Friday, November 28, 2008

origin of the pieces

What's broken commands attention. Glass shatters and there is surprise, danger, sharp edges, and the scattered pieces reflect light in unexpected ways. A disturbance of wholeness and immediately we are provoked to wonder: what was it before it broke? The contemporary poem has been decisively shattered by various techniques such as fragmentation, juxtaposition, collage, ellipsis and manipulation of space on the page. Ashbery and Graham have been using these techniques for many years, as have a host of newer poets including D.A. Powell, Joshua Clover, Dan Beachy-Quick, Matthea Harvey, Karen Volkman, Andrew Zawacki, Noah Eli Gordon and many more—in fact, so many more that the trajectory of contemporary American poetry is decisively aimed toward non-linerarity and fragmentation (of idea or image, or both) and away from the (still) prevailing mode of narrative, confessional, lyric and meditative"I"-based poems. Of course, there have always been poetries operating apart from the I- driven narrative and lyric, and a healthy crosstalk has been going on among and between all current and past styles for many years, as, for example, between lyric-I, narrative, and Language Writing, or between poems and other types of writing such as essay, discourse, fiction, journalism and speech—everyday idiom or heightened rhetoric.

As with fragments from an archeological dig—pot shard, parchment piece, splinter of bone—we are provoked into imagining the whole from which they came. Engaging us in that imaginative act gives the broken poem interest, as well as intellectual or emotional traction, a handrail however shaky or newly constructed at every step. I was interested to see this described in another way in the article Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise . An excellent and visual example of provocative fragmenting is Mary Ruefelle's A Little White Shadow (Wave Books)—a small, lovely book that is itself an art object, each page seemingly smeared with white-out, allowing only glimpses of phrase, image, line, that tantalize into imagined sequences and narratives, a possible world, a back story now invisible but informing the surface.

The reading of shattered poems is inevitably accompanied by the question: what was it before it broke? Is there a hint of story to be reconstructed? An identifiable emotional center? A tradition, a form, an historical construct of any kind? Any sense of a wholeness that shadows a poem, whether it is only hinted at (the ongoing sense of prayer haunting DA Powell's Cocktails) or obvious (the sonnet form broken and reassembled by Volkman in Nomina) is, it seems to me, what gives the poem's brokenness its power.

Sensing the existence of an integrity behind even the most apparently broken poem, a reader uses that sense to navigate and cohere small islands of linearity, similarity or mood within the poem. How far apart the islands lie, how much of a leap from one to the next is required by the reader, and whether or not the reader senses a wholeness shadowing the display of dispararities has, I believe, a lot to do with the success of such a poem.

Monday, August 11, 2008

not mere rhetoric


What does it mean to be a poetry critic? Should a poetry critic also be a poet? Aren't all poets critics by necessity? After all, poets think about their work, how to best revise it, how it might work differently and so forth. Even when proceeding by pure experimentation, poets will figure out what they've done once they've done it. Many, if not most, poets are also teachers. How do they teach poetry without analyzing, comparing, discussing and evaluating, then articulating their thoughts to an audience? Some poets are also editors, requiring them to make judgments of work submitted to them. How is this done if not by thinking critically about poetry, seeing the poem as an aesthetic object and attempting to understand and articulate, if only to oneself, how and what it is doing?

At the Harriet Blog, DA Powell sees a separation between poet and critic while Reginald Shepherd argues for their natural, if not inescapable, coupling. I agree with Reginald. Books get reviewed, submissions accepted or rejected, and seminars and poetry workshops conducted all on the basis of thinking critically about poetry. There is hardly a way to be a poet and avoid teaching it, writing about it, talking about it, blogging about it, etc. Everyone's a critic as they say, and nowhere is this more obvious than in poetry. But isn't poetry criticism a separate field of knowledge? What constitutes poetry criticism as a discipline, where and how is it studied, and where does it fit in the field of poetry? What training should a poetry critic have? These questions are being provoked as I read the terrific Praising it New: The Best of the New Criticism, a newly-published anthology of the writings of the New Critics edited by Garrick Davis. I am struck by the intellectual depth, rigor and commitment to poetry and truth these critics had.

After another, related, reading, "The Shakespeared Brain", an article by Phillip Davis, I did some research on rhetoric, its history and terminology. Useful in writing and also in criticism, the study of rhetoric seems to have gone the way of studying grammar. Perhaps the brain studies described by Davis will inspire more study of the way language usage affects thinking, and rhetoric will return as a hot new field of study. A few years ago I proposed an alternative course of study for an MFA in poetry that doesn't include writing a poetry "thesis" or taking workshops, but instead would be an MFA in Poetry Criticism—comprising the reading of and thinking critically about, poetry, with a minor focus on writing your own (and maybe a major focus on rhetoric!).

Monday, June 16, 2008

boredom as concept


Coming of age in the warhol-inspired, electric-kool-aid-acid-test, krapp's last tape, happenings, conceptual/ performance/installation art, open/visual/concrete poetry era, the discussion of "conceptual poetry" taking place on the poetry foundation blog in Kenneth Goldsmith's entries, seems very familiar, even retro, to me, but I know I must be careful not to conflate what happened then with what's happening now, however similar they may seem (how aggravating it is to hear "oh, that's nothing new"!). And besides, so what if the concept of "conceptual poetry" is not new? Maybe it's time to revisit it and enjoy it again. It's got some new elements, has expanded to include more "art-y" and "performance-y" bits (open poetry meets conceptual art) and has overall new energies and confident practitioneers which give it a nice new shiny look and feel. The problem for me is not that it's been done but that I didn't enjoy it the first time around. For one thing, the people who were "into it" were pretentious and full of inflated rhetoric and insubstantial ideas all wrapped up and presented as intellectual daring. I admit I sat through the whole of Warhol's film of a man sleeping* trying to be as avant-garde as my hippie friends, but even then, I had nagging doubts. Why wasn't I seeing a Bergman film, or some other cutting edge film like "Jules and Jim," or "8 1/2" -- something that had substance and meaning or joy and daring, something that I could enjoy and savor or at least not be bored by? Why deliberately subject myself to something boring, especially after the enforced boredom of a classroom? Raising these questions only got the response: "Ah-ha! That's how you're supposed to react. You're supposed to get bored and ask why you're bored. The boredom itself is the experience!." Well. I was already plenty bored, why ask for more? The only way to watch it, really, was to be stoned, the way we all read Ashbery then. Maybe that's the answer re: "conceptual poetry"—-Caution: Do Not Enter Without Drugs.

* Sleep is described thus: "Andy Warhol used a fixed camera position in his 1963 film titled Sleep. The film shows a complete night’s rest over eight hours. Much like the man in the movie, the viewer is tempted to drift off indecisively into unconsciousness. Like in a dream, you don’t have the forethought to know how long you will be in this altered state, and what awaits you after it ends."

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

an apple is what you do with it


While writing a review of Matthea Harvey's Modern Life, and pondering (again) the penchant of some contemporary poets for using words as playthings without respect for their meaning(s)--implied, contextual, inflected, literal or metaphorical--I noticed the most recent New Yorker article on Pound's influence ("The Pound Error") which included this:

"Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ ” was the formula of the movement that Pound invented, in 1912: Imagism. In the Imagist model, the writer is a sculptor. Technique consists of chipping away everything superfluous in order to reveal the essential form within. “It took you ninety-seven words to do it,” Pound is reported to have remarked to a young literary aspirant who had handed him a new poem. “I find it could have been managed in fifty-six."

The seed of the trouble lies in what most people find the least problematic aspect of the Imagist aesthetic: the insistence on "the perfect word," l.e. mot juste. This seems a promise to get language up to the level of experience: artifice and verbiage are shorn away, and words point directly to the objects they name.

Language becomes transparent; we experience the world itself. "When words cease to cling close to things, kingdoms fall, empires wane and diminish," Pound wrote in 1915. This is a correspondence theory of language with a vengeance. We might doubt the promise by noting that in ordinary speech we repeat, retract, contradict, embellish, and digress continually in order to make our meaning more precise. No one likes to be required to answer a question yes or no, because things are never that simple. This is not because individual words are too weak; it’s because they are too powerful. They can mean too many things. [Italics mine] So we add more words, and embed our clauses in more clauses, in order to mute language, modify it, and reduce it to the modesty of our intentions. President Clinton was right: "is" does have many meanings, and we need to be allowed to explain the particular one we have in mind."

As both editor and poet, Pound was especially aware of the power of a word. It reminds me that the expression "it's only words" (used, astoundingly, by Hillary Clinton—-another Clinton!—-in reference to Obama's speeches) is, or ought to be, anathema to any poet (or writer) claiming to be the real thing, yet we have had decades of poets who write in just that way—-with no respect for, or love of, words. (Curiously, Ron Silliman refers to my review of Harvey as "dissing" her book. In fact, I've probably paid closer attention to her actual poems than any other reviewer. Other reviewers talk mainly about the "project" she has engaged in, not the actual writing.)

Meanwhile, thanks to Ron Silliman's amazing list of links (where I now go for my poetry news fix, along with Poetry Daily News), I came across this, a discussion of how scientists are working on understanding how the brain decodes meaning:

"The meaning of an apple, for instance, is represented in brain areas responsible for tasting, for smelling, for chewing. An apple is what you do with it."

Pound would have been pleased by such a discovery, I think: the direct correspondance between word meaning and experience.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

where have all the ladies gone?


I've been steered toward the review of Over Summer Water, by Elizabeth McFarland on this month's Contemporary Poetry Review by a complaint on Wom-Po (the Women's Poetry List-Serv founded by Annie Finch, of which I am a member). First, the complaint: it was stated by a couple of Wom-po posters that they found the review "demeaning" that the reviewer referred to the author's "ladylike" clothing in an author photo and harped on the "littleness" of her vocabulary. Another poster felt the review reflected the overall tone of the Contemporary Poetry Review as not "respectful" of women and also "catty" (odd word here for the purpose). I am a staff reviewer for the CPR, so I was not only curious about the actual complaint in relation to the review, but also curious about the perception of CPR as "hierarchical" (this must mean "patriarchical"??) and as not often reviewing books by women (this review is characterized as an "aberration for them."). I discovered CPR on the web in 1999 and championed its inclusion on Web del Sol where I was then (and am now) a poetry editor for Del Sol Review as well as editor of Perihelion. I wrote my first review for CPR in 2004 (on DA Powell's trilogy). The CPR is a remarkably intelligent and lively online journal dedicated solely to poetry criticism and the only such journal I know of (Parnassus is in the same league, but also publishes poetry along with reviews and essays), and certainly, it is the only one of its kind on the web. So, I checked out the archives of CPR for reviews of books by women. There are also essays and interviews, but just quickly checking the archives, it appears that there is a preponderance of books of poetry by men reviewed. (I don't feel like actually counting them all up, maybe somebody else will and let me know.) For that matter, there are more male reviewers. On the other hand, there is a continuous "Call for Critics" banner on the front page and I know they are always looking for more reviewers. Why aren't there more female reviewers on CPR? Do they apply and get rejected? (Hard to imagine that, if the writing is good enough.) And, if there were more female reviewers, would there be more books of poetry by females reviewed? I dunno. Judging by me, no. ;-) But judging by the other female reviewers, maybe. Of course, Kathleen Rooney wrote the review on Elizabeth McFarland's book, and that was seen as a sexist review, so….not sure how that works. Are female reviewers only supposed to review other females, and those, only positively? Not sure. One thing I am sure of is that complaining about the state of things is much less effective than acting to change things. Apply to CPR! Become a reviewer! Write reviews of women's books!

Now about the actual review: I think it's a terrific review and I'm glad I ended up reading it, albeit because of a complaint. I was surprised that Rooney began the piece with a poem that had such "ugly" vocabulary ("greed", "rotted ground", "gluttony", "bloated and deformed") then went on to make the case that McFarland was, in fact, squarely set in the romantic mode of the era as both poet and editor. I had the idea initially that she would argue for a trajectory toward Plath beginning with McFarland. But McFarland's other examples were all in the usual high-romantic, didactic mode of the time. It's a thoughtful and sympathetic portrait of a talented woman unable to free herself from cultural constraints (and yet, some of her lines are more than fashionable as Rooney points out). The reference to her clothing is simply that—-her actual portrait and "costume" a reflection of the "costume" worn by poets of that time. It's instructive, I think, to look back within one's own lifetime, to an anthology of the '70s, for example, to understand what "period style" means. And yes, there is a period style now—-think about it.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"where the children are not"

Reading Nomina, Karen Volkman's latest, intermingled with Larry King's interview of the women from the polygamist cult and the contrast is informative, both ways. For Volkman (whose "Crash's Law" is one of my favorite books and "Spar" not even close), there is a lesson to glean from these women, which is: undecorated, simple, stark, and powerfully emotional. The lesson for the polygamy women from Volkman is: risk within boundaries, yes, but with bold imagination, love of language and rhetorical nerve. It was astonishing to witness the impovershment of language and the mechanical, sometimes frightened, demeanor of these women. When one of them fought back tears while showing the cameras "where the children are not" it was hard not to be teary also. Meanwhile, Volkman has managed to do everything possible with the language except elicit emotion. She indeed is using boundaries (the sonnet form) to amp up the poems' risks via compression, but what she does instead of accessing something human and of interest to the reader, is to show off her considerable talent. Why is it so difficult to use language in the service of emotion? These poems are dazzlements of cleverness, energetic and lush with sound (and I do love sound!), but ultimately, empty towns. Where are the citizens? There are exceptions, and this one on the Academy of American Poets website is one that engages me beyond mere admiration:

Sonnet [Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,]
by Karen Volkman

Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,
the earth, blue egg, in its seeping shell
dispensing damage like a hollow hell
inchling weeping for a minor sea

ticking its tidelets, x and y and z.
The blue beneficence we call and spell
and call blue heaven, the whiteblue well
of constant water, deepening a thee,

a thou and who, touching every what—
and in the or, a shudder in the cut—
and that you are, blue mirror, only stare

bluest blankness, whether in the where,
sheen that bleeds blue beauty we are taught
drowns and booms and vowels. I will not.

I do love how it recalls so much of poetic tradition (Hopkins, Stevens, Dylan Thomas, the Romantics and sonneteers) while still being new. Masterful lines here, and the book as a whole is highly accomplished, more than worthy of admiration. I just want something human, some emotional core, at least some of the time.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

reality bites

When poets start to focus on getting a manuscript published, it seems such a daunting and impossible task (so many contests, so many poets entering them, so many presses, so few open to submissions) that they don't look past that initial publication. (I know I didn't.) So what happens? Here is some straight talk from William Logan on the subject (first published on the Poetry Foundation blog):

"My theory about publishing poetry is so depressing, I’d rather not put it on the page. Here goes. Take the trade and university presses, and the better independents. The first year, I suspect most poetry books sell between 500 and 1000 copies. Let’s say 750. Perhaps 250 of these go to libraries, where ten get taken out and read. (By this I mean read cover to cover. Otherwise it’s not reading; it’s browsing.) Two hundred are bought at readings or by fond friends and ignorant relatives. Of these copies, 20 might be read (if we’re talking about my relatives, the figure is lower). The remaining 300 copies are bought by the few people in the country who read poetry, and of these fifty copies might be read. By my count, the book gets fewer than 100 readers the first year. Perhaps the book receives one or two reviews (an editor told me that half the books he publishes—this is a New York publisher—get no reviews at all.)

The second year is worse. Now the book sells 30 copies, of which perhaps five are read. The books in the libraries gather another 10 or 20 readers. The third year the book sells 15 copies, or is remaindered. After six or seven years, the public library copies get sent to the Friends of the Library sale. The university library copies gather dust. My advice is, if you want to write poetry, learn to love silence.

Say, then, that in three years, in a country of 300,000,000, a book of poetry sells 800 copies. You could search through five football stadiums, each seating 75,000, before you could find one buyer. If I’m correct that only about 100 of those buyers finish a book of poetry, you’d have to search through 40 stadiums to find even one person who had read the book. We live in a minor art. That doesn’t mean we love it the less, or hate it the less.

There are exceptions; but—let’s be honest—few poets selling ten or twenty thousand copies will be of any interest 50 years later. There were dozens of poets who sold much better than the young Eliot or Pound. Stevens’s Harmonium sold so poorly it was remaindered for 50 cents a copy. If you sell a lot of books and want a lasting reputation, hope that you’re Robert Frost."

Best: "My advice is, if you want to write poetry, learn to love silence."

Sunday, March 9, 2008

recommended reading

James Longenbach's superb little book, The Art of the Poetic Line, is so clearly written and chock-full of insights, it has started me thinking about meaning again, only in a different way, to wit: a poem's meaning may be a bonus (or even a distraction) but it is not a necessity. A poem gives aesthetic pleasure, evokes emotion, and otherwise entertains and engages the senses and intellect, but it serves no useful function. In other words, the use of language--to communicate meaning--is not the primary use of language in a poem because a poem, like any other art, is entirely useless. The fact that a poem is composed with something we also use to communicate meaning (our language) doesn't mean that language in a poem must also communicate meaning. As Longenbach eloquently details, there are many and various ways that a poem creates an effect in, and engages with, the reader--communicating meaning is only one of them, and that one, not even necessary (his discussion of Ashbery is especially relevant to this idea). Instead, the sonic texture, syntactical variety, and kinds of line break (or line end as he likes to refer to it), trump any mere communication of meaning. They create associations in the reader that may become meaning or may simply stay in the realm of reverie.

The idea that there is a split between meaning (something deep) and craft (something superficial) is erroneous as any editor can tell you—or any poet who's done serious revision on their work. You can hardly fiddle with the language in a poem, or the line breaks, or the syntax, or even the simplest grammatical element, like pronouns, without turning the poem toward, if not into, something else. It's like the idea of a split between style and content--what could that be? How could that be? I have to smile when I hear commentators describing Obama's speeches as "just words" or "only words"--again, this idea that there's a "surface" of language that is somehow inferior to its "deep" meaning. How is such meaning attained if not through the surface, the words?

Longenbach's discussion of prose poems is particularly enlightening, and I like how he goes immediately to the one writer who most decisively demonstrates that there is no split between the two--James Joyce. How is Joyce's prose different from poetry? It's not lineated--overtly, that is. But is lineation the only way to finally define a poem? Longenbach quotes Mallarme's provocative, but finally, all-too-broad, remark:

There is no such thing as prose. There is the alphabet and then there are verses, which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffuse. So long as there is a straining toward style, there is versification.


I also appreciate Longenbach's discussion of poems that are "semantically incoherent and syntactically coherent"--a great way to describe elliptical poetry (yes, it all leads back to ellipticism ;-).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

musing on the line

All this talk of ellipticism and parataxis has naturally led me to a deeper consideration of syntax and the poetic line in general. By a happy coincidence I discovered I had a copy of the newly-published (Graywolf) The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach, a fantastic articulation of many of the issues I’ve considered over the years, and many I have not. It's the first book I've read on craft that has real application to reading, appreciating and evaluating many of the contemporary—-dare I say "post-avant"—-poets. One of the many provocations the book provides is the idea of a line that is syntactically coherent but semantically incoherent and the thrill such tension can produce (for example, such as Ashbery can regularly produce). Longenbach's exploration of the line reminds me that overlooked in the critical assessment of elliptical poems is an examination of how the work of the line is enhanced or weakened by what's inside the line—-word choices, denotations and connotations. As Longenbach asks, how can a poem’s "syntactical eruption" be "exciting rather than merely confusing?"

I am also reading Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life, a good collection to read in tandem with Longenbach.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

unsweetened peonies




In a previous entry, Chad Parmenter's comment introduced the idea of a possible relationship between ellipticism and parataxis—something I started thinking about and now have followed a little further. While ellipsis and parataxis are different (but not opposite) types of grammatical constuction, it's true that many contemporary poems are characterized by paratactic constructions and that, therefore, the "space" left by the disconnected sentences, phrases or fragments is elliptical, that is, to be filled in by the reader. Generally, a heavily paratactic poem signals its modernity. The opposite of parataxis, hypotaxis, is more often seen in older poems. A poem by Jane Kenyon, for example, already seems dated due to its reliance on hypotactic constructions (among other things, including its predictable movement toward the epiphany):

Peonies at Dusk

White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.

Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They're staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.

The moist air intensifies their scent,
and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it's coming from.

In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one's face.

The poem is immediately "updated" when parataxis replaces hypotaxis, fragments replace full sentences and juxtaposition is introduced:

Peonies at Dusk

White peonies bloom, send out light.
The rest of the yard grows dim.

Outrageous flowers! Big as human
heads. Staggered by their own

luxuriance: I had to prop them up
with stakes, twine.

The moist air intensifies. Their scent.
The moon moves around the barn

to find out what it's coming from
in the darkening June evening.

I draw a blossom near, bend close, search it.
A woman searching a loved one's face.


Many older (or not so older) readers of contemporary poetry are put off by the contemporary poem's parataxis and resultant syntactical shifts, just as they find cinematic jumps unpleasant rather than exciting. Because a poem no longer has a recognizable stylistic façade, the reader may find it impossible to enter—where's the door? A poem's subject matter is less of a readability problem for some than the (defeated) expectation of familiar syntax.

Further updating occurs when Kenyon's poem is rearranged toward an "eastern" rather than "western" ending (these are terms I first heard from April Ossman at a Colrain conference). Briefly, the western ending is one that ends the poem with a swelling wave of music and a clash of cymbals; the eastern ending is a chime struck once that reverberates throughout the landscape. The original, western ending:

Peonies at Dusk

White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.

Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They're staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.

The moist air intensifies their scent,
and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it's coming from.

In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one's face.

As experienced poets know, the extreme westernization of a poem's ending can often be alleviated by a simple swapping of stanzas:

Peonies at Dusk

Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They're staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.

The moist air intensifies their scent,
and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it's coming from.

In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one's face.

White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.

So the poem ends with a whimper, not a bang, and has a more contemporary feel. Now, with a paratactical syntax, and relineation into couplets (another contemporary trend):

Peonies at Dusk

Outrageous flowers! Big as human
heads. Staggered by their own

luxuriance. I had to prop them up
with stakes, twine. The moist air

intensifies their scent. The moon moves
around the barn to find out what

it's coming from. In the darkening
June evening I draw a blossom near,

bend close. Search it. A woman
searching a loved one's face.

White peonies bloom, send out light.
The rest of the yard grows dim.

Now the debate over author intentionality, the meaning of meaning and all such like concerns begins--the concern of translators is also the concern of any reader of a literary text--how to balance the stylistic or "surface" with the intended (and unintended) authorial purpose(s). Many poets use surface manipulation to achieve terrific, often unexpected, results. The idea of poetic development, as it applies to some inner, psychological (or spiritual) evolution (and hard-won "truths") seems also a somewhat outmoded, heavily romanticised concept of the Poet. After all, Khalil Gibran (my favorite "poet" in high school!) or Rumi or good old Babba Ram Dass (sure wish he could be here now) and others of the high-minded supercharged spiritual school of poetry certainly have reached some heights (or depths) of inner development--but what have they got to show for it in re: to the actual writing? Obviously, no connection, and never has been one, between personal goodness, suffering, enlightenment and whatnot and great writing. I remember this conundrum well from my hippified youth--guru-worship vs. the drek of the guru's actual writing--swing low, sweet platitude.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The play's the thing


While Ellipticism has been applied to a poetic style or school, it seems to me that the idea of what's missing, and how that perpetrates the creative act (both in composition and interpretation), is everywhere. In a restaurant, overhearing only bits of a conversation and filling in the rest; in a face to face conversation where gesture and facial expression fill in the unspoken text, perhaps with contradictions to, or support for, the actual words spoken; at the movies, where cinematic jump cuts and flashbacks elide the linearity of a plot; or through background music that supports, denies, or introduces an entirely other world--all add another dimension to the spoken word. This is also true in drama (and maybe a better comparison than film, since dialogue in drama is of utmost importance) where playwrights get to use all the surrounding apparatus of dialogue (action, gesture, prop, music, costume,
scenery) to emphasize, confound, or subvert the spoken word. Having begun my writing life writing plays, not poems, I am always interested in the correspondences between and among these two forms, especially in re: to the idea of "meaning." In theater, the concept of the fourth wall is a great one to apply to the poem wherein the reader can “peer into” the world of the poem with the sense of overhearing something meant to be private. Just as in a play, where the audience is not overtly included (except occasionally, by design), but whose presence is crucial to the creator, a poem needs to be "looked at" in order to exist at all. For the playwright, as for the poet, the audience determines effect. When Arthur Miller built a small cabin in the woods in order to write in isolation the play that was hounding him (Death of a Salesman) he still had no idea that this play that had a hold on him would have a hold on an audience. On opening night, as he stood in the back of the theater and watched the curtain come down in complete silence, then stood for a moment as no one moved or spoke he thought: "It's a failure" until, as the story goes, someone remembered to applaud and "the whole house came down."

In a recent New Yorker article (Dec.23, 2007), John Lahr quotes Harold Pinter: "I think there’s a shared common ground [among people] all right, but that it’s more like quicksand." Pinter's plays, of course, depend on the elliptical moments, those pauses fraught with multiple meaning, looks and intonations, all the missing words among the characters and what's not said is most powerful. Perhaps such power is hard to achieve on the page--certainly the poetic "leap" that Bly proposed as existing and reproducible is one way to put the fraught back into the pause for a poet. Unfortunately, many contemporary poets have only the empty pause--much like the dreaded "dead air" on a radio program--to show for their elliptical efforts.

By the way, I wonder what ever happened to "verse drama"--is there anything in contemporary poetry that would fit that description? Maybe Gluck’s Meadowlands? I think the Poetry Foundation is trying to revive the form with an award for such.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Deeper into January


Along with the contemporary poem's romance with ellipsis and various indeterminacies comes a weird relativism; that is, a sense that the poem can be re-arranged in many different ways to achieve different, and sometimes better, results than the ones in the author's own version. This raises the question of inevitability--is the final, perhaps even published, poem the best poem it can be, or is it simply where the author stopped revising it? It also raises the issue of author intention: where is the border, if there is one, between the author's intended "meaning" and the reader's perceived "meaning?" Does the author's intention matter in the reading of a poem? Should it? Or (as I believe), should the poem trump the poet? Often the poem is better than the poet allows it to be, or enables it to be. Here is the original, relatively straightforward, poem:

In January

Ted Kooser

Only one cell in the frozen hive of night
is lit, or so it seems to us:
this Vietnamese café, with its oily light,
its odors whose colorful shapes are like flowers.
Laughter and talking, the tick of chopsticks.
Beyond the glass, the wintry city
creaks like an ancient wooden bridge.
A great wind rushes under all of us.
The bigger the window, the more it trembles.


Here is another version with no other changes but in line order:

In January

This Vietnamese café, with its oily light,
its odors whose colorful shapes are like flowers
is lit, or so it seems to us:
only one cell in the frozen hive of night.
A great wind rushes under all of us.
The bigger the window, the more it trembles.
Laughter and talking, the tick of chopsticks.
Beyond the glass, the wintry city
creaks like an ancient wooden bridge.

In this version, the poem starts inside the café and moves outward to the city as a whole. It hangs together because each line has a wholeness of its own but is not linked by necessity of narration to its immediately preceding or succeeding line. The gaps, or ellipsis, between and among lines, allows movement of them to other positions, and produces a different frisson. While the opening line of Kooser's original poem is superior to this opening—it is a more striking image, while this opening is simply good description—the ending of this version strikes me as better. The last line, while arguably too big (a "western" ending which I'll discuss in another entry), is less faux-epigrammatic (the "bigger the window" etc., echoes "the bigger they come, the harder they fall" and ending on that line calls attention to the clever, but empty, echo—empty because while the literal part of the line may be true, a bigger window trembles more in the wind, its epigrammatic echo has no real resonance in this poem). Also, compared with the author’s original version, this version seems more mysterious, less linear and, to my mind, more interesting in its progression for those reasons. It’s also a bit darker, less cozy, more about the menace outside, the unpredictable nature of weather, winter, and the bridge out of the city is not safe, is one that creaks. It is, in fact, ancient. This ending is not as pat as the ending in the author’s version.

Here is a third version:

In January

A great wind rushes under all of us.
The bigger the window, the more it trembles.
Beyond the glass, the wintry city
creaks like an ancient wooden bridge.
Laughter and talking, the tick of chopsticks.
This Vietnamese café, with its oily light,
its odors whose colorful shapes are like flowers
is lit, or so it seems to us:
only one cell in the frozen hive of night.

Many poems can be upended to good effect. This seems surprising, but if you think about it, poets write toward the epiphany, the big idea, the emotional high, and that very progress is itself a cliché no matter how well or originally it's written. That's because we expect the wind-up before the pitch in every kind of discourse, not just poetry. It's how the mind works and so we echo that working in writing. One way to lessen the predictability of this kind of writing is to "delay cognition" through a simple grammatical strategy like prolonging a clause, or not stating the agent/subject immediately. In this version of Kooser's poem, the big ending lines are first, so now the poem becomes an exploration of that mighty conclusion, something like the cinematic flashback, and the emotional center shifts from the menace outside, the indifference of nature, to the small but enduring grace of human company, giving the poem another kind of feeling, less dark. The line about the "one cell" now has a very different resonance as the poem moves toward, not away from it--and the "hive" speaks of human contact, the sense of huddling together in "one cell" more than alienation in the bigness of a winter night, an indifferent universe.

Looking at all three versions, it seems to me that the author's own version is the weakest of the lot, but could be improved greatly by cutting the line "the bigger the window" altogether, and re-arranging the lines once again:


In January

Only one cell in the frozen hive of night
is lit, or so it seems to us:
this Vietnamese café, with its oily light,
its odors whose colorful shapes are like flowers.
Laughter and talking, the tick of chopsticks.
A great wind rushes under all of us.
Beyond the glass, the wintry city
creaks like an ancient wooden bridge.


A poem is on a continuum of creation. The poet chooses when to stop. Sometimes the poet doesn't know best, but the poem does. The poet needs to listen to the poem.