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.