only so that the definitions aren’t so fuzzy. For instance, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” is actually a personal essay. It is well written and moving, but if it were written in paragraphs instead of stanzas no one would think to call it a poem. I’m not criticizing its quality—just its classification. Next, this example from Taylor Mali at a poetry slam is not poetry, but oratory. It’s a speech, and not a bad speech. But if it was recited anywhere other than a poetry slam, no one would call it a poem. I’ve even found a dialogue in script form included in a book of poetry. The dialogue was unrhymed, unmetered, unstructured. It was just a script, but it was a poem because it got called a poem.

I’d like to define poetry as “using words to do more than simply mean what they mean”. Under this definition, poetry would be recognizable as such without having to be told that it’s poetry. That means a poem must use something to move past being ordinary speech somehow, and that will likely mean using some different kind of vocabulary than is used for prose.

(James Fenton points out in his book that Ford would be interested to find that poets still deliver readings just as agonizing, though entirely in free verse.)

Please note that I’m not saying that free verse isn’t poetry. Free verse that uses words to do more than simply mean what they mean would certainly be poetry, such as William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming”.

I think part of the reason that people wish to include so many things under the umbrella of “poetry” is that we have lost the habit of reading things for pleasure that aren’t fictional narrative, journalism, or poetry. If people intentionally read lyric prose descriptions and brief personal reflections, or went to see oratory performed, authors would feel comfortable identifying with those genres. “Flash fiction” and “micro-fiction” are neat new genres that fill a creative niche that might otherwise be lumped into poetry. Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel” would be better defined as flash fiction. You see, I don’t want to move Elizabeth Bishop or Taylor Mali out of the spotlight at all. I just would like to be more accurate in our definitions. I would love to read or attend an event that was a mix of many different literary styles, without having to use “poetry” as a default category for anything that isn’t a short story (and some things that are).

Monday, December 13, 2010

i tulips – Mario Petrucci

I began reading Mario Petrucci’s i tulips impressed with his insightful imagery and unique perspective, but found I was annoyed at his line breaks. Odd thing to get annoyed at? I felt like Emily Dickenson’s editors must have felt as they read her poems thinking, “Great verse, but will you quit it with these dashes?” So as I read 
let us

lip to lips as
though morning

just made us –
parted these

as clay to
make way for

words that are
for us to

time on air
deft as dew on its

leaf […]
I found myself muttering, “Stop it—you’re wasting paper and getting in the way of your own words.” But then I noticed a particular line in that poem:
[…] so let me
speak as an

whose moment
is under a kind god

who looks on in half-
made garden
& come

-ning will change his mind.
 Catch the “Eve”? As soon as I realized the potential that these odd line breaks had, I found I had to read in a different way, always on the lookout for something hidden. Petrucci uses the same technique in other places, too—he describes a mountain
[…] whose sum

-mit opens to cupping
gasp & parts for

blue […]
This kept me pondering the implications of the word “sum”. So whether intentional or not, whether actually there or not, the potential for hidden meanings makes me read Petrucci’s poetry in a different way. I slow down and backtrack a lot, which although it hampers fluency, encourages scrutiny, and in Petrucci’s poetry, scrutiny is more important.

Cleverness alone, of course, is not sufficient for good poetry, but Petrucci also possesses keen insight and skill at conveying images. 
a half hour after

you leave some al-
most thing starts: your
mattress impression stops

holding its breath – begins
to relax & swivel-chair
where you tackled

laces adopts that
strained angle of the clerk
requiring conformation – then

I see through softly shut door
a house of pointers: your
draped towel on its rail

& bone scissors left
half-open there as though
simple addition of water could

jerk them to life: not so strange
then that a house should re-
member you with each

pine surface & glass
ornament its own sextant
keen for your one star to float

these bricks by […]
 I find myself wanting to compare this poem to Jorge Luis Borges in both style and subject. Borges’s free verse and word choice (or at the translation of it) feels similar, but more than that, Borges is interested in his connection to the rest of the world yet is unsure of that connection. Uncertainty is part of what intrigues him. Petrucci’s lines “I am left a tree cored of starlings, and cannot be sure I was not of them,” feels like it could come straight from Borges.

We'll hunt for a third tiger now, but like
The others this one too will be a form
Of what I dream, a structure of words, and not
The flesh and one tiger that beyond all myths
Paces the earth. I know these things quite well,
Yet nonetheless some force keeps driving me
In this vague, unreasonable, and ancient quest,
And I go on pursuing through the hours
Another tiger, the beast not found in verse.
I recommend i tulips for a chilly afternoon that is warm inside, with ample time, no distractions, and a contemplative mood.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

This London – Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, on the basis of this collection alone, is now the contemporary poet whom I don’t already know personally whom I would most enjoy having lunch with. Our interests and attitudes seem to align perfectly. Hicks is an Irish-American currently living in the Midwest, but he spent a considerable amount of time in London, and that is what This London is based on. The poems come from all corners of history and all levels of society. There are poems about Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man, Jack the Ripper, Samuel Johnson and Boudicca; poems about Piccadilly Circus, an Indian restaurant, the British Museum and the red-light district in Soho. Hicks is fascinated with history, with personality, with literature and with culture, and he pries into the details behind famous historical events and fleeting everyday occurrences.

Though politics is not his aim, humanism pervades his observations—Hicks finds glory in history but not in conquest; he admires Britishness at the same time he questions its existence; he is intrigued by our shared humanity. He writes like a scholar, but not a pedant; rather, his voice is that of a curious bystander and daydreamer.

Dictionary n.f. [dictionarium, Latin.] 1. A book holding words of any language in alphabetical order; 2. a lexicon; 3. a word pool that mirrors social thought.

Back during the gin craze of the 1700s,
when colonial bounty was stacked across London,
Samuel Johnson felt words flow around him.
His bulk, like an O, buoyed him in pubs and palaces,
syllables broke against the gunwale of his ear.

A book was planned, and his amanuenses
(they entered that word on page three),
flapped open a great net of ink.—
Johnson hunched at his desk like a C
and sorted speech into kingdoms.
For years he stood like a Y directing traffic,
shepherding words into their stalls,
everything from aardvark to zebu.

When Johnson’s great ship of a book
was finally launched into public thought,
his black manservant, Frank Barber,
picked up the Middle Passage of words
that he had helped to quill.
He looked up words like empire
and independence and slave.

This freeman knew the power of connotation,
he stood as rigid and as proper as a capital I,
and he insisted that the word abolition be included,
so that the world could see it, chained onto page one.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Phantom Noise -- Brian Turner

Brian Turner’s poetry can’t help bring to mind the poets of the First World War: Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke.  It’s not just that Turner writes about “war, and the pity of war” like Owen, but that no other major poets have done so since the Great War.  Where did the poetry of WWII and the Korean War go?  I have read one poem written about the Vietnam War—an unpublished poem by my father.  So Turner’s poetry is at once novel and grounded in tradition—the tradition of bypassing the temptation towards the lugubrious or the nationalistic when dealing with war, and confronting the horror and pain with unflinching resolve.

The title poem of the volume is a good example:

Phantom Noise

There is this ringing hum   this
bullet-borne language   ringing
shell-fall and static   this late-night
ringing of threadwork and carpet   ringing
hiss and steam   this wing-beat
of rotors and tanks   broken
bodies ringing in steel   humming these
voices of dust   these years ringing
rifles in Babylon   rifles in Sumer
ringing these children their gravestones
and candy   their limbs gone missing   their
static-borne television   their ringing
this eardrum   this rifled symphonic   this
ringing of midnight oil   this
brake pad gone useless   this muzzle-flash singing   this
threading of bullets in muscle and bone   this ringing
hum   this ringing hum   this
I like how the thread of tinnitus unites a series of impressions and memories to the point where the unceasing roar stands in metaphorically for the strife and pain.

Specific connections to First World War poets arise poem by poem, connected by particular subjects and concerns.  But whereas Sassoon observes post-traumatic stress disorder (he would have called it “shell shock”) in general terms, Turner focuses on the fractured first-person impressions of a returned soldier.

S. S.

No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they're "longing to go out again,"—
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk,
They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

Perimeter Watch
B. T.

I lock the door tonight, check the bolts twice
just to make sure.  Turn off all the lights.
Only the fan blades rotate above, slow as helicopters
winding down their oily gears.
                                                Water buffalo
chew the front lawn, snorting.  When the sprinklers
switch on, white cowbirds lift up from the grass
with heavy wing-beats, a column of feathers
rising over my rooftop, their wing-tips
backlit by the moon.
                                    Through Venetian blinds
I see the Iraqi prisoners in that dank cell at Firebase Eagle
staring back at me.  They say nothing, just as they did
in the winter of 2004, shivering in the piss-cold dark,
on scraps of cardboard, staring.
Brian Turner, like Sassoon and Owen, excels at personalizing experience and alluding to generalities through specifics.  In Phantom Noise we get a wide slice of this experience, ranging from guarding prisoners to a panicked stampede at al-A'imma Bridge, from a VA hospital to childhood memories.

Turner clearly has respect for both valor and mercy; he treats the people and cultures involved in the Iraq War with understanding and insight.  One poem, “Stopping the American Infantry Patrol Near the Prophet Yunus Mosque in Mosul, Abu Ali Shows Them the Cloth in his Pocket” is no war poem—simply a poem borne of the tensions and misunderstandings between cultures alien to each other.

Through it all, Turner remains reserved.  He shows but does not tell, so that while he speaks in the voice of a soldier, a father, a lover and a passing observer, he only alludes to any grand statement or unambiguous opinion.  He never writes, as Sassoon does,

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Part of me wishes he would.  Part of me is glad that he doesn’t.

American Internal

Down in the hole, down in the clay and mud,
we dig. The noon sun hot on our backs
as we bend to the task, as if digging
down into our own shadows
with the stained shovels of our hands,
digging until someone gasps—another,
they have discovered another; with pale eyes
the dead faces are rooted among worms and stone,
the brassy shells of bullets in their mouths.
We raise each one carefully out of the earth,
men dressed in sandals and thawbs,
wet cotton robes dyed by clay,
and women, like the one I lift now,
how her hair unravels in a sheen
of copper, cold as water in my palms.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Still Life" — Dejah Léger

A friend of mine, Dejah Léger, won two poetry contests recently, and what is fascinating is that both poems sprang from the same initial concept.  A real photograph of her grandfather inspired a short story, which she reworked into two poems.  The poems, though, could not be more different.  First the short story became a haibun, a piece of short prose followed by a haiku that elaborates or comments on the prose; it then became a sonnet.
Still Life

In a chocolate box beneath my bed I found several pictures belonging to my grandfather. One photo was of him and his Waco biplane, with the name "Tin Goose" written in shiny paint along the side. He stood in a grassy Ohio field that stretched for miles, joining the wide sky like a seam in the distance. Grandfather leaned his elbow against the wing of the plane. Even when he was young he looked old. His face was long and his smile was brief. The army uniform he was wearing looked too large for his frame. If the photographer had only waited a second longer to take the photo, my grandfather's smile might have been broader, perhaps a little more gentle. As it was, his features seemed as vacant as the flat, glossy landscape surrounding him.

The photo was taken the day before grandfather was to be stationed, on a breathless afternoon with a low, late autumn sun that cast shadows behind his feet. The day grandfather's photo was taken a whisper could have been heard for miles. The very click of the shutter was as loud as a gun being cocked.

quiet Thanksgiving—
the family receives
a letter
 (This won an award from Contemporary Haibun Online)
Still Life

In the photo, grandfather is in a field
Standing beside his bi-plane, a still span
Of sickle-wheat against his boots, eyes peeled
Toward the horizon. Open cold-blown land
Frames his quiet face, the camera finding him
A moment from what might have been a smile.
His hands in his pockets, he casts a slim
shadow behind him like a black grassy isle.
It was the week before he went to war.
His uniform seemed like a shiny bruise
Against the plane. In only three months more
His family in Ohio would receive the news.
The silence in the photo is silence mocked.
The click of the shutter—as loud as a gun being cocked.
 (This won the Carlin Aden poetry contest, hosted by the Washington Poets Association)

Any poet so adept at such different forms is admirable, but it's also interesting to see what images and phrases persist between the forms, and which seem to spring naturally from the form itself.  I can't think of a better case study to examine the differing effects of particular forms—how an initial choice of rhyme and meter, with all of the associated historical and cultural implications—influences, constrains and emphasizes different feelings and attitudes.

Dejah Léger is, I must add, an accomplished lyricist and musician, as well.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

from UNINCORPORATED TERRATORY [saina] – Craig Santos Perez

I find I come to review Craig Santos Perez’s from UNINCORPORATED TERRATORY [saina] just as I was thinking up a post having to do with what actually counts as poetry.

I was reading about how Ford Maddox Ford, as poetry was tilting towards modernism near the turn of last century, proposed that poetry should be written ‘in exactly the same vocabulary as that which one used for one’s prose.’”

A hundred years later, we end up with selections like this from Craig Santos Perez:

i visit her and grandpa more often since the move from
fairfield ca to fremont ca

sometimes i bring them dinner after work
sometimes they cook

i was somewhat afraid
because when i was a kid
grandma once made me
chicken liver and onions i ate it to be polite but
everytime after that she made liver
became forever known as ‘craig’s favorite’

even when they came over to her house on holidays and birthdays
when we all still lived on guam
they would bring a small tupperware of liver
‘for later’
Well, that’s certainly “written in the same vocabulary as prose”. It is prose. One wonders if this is what F.M.F. had in mind.  But it's hard to call poetry.

The collection as a whole is a whirlwind of snippets from all sorts of sources having to do with his native home in Guam, and the struggle over culture and identity following the history of colonial oppression. Perez weaves personal memories, historical facts, word definitions and origins, quotations and phrases in his native tongue into pages and pages of poetry, but it never feels like poetry. It feels, instead, like personal memories, historical fact, word definitions and origins, quotations and phrases in his native tongue, diced, tossed, and sprinkled with creative punctuation—a word salad connected by a theme. Instead of poetry, it feels like slapdash collection and regurgitation. I have difficulty appreciating it for the same reason I have difficulty appreciating Jackson Pollock’s paintings: if all you are doing is throwing paint (or words) at the paper and seeing what happens, it just doesn’t feel like you have crafted something with the mindfulness necessary for us to appreciate it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Missing You, Metropolis—Gary Jackson

Wow. Just wow. This is great poetry, and it’s the perfect combination of subjects and attitude that I appreciate personally. The first poem in Gary Jackson’s Missing You, Metropolis is “The Secret Art of Reading a Comic”, written as a parody/homage of W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”. This combination of the “high” and the “low”—the appreciation of both tradition and the every day—is one of the reasons I love poets such as Wendy Cope. Gary Jackson nails it.
Jackson’s collection largely focuses on superhero comics, a subject I’m not completely unfamiliar with. My favorites in that genre are those that go beyond the often uncritical and superficial nature of superheroes and use them to examine and comment upon the complexities of our own lives. Examples of this include Alan Moore’s Watchmen and some of the X-Men comics written by Grant Morrison. Jackson does the same thing using poetry. His monologues in the voice of superheroes, or their family, or of anonymous bystanders, are all aimed squarely at examining the basics of being human: love, hate, fear, anger, ambition, aging, family life, yearning… So familiarity with superheroes is not a prerequisite for the reader.

Iron Man’s Intervention, Starring the Avengers

As if I can’t have a drink
or two in the morning,
before risking my life
for people who don’t
know my name.

As if I can’t enjoy
a bottle of Chianti
and a smooth woman
when I’m not disarming
warheads in mid-flight
over the Atlantic.

As if the bottle of Johnnie
Walker you found, half-
empty, in my briefcase
implies I’m not capable
of defending New York
from shape-shifting, green
men from another world.

A man at Starbucks shoved
me during the morning rush.
I stumbled on chairs,
fell. With my suit—
my marvelous iron prison—
I could pop his head with a flick
of one finger. But without it
I’m just a man lost in the city.

Meanwhile you walk
down the streets with a cowl
or cape the only difference
and you’re transformed—
the man underneath as real
as the one slamming villains
into concrete. You think
I need a drink to get in
the suit. But you’re wrong.

I need it to get out.
Other poems along this theme similarly humanize the superhuman: Mary Jane and Betty discuss their love lives with Spider-Man and the Hulk; Magneto laments hate crimes against mutants; a father holds his newborn mutant son.

This theme makes up about half of “Missing You, Metropolis”. The other half is more personally centered on Gary Jackson, often involving his childhood in Topeka, Kansas. Poems consider love and sex, gangs and drugs, race, and friendships changing over time.


Stuart shows me the cross-like scars
on his wrists, proud of his curiosity.
He wanted to see how the veins
pulled it all together, hoping to make sense

of god’s machine. Now I’m standing
with him in a room with twin beds;
crayon children dancing on wooden frames.
I’m trying to make sense of my friend

in a place where people pace down
the halls because they can’t write
with pencils or play the instruments
locked away in the rec room for fear

they’ll cut themselves with dull lead
and nylon strings. As I exit
I hear the whine of the speakers
announcing dinner: chicken breast

with green beans. Desperate to impart
some final words of empathy
that will convince him to stay with me,
I tell him it feels like a part of me

is in this place. He smiles.
A part of you is. Then laughs,
as if he realizes the world
has finally broken us
in two.
Each poem is accessible, beautiful, touching and clever. Highly recommended.

Present Tense – Anna Rabinowitz

Rabinowitz’s poetry swings on a pendulum between incomprehensible and banal. When her poetry does make sense, it is either maudlin and preachy or smug with its own “cleverness”. Though I have nothing against political poetry, Rabinowitz lacks the skill to make it interesting. My favorite poem was “Gun Moose Snow”, which describes a female hunter shooting a moose. The fact that it’s a woman is intriguing, and the images are provocative and effective. It concludes:

So it goes:
          unraveled chevrons of crimson
               darn white snow, a toppled belly
     ringed by the broad, black wheel
Of eagleflight.

His amber pile,
     riddled with hoarfrost,
Punctures the lowering dark
          with stippled light.

Rivers clotted with ice lumber through frozen fields.
Later, in her notes at the end of the book, Rabinowitz feels the need to mention that this poem is about Sarah Palin, which utterly ruins it for me.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Heart Turned Back – Bertha Rogers

Bertha Rogers write complex free verse frequently about nature, farming, animals and family. Her poetry, lacking any kind of sound or rhythmic device, relies mostly on image, metaphor and juxtaposition, her best poems leaving the reader enjoying the pictures seen or the language used to describe them. In theme and mood she is something like Robert Frost or Seamus Heaney.

Here’s the thing: her poetry is not easy.

No one says it should be; even before the obfuscatory modernists got their hands on it, good poetry was not necessarily easy to understand the first time through. I’m just saying that many things about Rogers’ poetry make it difficult, like a tight knot of words that the reader must unpick. Consider this poem of hers:

At sixteen I cut into the worm, I
contemptuously dissected the frog,
laid out on mirrored metal—I saw my face.
Who, you ask, will kill the cat that murders
the bluebird’s chick? In that doomed orchard
dying trees forgot how they edged toward
bees, convulsed to fruit. High in the woods,
beneath the hawthorns, the skirted brambles,
deer the color of dying leaves turn and
turn and go to sleep. The clock in the kitchen,
time swollen, ticks. I talk to the dishes,
the immortal cats. Days like this, the dew
dazzling the sky, it’s all beauty to me;
even the stopped wing; the bent, wet grass.
It’s not that it is incoherent, but it does feel like we are playing cards, and I’m trying to guess Rogers’ hand as she lays down one card slowly after the other, her face inscrutable. The meaning lies in the relationship of the images to each other, but like those “magic eye” posters, you have to keep staring until the meaning comes into focus.

Furthermore, Rogers is not bound by typical diction (not that any poet should be, of course). As a result, the reader is faced with phrases like

I beg them back—those gone prodigals; their
sweet hapless speech outvoicing resilience.
Such word choice can induce both insight and head-scratching.  My guess is that Rogers’ appeal will largely depend on the reader and the reader’s mood: read these poems without distraction and hurry, and savor the rich descriptions.

My favorite from this collection is “A Hunting Story”:

The Saturday hunter meant well.
He meant to kill the jackrabbit
jumping from rotten corn stalks
in the winter-rimed field.

Confused, the old black spaniel
forgot she was a hunting bitch;
became the hunted, the white tail.
She jumped, too.

The bullet from the .22
Got the spaniel clean in the chest.
Her heart’s blood burst to snow,
to stalks, to furrows.

She died in slow black circles.

I sat straight on the wooden chair,
comforting the spaniel’s daughter
and crying, crying. Linoleum roses
grew red at our feet.

This happened in another time.

In the evenings, when I tell
my city-provincial dogs, they stare,
then run in happy circles and fall,
glad, on the Turkish rug.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Breakfast Machine – Helen Ivory

Helen Ivory makes her poetry out of intriguing (and often disquieting) observations, often of impossible scenes or vignettes like something out of a strange dream. Add to this her love of metaphor, and you get something akin to Craig Raine and the Martian poets. Compare Raine’s famous lines
Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on the ground:

then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.

…with Ivory’s:
People are pebbles
and windows are mirrors.

When the moon is pushed
down the chimney’s throat,
the music begins.
In this house, everything sleeps.
Even the walls have relaxed
and the roof is too tired
to hold up the weight of the sky.

What Helen Ivory adds beyond poems like Craig Raine’s is that she trains her metaphors not on observations of the real, but meditations on the unreal. My favorite poem is this:
The Tooth Mouse

All of the teeth
brought by the Tooth Mouse
are piled high in an out-of-town

They are gnashing
and grinding
and want to return
to the mouths of sleeping children.

It is said that they are whiter
than bone, cleaner
than melt-water, more innocent
than the children themselves.

But look at them here
all broken and angry,
chewing at the cold
metal door to get out.

The imagery of discomfort, childhood, and the dark side of maturing bring to mind Seamus Heaney. Ivory’s particular style of free verse are also reminiscent of Raine and Heaney. The lines are extremely well crafted, and there is no sloppiness nor unnecessary embellishment, nor any sentence twisted out of shape. I found myself excited to see what each next poem contained, as if I were opening old jewelry boxes. Each poem was like a curious new picture from a scrapbook of someone’s dreams.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nursery Rhymes

I was looking through an old book of nursery rhymes recently. I like nursery rhymes for two reasons. Firstly, they are usually the first exposure kids have to rhythm and rhyme, which although largely distained by the current poetry establishment, I feel are something integral to our enjoyment of language and even what makes us human. Secondly, they seem so ancient that it feels like tapping into some vast historical consciousness just to recite them. There’s something particularly interesting to me about folk culture that has survived this long. We can easily listen to music and poetry that is hundreds of years old (even thousands, for poetry), but that is usually in the form of J. S. Bach or John Milton—the old stuff that got popular and was kept in print or in repertory for centuries. For some reason I get more excited upon finding folk culture preserved, as if it is somehow older, even though it isn’t. I marvel more when a Victorian novel mentions a folk dance I know rather than a famous poet.

So, back to the book of nursery rhymes. Some I knew. Some I didn’t know I knew until I read them, and then the memory of them came rushing back to me from wherever it was buried:
A dillar, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar,
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o’clock,
But now you come at noon.
Some I had never heard, but seemed to fit exactly with the intriguing nonsense that makes up Mother Goose:

The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn all around the town.
Some gave them white bread and some gave them brown.
Some gave them plumb cake and drummed them out of town.
I find myself wondering if there is hidden historical significance buried in this poem, as there is reputed to be in “Froggy Went a-Courting”, for instance. The lion and the unicorn are both supporters of the British monarchy’s coat of arms… It sounds like there was some internal conflict… Do the baked goods have particular significances? There may be something there.

Some rhymes I had never heard before, and easily saw why:

See saw, Margery Daw
Sold her bed to lay in the straw.
Was she not a dirty slut
To sell her bed and lie in dirt!
Er… yeah. Like the version of Cinderella where the wicked step sisters cut off their toes, that one is better left out of library storytime.

The purpose of this post, though, was the discovery of further verses to “Little Bo-Peep”. I thought about Frank McCourt’s account in his memoir Teacher Man of discussing “Little Bo-Peep” with his class of high school students. His analysis of the poem was that even though Bo-Peep worried, everything turned out OK in the end:

Leave them alone and they’ll come home
Bringing their tails behind them
McCourt extended this into a metaphor about his own students, and his realization that as a teacher he didn’t need to fret about them. They would get there eventually. Some may be a little slow, some may go in the wrong direction at first, but leave them alone, and they’ll succeed in their own time. I liked the interpretation, and didn’t think more of it until I found the following verses:
Little Bo-Peep fell fast asleep
And dreamt she heard them bleating
But when she awoke she found it a joke
For they were still a-fleeting

Then she took up her little crook
Determined for to find them.
She found them indeed, but it made her heart bleed,
For they’d left their tails behind them.
Maybe it’s the English major in me, but this seems fraught with loss of innocence and coming of age. I almost could have believed that William Blake wrote it. Negligence leads to loss, and the recovery is incomplete. Innocence is not restored. But here’s the thing: the sheep were always going to lose their tails anyway. It was just a matter of time. It wasn’t Little Bo-Peep’s fault, though she saw it as her fault, and the poem even kind of implies that it is her fault, too. The lambs went through the bloody rite of passage, and Mary wasn’t there to protect them. But she couldn’t really have protected them anyway. There’s food for thought for high school teachers.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Hospital Odyssey – Gwyneth Lewis

Gwyneth Lewis has undertaken an epic task with her narrative poem, A Hospital Odyssey. Maris’s husband, Hardy, is diagnosed with cancer and taken to a hospital. Maris follows, intent to stay with him, but she can’t keep up, and is forced to wander the hospital, where she encounters surreal allegories. Each vignette explores some aspect of love, disease, and the health care system. The work is infused with the spirit of The Divine Comedy and Piers Plowman. Maris encounters a Knight Templar who is resigned to wait eternally in heavy armor, the only gesture of solidarity and love for a terminally ill partner he sees possible; a woodpecker of a nurse who flits about and pecks, but is more concerned with paperwork than caring; a trolley handing out sympathy illnesses. Lewis’s creativity is unbound in her use of surreal imagery.

When I first realized that I was holding a piece of narrative verse, I rejoiced. I haven’t read anything like this since Wendy Cope’s The River Girl. Poetry has been so divorced from narrative and verse in the past century that a book such as this is almost audacious. A Hospital Odyssey is written in five-line stanzas, which keep up an irregular rhyme. Here a druid talks to Maris:
“Let’s cut to the chase. What did he do wrong,

to get the cancer?” “I don’t understand…”
“He must have done something awful to bring
this illness on himself, must have sinned.
Was it resentment? Was it love unbound

by the usual limits? Or was it fear
of relationships? Rage at someone?
His mother? You need to help me here,
give me a clue – half the fun
is working out what a person’s done

to earn bad karma.”
Through eleven “books”, one hundred and thirty-six pages, Maris journeys, with occasional first-person asides from the narrator. The book is interesting, and creative, and I admire it immensely. As a result I felt truly guilty each time I noticed something difficult or jarring, because to have written something this Herculean in scope amongst the tepid sea of so much contemporary poetry is already a victory.  I wish to assert that before mentioning two things.

Firstly, I found I liked it better when I stopped treating it like verse. The rhymes are too irregular, or too oblique (“tired” and “stirred”, “consultant” and “confident”), and the meter is too loose for either to become an organizing principle. Most lines are enjambed; very few end on the natural end of a phrase. This isn’t The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, where the verse is so regular it almost becomes a chant. This allows Lewis a lot of leeway and flexibility, but the effect of the verse was lost. Instead, I thought of it as an epic poem in translation and felt right at home. The story is so soaked in the juice of epics that most of us read in translation anyway, that it feels appropriate.

Secondly, I found it difficult to get into the story because the plot was not so much a plot as a series of stops along a journey intended to illustrate a principle. I know that’s like accusing ice cream of not being chocolate cake: Lewis never intended to write a novel. Nevertheless, I found it hard to get excited about talking symbols and clever allegories in the same way I get excited about real people. Of course, I found that difficult reading Dante, too.

In the end, I recommend Gwyneth Lewis’s A Hospital Odyssey – may we be graced with more poets brave enough to appropriate and recreate literary tradition in this way.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

idEAL CiTiES – Erika Meitner

Although one of the things I love about poetry is the new depth that each successive reading of a poem brings, first impressions do count. Some poems need warm-up time, but most really good poems have some instant spark that ignites or hook that sinks in, even if you can’t put your finger on what it is. So it is with Erika Meitner.

Her new collection, idEAL CiTiES, is the first I’ve read anything of Meitner’s, but I’m glad I found her. Thought it’s not written in what I would call my preferred style, the details and the word were somehow instantly appealing. She spoke to me.

She writes unadorned yet insightful free-verse meditations; they are expressive and rich though not ornate and overwrought. What is special, though, is simply what and how she observes the world—what connections she makes, what images she juxtaposes.
In Dispraise of Heat

The baby has a 104 fever this morning.
I pump him full of Motrin.
Our neighbor Ruth insists on cold washcloths.

She tells me to put them in his armpits.


My friend from grade school died this week.
He had been missing for days before they found him in a subway.

His mother went to the Bronx one morning.
One morning like any other she went to identify his body.
I describe my son’s fever to strangers.

I say he is burning up.
A woman leaves and iron on a white shirt.
She is subject to domestic distractions.
This positioning of images of “everyday tragedy”, and the matter-of-fact tone, give a sense of helplessness, a new significance to everyday details, and an observation about fate and life, all at the same time. The details of lives of strangers, with a focus on tragedy and children, build on each other into something more powerful that can be said explicitly. The poem concludes:

In grade school my father put a chain-link fire ladder under my bed.
Just in case, he said, so I thought right away of leaving.

But we will implement measures.
We will place cool hands on the foreheads of burning sons.
We will return them gently to bed.

A woman warms herself by a woodstove.
Her skirt shifts in the heat and it is nearly always fatal.
You can hear it in the whistle of the kettle.
Much of what Meitner writes about involves motherhood, and her young son specifically. The poems, though, are collected threads of narrative and observation that weave in and out; the significance of the connection seems to be the point of the poem. “Careful”, for instance, moves from dropping a Pyrex dish, to the speaker’s son falling, to a memory of a broken glass, leading to memories of a road trip, connected to a more recent one for which the photographs were accidentally erased. From there to panning for gold, a neighbor’s careless mothering, and back to Pyrex dishes. Throughout, motifs such as dropping, gold, loss, and sons connect the disparate ideas. I am reminded by this of the singer/songwriter Kimya Dawson, very different in her prosody but similar in this regard. The connections found in the everyday, unembellished yet precise, are allowed to carry the whole weight of the emotion. The result is touching and real.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves – Gwendolyn Brooks

I know this is intended to be a review of upcoming or just-published poetry, and it will continue to be.  I have to take a slight diversion to address a poem of Gwendolyn Brooks' that I came across and couldn't leave alone, even though it's from 1974.

The poem is "The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves, or, What You Are You Are", and it begins,
There once was a tiger, terrible and tough
Who said, "I don't think tigers are stylish enough."
So he gets himself some white gloves, and every animal in the jungle laughs at him.  The poem ends,

     They shamed him and shamed him
     Till none could have blamed him
     When at last, with a sigh,
     And a saddened eye,
     And in spite of his love,
     He took off each glove,
     And agreed this was meant
     All to prevail:
     Each tiger content with his lashing tail
     And satisfied
     With his strong striped hide.
Brooks' moral is that you should be satisfied with who you are, but there's a big problem here: the tiger was  content with his gloves, and the jungle forced him to be something he wasn't.  He wasn't satisfied in the end, just humiliated into submission.  Since when should the jungle get to decide what it means to "be ourselves"?  I wrote a response in verse:
There once was a tiger, terrible and tough
But he got put back in his place, sure enough
Gwendolyn told
How the jungle should scold
Any tiger who wants to be dainty, not rough
What gall to think that a tiger might choose
What clothing to wear or what manners to use
You might call it... uppity.  Yes, that's the word
For a tiger who comtemplates something absurd
The jungle knows best, and will tell you, post haste
If some part of you is not quite to their taste
Hawks should be hawks and doves should be doves
Tigers wear stripes but never white gloves
White should act white and black should act black
And no one should grumble about something they lack
Is that what you're saying, Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks?
Despite our love, give in to the jungle's harsh looks?
Don't marry whom you please
Don't strike for fair wages
Don't rise from your knees
Get used to your cages
Don't love what you love

And don't wear white gloves
 Back to contemporary poetry soon.  Next up, Ideal Cities by Erika Meitner.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dirty Looks – Cheryl Follon

Cheryl Follon fills her new poetry collection, Dirty Looks, with anonymous monologues in a variety of voices. Many are inflected by a particular culture, many have to do with love and sex, none are moany, preachy, navel-gazing or hand-wringing (all things that will kill a poem). The ultimate result: pretty good.

Modest praise can sometimes be more damning than harsh criticism, and this isn’t meant to be. Damning, that is. It is, however, modest praise, akin to Ford Prefect’s edited characterization of the Earth as “mostly harmless”, or a fellow writing teacher’s review from a student: “slightly better than some other teachers.”

The poems that didn’t get off the ground simply lacked impact, something memorable or unique, some purpose, yet remained intellectually interesting. But instead of focusing on those, I’ll include two I quite liked.

Curse Poems


O silent queen of the long afternoon,
     the silver slice, the pretty cake,
          the tinkling china teacups
         Where’d you get those liver spots
     and those hairs above your lip?
Whoever thought you’d get so old so soon?

That’s not some jive record you’re hearing.
     They’re carving out your coffin
          from a load of dirty boards
         found on Pontchartrain’s shores.
    They’ve laid them on the lawn;
the nails are picked, the fast saw’s moving.
This is out of character for the collection because it’s not about love and/or sex, but the images really stick with me. I love the creepy feeling of other people building your coffin, and building it too quickly. The haunting sound of your own coffin being built by anonymous people you can’t stop is effective; I love the image, too, that the nails are already chosen, and merely have yet to be driven in.

Really Drunk in Matassa’a Bar

Sweetness, I’ll give you something to tell her –
And straight from the hip.
Tell her she’s a two-faced –

no, no – let’s have that rephrased –
a useless Quasimodo-like –
wait a minute the words are on my tongue.


Tell her I’ve had my hair all cut
and it suits my face.
It looks like the real thing.

Tell her I’ve got a new wardrobe
and no one’s surprised.
Tell her I’ve matched it all with pricy boots.

Tell her I’ve shed off those extra pounds;
or, in fact – no, no –
tell her I’ve put a whole load on.

Tell her I’m always dining out
and you’ve heard stories
I’m rolling in at dawn and I’m laughing.
This is more typical of the monologue poems that Follon likes, but it’s more casual in register than most. Perhaps that’s why so much character can come through. I can imagine this conversation perfectly. The phrasing sounds realistic but also poetic. Of course, the irony and the meaning beyond the text, are crucial to the poem, and my favorite thing about it.

Another I won’t retype here is “Cute Little Rooster”. The poem is intriguing: it is spoken to a rooster who is dressed up, paraded around, used for sex and then killed and eaten. It brings out wonderfully uncomfortable connotations of ancient ritual, Rabelaisian carnival and old folk song. The only problem is that like with so many poems, writing in free verse makes the language itself uninteresting. A+ for ideas and content; C+ for style.

Expect more reviews soon – I have just received more books in the mail.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Favorite Lines

I had mentioned in a previous post that one of the things I love about a poem is a line that sticks in my head. I thought I would mention some of my favorites.

Robert Bly does not write the kind of poetry that I typically enjoy, but one line of his struck me so much that when I heard it on the radio (Garrison Keilor’s A Prairie Home Companion) I wrote it down and have not been able to forget it since:

We are perishable, friends. We are salty, impermanent kingdoms.
Something about those words in conjunction says everything. We are salty. We are impermanent. We are kingdoms. “Kingdoms” speaks to our grandeur, even the lowliest of us—we each are a civilization unto ourselves. We are literally “salty”—our blood, our sweat—salt makes it possible for our nerves to conduct impulses. But this detail is so un… un-humanist (?) that it is almost comical, and we are reduced and humbled in the mundane literalness of the observation. And yet the observation of our impermanence being addressed to “friends” belies that lowliness with comforting inclusivity.

I know I have an amazing poem when it actually physically chokes me up. This stanza of Ben Johnson’s, writing on the death of his young son, often does that:

Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
The phrase “soft peace” touches me, and does the idea that someone might ask the son about himself, wherever he ends up. Touching, too, is the idea that his son is the best thing Johnson ever made.

The third I’ll include here is a classic line, but it has always stuck with me. I think T. S. Eliot’s strength lies not in his complete poems, but in single gems of observation within those poems:
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.
The line in question, that last one, would be banal by itself, but as the culmination of Eliot’s previous verse, that simple line of ten, flat, one-syllable words hits like a lead weight. It needs no big words—it feels so direct and confessional that I can hear the ache and the dread wrapped up in those words.

We need some comments on this blog. I invite readers, whomever and wherever you are, to share your favorite lines and verses.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Indexical Elegies -- Jon Paul Fiorentino

I knew I would come to a point in this blog where I couldn’t recommend something, and now I find it hard to do. Of all art forms, it’s hardest to dismiss poetry, unless one dismisses it entirely from the start. But if you are invested in poetry, you always suspect that somewhere, deep down, it’s not that a particular poem is bad, just that you are missing something. This comes, I think, from the experience (often in a classroom) of reading a poem that is initially unappealing, and then watching as a favorite teacher makes the poem unfold into something beautiful, and what was once insignificant suddenly becomes profound. It comes also from writing poems and holding them up for approval, only to have others dismiss them. A friend of mine once had a poem passed over in a student poetry contest because “it had too many big words”, according to the reviewer.

So I applied myself to Jon Paul Fiorentino’s latest work, Indexical Elegies, with the honest intention of finding something moving and special, and I have to admit I didn’t find it. I fully recognize the omnipresent possibility that I “just don’t get it”, but here’s what I looked for and didn’t find:
• Lines that stick in my head
• An organization that intrigues me
• Images that stay with me
• A physical reaction: smiling, my stomach churning, my throat catching
• A demonstration of expert skill

Sorry, Mr. Fiorentino.

Here is a poem I found representative of this collection:

Manage to in syntax
Xerox massage it

Bedsores soothe, bedsitters swoon
Back when X cared about things

Intentions pulped or stapled

So close to sleep
yet so closed

The epiphany changes
whenever the font does

It’s easy to look down on you
from this basement suite
I’m sure it has meaning to him, and I don’t intend to dismiss personal significance. But if it has no meaning to us, too, there is no point in us reading it. As rare as I hope reviews of this type are on this site, this is an example of where it feels a lot of poetry ends up these days (and by “these days”, I mean in the last century): fractured prose of personal significance that doesn’t manage to matter to anyone but the poet.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Clockfire—Jonathan Ball

A spotlight appears onstage to light a large, ornate grand-
father clock. The clock displays the correct time and is in
perfect working order.
     The actors sneak behind the audience and set the theatre
on fire.
This, the title poem of Jonathan Ball’s new collection, is tucked discreetly in the middle, but it is a perfect example of the strange and engaging work that Ball has created. In “Creation”, the lead actress is a Goddess, who creates a world on stage. In “A New History”, a play reenacts an alternate version of Earth, in which life never comes about.

Each poem is a tiny vignette having to do with the theater, and in each a bizarre scenario unfolds: actors repeat everything each audience member has ever said; the audience slowly dissolves; the actors dig a never-ending hole through the stage. Each somehow involves the audience, and blurs the line between theater and reality, actor and audience, possible and impossible. In many vignettes, the actors commit some prank on the audience, though this prank inevitably involves something impossible, fantastic and usually destructive.
The Doppelgängers

Patrons file into the theatre, but before they have a chance
to sit down, they are confronted by their doppelgängers.
     This cannot be.
     Only one from each pair may exit the theatre. The other
must remain, dead or alive, to attend the next performance.
An overriding theme is death and destruction. In one poem, the audience members watch themselves age until dead; in another, they are killed immediately. In another, the rest of the world is destroyed. There seems to be no message or significance here, merely a fascination of Ball’s. If his purpose is to unsettle us from our typical expectations if the theater, then the contemplation of our demise does the trick. The theater, as a concept, is filled with expectations, prescribed roles, social mores and comfort, yet there seems to be a lingering discomfort with peering voyeuristically into the lives of fictional characters or the performance of the actors, and Ball exploits this, and take it to its extremes. The sense of strange and unsettling scenes involving history, literature, acting, the self and doubles, the mind, perception and the cosmos reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges. So does this poem:

A messiah comes. And performs miracles, to prove divinity.
     All the world gathers around the stage to inspect this
new savior.
     But will the audience accept her? Will the audience
accept him? Will the audience accept this, what is now so
clear, so plain to see?
     Crosses are already being built. Fires kindle. Pockets fill
with stones.
The verse style itself deserves comment. I appreciate that Ball writes in prose. It’s not free verse, it’s lyric prose. I always find it a bit pretentious when poets write prose and then chop it up into lines of “verse” with no particular reason for a line break in one place or another. Ball writes in paragraphs because that’s how you write prose; in this he is like Carolyn Forché. I appreciate it. He lets his words and images do the work, without relying on extra “poetification”. One more before I must go. This, too, reminds me of Borges and his mirrors:
The Mirrored Stage

The lights dim. Then come up as the curtain rises to reveal
an empty stage, its back wall a giant mirror. The audience
looks upon its own reflection, enraged. What pompousness!
     Betrayed, they file out. A joke has been played on them,
an artless joke. Some have looked forward to this play all
week. They mutter and complain. The play a failure, a ham-
fisted attempt at profundity. They will warn others and
demand a refund.
     Finally, the theatre is empty. Silence, then an eruption
of applause. Although the audience has left, their reflec-
tions remain. These reflections rise, cheering – delighted,
finally free.

Recommended if you like unpretentious lyrical theatric phantasmagoria.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Porcupinity of the Stars -- Gary Barwin

Gary Barwin is an imagist, and an unapologetic one. An adherent of the “show don’t tell” school, he relies on nothing except image to communicate ideas, thoughts or feelings. The poetry is purely visual, and pretty cerebral, too. Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t strike a chord emotionally, just intellectually. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It feels a lot like haiku.

What is intriguing about Barwin’s work is the strangeness of the image. Simply the act of picturing some things—for a brief moment imagining them to be true—is effective because of the oddity.

Daddy said
Son you have to make your own dog
if you have none

and I said
I have a fire hydrant
so I can just imagine

The fun of the poem lies in looking at it from all angles. It’s like holding up an unfamiliar kitchen utensil and wondering, “What in the world is this?”

Barwin is confident in his style. His writing is exactly what he intends it to be. The closest he ever gets to an explicit message and opinion is

a poem doesn’t have to have fourteen perfect lines
or else you’re spitting on graves

maybe you’ll slip up and tell a truth
stick your elbow into something

The question, I suppose, is whether the images resonate with you—whether they stick in your mind or get under your skin.

ants gather around the barbecue tongs
gasoline rainbows on the tarmac
a seven-year-old tries to run along the curb
man with the face of a pelican
squeezes out greatness
late in the afternoon
Most poems concern everyday life, but I think Barwin is at his best when he lets the surreal fantasy that pervades his work really manifest into something that disturbs the tranquility. In this he reminds me of Ted Hughes.

don’t do it, I said
choosing a piece of toast
a perfect fried egg

but she unhooked her jaw
and swallowed the sun

now it was really dark
and she stood up from the table
breakfast was over

I couldn’t find my running shoes
or my briefcase and
my dreams were of the moon spitting
as I tried to play chess

my abdomen was a sand dune
shaped by the wind
into the grains of a million
directionless games of beach volleyball

an infinite number of piglets
gnawed on my fingers, which were sprouting
uncomfortably from every orifice
there was no coffee
The line that makes the poem (the excerpt, actually) is “There was no coffee”. What is otherwise mundane gains significance when abutting a domestic Ragnarok.

Poem by poem, we get a slide show of everyday life seen through the prism of strangeness and fantasy. I think the proper way to enjoy Barwin is the same way I would enjoy just such a slideshow: I’d relax, zone out, and let the pictures click by me, one by one, not trying to understand, just looking intently.

Recommended if you like Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Mina Loy, Amy Lowell, the British Martian Poets like Craig Raine, or haiku.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Playing with Words--Christian Bok and John Fuller

I substituted at a middle school a little while ago, and the teacher had left a lesson that involved reading and discussing a poem (it was “The First Book”, by Rita Dove) and then writing a “found poem”, based on words that the students found around the room. I knew that I would have to sell it well for the lesson to have any chance. After we established, with only little confusion and resistance, the poem’s message, I steered the discussion to the poem’s poetic qualities. I tried to emphasize what made the poem a poem, which is hard sometimes when so much that is called “poetry” is simple fancy prose with irregular line breaks. So we talked about image, figurative language and double meanings, and I suggested, as I suggest with every class on the subject, that poetry is essentially playing with language.

(I had had difficulty with a previous definition that had confounded a class of sophomores, that poetry “is words doing more that just meaning what they mean.” Try as they might some students couldn’t repeat that sentence back to me. One was convinced that I had said that poetry “doesn’t mean anything”.)

When it came time for the assignment to write a “found poem”, I anticipated some resistance. They would certainly ask why they couldn’t just write about anything they wanted. So I told them about Christian Bök, and I reminded them about “playing with language”. Christian Bök wrote the book Eunoia, in which each of five chapters uses only one vowel, each in turn. The first page goes thus:

Awkward grammar appalls a craftsman. A Dada bard
as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an
alpha (a splapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars
all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A
madcap vandal crafts a small black ankh — a hand-
stamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a
mark that sparks an ars magna (an abstract art that
charts a phrasal anagram). A pagan skald chants a dark
saga (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackballs all
annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and
Kafka, Marx and Marat. A law as harsh as a fatwa bans
all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.
In addition to that constraint, Bök requires that each chapter must refer to writing, a banquet, a “prurient debauch”, a “pastoral tableau”, and a “nautical voyage”. Each must “accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical parallelism”, exhaust as much of the available lexicon as possible with minimal repetition, and avoid the letter y.  To top it off, the E chapter is a retelling of the Illiad.

The effect is fascinating. Far from limiting interest, Bök’s syntactic limits heighten our fascination. We wonder how he will pull it off, and what the result will be. Furthermore, Bök does not ignore the importance of sound. Although he does indeed accent internal rhyme, the fact of the vowels themselves creates a distinct articulatory mood in each chapter. One would never think that somehow the letter u was so linked to the letter s in the English language, but try reading this out loud. The combination creates a phonetic pattern that reminds me somehow of a washing machine:

Kultur spurns Ubu – thus Ubu pulls stunts. Ubu shuns
Skulptur: Uruk urns (plus busts), Zulu jugs (plus
tusks). Ubu sculpts junk für Kunst und Glück. Ubu
busks. Ubu drums drums, plus Ubu strums cruths
(such hubbub, such ruckus): thump, thump; thrum,
thrum. Ubu puns puns. Ubu blurts untruth: much
bunkum (plus bull), much humbug (plus bunk) – but
trustful schmucks trust such untruthful stuff; thus
Ubu (cult guru) must bluff dumbstruck numbskulls
(such chumps). Ubu mulcts surplus funds (trust
funds plus slush funds). Ubu usurps much usufruct.
Ubu sums up lump sums. Ubu trumps dumb luck.
So, back to the middle school class. I asked who liked to do puzzles, and got a few hands. Some mentioned sudoku or crossword puzzles. I told them that what they were about to do was much the same thing, and much the same as Christian Bök had done: they were going to try to solve a puzzle and write a poem. They were going to play with words.

They had five minutes to look around the room and write down any word they saw. I encouraged them to plan ahead, and consider what words might be useful. After that, they were limited to what they had written down (after the time expired, a few students who had been watching their peers run around the classroom and write down words found themselves in a bind because they “didn’t realize that they were supposed to write down words”; this was middle school, after all). Once seated, many found that they couldn’t write a “poem” with the words they had. It turned out that they were defining a poem as “something about how you feel, or about love or something.” I encouraged them to remember the sole criterion: playing with language. In the end, few students got beyond a sentence. One came up with something quite interesting, because she hadn’t bound herself, as most had for some reason, to using each word only once. The repetition and inversion she employed was actually pretty novel and engaging. One small boy was very excited to read his poem to me—a freestyle rap the length of the page. He was disappointed to find out that that wasn’t what he was actually supposed to be writing, but hey, at least he was writing.

The innovation of new restrictions purely for their own sake, or if you would rather, for the sake of pushing poetic innovation to its limits, intrigues me. Writing in a form often feels much like doing a sudoku puzzle or a crossword, and is satisfying for the same reason, with the added result of—hopefully—a new image, phrase or idea that never would have been arrived at without the self-imposed restriction. I sometimes wonder what extremes could be attempted, like alpinists who having heard of a climber summiting Mt. Everest without oxygen bottles, feels the need to do the same backwards on a pogo stick. What if you wrote a poem using only adjectives? Or a sonnet in which each line could only have a specific number of words? Or a poem in which reduced its available letters by one every line? Or all of the above.

John Fuller did something interesting along these lines. In response to a contest to write a poem using only three-letter words, Fuller decided to also write only in lines of three words and stanzas of three lines. Here is the result:

“The Kiss”

Who are you
You who may
Die one day?

Who saw the
Fat bee and
The owl fly

And the sad
Ivy put out
One sly arm?

Not the eye
Nor the ear
Can say Yes:

One eye has
Its lid and
Can get shy;

One ear can
Run out and
Off the map.

One eye can
Aim too low
And not hit;

One ear can
Hug the air,
Get too hot.

But lip and
Red lip are
Two and two,

His lip and
Her lip mix
And are wed,

Lip and lip
Can now say:
“You may die

But not yet.
Yes you die
But not yet.”

The old lie.
Critic Jonathan Barker calls it a “metric invention in search of a subject”. Poet James Fenton calls it “extremely beautiful”. I would simply like to insist that a beautiful metric invention is in no way an oxymoron. And what do you know—Fuller’s poem is even “about love or something”, as the middle schoolers would have it.

Note: John Fullers Collect Works from Chatto and Windus is not available from Amazon.  I found "The Kiss" in this book by James Fenton.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Rediscovering Langston Hughes

I have rediscovered Langston Hughes. I had read his famous poems—“I, Too” and “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Harlem”—and even taught them in class. I appreciated his poems and his loose, jazzy interpretation of rhyme and meter—playing with it instead of abandoning it like so many Modernists did. But based on my limited selection, I found him unsubtle and a bit preachy.

I take it all back, I swear.

Thumbing through an anthology, I came across “Old Walt” without realizing it was Hughes’:

Old Walt Whitman
Went finding and seeking,
Finding less than sought
Seeking more than found,
Every detail minding
Of the seeking or the finding.

Pleasured equally
In seeking as in finding,
Each detail minding,
Old Walt went seeking
And finding.
I liked it; I liked how it played with rhyme and repetition, enjoying itself but not taking itself to seriously, not droning. It almost had the feel of a triolet—maybe a jazz triolet. Then I saw it was by Langston Hughes, and, surprised, began to read other poems of his I had never read before.

One thing that I enjoy are his little sketches of Harlem life. Hughes often writes in the voice of a character or includes dialogue.

Put on yo’ red silk stockings,
Black gal.
Go out an’ let de white boys
Look at yo’ legs.
He plays his authorial cards close to his chest. We aren’t told what to think—only what to see and hear. He keeps his rhyme and meter loose and incorporates it subtlety and effortlessly into the scenarios he paints:

Copper's whistle!
Patrol bell!

Precinct Station.
Iron cell.
Headlines in press:

And part of his playing with language extends to letting you finish lines in your head, or switching them suddenly. I’ve seen this used as a petty gag in some light verse, but look at this:

Dream Boogie

Good morning, daddy!
Ain't you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
Listen closely:
You'll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a—

You think
It's a happy beat?

Listen to it closely:
Ain’t you heard
something underneath
like a—

What did I say?

I'm happy!
Take it away!
Hey, pop!

The interplay between two voices, what is said and left unsaid, the way he sets up the unspoken lines, the ambiguity… I love it. Though the mop confuses me.

One more poem now. I can’t believe I had never read this one.

Frederick Douglass: 1817-1895

Douglass was someone who,
Had he walked with wary foot
And frightened tread,
From very indecision
Might be dead,
Might have lost his soul,
But instead decided to be bold
And capture every street,
On which he set his feet,
To route each path
Toward freedom’s goal,
To make each highway
Choose his compass’ choice
To all the world cried,
Hear my voice!…
Oh, to be a beast, a bird,
Anything but a slave! he said.

Who would be free
Themselves must strike
The first blow, he said.

He died in 1895.

He is not dead.

What I love about it most is the building energy that lands with a resounding crash on the last lines. For that ending to work, for those last four words to resonate like they do, requires a perfect convergence of sound and ideas. This just goes to show that the success of a poem lies in its sound, even when we read it silently. A “prose poem” is no kind of poem at all, and when free verse works, it works because it nevertheless uses sound skillfully, as skillfully as a jazz player, though following no set pattern, uses pitch, rhythm, intonation and phrasing. Langston Hughes does jazz with words, with perfect blend of intellect and emotion.