Apr 28, 2010

Blue Bonnet Lane, Don Edwards

Bluebonnet, blueberry, toe-MAY-toe, toe-MAW-toe

I hope we're about open minds and broadening horizons here. I suppose I'm really pushing it with cowboy music, but Don Edwards is good, and his albums sound even better than this (does that mean they're mechanized?). Of his CDs, I especially recommend West of Yesterday.

If you need some comedy to wash down the taste of tumbleweed, try the group Riders in the Sky, with "the idol of American youth," Ranger Doug, his milky baritone and yodeling.

Blue Bonnet Lane by Don Edwards

YouTube - Grizzly Man End Song (Coyotes)

Apr 26, 2010


Mockingbirds can get so noisy that I guess I'm glad there are none in my neighborhood. This guy in Florida charmed me, however, and vice versa.

I got the shots when I managed to sweet-talk him (her?) into holding still. We had a conversation of several minutes, an affair of mutual respect and intellectual interest. He said he was a nightingale and therefore favored Keats. I didn't have the heart to correct him--what's in a name? Instead, I listened intently to his point of view, which was more interesting than the right answer on the test would have been.

I plan for those remarks to be preparation for the next post in a day or two. We'll see. Mocking-bird. Listening. Patience. Respect. Longing for death and, through it, immortality.

Here is "Ode to a Nightingale," perhaps a bridge to the confessional poets. If you haven't read it for a long time, get comfortable--and think of something happy to do afterward.

Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

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Apr 24, 2010

Confessionalism, continued

Left: Torso of a Giant, Jean Arp, 1964, Detroit Institute of Art

In the April 22 visitor comments here, Brenda writes:

“Do/did you ever have your students write essays based on the poetry style you are reading? In this case, the students would write confessional themes?

“Or is that too introspective, for students to reveal that much?

“In high school, our English teacher used to bring in huge photos of street scenes and we had to write an essay of what we thought was going on.”

Brenda, I like your English teacher’s assignment. I’ve done that kind of thing with descriptive essays, but I've only encouraged, not required students to imitate authors’ styles. There’s just never enough time for all good things, so I figured that the really motivated students would try it on their own if I pointed out the possible benefits (some did, some benefited, others not so much).

Sometimes kids have written somewhat confessional stuff, but I’d never ask or require them to; in fact I've cautioned them against it. I've encouraged them to base poems, stories and essays on personal experience and to try to see in their lives what's universally human. But confessional work takes that up several notches, and, as you say, those kinds of revelations can quickly become risky—going too public on too much intimate stuff and regretting it later, or getting into psychologically dangerous territory, or getting me sued.

Here’s my impression, not a fact: kids who want to reveal too much about themselves tend to be histrionic personalities and will do it without my asking or despite my forbidding it. They’re exhibitionists, and that's the heart of confessional work. "Look at me. I'm willing to say anything if you'll just look at me."

Are they honestly inviting me to share important human experience, or more grandiose, abstract pursuits of beauty and truth? Or do they just want readers, including me, to celebrate the wonderfulness of their dirty underwear, their self-indulgent escapades, their mental crucifixions of their parents, teachers, siblings, lost loves?

So I'm wary about such personalities among the professional poets. Anyone who writes for a public has some exhibitionist tendencies (yes, that includes me); but these days we have a convenient new expression for excesses, and we should heed the warning: “TMI: too much information.” Maybe the younger you are, the more you should think about that.

Aren’t there things that reasonable people (shall I call them “normal”?) wouldn’t dream of making public? And despite the voyeur in us all, we usually don’t want to hear it. Confession might be good for the penitent, but it's lousy hard work for the listener. Ask any shrink or priest.

In addition to their skill with language, edging up to, or crossing, that line of audience discomfort is at the heart of the power in Plath, Sexton, and other confessional poets. “Watch me say what others are afraid to say.” However, those professionals can go too far, and adolescents or young adults most certainly can—restraint and judgment are not traits often ascribed to the young.

Of course, the flip side is poetry or fiction so distant, formal, or academic that we feel a robot wrote it. The author didn’t emote, so how can we? I think some readers feel that way about Wallace Stevens and Richard Wilbur, to mention a couple of notables who have appeared on Banjo52 at one time or another.

So, Brenda, maybe that begins to respond to your questions as well as inducing a very fine nap for you and any innocent bystanders. But let me add one more note about confessional matters: in poetry and in life, I think it’s possible that we suffer from too little self-revelation rather than too much. Formality or reserve or custom, or whatever, are forms of artifice, dishonesty, fear, and conventionality that can deaden meaningful communication as much as confessionalism can turn it into a ten-cent carny act.

So where’s the boundary? This is why most (not all) multiple choice exams in English classes are an affront and a cheat.

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Apr 22, 2010

Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning" and "Pretty"

These seem to be the best, or at least best known, of Stevie Smith's poems. "Not Waving" has the kind of chill I've mentioned here in relation to some of Dickinson's work and, more recently, Anne Sexton's.

"Pretty" has it too, but don't you think she lays it on a little thick? Even so, the poem invites me back to ponder why some parts work so much better than others. And I do like the target of her satire, which I take as our need to find everything pretty. To say it's all part of a spiffy design, one must gloss over some pretty gruesome stuff, don't you think? But not to do that, says Stevie Smith, is not to be human.

At the end, she adds that not being human would be pretty as well. Is that not a death wish that seems every bit as authentic as Sexton or Plath? It was in my head that Smith was also a suicide, but in getting this post up, I learned that she died of a brain tumor.

Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith : Poem Guide : Learning Lab : The Poetry Foundation

TLS Poem of the Week Pretty by Stevie Smith

Apr 20, 2010

Roots Music, Mississippi John Hurt

In case you don't know him, or need a reminder, here's the understated lowland blues master, Mississippi John Hurt (and should you like this kind of thing, there are several more on YouTube, though most have only still photographs).

YouTube - Mississippi John Hurt - You got to walk that lonesome valley

YouTube - Mississippi John Hurt Richland Woman Blues

And here's one of his protegees, who also has several videos up on YouTube. I don't find a lot of talent on YouTube, except for those young kids on uke and guitar a while back. Young Christine here seems to me to hit some awfully good sounds in the middle and low notes, and her picking impresses me. Am I a soft touch? Should she show more emotion, or is the blank expression more compelling? I think the second number's more accomomplished, but the first one might fetch a grin and coax you to give at least a minute to the second one, "Richland Woman Blues."

YouTube - IplayBanjoNow's Channel Diddy Wa Diddy

YouTube - IplayBanjoNow's Channel


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Apr 19, 2010

Robert Penn Warren's Sonnet, "Mortal Limit"

Robert Penn Warren, Mortal Limit

I shouldn't be pleased to have my species, with me in it, labeled "item" and "rot," but I think "Mortal Limit" ends up with a much more positive perspective on mortality and humanity than the Anne Sexton poems did. Maybe because we are only capable of seeing things from an anthropomorphic point of view, don't we identify with the hawk, occasionally soaring upward into a thinness of atmosphere for a glimpse of what is beyond the mountain range and beyond mortality? Barring that, are we not at least cheering the hawk because he has achieved that vision, however temporary it must be?

Notice too that the poem is a sonnet, most obviously Shakespearean because of the rhyming couplet at the end, but also Petrarchan with the shift of thought at line nine, so that there's also the octave and sestet that define the Italian form.

I find that I sound here at the blog as if I favor fixed forms more than free verse, yet I don't think that's the case. I simply ask poetry to be rich and precise in language as well as compelling in thought. The universal themes have been done; that was more or less always true. So the task of each poet and each era is to see those ideas anew--in language or shades of thought or both. As I scout poems for the blog, it just so happens that I've hit on traditional forms more than I expected to. Maybe I do have an unconscious bias in favor of them, but I think there's a lot of coincidence in this too: I like yapping about precision and complexity, and perhaps the traditional forms lend themselves to that more obviously than free verse does.

Maybe this sets the table for our discussion-to-come about confessional poetry, which is easy to see as self-indulgent and sloppy. I think Plath and Sexton put the lie to that, especially since both began their commitment to writing with sonnet after sonnet and other fixed forms. How does one develop from that kind of carefulness to the theatrics and perhaps narcissism of their later work?

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Apr 16, 2010

DATE NIGHT: movie review


First, be sure to stay till the screen goes dark. There are two sets of good outtakes on each side of the credits.

If you just need to get out, or eat sinful food, or both, this comedy is a perfect excuse. Tina Fey and Steve Carrel are so good that their intelligence informs the movie’s dumbest moments, which are plentiful. The leads are so likable that I was bearing with them, cheering for them to pull this absurd, sometimes plodding plot past its midway point, where the laughs become louder and more frequent.

It helps too that director Shawn Levy and Ms. Fey continue to discover her sex appeal, for which they have my gratitude. If the ladies don’t feel this way about the earnest Steve Carrel, be aware that the buff Mark Wahlberg has several appearances, each a few minutes long. A standing joke is based on his refusal to wear a shirt.

The rest of the supporting cast is flawless as well. Taraji P. Henson as Detective Arroyo is almost too believable to be wasted on a romantic comedy. After checking on the cast at Yahoo Movies, I see I'm tardy in predicting that we’ll be seeing more of her, perhaps in this very kind of role.

In short, I’ll be surprised if people want their money back. Most won’t even be as cautious as I am in their enthusiasm. So relax and enjoy.

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Apr 15, 2010

Anne Sexton's "The Truth the Dead Know." Anne Sexton on Film

The Truth the Dead Know by Anne Sexton : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

YouTube - Anne Sexton at home - 1 (VOSE)

On YouTube, there's a treasure trove of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, among others, reading their work. This clip also shows Sexton at home, and I found it curiously disturbing. I suppose I encountered the same trite questions we often ask about suicides: she was so bright, she was attractive, she liked center stage, she could take herself lightly--or at least not gravely--about the

theatrics of reading aloud, she had a husband in a time when that mattered, she was a late bloomer but rising star in poetry . . . . In short, we could say she seemed to have everything. My somewhat educated brain knows how irrelevant those factors can be in mental illness, yet the thoughts persist. And would I have enjoyed lunch or sharing an office with Anne Sexton in real life?

As for the poem, "The Truth the Dead Know," I'm interested in your reactions. I hear a bit of Emily Dickinson's tight, tough language and unexpected rhymes and images, including the motif of stone. I wonder if the poem is a good example of fixed form forcing the author into creativity in the form of words and thoughts she might not have discovered if the rhyme and meter hadn't forced her there. I wonder how many contemporary free verse--or simply sloppy--poets pause to wonder about this. Some great writers have. Consider some titles: "The Caged Skylark," "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," and "Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room."

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Apr 13, 2010

Writers Interviewed. The Tallahatchee Button Fetish.

Interviews with two writers, I’ve mentioned recently here – Dorianne Laux and Charles Baxter – are available at Eastern Washington’s literary mag, Willow Springs:


Other Banjo-respected writers interviewed there are Rick Bass, Aimee Bender, Stuart Dybek, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Gerald Stern. Each of them has wowed me at least a couple of times, though for truth in advertising, I should mention that I haven’t yet read these interviews.

Speaking of celebrities (outside the poetry world, where appearance should be irrelevant), why have male celebs developed the custom of buttoning their jackets when they stand, unbuttoning when they sit?

I caught a moment of the nuclear arms summit on TV this morning, and as President Obama rose for a moment of silence honoring Poland’s tragedy, he buttoned his jacket. So did his female counterpart from Argentina.

How many times have I puzzled over this as I watched Letterman or Leno and their guests?

What is so outrageous about an unbuttoned jacket on a standing man or a buttoned jacket on a sitting man? (Well, the latter might be an issue of tightness and popped buttons, an epic embarrassment, to be sure). Aren’t there enough dumb behaviors out there without this button fetish?

I’ve lost plenty of sleep over this, and my patience is wearing thin. Everything has a reason. A universe without reasons is a piss-poor universe, and I want some answers. I don’t want obscene wealth, just some minor league info—nothing that would shock or depress me, please, just some crumbs on quirky subjects like this. If you have nothing to offer, why are you using my oxygen?

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Apr 12, 2010

"The Starry Night" by Anne Sexton

Enough of the fatuous cheerfulness in the last few posts. I'm interested in your reaction to this poem. I wonder about the issue of motive in the speaker, of cause and effect, of Eliot's "objective correlative." Yet I find the poem curiously effective and efficient. And disturbing.

And by the way, I like the Van Gogh painting.

Visitors here might find themselves more responsive than usual in loving or hating the poem. The Poetry Foundation's commentary is once again helpful as an introduction to confessional poetry in general as well as Sexton's work and critical assessment of it.

The Starry Night by Anne Sexton : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

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Apr 10, 2010

Baseball and Diction: Tigers 4, Indians 2

Is it only a game?

Or a biting reminder

to watch your word choice,

even there at the park at a boisterous time,
the magical boys who can turn on a dime.

If you can't keep your mind
on the game or your diction,

enjoy a good corn dog, a greased benediction.

Apr 9, 2010

A Color of the Sky by Tony Hoagland : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

The male gold finches are almost back to complete yellow in Michigan, so we should check out a poem about spring.

A Color of the Sky by Tony Hoagland : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Tony Hoagland's name has come up a few times here, so let's look at "A Color of the Sky." From the one-line stanza in the middle to the end, I like this poem a lot. However, I wonder how many of the words, lines, and stanzas up to that point need to be present to set the stage.

So guess where we are: back at that familiar conversation about casual chat or conversation compared (contrasted) to poetry. I'm choosing "A Color of the Sky" in part because I think it walks that line, traces those boundaries, and I wonder how folks respond to that.

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Apr 7, 2010

Dorianne Laux's "Democracy": Urban Tubes of Humans

Democracy by Dorianne Laux : The
Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Panoramic works like Dorianne Laux’s “Democracy” always raise at least one question for me: does each item in the rather long series of items (including characters) carry its weight? Is each image, action, and detail necessary? What would happen to the poem’s meaning, texture, rhythm(s) if this or that item were deleted?

In terms of theme, I think too of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and in turn, contemporary writer Charles Baxter’s magnificent “A Late Sunday Afternoon by the Huron” in his collection of stories, Through the Safety Net (mid-1980s).

Also, as is the case with many contemporary poems, long or short, a question here is why Laux breaks lines and stanzas where she does?

Am I the only one who hears “Democracy” as a companion poem to Sharon Olds’ “On the Subway” (March 4, March 9 here at Banjo)? There are important differences, but aren’t the similarities striking—the centrality of a vehicle of public transportation, of course, but also more?

Given the title, the reference to Republicans, and the poem’s overall content, is there any way to avoid calling this a political poem, whatever it might be in addition to that?

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Apr 2, 2010

Edward Hirsch, "For the Sleepwalkers" and Theodore Roethke, "The Waking"

Here's more Edward Hirsch, the title poem of his first collection, which won the Yale Younger Poets prize. I wonder if we might see "For the Sleepwalkers" as a secular poem about faith, mystery, and compassion.

What a shame that organized religions so drift so far from simple statements like this about the desire to bridge the empirical and the spiritual. People really do sleepwalk; that much can be verified. But the poem sidesteps dogma, prescription, or formulas about the precise ways sleepwalking is or isn't a religious event. Mystery and mysticism inform the poem, but Hirsch is wise and kind enough to avoid creeds over which we should judge or hate or go to war.

So I hope "For the Sleepwalkers" offers one more way to think about experience that seems to transcend the rational and to be entirely good.

(There's a typo in this, the only online version I found, where two of the three-line stanzas [tercets] got jammed together in the poem's middle. Also, two stanzas toward the end are italicized, which you may not have noticed in this font).

For the Sleepwalkers -- Edward Hirsch

I hear "For the Sleepwalkers" as a companion piece to Theodore Roethke's magnificent villanelle, "The Waking," another poem about un-dogmatic faith.

The Waking by Theodore Roethke : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Surely you hear in everyday chit chat, as I do, the notion that literature and art offer themselves as alternatives to religion as we normally define and think about it. If that seems odd, you might revisit these poems, along with other writing and art that's beyond your power to explain, illustrating why the whole is, yea verily, more than the sum of its parts.

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Apr 1, 2010

Edward Hirsch, "Fast Break"

Left: Dunking

I don't want to rush anyone away from the Addonizio and Stevens discussions; we can keep that going indefinitely.

But Final Four weekend in college hoops is approaching, and with it comes the question, again, of whether there can be important literature that centers on sport. If so, the writing has to be about larger issues than people playing games, doesn't it? Some might remember that this came up regarding James Wright's football poem, "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio." (Banjo52, Sept. 23, 2009), and I think of Joyce Carol Oates writing on boxing or Hemingway on bullfighting.

Since the mid-1980s, I've wondered how Edward Hirsch's "Fast Break" fits into the discussion. The fact that Hirsch's poem is dedicated to a man who died young encourages me to see see something more than the literal, more than a basketball poem, yet not abandoning or cheating on basketball as a worthwhile subject. Why and how does one write a basketball poem that serves as an elegy for a deceased friend? Doesn't Hirsch risk trivializing both the game and the friend?

I think the poem does succeed in both purposes, but I'm baffled as to how to explain it.

Fast Break by Edward Hirsch : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio by James Wright : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

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Lovers' Lane