Friday, January 28, 2011

The Ode Less Travelled—Stephen Fry

A fun new book from British actor, writer and humorist Stephen Fry is an introduction to poetry, a handbook of metrics and a treatise on poetry. Entitled The Ode Less Travelled, I think it fills all of the above roles quite well, and were I currently teaching a course on poetry, I would use it as the required text, or one of them. Fry writes in his own personal voice, erudite and witty, full of opinions and judgment, and that adds something which is missing from objective, scholarly textbooks.

I appreciate that Fry doesn’t shy away from technical language and questions of prosody. He points out that no beginning student of the piano is ever told “Don’t worry, just lift the lid and express yourself. Pour out your feelings.” Says Fry, “We have all heard children do just that and we have all wanted to treat them with great violence as a result. Yet this is the only instruction we are ever likely to get in the art of writing poetry.” Later on, Fry adds, “It is useful and pleasurable to have a special vocabulary for a special activity. Convention, tradition and precision suggest this in most fields of human endeavour, from music and painting to snooker and snowboarding. It does not make those activities any less rich, individual and varied.”

One passage which caught my attention was this: “…it encourages readers to believe that they and the poet share the same discourse, intelligence and standing, inhabit the same universe of feeling and cultural reference; it does not howl in misunderstood loneliness, wallow in romantic agony or bombard the reader with learning and allusion from a Parnassian or abstrusely academic height.” The “it” in question? Light verse. Funny, I would have said this was a description of “good verse”. Not that I’m disagreeing with Fry—his definition according to popular usage is likely accurate. His characterization of “light verse” as potentially “moving, angry, erotic and even religious” yet still “not embarrassed by the idea of likeability and accessibility” is not false, but I find the implications tragic. Fry suggests that Modernism did much to extinguish this quality from poetry, an opinion I share.  This also brings to mind an anecdote from a friend of mine remembered from his university English class: upon suggesting that a particular poem was good in part because it was easy to understand, he was subjected, he claims, to audible snorts from his fellows.

Fry’s use of the phrases “howl in misunderstood loneliness” and “wallow in romantic agony” brings to mind an essay by Garrison Keillor from the Atlantic Monthly.
In it, Keillor agrees to judge a poetry contest: “Though I had no time at all, none, I said yes because I was angry about some awful stuff I'd read recently—dreadful sensitive garbage, and because dreadful people have plenty of time to serve as judges, this garbage had won awards. It was a book of essays by a Minnesota guy who specializes in taking walks in the woods and looking at the reflections of sunlight on small bodies of water and feeling grievous and wounded in a vague way—a thoughtful guy in a harsh unfeeling world with too much molded plastic furniture, and he mopes for a few pages and then resolves to soldier on as a sensitive writer. This guy's stuff reads like a very long letter from someone you wish would write to someone else, it is mournful and piteous as if he is about to ask if he can come and live in your home for a few months, but it won awards because it is pretentiously sad and is "about" something, maleness or the millennium, and that means his books will find their way into schools, his glum reflections will be disseminated among innocent schoolchildren, and they will learn that a great writer is one who can lead the reader away from the dangerous edge of strong feeling and into the barns of boredom. So the brighter ones—even though they love to write stories! —will decide not to be writers, and you'll have another writerless generation like the thirty-something adolescents of today, and our beloved country will pull the shades and sink ever deeper into the great couch of despond. That is why I agreed to judge the poetry contest: to save America.”

One of the poems that reaches Keillor is entitled “going to my brother's wedding reception at the minikahda club after seeing a documentary about rwanda". Keillor says, “I could easily—yes, easily—imagine some judges who would snatch this poem out of the pile, and give it the blue ribbon or the Naomi Windham Nissensen Award for Sensitivity of Greater Than Medium Length. I know people who might read the self-aggrandizing agony of the young man in the white tuxedo and think he was quite insightful: Teachers of creative writing who seduce their students into writing journals—yards and yards of sensitive wallpaper! Administrators of literary programs who keep humor alarms on their desks! Artistic politicos and commissars who insist that Literature must express the anger of oppressed people, thus forcing oppressed people to watch TV for their entertainment. Proponents of the Pain Theory of Literature and devotees of pitiful writing…”

I wonder if the attitudes expressed here have something to do with the fact that Stephen Fry and Garrison Keillor primarily entertainers, at least professionally, and assume (shock, horror) that good poetry would have some of the same qualities as a good novel, film or song: technical skill in its execution and audience appeal.

And as long as I'm at it, here's a clip from Stephen Fry's sketch show, ages and ages ago, with Hugh Laurie.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Gift that Arrives Broken – Jacqueline Berger

Jacqueline Berger’s poetry is the poetry of everyday life, through which some insight—sometimes transcendental, sometimes merely intriguing—is seen. This poetry doesn’t have an agenda, isn’t part of a movement, does not aspire to revolution. Each poem is a short personal essay. I suppose you could call it “Flash Non-Fiction”, though most poems are longer than such a genre would indicate. It reminds me in ways of David Sedaris’s writing, but more brief, and not as constrained by the need for cohesion. Berger is free to connect seemingly dissimilar thoughts or observations and watch the light refract off of them. Also, she is not a humorist—the comparison to Sedaris has more to do with her ability to make keen observations based on everyday life in skillful essay-style prose. Aging, marriage and family are frequent subjects. Berger’s meditations on the illness and inevitable death of both of her parents are so prominent a focus that it became a motif of the collection, but Berger’s treatment is neither morose nor lugubrious. In “My Mother’s Refrigerator”, for instance, Berger contrasts her desire to clean with her mother’s pack-rat tendencies. The result is touching:
My mother tells me it’s okay.
I sweep the crumbs, stack
the papers she won’t toss.
Some day they’ll be mine
to do with as I wish.
And the food will be mine
the encrusted, the furred,
apples that soften to their end,
lamb that hardens.
I’ll want to keep it all
just to keep the argument alive.
I appreciate the fact that Berger’s stylistics are not the focus of her poetry. Her prose is pure, and not a hodge-podge of warped syntax. This allows her to be clear, accessible and poignant. One of the things that I liked the most was how in many poems she brings up a thought or image and comes back to it at the end, whereupon it has new significance. It’s not a “twist” at the end, but more of a “click”: you suddenly understand why this particular image is so important. Here’s an example:
At the Table

Those who practice moderation,
their faces mild and benign,
their plates cleared away
with half their dinner remaining,
don’t believe every meal is their last,
but even if this one is,
they’re fine leaving some of it untouched.
Then there are those of us who order the bottle
because the best wines
aren’t offered by the glass.
We share dessert, but share two of them
because we love both chocolate and plums.
Our off switch doesn’t work, Lisa says,
and the next day’s punishment of pleasure
is just part of the bargain.
Her dog tosses a stuffed snake across the room
in the gleeful dance dogs do to celebrate a visitor.
He’s a big dog, mastiff and pit bull,
scary looking with gold eyes
which makes me want to trust him
the way I’d give a thug a second chance.

Joy may be ephemeral
as the full moon swaying on an alpine lake,
but we are like the villagers
in the fairy tale I read as a child
who thought they could scoop
a chunk into their bowls and eat it.
The author intended his young reader
to understand the foolishness of this,
but I loved the villagers,
up all night with their slotted spoons
digging in the milky water.
Maybe they pulled buns from wicker baskets
and shared them with their neighbors,
the floury moon, the custardy moon
one way or another filling their mouths.

The body is a source of joy
but also the servant.
We feel no compunction
keeping it up all night
then calling the the morning for a favor.
And desire is a dog
that’s bred to kill,
but we let him in the house
and love him.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Interesting Article

Good morning.  More reviews will come soon.  In the meantime, here is a recent article on death haiku sent to me today by a friend.  As it turns out, I am currently reading James Clavell's Shogun, and though the plot is focused primarily on culture shock and power struggles, poetry, and its place in Japanese culture, comes up every so often.  Characters compose short verses as a prompt or response to each other, sometimes as a game, sometimes to share a moment together.  Near the end, one of the main characters, ordered to commit seppuku, composes a death poem before carrying out the order.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Decomposition—Renée Roehl & Kelly Chadwick, eds.

Well, Christmas is well past, and I have a long list of titles for review. This is exciting. It’s like being turned loose in a candy store. Actually, I was turned loose in a candy store once, and I couldn’t finish everything I took and felt a bit ill afterwards. Let’s hope the same isn’t true of poetry.

So since I can pick anything, the first title I choose is Decomposition: an anthology of fungi-inspired poems, because it’s just such a cool idea. Poetry sometimes takes itself too seriously—an anthology like this reminds me of making a mix-tape, injecting a note of fun into what has the potential to nevertheless be an inspired collection. The authors within include some biggies: William Butler Yeats, Gary Snyder, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver and Robert Bly, as well as many others. I find myself excited to see what any and all of them have to say about fungus.

Of course, many are not about fungus per se, but rather use something closely associated—mushroom hunting, for example—to explore something deeper. But you expected that, right? The haiku master Issa writes
before my hand
stretched out for the mushroom,
a butterfly breathing
Many poets find mushrooms an interesting, useful metaphor. The way that mushrooms grow secretly, silently, pushing their way through the leaf litter of hidden forests inspired poems by Jane Whitledge, Nance Van Winckel and Sylvia Plath. For Laura Kasischke, the hook is the idea of the vast expanse of tiny filaments comprising a single organism: the 2200-acre fungus in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest.
We have waited all our lives
to taste it, waited
through hate & rain, licking
the wind, spooning through the fog, while it
spread in all directions, rolled
through the forests, across the fertilized lawns. Call
it mildew, mushroom, smut. What
is it if not
the world’s moldy heart?
Blood-surge, sweet meat, sleep. It is
a gorgeous sprawling brain, dreaming
you & me.
It is interesting to see what else tends to be connected with fungus, and how. When poets bring up the eating of mushrooms, for example, it often is to contrast something deep and ancient (mushroom) with something modern and superficial (cuisine). Decay and rot are an frequent focus, as well as earth, rebirth, and even eroticism (the physical similarity of mushrooms to genitalia does not escape the notice of a few poets, including one of my favorite writers, Sherman Alexie):
[…] I often pause in the middle of lovemaking
to think about the fog-soaked forest into which we all travel
to think about the damp, dank earth in to which we all plunge
our hands

to search for water and spore and root and loam
to search for water and room and roof and home.

As one might expect, verse is hardly represented, abandoned as it has been by contemporary poets. Exceptions include Emily Dickinson and W. B. Yeats. Dickinson’s is a delightful poem I had never read before:
The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants—
At Evening, it is not—
At Morning, in a Truffled Hut
It stop upon a Spot

As if it tarried always
And yet its whole Career
Is shorter than a Snake’s Delay
And fleeter than a Tare—

’Tis Vegetation’s Juggler—
The Germ of Alibi—
Doth like a Bubble antedate
And like a Bubble, hie—
Richard Wilbur and Elizabeth Bishop also write excellent verse; I was pleasantly surprised by Bishop—I always think of her as writing prose poetry, but the rhyme and structure of “The Shampoo” is intriguing and the images evocative:
The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you’ve been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.
Decomposition: an anthology of fungi-inspired poems is a great success. It seems fitting to leave you with the final stanza of Richard Wilbur’s “Children of Darkness”.
Gargoyles is what they are at worst, and should
They preen themselves
On being demons, ghouls, or elves,
The holy chiaroscuro of the wood
Still would embrace them. They are good.