Jan 31, 2010

Poetry: What Is It?

We Real Cool - Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

the singer

the stand-up

a scene

Dadgummit, Brenda, in your comments last time, you've steered me completely off course. My response to you got so long that I'm turning it into today's post.

So the Richard Wilbur poem waits at least another day, and the shorter, but not simple Gwendolyn Brooks poem goes up today. It's famous enough that many might already know it, but it's poetry, it's rock-hard, it's musical, and it has something to say, maybe something quite daring.

But first, here again is "The Ineffable" by Bilgere or "Brenda's guy”:


What I find, as I do with so much of the "School of Accessibility," is that most of the poem could just as reasonably have been prose. Why has the poet chosen to break his writing into lines, chosen to call them verse? In Bilgere’s “The Ineffable,” I think the piece became poetry about 70% of the way into itself. Or, let’s say it becomes a poem somewhere in the last stanza.

That endless set-up, in language that’s actually prose, is true of many poems out there today. Some, of course, never do become poetry. Maybe that's OK; it's certainly popular. But if I go to poetry, I want frequent nuggets that will stand up to examination by a competent, demanding gemologist—let's say at least a nugget every three lines (this mathifying is absurd, I realize, but bear with me).

What do I mean by a nugget? As Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Bilgere’s lines have appealing, witty images, and I like its overall theme about fantasy. I've been the victim of that kind of self-deception, and I know others who have. But I see no reason that the piece could not, should not, be a prose short story.

In fact, we now have additional categories: flash fiction, sudden fiction, prose poem, ultra-talk. So why forcibly break one’s words and sentences into lines trying to be, claiming to be, poetry? Does the writer have that much contempt for prose? It can be as deep and as moving as poetry, and it pays better, by a lot.

Let me repeat: I enjoyed “The Ineffable.” I have some respect for its way of couching important psychology in humor. But I doubt that I’ll ever admire it the way I do so much of Dickinson, Hopkins, Yeats, Keats, Frost, Plath, Dylan Thomas, or more recently, Seamus Heany, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Theodore Roethke, Richard Wilbur, Kay Ryan, and on and on. In their work I find a gift in almost every line, the kind that Emily Dickinson said would blow off the top of your head--that's when you know you're in the presence of poetry--not at the end of a long, prosy build-up, which can resemble a joke on Comedy Central.

Let’s go there. As I’ve said before, I respect a lot of stand-up comics. I’ve recently realized how much they have in common with poets, alone on a stage, risking everything in what they say and the way they say it. But should we call them poets? Of course, in their case, “comedian” doesn’t have the clout of “poet” (or “physician,” or “philosopher” or “taxidermist”); but let’s then get a new word for stand-ups rather than stealing “poet” from the poets.

In the same light, why not write fiction and call yourself a fiction writer or novelist? I don’t get it.

Can we have narrative poetry? Yes, of course. But remember, Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is narrative. Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a story. Surely there's no doubt that they are poems. Ditto Browning's "My Last Duchess," since Brenda mentioned it.

Also, I did refer to vast shades of grey, where Frost might be at times (but that's most likely to happen only if we don't hear his rhythms, which is most likely to happen in his blank verse poems). Even Whitman’s bombastic chanting and repetition are closer to what we usually mean by “poetry” than many of today’s poem-chats.

The whole matter is treacherously subjective. One person's music is another person's drone; one person's verbal gem is another's piece of gravel. But I’m not sure the issue of conversation and prose, on the one hand, compared to poetry on the other is sufficiently prominent and honest. There was a flurry of commentary and challenge a few years ago, when Sharon Olds, Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland and others were rising to prominence, but the topic seems to have evaporated.

It’s understandable that poets don’t want to challenge each other much on such debatable grounds; their status in our culture is too precarious for them to fight among themselves. But I think the talk—dare I say the “conversation”— could be more thorough and probing than it is, at least as far as I know.

Of course, the flip side of that coin would be universities that fire their writers-in-residence because they don't belong to this or that school of verbal aesthetics. There's no winning. That's why we turn to poems like "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks:

We Real Cool - Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

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Jan 29, 2010

On the Light Side of Darkness: Mastication and Stephen Crane's poetry

When I am once again the last at a table to finish a meal, I think of my junior high health class and the advice to chew 32 times before swallowing.

I don’t always make it to 32, but I come pretty close. I don’t think it’s an obsession; I just like my food moist and ready to go down without a fight, like canned dog food.

Is Alpo still on the market? There was one kind of dog food, maybe Alpo, that was a dead ringer for corned beef hash. Is it still on the market?

At a Wendy’s yesterday, I watched a guy chomp 12 times and swallow. What a barbarian. And when his half-chewed chickens come home to roost, as acid reflux or autoerotic self-strangulation, I’ll have to pay his doctor bills. So will you, all because he thought he was too busy to chew.

By the way, one of my favorite Banjo aphorisms is: If you think you love her, don’t watch her eat.

Why is dinner together such a popular dating and mating activity? How can you concentrate on romance when you’re counting the other’s chomps or wondering whether she'll wield her fork like a wand?

And please don’t feed me any of those perverted theories about our cannibalistic tendencies when grandma says, “You’re so sweet I could just eat you up.”

Suddenly I’m thinking of a Stephen Crane poem. Of course he’s better known for The Red Badge of Courage, but he wrote some 99 poems—or “poems,” curiosities—and whatever they are, I’ve found two of them memorable, if grim.

Here’s one that’s thinly connected to my deep and probing metaphysics above, and here’s also one that’s not, one that’s just worth thinking about.

In the Desert by Stephen Crane

A man said to the universe: by Stephen Maria Crane

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Jan 28, 2010


Here’s one of the tour guides at the Hemingway house in Key West. I liked her a lot. She had probably memorized most or all of her talk, and was forcing the rise and fall in her inflection, just a little. Yet her delivery sounded fairly fresh, as if she were interested in her own material. It was all enhanced by her chipped front tooth and soft southern accent, features I found appealing.

Here are a few facts or “facts” I’d forgotten or never learned about Hemingway.

There were four wives. I remembered only the last one by name, Mary, who stayed with him for 16 years, until his death.

He got the fine Key West house—one of the largest and, at 16 feet above sea level, Key West's highest house—as a wedding present from the family of his second wife, Pauline, who replaced the ceiling fans with overwrought chandeliers and had a $20,000 swimming pool built for a house that cost a small fraction of that, expensive though it was. When Hemingway fell for a journalist who came to interview him, he and Pauline divorced, but the house went to him after her death.

There were multiple cats, most of them six-toed, apparently. Their six-toed descendants remain on the property, visited weekly by a vet.

The study where he wrote was in an attached building and contained a typewriter—with paper in it—on a table that served as a desk. I’d read once that he wrote standing at a lectern, but I guess that was wrong, or in a different place, different time. However, the guide confirmed what I'd read earlier: he worked from 6:00 a.m. to about noon, producing about 300 words per day.

I think the head that looked out from a wall over two bookcases was an antelope trophy.

Hemingway was bipolar. I’d read “back in the day” that his suicide by shotgun, in Idaho, was the consequence of his trying to live up to the Hemingway code: boxing, dozens of shrapnel wounds from his days as a World War I ambulance driver in Italy, deep sea fishing, bull fights, big game hunting, and heavy drinking.

Those chickens had come home to roost by 1961, shortly before he turned 62; he could no longer be the man or person he believed in, and despair overtook him. Or so I read a few decades ago.

So, yes, we can reduce all that to the label, “bipolar.” Doctors must engage in such reduction to treat the disease, if not empathize with the human. Hemingway’s father and a brother also committed suicide, so, even as a layman, I find the diagnosis of a genetic component very plausible.

But the old explanation paints a clearer picture of Hemingway, the human. It’s easy to over-romanticize it, but I hope it has some accuracy and remains in the literature about him. His code was extreme, maybe silly, and almost certainly permitted sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic thinking. But it’s also true that many of his war wounds were received when, already full of shrapnel, he stopped halfway across a field to try to get a fallen soldier to the ambulance. In that effort, Hemingway was hit by machine gun fire.

I’ve never been to a bullfight or a boxing match or gone deep sea fishing (I get motion sickness, and I'm not especially interested anyway). But at least with the matadors and the boxing, I can accept that Hemingway saw art and philosophy in it, as well as the brutality. I don't see what's wrong with urging "grace under pressure." As for living close to death in order to live intensely, I've often joked that if that's what it takes to get me to live intensely, then I should get out my parachute and head for a small airport. (I don't).

When it comes to boxing, by the way, Joyce Carol Oates also has seen the art and philosophy in it and has written eloquently about it. Isn't boxing the sport that relies the least on external forces? Unless there's a fix or a bad ref, the better boxer wins. Ditto for chess. Not so for team sports, where there are too many variables.

Of the few major Hemingway novels and several stories I’ve read, The Sun Also Rises is by far his best work. I won’t spoil anything by admiring again its brutally effective last few lines, which conclude with, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” For anyone, that should explain a lot about a lot, don’t you think?

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Jan 23, 2010

Dogs, Eye-Contact, Intelligence

Hard Day of Thinking in the Cement Jungle earns a

well-earned nap, but what about the

Bad Ear Day

And Then The Attack of the Dominatrix

Since there are some dog lovers and science types who visit Banjo52, I offer this video about pooch intelligence. It's pretty impressive. If you don't have 8 minutes to spare, you could fast forward to the fourth minute and still get the gist.

YouTube - Dog with a 300 word vocabulary

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Jan 19, 2010

This Hour and What Is Dead by Li-Young Lee : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

This Hour and What Is Dead by Li-Young Lee : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

I've never had a brother, so I guess I keep coming back to this poem for other reasons.

Of course, it's another father poem as well as a brother poem. And here's the other side of that coin:

The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor | My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke

I also don't know why the Wood Stork (left) seems like a relevant photo. Maybe I can imagine him as the shape of ghostly noise overhead, yet he'll stand/sit there in silence for a long, long time, drying his wings, like the anhinga.

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Jan 17, 2010

A Few Different Takes on Poetry

Poets, clog dancers, birds--apparently we all want to be heard, observed, witnessed. That's five of Mrs. Boat Tailed Grackle on the top shelf, while Mister squawks below.

I wonder how the guy in the following video compares to the American mockingbird:
YouTube - Amazing! Bird sounds from the lyre bird - David Attenborough - BBC wildlife

Or, here's another glimpse of the poetic process at work (I'm sort of serious, but ever so metaphorical):
YouTube - Monty Python's best sketch ever

Or, here's another actual poem by Thomas Lux. It's at least somewhat about small towns.
The People of the Other Village by Thomas Lux : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Jan 16, 2010

Thomas Lux, "It's the Little Towns I Like"

It's the Little Towns I Like by Thomas Lux : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

In pursuit of more poems that raise the question of conversation compared to poetry, I came across Thomas Lux's "It's the Little Towns I Like." I was looking for a different Lux poem, but the small town theme in the title here caught my eye, and I like what he does with it.

With Lux, I usually do like it. Among contemporary poets, his work creates an unusual balance between accessibility and density. He tells good stories; his frequent anger seems justified, seems to be our anger, or the anger we should have if we weren't lazy and complacent; yet he makes us laugh; and he gives us imagery that's approachable and memorable.

On the side of density, he's almost always in the service of the universal themes, like social injustice, and most of his lines of, say, four words or more offer small gifts of their own as they move toward the larger gift of the whole poem. Surely it's a given that memorable imagery serves both accessibility and density. In short, Lux is no lightweight, but neither is he a tangle of techniques that are all brain, no heart. (Remember Yeats's great line in "Easter 1916": "Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart").

Still, in the end--or should I say, "At the end of the day?"--ugh, gag me with a spoon--who started that? More to the point, who were the first few to regurgitate it? They were probably too busy "going forward" and "begging the question" to notice they had jumped on the instant-oats-of-cliche wagon and steered it into the mainstream of TV anchor-speak)--

Speaking of streams, one of Lux's greatest lines is, "If a river could look over its shoulder . . . ."

--Where was I?

In the end, it was Lux's reference to fathers and the similarity to Bob Hicok's "O my pa-pa" (January 2 here at Banjo) that told me I had to post Lux's "It's the Little Towns . . . ." I predict there will be more of Thomas Lux at Banjo52.

It's the Little Towns I Like by Thomas Lux : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Jan 14, 2010

Conversation and Poetry. Kay Ryan.

Home to Roost - Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

In her comments yesterday, Brenda casually wondered here about the conversation and poetry, which led me to think about the whole issue once again. There are rumors of a whole "school" of thought about a kind of poetry called "ultra talk." I don't completely understand it, but I think I have enough of an inkling to launch this response.

About conversation and poetry, I guess I'm one of those bombastic old farts who think poetry chisels language, thought, emotion, and experience in ways that even the best conversation cannot accomplish. Sometimes prose has occasional passages that are "poetic," but that's hardly required of the prose writer. So I have to wonder why any poet would want or expect his "poetry" to sound like prose or conversation. If you want that, why not write fiction or memoir? Are they inferior genres?

For survival, I suppose we should preserve conversation; we should keep on talking—well, some people should cut back. Some should buy duct tape. There are many arenas in which we need to be willing to say A is not B; one of those is the poetry business, and this includes the fact that conversation is not poetry.

Yet "conversational poetry," as a category or description, makes perfect sense and is not inherently negative, as much of Frost—mostly the blank verse Frost—should prove, along with hundreds of skillfully wrought free verse poems by dozens of different poets. (Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland, Dorianne Laux, Thomas Lux, Sharon Olds, to name only a few). Of course, the skillful poets are the ones who put the lie to the label "free" in free verse, but that's another treatise.

Look at today’s poem, “Home to Roost,” by current U.S. poet laureate, Kay Ryan. Is conversation ever that terse, that mysterious? What conversation shows such economy of language? And doesn't economy translate to respect for language? Like money, we don’t throw it around. We make it count.

(Unless we’re high up at AIG or GM or Enron; apparently, they talk a lot, mostly in multisyllabic words, for they confuse words with money, so multi is always a good thing. At the top floors, they never say what they mean; that way, they can sneak off with the loot. So are they speaking poems? For those who think poetry is circumlocution, remember that every institution has a secret language. The question is, what is its intent? To deceive? That’s not poetry. It might be law and the corporate world, or even medicine, or the military, or the CIA, or educational jargon, even the jargon about poetry. But it’s not poetry. When good poetry gets dense, it wants us to feel full, not tricked and not broke).

So, back to Kay Ryan. Look at the layers of meaning, beginning with literal chickens, but suggesting and then demanding we notice larger darkness and craziness. This feels a little like Dickinson to me (again), but maybe that’s only because we’ve been talking about her recently.

Also, notice that Ryan does use rhyme, but it’s internal rhyme, not end rhyme. There’s music here; it’s spare, it’s tight, it’s tough, it’s not messing around. But it is music.

I get consternated—that’s my word; don’t touch it—when people want everything they say or do to have great meaning and beauty. It’s something like the art dealer who says, “Well, if you like it, it’s good.” Liar. Although we’ll never reach mathematical precision or universal agreement about what’s good in the arts, simply avoiding the . . . conversation . . . amounts to laziness or deception or cowardice. Our conversation won't be poetry, but would you say we have something better to talk about?

Home to Roost - Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

Jan 12, 2010

Why I Am Not a Painter by Frank O'Hara : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Why I Am Not a Painter by Frank O'Hara : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

A South Carolina guy, might be headed for the diner.

Today’s poem and comments began as a response to Barbaro’s recent response to my January 8 and 9 postings of Dickinson and Frost poems. Also, another regular, Gothpunkuncle, has in the past given me food for thought about the importance of context and culture compared to language (not that he’s choosing one over the other any more than I am). So after Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, I turn to Frank O’Hara’s “lunch poems.”

It all began like this, my attempt to respond to Barbaro on January 9:

Barbaro, your sentence on simplicity is LARGE. I agree, though I feel as if I’ve seen a lot of poetry that falls flat in the name of simplicity—which illustrates your very point.

Ditto your sentence on saying things wrong, more or less as a definition of creativity or originality. Didn’t you make a similar point about Bach a few months ago?

I can live without E.D.’s dashes, but I agree, it’s not the same. (By the way, did you see Paula and Gothpunkuncle’s important January 8 comments about Dickinson’s life and times? They gave me pause, not that I ever thought she was having a party for one up there in her Amherst room).

Thanks for the technical info too, Barbaro. At least on this reading, I had not noticed the sonnet biz in "Acquainted with the Night."

Do you think the experimental stuff in today's poetry—the stuff that seems to be re-examining language and old structures—ignores the endless possibilities of traditional forms? How many ways can you stretch a sonnet? More than a couple.

As you know, I’m not at all a bigot against free verse, and you might know I believe in the old saw, “If it works, it works,” for all the dangers there. But until the recent (and still minority) tilt toward neo-formalism (if that’s what they call it), I guess I assumed that some of the edgier poetry, the wilder, hipper-yet-more-talky voices out there, would have sent me to the children’s play room if I’d asked why they were transmogrifying poems into chatty prose, the likes of which I can hear at most diners.

Not that there’s anything wrong with diners. Some of my favorite food is served at diners--and certainly some of my favorite experiences. I often meet friends at diners. Our conversations can get pretty good, pretty deep, even pretty close to the bone. But I’ve never called them poetry.

Why I Am Not a Painter by Frank O'Hara : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Jan 9, 2010

Acquainted with the Night by Robert Frost : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

For some obvious reasons and maybe some more subtle or inexplicable, I've recently thought of this Frost lyric as a sort of companion to Dickinson's 510. I hope somebody will elaborate, pro or con.

Also, "Acquainted with the Night" is another poem that has more power for me than I can explain--something about a chant in the rhythm, I think. And in the third stanza, it gets intense and stays intense, don't you think?

I'll try to get to brighter stuff soon, but maybe you'll agree that if we're going dark, these two do it well. Yet a lot of people probably think of Dickinson and Frost as founding members of Hallmark Cards or SADP (Students against Dark Poems) or MADP (shut up, Banjo).

Acquainted with the Night by Robert Frost : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

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Jan 8, 2010

Emily Dickinson, Poem 510, "It was not Death," PART TWO

It was not death, for I stood up by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

I apologize for the ridiculous length and self-indulgence here today. But I might not get back to Banjo for a couple days, and all this textual stuff actually interests me. So, as if you need my permission to skim or skip, please skim or skip as you like.

Poem 510 tries to pin down an inexplicable gloom, an anxiety and sense of impending catastrophe, somewhat similar to the more famous “A Certain Slant of Light” (poem 320). Although 320’s magic word, “Despair,” reappears, Poem 510 explores a more complex and unnamable condition.

First a couple of notes about Dickinson's words: a sirocco is a warm desert wind. Is that too Saharan, too exotic for the overall texture of the poem?—especially a poem that winds down not with a sandstorm, but with images of a “beating” earth and a foundering sea vessel? Maybe Dickinson is trying to cover as many aspects of earth as possible, but for me, “sirocco” is a self-conscious stretch.

Also, in the final stanza’s second line, if anyone can argue with confidence and clarity which kind of “spar” the poem intends, I hope you will. A wooden pole on a ship seems the most apt of three possible but unsatisfying definitions (the others—a mineral like feldspar and “sparring” as a kind of boxing practice—seem completely irrelevant).

The pole (mast?) for a ship’s crow’s nest makes some kind of sense, since the speaker can be seen as a lost, floundering ship (or a person there), so far from land that “despair” is ineffective as a word to describe her great psychic drift or chaos.

Also, I can’t help but wonder if E.D. settled for “spar” for the sake of rhyming with “despair.” Like every stanza but the fifth, it’s only half-rhyme anyway, so I doubt that explanation; but her choices of rhyme must have been many, so "spar," in such a key position, troubles me.

However, what I’m coming to in my reading life is an appreciation for E.D.’s quirky diction, full of words that are simply more interesting than most writers would have chosen. Also, they can be uncannily precise, and this can create ideas and conditions that are as uniquely interesting, accurate, quirky and, again, as precise as the words that carry them.

Who else, in her despair, would think to verify that she’s alive simply by noting that she’s standing up? This simplicity is compelling and should make Descartes roll over in his grave, with that pretentious Cogito ergo sum jazz. Dude, were you standing up? Then you weren’t dead, Dude. Nobody gives a shit that you were thinking, and you might be the only one who cares that you exist.

I’m sure that logic won’t endure scrutiny, but it was fun.

Back to E.D.’s choices about words: who else thinks of bells having tongues? Therefore, like us, they make noise; so we know it’s not literally night, though our souls might be submerged in a night terror. In the third stanza, as if to follow up on "tongues" and to cover the five senses to determine just where she is and in what condition, Dickinson introduces the sense of taste: “it tasted like them all.” If that doesn’t make complete sense in rational terms, remember that we’re not in a rational place.

Many of us might compare such a state to midnight, so in the fourth stanza, Dickinson specifies that it’s only like “some” midnights, which is a more honest and restrained claim—and maybe therefore more alarming.

“. . . everything thing that ticked.” What ticks other than clocks? But Dickinson finds many ticking things, and all of them have stopped. What a way to intensify her sense of dread: turn the world into a stopped clock; the most horrific of midnights is now timeless. She’s magnifying without hyperbolizing—a paradox, an irrationality, a dark magic.

Then, as if she’d already established that the earth breathes and has a heartbeat (“beating ground”), she repeals it. You or I might think of the planet as a living, pulsing entity, but if we were to say it now feels dead, would we think of death as repealing that life? Isn’t it laws that we repeal. And aren't laws our attempts to be rational and ethical? Well, the “beating ground” is a kind of law here, and this other-worldly gloom is repealing it.

Dickinson is also messing with chronology (repealing a living earth before she births it), so the speaker finds one more way to suggest a lawless limbo; it’s not governed by time as we know it.

She seems to know that if she talks about time, she needs to include space, another major force upon us that’s supposed to make sense. But here, space and time “stare” at her and everything.

In this context, “Chaos” might be a predictable word, but “stopless” is not. It’s childlike, and what is the lost, threatened speaker if not a child, adrift in a “stopless” nightmare? Consider how much less effective “endless” would have been. I wonder if E.D. spent many hours in her attic considering synonyms for “endless.” If she had a thesaurus, I bet “stopless” was not in it; I bet she had to come to that on her own—in an instant or over days and weeks. (Hard core New Critics, forgive me that biographical and intentional fallacy).

In closing, Dickinson's tossed ship of self might feel lucky if it could settle on “despair” as the name and nature of its condition. To “justify” that, however, there must be, in this stormy sea, at least a “report,” a rumor, of land, which lies within sight of the “spar.”

Why we must have visible land to have despair, I’m not sure. I suppose that would be something like a rational universe: there’s land, security, life as I knew it, and I cannot get there. Therefore, my despair is justified.

But my location—a meaningless word and concept in this chaos—is so alien and so full of endless midnight that “despair” is a meaningless, trivial label for what I feel. Yet I have no other label; none is large or terrifying enough.

The other day, I posted Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” It too makes ample use of paradox to convey a place and condition that are incomprehensible and unutterable in human terms. His place was a paradise; Dickinson’s is the opposite of that, and labels like living Hell and limbo are inadequate to convey it. So instead, she gives us analogies as a way of understanding something that all of us may have known. Or maybe we haven’t; maybe we got lucky.

It was not death, for I stood up by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

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Jan 6, 2010

Emily Dickinson, Poem 510, "It was not Death"

I was delighted to hear Poetry Foundation say that Emily Dickinson is “a poet who took definition as her province.” I’ve been on the edge of thinking one of her major contributions is her effort to pin down psychological conditions that are too vague, too subtle, too large for definition or conventional thinking. Therefore, she creates analogies.

Poetry Foundation goes on to say her effort was “to make the abstract tangible, to define meaning without confining it, to inhabit a house that never became a prison, Dickinson created in her writing a distinctively elliptical language for expressing what was possible but not yet realized.”

“She saw poetry as a double-edged sword. While it liberated the individual, it as readily left him ungrounded.”

I’ll say more tomorrow, but for now, I think this is a large part of what’s going on in her Poem 510. She’s not sure what “it” is, so she defines by negation; she tells us what it is not.

It was not death, for I stood up by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Jan 2, 2010

Another Parenting Poem: "Mutterings over the Crib of a Deaf Child" by James Wright

The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor | Mutterings over the Crib of a Deaf Child by James Wright

I've been disappointed in the less than voluminous response to Hicok's "O my pa-pa" two days ago. Is today's James Wright poem more pleasing? A more reasonable argument?

I've never felt sure who the two speakers are. Father and mother seem the most likely identities, but there are a couple of spots where that seems off the point.

Do "Mutterings" and Hicok's "O my pa-pa" have anything in common with each other, or with Grace Paley's "Walking in the Woods"?

The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor | Mutterings over the Crib of a Deaf Child by James Wright

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Father Poem: Bob Hicok's "O my pa-pa"

O my pa-pa by Bob Hicok : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Like Maurice Manning (Banjo52, Nov. 15), Bob Hicok is a relatively young poet who takes chances that would fail in lesser hands. There's a bit of wiseacre in his language and content--a tone that keeps many irony-loving poets too detached to trust. Brain castrates heart. I suspect that these poets are apparently so worried about sentimentality that they overcompensate and eviscerate their poems. Overly academic poets can do the same thing, yet I wouldn't be surprised if those two schools of poetry feel contempt for each other.

But Bob Hicok is not an excessively self-defended irony-robot. He keeps on being human and soulful, even as he relies on wit and irony in everything from subject matter to word choice to decisions about line breaks. Of the Hicok poems I've read, "O my pa-pa" is his greatest achievement, and it is simply a fine poem in any context.

You may have heard about writers' conferences or the writing workshop scene. The teacher, who is usually a writer-dignitary (with real or imagined celebrity),  guides less experienced writers as they sit in a circle and critique each other's work.

Naturally, the bad mom and the bad dad are frequent subjects. And why not? There is no shortage of bad moms and bad dads. However, beginning writers don't seem to realize that they need to bring something new to the table--a new kind of bad mom or bad dad, or at least a fresh perspective and invigorated language on a well-worn subject.

And now there's Hicok's strategy: why not turn the tables entirely? What if there were a workshop of dads writing about bad sons, or just disappointing sons, indifferent sons, self-centered sons, sons who broke their fathers' hearts, sons who maybe deserve to have critical poems written about them, even if the poems are bad. Bad dad, bad son, bad poem. Dumb males, distant males, longing males . . . . Writing Workshop, anyone?

O my pa-pa by Bob Hicok : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Jan 1, 2010

New Year's Day: Country Living

Dancing Outlaw Trailer

Is it just me, or do a nuthatch--as always, bobbing down the tree--and a barn seem like fitting shots for today's entertaining link?

Maybe this video clip is also the flip-side of all that 1964 rural innocence I posted Dec. 23. In any case, it ought to wake everybody up and shake off some mild hangovers. Maybe it's a good break from football, too.

Thanks to the Ohio River Life blog for alerting me to the Whites of Boone County. I still haven't seen the entire documentary, but I intend to.

Dancing Outlaw Trailer

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Lovers' Lane