Showing posts with label Poetry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Poetry. Show all posts

Friday, May 31, 2024



Interesting things afoot in discussions about the precious craft of writing poetry, an endeavor fraught with personal assessments of what-poetry-must-be . It’s an intense crossfire of what seems like irreconcilable views for some and suffice to say that nearly any side you might take on an issue of trying to “express the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable”, your bound to offend someone,  be called a fool, dismissed as a philistine, labeled a reactionary kook. It’s a minefield. But lately it’s been intriguing that partisans of different schools of thought about the Highest Art have agreed on one thing in particular, a general feeling of being fed up with poets drowning their poems with first person pronouns. “I, me, mine, my”, an excess of author presence, the feeling of someone talking at you , not with you. No names of offenders or the critics involved, but in a general way I’d like to offer my perhaps fence sitting take on this general complaint.  

It's a matter of "having an ear", a musical ear.
I prefer the ‘I’ of the poem to be a narrator engaged with a world fully outside their senses. It’s composing, no less than composing music. I accept the first-person pronouns as legitimate starting points or anchors, but what satisfies is if the poet concentrates on the perception of things in the world around them and does not use those perceptions for trivial finger exercises in autobiography.. The biggest sin against the art of poetry is the rise of ‘Poetry-About-Poetry’ and, worse, ‘Poems About Being a Poet.’ This is a symptom of someone who has nothing interesting to say.  

I would agree in principle that a contemporary poet is most effective when the language is pared down to the right words for the right image. Prose is the big picture and poetry x-ray, some would have it. But to have poems be hard, solid things, literally objects on par with paintings or sculpture, which was the over all mission of the Imagists movement, is at best a fool's errand. Poetry seems to me the most subjective of the writing arts, one that has inspired unlimited numbers of "schools", manifestos, rules, and regulations and demands that have tried to remake the idea of all poetic expression . Poets are individuals , though, and given a hyper awareness of themselves in the world with minds that work too hard to make connections of people, places, things, ideas, philosophies , morality that wouldn't normally be connected, the need for a writer to access their feelings, their sense of how the world appears and the qualities particular things seem to have --comparing one thing to another and the result being an unexpected third meaning, a new perception--seems to me inevitable.  

Both Steve Kowit and Paul Dresman, my two mentors in my early attempts to write honest poems, insisted that what makes for an effective and resilient poem is craft and having an ear for the right phrase and the right number of words for that phrase, an "ear" as Paul called it. And Steve in particular insisted that half the art of writing poems is in the rewriting. Even if one didn't like Steve Kowit's work, he worked on each poem relentlessly until there wasn't a false note in the piece he was about to publish and / or read.

Monday, July 1, 2019


Image result for the hospice bubble
and Other Devastating Affirmations
Poems by Lizzie Wann

Witnessing the decline and eventual death of a parent is the surest way to send any of us into the deepest well of depression and morbid reflection. Few of us handle it with quite the grace we might have hoped for.  Shock, relentless grief, guilt, recrimination are only some aspects the lot of us go through when our parents are suddenly, rudely absent in our lives. We try to make sense of it all, of the choices we've made and the things we've done. There is, it seems, no meaning to find behind it all apart from the acceptance of the fact the clan is smaller now and that our lives go on.

Lizzie Wann, a very fine California poet with a sharp sense of the telling detail and lean cadence that conveys underlying emotion and tone, has an engrossing new collection of poems in which we witness her going through the death of her father. The Hospice Bubble and Other Devastating Affirmations.  A sequence of poems of how she cared for her dying father up to the inevitable final day, Wann fearlessly records the days, the incidents, many small and painstaking matters as the days wore on, through surgeries, meals, bits and pieces of final conversation, there is a palpable tension in these lines. There’s no need for the Big Language. Wann is too good a poet for gaudy special effects. She lays bare her ambivalence about her father's decline. These poems are not the grand slam and over decorated summation of what one has discovered about themselves at the end of the trial; Wann’s triumph is in her spare, uncluttered impressions. Throughout the poems that comprise the title sequence, Wann writes with the concision of Hemingway and the chiseled elegance of a Lorrie Moore. Lizzie navigates these narrative fragments with a sure foot even as the ground beneath abruptly shifts. There is a strong sense of someone who’s in a new emotional territory, having her wits and resources challenged, tested.  Each poem yielding some small piece of hard-won insight.  It is the ultimate irony. Her father helped come into the world, and now she is helping him leave it. The poet doesn’t rely on the convenience of easy irony. As splendidly recollected in the piece “Winter Solstice 2017”, what she finds isn’t just making his passage comfortable, but finding out how deep her love for him has deepened, the love of a daughter for a father. While in a hospice, her father tells her of a decision he’s made.

Winter Solstice 2017

on the longest night of the year 

my father said he was ready to die

 his decision was both shocking & comforting 
we had talked on the phone earlier
he was desperately tired
it was different than other times
sitting beside him in his hospital room …
my mom on the other side, he said, 
“I’ve made a decision.”
I took his hand, his skin soft & thin, 
“I want to go home, be done with this,”…
he gestured with his other hand to show 
hospital, machines, gowns, fluorescence 
“I want you to talk to them tomorrow.”

This could seem a cold observation of Wann’s way of writing through these momentous events, but I think it’s a worth mentioning this writer’s efficiency. No casual word- slinger throwing words at a page to see what sticks to the wall, she avoids the easy allure of wallowing in her misery. Blessedly, Lizzie Wann as well doesn’t of offer unrefined introspection, more appropriate for private journals rather than a poetry volume.  Like a fine musician who has learned the art of note choice, she chooses her words wisely. Knowingly or not, she is composing with Ezra Pound’s notion of writing to the rhythm of the musical phrase and not the metronome. This makes her poems powerful and lyric, poetic in ways a reader doesn’t expect. Pound’s fellow poet William Carlos Williams worked for a verbal quality to his poems, as close to Spoken Language as the imagination would allow.  Wann has that in her poems, a rhythm and a flexible emphasis that conveys a mind’s hesitation, the rush of sensation, a sudden flash of sorrow or swift and brief elation. What I’ve always admired about Lizzie Wann’s poems is the sense of something bristling under the surface of the written lines, a confession, a fleeting insight, a secret struggling to emerge. “Winter Solstice 2017”, she accounts for speaking with the family, the doctors, conversations of matters intimate and private with her father. She returns home finally, still processing the profundity of her father’s request. At the end of the day, she slips into needed sleep. Wann is at her best her, deeply, lyrically moving, beautiful in its elegantly unadorned honesty:

that night, I slept in his bed, 

but not before I examined his room, 

opened closet doors

 took a picture of his shirts 
tried to sleep but could only see 
a family vacation to Yellowstone
 where he threw my child body into the air 
so I could see higher, how I was surprised 
then delighted by his spontaneity 
the thrill of the toss, how he caught me 
did it again, laughing my daddy laughing 
but not before I examined his room, 
opened closet doors
 took a picture of his shirts 
tried to sleep but could only see 
a family vacation to Yellowstone
 where he threw my child body into the air 
so I could see higher, how I was surprised 
then delighted by his spontaneity 
the thrill of the toss, how he caught me 
did it again, laughing my daddy laughing 

I ought to emphasize that the 25 poems that make up the title suite of 
The Hospice Bubble and Other Devastating Affirmations aren't relentlessly dour or respectively bittersweet in tone. The sequence is not necessarily in order, and has the quality of a mosaic, poems composed as different memories sparked different ideas and moods. Meals, chats, frustrations small and big, the irritations minor and major which stress the limits of one’s willingness to go on, area highlighted in the selected poems. There is a subtle wit that underscores the pilgrimage, suggested in this volume’s subtle by the phrase “Devastating Affirmations”; this passage is both curse and blessing, a tragedy that transforms a life with a blunt inevitability, but an event that provides the opportunity for every woman and man to become the adults in their expanded household. Samuel Beckett, the poet laureate of perennial stasis, moaned famously, to paraphrase,… I can’t go on… I’ll go on,” a phrase mimicking the collective grunt of a common man getting out of bed with a conviction that the crushing burden of life on its terms, the daily grind, is insurmountable and unending: they can’t take it anymore.  And yet, the man, the woman, showers, shaves, has coffee and leaves the house to do battle again, finding, for a moment, the will to engage again. I believe Wann has a more interesting journey; through her efforts to aid her father with his pain and eventual death, she becomes who she is. 

Other affirmations, not so devastating, are also dealt with in his potent book, those being deaths, depression, writing, love, matters she writes her way through. I sense a writer who picks up the pen to find out what she thinks about the people, places, and things which continue to make days and nights something less than serene glide. What arises as I read the poems was the faint but pulsing rhythm of hope, not so much the typical glad tidings imprinted on bumper stickers and corporate greeting cards, but rather a recognition that all this misery, labor, all the toiling in attending to the final days and hours of a parent's life is a process of discovery of one's aptitude to navigate personal tragedy's rocky stream. Life continues, one's wits were sharpened, one's eyes have adjusted to the dark that shrouded their life for a time, and the sun arises again, the wind blows, the air smells sweet.  Wann writes about many small things in a big way, a writer fascinated with being alive in the world.

To end, lets consider a short poem, the last piece in the book:


 a fingertip 

a strand of hair

 an eyelash
 my pinkie toe 
 ever so slowly 
it seems I may just find 
my way out 

(Originally appeared in The San Diego Troubadour. Used with permission).

Monday, January 28, 2019

SYLVIA PLATH:The Worship of the Dead

There was a bit of commotion concerning the cover of the 50th-anniversary edition of the late Sylvia Plath's touchstone novel, The Bell Jar, an understandable misgiving on the part of the book's loyalists. The book, a wrenching, semi-autobiographical narrative about a young woman's slide into mental illness, is a serious, unfunny, poetic evocation of female insanity and is a hallmark of a good amount of Feminist literary criticism. it is not a laughing matter, but publishers, like other media corporations with long term holdings, at times feel compelled to update a commodity's image for a younger crowd that has yet to read a masterpiece of misery. Presto, the 50th Anniversary Edition features a woman's profile gazing into a compact mirror, applying to make up; Plath's attempt to write her demons out of commission is made to resemble the worst version of Chic Lit. Plath deserves better. It's a good book and it requires an honest presentation.

Has anyone said that they are exhausted by the relentless attention accorded the late and legendary Sylvia Plath? Am I the only one who thinks that we ought to stop metaphorically digging up Sylvia Plath's body so we may once again gawk at her bony remains through a lens of deferred yearning? Generation after generation discovers and rediscovers her work, which is fine, but the grave robbing worship that goes on here elevates her literary worth beyond sane judgment. There is a death cult within the legions of her admirers whose applied aesthetic insists that the extreme personalist poets achieve greatness only when they perform their final and greatest act, their suicide. It's disgusting stuff, and it's perverse to think that there was once an active set of famous poets whose art could be deemed successful if their lives ended under odious circumstances.

I'm not averse to regarding Plath as a major American poet--she showed a compelling, surreal, tortured brilliance that was fully realized although her time was brief. What concerns me is the virtual cult of Plath who mistake her tragedy as having something to do with her art, and regard her writing as perfect precisely because committed suicide. This has more do with martyr making and nothing to do with her powerful, sometimes brilliant writing. The cultist obsession with her brief life causes many to miss the fact that she was a poet to be considered as an artist, not an example of the skewed notion of beauty. There seems to be an addiction to a what many of created as a figure of Mythic Suffering, another Jesus stand-in, upon whose rumored visage and back story one may read their own sufferings and take solace that their shared misery's finest expression was from a victim who never overcame their ills, travails and psychic deterioration. It stops being about poetry and the empathy it creates, the connection it brings the reader with larger experience; the poems become stations of the cross, with each wound ogled and slathered upon. It is messy.

One wonders what it would have been like had Plath found sufficient reason to live on, and what sort of writing she might have done with all the years she might have had. Might she become a depressed dowager internalizing each private grief to the extent that her dry skin might literally crack under pressure. Would she have abandoned poetry altogether and found religion, spending her remaining years and charisma attacking the secularist tradition? Written a cookbook? Or might she have developed a sense of humor and dismissed her early work as her own form of "rhythmic grumbling"?

The problem with short artist lives is that they usually leave behind a brief body of work, which prevents us from speculating where she might have gone with her work, or the kind of person she may have evolved into. As such, her poems and her novel are lyric agitations, occasionally brilliant, often hysterical and shrill, always at the pitch of a clenched fist pounding a trash can or a car horn stuck on it's one long, loathsome note. It's a vicarious thrill thing, I suppose, a loose-fitting necrophilia. Those sensitive souls who died young also died perfect, cut down in their prime, never given the chance to grow old, to fail at something or to betray anyone's expectations by maturing. This, I guess, is unavoidable and there's not much one can do except perhaps reacting to four decades worth of repeated hype and hoopla about Plath. What is especially aggravating has been the seduction of many a otherwise fine reviewers who've embroidered the allure of her suicide into their evaluation of her standing as a poet; it's a bizarre kind of affirmative action, in which her death and her gender and her craziness entitle her to a pass on an analysis based solely on her writing. She is, in fact, an unfinished talent, and how good she might have become is an aspect that's unknowable. Better poets have died young who haven't garnered a scintilla of posthumous adoration as Plath has. It's marketing, I think. Ted Hughes and literary agents knew they had an exploitable commodity with the deceased Sylvia Plath, and sustaining the myth around her certainly has kept the holders of her literary rights flush with money from fans who are attracted to Plath for all the reasons except the right one, a love of good work.

The Plath we know was a tragedy in one and a half acts. Enough. Put her back in the coffin, lower it into the grave, and throw on the dirt. Life isn't for everyone, and she made her choice. It is to her enduring credit that she wrote some brilliant poems despite her encroaching instability; we should read and discuss her poems and stop valorizing the condition that compelled her to leave this world. 

Monday, August 6, 2018


The Nation published a poem by a white poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, written in an idiom likely influenced by black American speech, and the result was a loud and sustained clamor of discontent, protest and other varieties of outrage from some readers. The Nation did a horrible thing; they allowed the poetry editors to apologize for a provocative poem obviously intended to provoke a discussion. The poem that riled so many:
If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.
                                          --Anders Carlson-Wee
Progressives get upset when they are called snowflakes, but the poetry editor's knee-jerk reaction to the critical reception to this poem is nothing less than a spineless surrender to the encroaching tyranny of politically approved language. The editors, in their apology, tell us that their first reading of a poem was that it addressed, in idiomatic language, the problematic circumstances of disenfranchised Americans and the privileged elite that either ineffectively tries to help them or ignores them outright, about how the oppressed would advise others in the same circumstances to work around the obstacles that impede them. Their first assessment was the right one, and consider the poet's effort to compose the poem the way he did, a brave and purposefully provocative one. Sadly, those looking to be offended dragged out their bullhorns and vehemently announced their hurt feelings, to which poetry editors Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith sheepishly said:” We can no longer read the poem in that way.” Bear in mind, this reversal was not the result of a critical reexamination of first impressions or a philosophical discussion as to why they believe their first view was in error. The strong implication is that they didn't want to be yelled at anymore, This would have been a great moment to turn this poem into a fruitful discussion of the many perceptions might engender, about the role of voice in political poetry, about the validity or vapidity of negative capability, about how the author's persona in the poem advances the invisible cruel ironies of daily life for the marginalized or how it fails. It might have been the discussion this poem was meant to provoke. The editors write that they “…recognize that we must now earn your trust back. “ 

As poetry is an art meant to compel the reader to think about the world in different ways and to consider that matters between human beings are much more than mere sentiment, and given the editor's cowardly about-face on this issue destroys what trust I might have placed in these two. Worse, far worse, is that they've destroyed their creditability as poetry editors. They are afraid of poems that might disturb readers. This is careerist ass-saving at its most loathsome. Burt and Smith should resign their position and seek less stressful work. Shame on them and shame on the Nation for allowing this flight from free expression.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Smart's Cat, My Mantis

I love cats as much as the next premature curmudgeon, and I can't help but think that Christopher Smart is half pulling our collective leg with his poem, which is rock-slapping waves of adulation for his cat. Years ago I wrote a poem called "The Praying Mantis" that was a list of self-contained sentences, each beginning with the title phrase and then completing itself with some qualitative non sequitur; the point was, of course, was to lampoon the baroquely-phrased claims you come across in self-penned biographies, press releases or eulogies that overshoot the commemorative mark. The challenge was to see how many fresh takes I could get starting from the same premise and at what point would I sense that I was done, winding up the sequence on a diminished, perhaps exasperated note.

The praying mantis returns no phone calls,
The praying mantis will not shake your hand,
The praying mantis does not pay sales tax,
The praying mantis had been to the moon and found it drab and without a bar,
The praying mantis ignores streetlights and no smoking signs,
The praying mantis does not hear what you have to say,
The praying mantis is the other side of the story,
The praying mantis loves a hammer with sturdy, curved claw,
The praying mantis will have lunch when he's done with you,
The praying mantis is a close, personal friend of Sammy Davis Jr.,
The praying mantis directs traffic until it's an atonal film score,
The praying mantis says nothing but means volumes,
The praying mantis cured cooties and shared it with no one...

The litany went on another sixty lines until the absurdity grew tiresome, or my imagination failed, or both, but the point is that it was interesting to witness the momentum one could get attributing huge potential to things of seeming small consequence. I was interested in how the praying mantis could, by his lack of interaction with the larger human world, could seem, given the colliding box car cadence, seem a larger, more powerful force, one mere mortal should respect lest his restraint fall and said insect really show us what for. I had been thinking of every cliche portrayal of hip and badass cool I had come across, from junkie jazz geniuses, the Beats, white Negros and tortured renditions of existential cool; the sort of man who is so in tune with himself-in-the-world that he is privy to great amounts of power, but that power is withheld because there is no need for an ostentatious display. In other words, a state so slippery that attempts to describe it accurately result in growing amounts of absurdity, some of it baffling. Smart, it seems, wants the habits of his cuddly kitty to embody something purposeful with the divine, to reveal a connection with a heavenly agenda that our intellect prevents us from sensing much of the time but which a cat, with senses tuned like delicate instruments, can pick up on and be affected by.

For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon
**his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.

There is a belief that there are absolutely no coincidences in God's Universe, that nothing, nothing at all happens my mistake, that what people and creatures do is, to a greater or lesser degree, the result of a divine intervention against our baser natures. One can see why Smart was inspired by his cat, cats being a creature that, while domesticated, still seem independent, engaged with invisible forces, acting in accordance to stimulus humans have little or no capacity to discern.

Smart injects so much purposefulness and subtle intent in his cat's movements that assuming that he's using the creature to mirror his own self-image is unavoidable. Or at least something to consider as one pursues alternative readings. He seems to be writing about his own lazing about, it seems, his own time eating, musing, writing, taking walks, talking, just being rather than doing something more active, productive and profitable. His cat is connected to a spiritual path, or at least he sees hints of it with each lick, purr, furball and odd reclining angle, and mounts an indirect argument that his very being, those times when he is thinking of the connections between stationary objects, the contemplative mode, is precisely how his God intended him to be in this life. Arguing that God didn't want me to work is something I've never had the nerve to try.

Some had commented elsewhere that these might be called "attention poems", something I like the sound of.I like "attention poem", as in a particular thing--creature, object--getting an unusual and, I think, unexpected focus. I'm one of those who thinks that citizens come to know the world through addressing it formally, "knowing", in this sense, being more than a formal recognition of origins, functions, and utility; imbuing a mantis, a cat, a building with qualities alien to them is a way of developing an intimate relationship with those things that might otherwise be problematic. We give them extraordinary qualities through fanciful rhetoric, itself distorted and careening along the tracks, so that they may become ordinary to us. It may be a shamanistic ritual transposed to the written word, an exercise of the will to imagine a realm of metaphysical propositions in an effort to assimilate a bit of the virtue and power the tropes would imply. It would seem a way of making that which is ultimately unknowable--the thing in itself--less of a concern and more an asset in our way through the day, the weeks, the months, the years.

Thinking again, the use of the word "ordinary" doesn't do justice to Smart's evocation. Nothing in the way Smart describes his cat seems an attempt to reduce something in size. A better phrase would have served the point better, which is my feeling that Smart, on some level, was trying to associate himself with the subtle and sublime qualities he attributes to his dear cat and, perhaps, have those same graces become a part of himself. You could also assert that the very act of sensing these things in his pet and having the language mastery to sufficiently align the motion with the spiritual nuance and attending effect comes from an innate quality, that these conditions already exist within Smart. He would be, then, be in the act of recognizing what he already knows, that part of the shared condition within his God's universe that is within himself and the living things around him. Not that the poem is meant to be the beginning of a campaign toward universal spiritual suffrage for all creatures great and small, but his close reading of Jeoffry's manner offers an enticing clue to his greater cosmological sense.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Lack of depth makes for a shallow grave

Kim Rosen of the Huffington Post wondered in a 2010 post if Americans are afraid of poetry; some of the essay is a warmed over collection of the usual symptoms, and some of it is intriguing, worth a gander. I don't think Americans are afraid of poetry; rather it's a matter of not many Americans, comparatively, think of poetry as a resource since we, as a culture, are not an introspective culture, but instead one that continuously looks forward to a future to be created.

Poetry, so far as the general reader is concerned, is a matter of one being alone with their thoughts and structuring their experience in a narrative form, a narrative that not only chronicles events along a time line, but also the nuance of experience, the fleeting sensation of something changing in their psyche. This requires making the language do extraordinary things to accommodate an uncommon interpretation of experience, and Americans, a people reared on the ideology of what can be done in the face of adversity, have no expansive desire to do something so impractical. Language is a thing meant to help us solve material problems, to achieve material goals, and poetry, a strange extension of linguistic twists and shadings, does nothing to put food on the table, put money in the bank, to further the quest to cure an endless variety of incurable diseases. 

Poetry is immaterial to purpose, function, policy; the absence of larger audiences for poetry isn't about fear from a perception that it's a mode of expression that is the least useful among several the lot of us might select on a given day. There are those of us who would argue that poetry's lack of identifiable utility is exactly what attracts us to the form--I happen to think that, like Wilde, that all art is quite useless in practical application (save for the fact that I believe humans crave beauty in form and in expression) and adhere to Harold Bloom's running definition of what literature, in general, avails the reader: to paraphrase, literature (poetry) helps us think about ourselves. Americans , I think it's safe to say in the broadest sense, have no real desire to reside individually and psychically work their way to an "aha" experience with poetry as a conduit.

Americans are not an introspective people, a national habit that infects all of us; it seems, regardless of race, skin color, religious choice, cultural formation or any number of things. I might suggest prevailing conditions of isolation, anomie, alienation and a host of other diagnostic words that have lost their punch and are now mostly free of meaning, but what it comes down to, basically, is that it seems most of us in this stew, within these borders don't like to think any harder than it does to make a peanut butter sandwich; we want things given to us in images, sound bites, we want things "broken down" into simple parts and not actually explained. Our psychic well being depends on how the world effects our material status; that is the equation we prefer, with a massively huge collective case of denial that there is any need to plume the depths of the soul, those elements of imagination, spiritual worth, of being willing to consider one's place in the universe and how they might better live in it. Poetry, when the desire for poetry arises , is not the "aha" experience, but for the blandishments of "there, there", the mother or the nurse stroking your hair, feeding you chocolate, assuring you things will balance out and that one's bad dream will soon be over. It's not surprising the poetry that is the most popular, while routinely competent as crafted compositions and generically clever with insights and surprises you sense coming as one does traffic lights, are therapy rather than art. We like the illusion of being deep while continuing to view the universe we are in as no complex than a daily comic strip. This is a bad thing, absolutely horrible.

We do think about ourselves, but more in terms of accumulation rather than an inner equilibrium. The measure of a man is his wallet, not the subtlety of his thoughts, and this a form of fearlessness that borders on insanity.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Prose poems are go!

Image result for the great american prose poemThere is much crossover between prose and poetry forms in contemporary literature, which one can read about in David Lehman's excellent anthology The Great American Prose Form. What he argues in his comprehensive introduction is that we need to rid ourselves of the idea that postmodernism was the advent of writers blurring genre boundaries and realize that writers, poets, and prose writers both, have been mashing together the forms for quite a while; rigid ideas of what "poetry" is should be loosened because of the way the better (and lesser poets) of the day compose their verse won't obey some one's global dictums. The marvel of the anthology is that the selections contradicts the general assumption of casual fans of contemporary poems--those readers who haven't much knowledge of American poetry besides a blurred and indistinct knowledge of the Beats--is that the prose poem, as a form, isn't a radical and irreducible avant-garde gesture only recently dropped on our country's credulous readership. (Although we could use more bomb throwers and trashers of tattered form to allow us to sharpen our wits, collectively, or at least argue constructively about what matters when we use words to describe events and things and feelings about the world we attempt to navigate with a minimum of the meanness of spirit). As the subtitle insists, it begins roughly with Poe with his many effusions that roamed beyond his Gothic decadence and wondered about the metaphysical of the universe that is always striving to balance its harmonies against man's self will, and taking us through the chatty  and unarmored paragraph-based lyricism of coming generations, a  diverse collection from TS Eliot, HD, Amy Lowell, Billy Collins, Gertrude Stein, The Beats, Leslie Scalapino, Michael Palmer, an impressive roster of writers, scribblers, musers, ponderers and poets all who've found themselves , at various times, realizing that even the relative freedom of "free verse" was not enough to extend language beyond the limits of what a sentence can quest to uncover and address and turned to the paragraph, that block of sentences on which our most exploitable accounts of what we experience in the world we explore and attempt to drive into the deepest parts of their individual mysteries. This is not the paragraph that instructs, enlightens, persuades, berates or conventionally seduces, it is the paragraph as poetic expression, the act of taking what is otherwise commonplace and otherwise banal in the world and subject to a scrutiny and interrogation that might reveal a dualism otherwise obscured, or perhaps expose a universe of dualism that multiplies and continue to do so until we stop looking for them. Styles, cadences, idioms and such vary greatly here among the writers  according to their backgrounds, regions, gender , and each pen to paper, each finger to typewriter eye, each attempt to take what one knows and test against what is not already cast  in one's vernacular is a journey surprising, passionate, chaotic, incoherent and vital in keeping our language relevant and, shall   we say, self-correcting when another era's metaphors cease to give us light and instead are grown      over with such foliage that only a noxious shade is available to   us. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

more regarding Leonard Cohen

(This originally appeared in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).
In my mind there was a decades long-debate as to who the best rock and roll poet was, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Being the kind of ersatz pundit who argued passionately for the minority opinion, my champion was Cohen. Critics and audiences and what used to be called Mass Media reached a consensus that gave Dylan the Keys to the Kingdom. All is to say that Dylan has Tin Pan Alley throwing a large shadow over his work. And now, with the death of the Canadian-born poet, novelist songwriter and recording artist on November 10 at age 82 gives the lie to the nonsense of pitting the two songwriters against each other in hypothetical grudge matches; that was the stuff of high school bull sessions, teen age certainty at its most insufferable. Ironically, Cohen’s music was about growing up and, eventually, growing old, if not with grace but certainly with full intent of living fully to the last. This was the rare instance where his work became more profound as I aged, deeper, more nuanced as personal experience matched the literary craft of the songs I admired long and enviously.

His songs were an impetus for me to do the same as he, a callow seventeen impatient, in some sense , to grow up and experience heartbreak so that I might wallow in a notion that mine, too, was a life lived fully, if not well, as Cohen seemed to convey in his lyrics. Dark rooms full of teenagers , a thick odor of pot and incense , Leonard Cohen’s voice, a rumbling monotone that made you think of a man speaking low or softly who had just then raised his volume just enough so that you suddenly heard him speak with alarming clarity of phrase and image, a constant, three chord strum on a guitar, this was my first encounter with the songwriter, an artist that planted the seed in many of us to go into the world and experience it deeply, to contemplate those experiences closely and completely, and to write the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable. How many of us actually did anything remotely like that is unknown; jobs, marriages, wars have serious ways of side tracking or eliminating careers as poets. But Cohen managed it, in a career that began in 1956 with the publication of his first book, The Spice Box Of Earth.

The sacred and the profane were subjects that were constants in his writing, not so much mashed together, the arbitrary fusion of unlike propositions , but rather intermingling, the aspects of sensuality and solemnity weaving and through each other, elements of the human spirit’s need to experience feel fully alive. Cohen’s chronicle of how he followed his muse over decades, in songs, poems, novels reveals a man who , I think, obviously believed in God, a deity, though, who might possible not have a Grand Plan for good people after this life surrenders us to darkness. His Higher Power, though, has a subtle and power sense of Irony. If God is in the details, He is in laughing, smirking at least, wondering what is we might learn from the collected experiences a life time accords us.

What inspired the poet in me to come alive and chase the muse of learning how to create suggestive sentences was the expansive flashiness of Dylan’s writing, vernacular fireworks that, in their best expression, made no literal sense but still left you with the chilling effect that something was happening that needed a new language to describe the vibe. His songs were public, his lyrics were cast in broad swaths of angular, cubist-bent non sequiturs that were perfect for a generation of youth that vaguely wanted a destiny that would form as all utopias theoretically would, by consensus, without rules, distortions, based on cooperation, in harmony with a natural order that had gotten lost in the rapid shuffle of change since World War 2. Cohen was the other extreme, personal, isolated, reflective to the degree that you felt as though you were invading a private space as you played the albums, the effect of walking into a room you thought was empty only to discover someone in there staring into a dark corner of the space, talking to themselves. Cohen felt deeply, considered his affairs, his pilgrimages, and his constant search for experience that might allow him to grow spiritually and so uncover a more profound notion of a love that does not die.

In poems and especially in songs, songs like “Suzanne”, “Hey , That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”, “Hallelujah “, and “Tower of Song”, Cohen artfully balanced two sides of a persona , the soul scarred and deepened by profound happenstance, and the observer, who wittily and with enormous amounts of bemusement recounting a new subtle lesson or a lesson that needed to be learned yet again. This isn’t to say Cohen is philosophically ponderous or didactic; although his songs are prone to many stanzas, Cohen’s lines and images are crisp, ironic, a masterful use of the snappy line no less agile than what Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe would offer. “Tower of Song”, I think, gives full evidence of this songwriter’s ability to be honest and curtly honestly with his allegories and yet it keep it comical.
Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
 I ache in the places where I used to play
 And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
 I’m just paying my rent every day
 Oh in the Tower of Song
 I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
 Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
 But I hear him coughing all night long
 A hundred floors above me
 In the Tower of Song
I was born like this, I had no choice
 I was born with the gift of a golden voice
 And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
 They tied me to this table right here
 In the Tower of Song
His songs, which I fine the finest of the late 20th century in English–only Dylan, Costello, Mitchell and Paul Simon, have comparable bodies of work–we find more attention given to the effect of every word and phrase that’s applied to his themes, his story lines. In many ways, Cohen was a better writer over all. Unlike Dylan, who has been indiscriminate for the last thirty ways I would say Cohen is a better lyricist than Dylan because he’s a better years about the quality of work he’s released, there is scarcely anything in Cohen’s songbook that wasn’t less than considered, pondered over, measured for effect and the achievement of the cultivated ambiguity that made you yearn for the sweet agony that accompanies a permanent residence in the half lit zone between the sacred and the profane.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Collins in the Wall Street Journal


Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins,in a recent chat with a Wall Street Journal reporter, talked about "banging his head" against the likes of Joyce, Pound and their attendant difficulties and his eventual decision to align himself with poets like Philip Larkin and Robert Frost and "poets, who dare to be clear." Superb models to use if you're aspiring to write in contiguous sentences unmarred by needless line breaks. 

Poetry readers should be grateful that Collins found his voice in the place where the conversations are actually happening, in the world and not the rheumy chambers of a book-addled soul. Difficult poetry that is actually good is difficult to write, and there are only a few among the millions who do so who actually deserve attention,praise, and continued discussion. At this stage,it becomes increasingly the case that there are far too many poets in the world who are trying to out- perform Stevens, Eliot, Stein, Olson in pushing the limits of poetry; the last group I paid attention to who managed difficulty that intrigued, provoked and which stopped making sense in a variety of works that made younger poets like myself examine the tropes I was using and attempt, with some success, to put it back together again, perception and images in newer works that come  out  just a little more out of the long shadow of previous and still present genius. 

So thank you LeRoi Jones, Ron Silliman, Rae  Armantrout, Paul Dresman, Bob Dylan and a few dozen others read in fifty years of reading for helping me , no, forcing me beyond my self-entombing idea of genius and moving me closer to the public square. No longer a younger poet stumbling in his attempts to master what seemed to be fashion at hand, I'm  old enough to accept the less stringent view that the only criteria for judging a poem's style, format, complexity and other such matters is in how well it works  on the reader who is reading it? Difficult or clear as glass, does the poem make a music one wants to understand? 

Billy Collins, of course, has his own amazingly effective style of clear poetry, and it's a marvel  to read how he begins with a scene,a situation performing what is often a banal house- hold task--listening to jazz, paying bills, a drive in the country, a bit of coffee in the city--and then a reverie of a sort,a memory triggered by some inane object , a recollection often seasoned with a light application of Literary Reference, just enough to expand the notion or expose a contradiction in his own assumption (the insight often being a dead sage's warning or mere reflection about matters of pride and exaggerated expectations)And  then there's a seamless transition to the scene from where he began his writing, the material world unchanged but, for the rumination that we've just read, is not the same as it was.His genius and  flaw are  the same heightened talent, his ability to produce these compact missives of everyday wonderment continuously.That's not to denigrate his skill at writing them, as the economy of his language, the resourcefulness of his imagination to find new twists and inlets within the limits of his style, and the genuinely  resonating effect of his phrase-making mark a writer who works his pieces; he is a professional, aware of his audience, aware of his materials, an artist who refuses  to let any of his ideas get muddied by the pretense   of deeper intimations.William Carlos Williams had the view that the thing itself is its own adequate symbol. Whatever one seeks to describe in the world one sees is already complex . Collins, more so than Williams, explores connections , fleeting though they are , of the things around to the world his imagination creates a frame for when he departs from home. His strategies, of course, are more varied than what I've described, but this is a recipe he uses as often as not, a template he can expand, revise, contract at will,  a habit he does splendidly. This makes him a good artist, a good craftsman, but it is also something that makes me want to call him a writer rather a poet.

He is , I think, the equivalent of the old school local newspaper columnist who would, twice or thrice a week, write 700 words or so about something in the news, in his life, whatever comes to mind, who would end his reflection that effectively left the reader reassured and just a little confused as to the purpose of that day's topic. The secret, though, was less to give meaning to the community one recognizes, but rather create the sense of texture. Columnist and poet Collins have skills that remind of things that you cannot quite put a finger on--something is lost, something     is joyful, something is sad or funny, but how, why , what is it?

I might mention as well that Collins' work seems to be a sequence of experiences that are uninterrupted by work situations.Others can, I imagine, provide me with poems of his where work is an element, a strong one, perhaps even the subject of the poem, but it occurs to me that Collins , at least in many of his poems, is a flaneur, a walker in the city, a watcher, the character who observes, records, relates the isolated bits of daily experience, testing the limits of his ideas, constantly re-acquainting himself with his own fallibility. Please don't mistake that for a bad thing. It's nice work if you can get it.