Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Rockin' Your ABC's


My alphabet starts with this letter called yuzz. It's the letter I use to spell yuzz-a-ma-tuzz. You'll be sort of surprised what there is to be found once you go beyond 'Z' and start poking around!" -Dr. Seuss

There is probably no more familiar poetry form than the ABC. These poems, based on the alphabet of any particular language, can take many forms. Commonly termed, the abecedarian, this poetry genre takes its structural architecture, by definition, from the letters of the alphabet. Usually, the poem begins with the first letter of the alphabet and then builds successively, in order, moving through the alphabet from A to Z (i.e., in English).

Early Semitic ABC poems abounded, appearing in religious Hebrew poetry, for example, which centered around sacred practices as early as 1000 B.C. The Hebrew Bible contains many examples of abecedarian poetry. Probably the most acclaimed of these comes from Psalm 119 where the poem is broken up into twenty-two eight-line stanzas, each representing, in order, a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Here is a brief extraction from the poem (NIV Version) where the initial words of the stanza (translated here in English) begins with the corresponding Hebrew letter, as shown in italics below:

Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
Who walk according to the law of the Lord.
Blessed are they who keep his statutes...

How can a young man keep his way pure?
By living according to your word.
I seek you with all my heart...

Do good to your servant, and I will live;
I will obey your word.
Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things...

In the fifth century, a fascinating abecedarian poem appeared by Coelius Sedulius, a Latin poet, who wrote an ABC to be used as an adjunct to worship. The poem, entitled A solis ortus cardine (click here to view both Latin and English translation) was later transcribed and converted into a hymn by Martin Luther, in 1524.

An early ABC poem in the English language is Chaucer's "La Priere de Nostre Dame" (The Prayer of our Lady), or more commonly dubbed "Chaucer's ABC" (Click here for complete text). The poem is an adaptation of a prayer from an illusory French poem entitled, "La Pelerinaige de la vie humaine," ca. 1330. Here is a link to view a leaf from the original manuscript. The poem is noteworthy as Chaucer blurs the lines of what was considered orthodox 'clerical' poetry using a sensual courtly imagery of love, a practice that became commonplace in medieval poetry.

The earliest primers for children appeared in England in the fifteenth Century, a period predating modern educational institution, and an era without the benefit of materials and resources that later advanced learning so rapidly throughout the Industrial Revolution. These books were termed hornbooks, because they were covered with a thin layer of horn as a protective coating. The hornbook usually came with a wooden handle and had as a prominent feature a graphic representation of the alphabet. The hornbook, along with its paper counterpart, the chapbook, which followed in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, often had rudimentary ABC poems as learning instruments for the child.

Probably the most famous American chapbook, the New England Primer, published in Boston, ca. 1688, was full of alphabet rhymes, devices and pictorial teaching devices for children. It soon became a mainstay as a textbook for New Englanders in the eighteenth Century. The New England Primer followed a time-honored tradition used by the early settlers in America using biblical themes and stories as an aid in teaching the alphabet to children. Here is a striking example from the Primer:

In Adam's Fall
We sinned all.
Thy Life to Mend
This Book Attend.
The Cat doth play
And after slay.
A Dog will bite
A Thief at night.
An Eagle's flight
Is Out of sight.
The Idle Fool
Is Whipt at School

William Blake's, London, a poem written in the seventeenth century, deals with the palpable images and sounds of London. One stanza is brilliantly depicted as an acrostic, where the first letters of each word in just one stanza of the poem, spell out the word, "Hear."

How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

Modern ABC poems abound. Perhaps more than any other poets, Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey (more widely known as artist) popularized this form in the twentieth century. Dr. Seuss's ABC appeared in 1963, an alphabet book where each letter is accompanied by a poem and an ABC rhyme, as well as an illustration. Edward Gorey's poem, "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," is a remarkable achievement, made that much more appealing with Gorey's expressionistic and rather macabre sketches. Here is an excerpt.

A is for Amie who fell down the stairs
B is for Basil assaulted by bears
C is for Clara who wasted away
D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh

You can view the whole poem, with illustrations, by clicking here.

Harryette Mullen is a gifted modern poet who has recently explored the abecedarian in a wonderful and complex poem, included in her book, "Sleeping with the Dictionary." In it we find a 47-page poem, "On Earth," a complex ABC poem adhering not only to order in the stanzas, but also in the words themselves. Here is a link to obtain her book and, in following, a short extraction from the poem:

languid at the edge of the sea
lays itself open to immensity
leaf-cutter ants bearing yellow trumpet flowers along the road
left everything left all usual worlds behind
library, lilac, linens, litany.

In case you weren't paying attention, that was the letter "L."

Kate Greenaway, a famous nineteenth century English illustrator of children's books, produced a superb alphabet book at the turn of the nineteenth century, entitled, "A Apple Pie; An Old-Fashioned Book." The work begins coyly:

A Apple Pie
B Bit it
C Cut it

It is now in the public domain, and may be easily viewed, poem and illustrations, in their entirety by clicking here.

A fascinating sub-genre of abecedarian poetry is a poem consisting of only the exact number of words in the given alphabet. Thus, for a poem in the English language, there must be only 26 words, each beginning with a letter of the alphabet. Most are built successively from A to Z, but some very creative poems in this form begin with Z and work in the reverse. One of the more acclaimed poems of this type, by Robert Pinsky, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, is entitled simply, ABC. The poem has a brilliant opening, with a memorable snarky two-line aphorism, which presents letters A-J:

Any body can die, evidently. Few
Go happily, irradiating joy

You can watch and hear Pinsky recite his ABC poem on Youtube by clicking here. This is one of the more power-packed readings of twenty-six words of poetry, in my view, you'll ever hear, and it's introduced by Pinsky with a short but edifying explanation of the abecedarian poetry form.

Here is an ABC poem I recently wrote, entitled, not surprisingly, "ABC."


All bright creation

From gaudy heights:

Iridescent jar,
Keening lover,
Magpie nesting on pier.

Queer reproduction,
Subtle triangulation.

Under velvet wings,
Your zen

I have also written several longer ABC poems, including "Animal Alphabet of Collective Nouns" (excerpt below). To view entire poem, click here)

Animal Alphabet of Collective Nouns

"A" is for Apes,
A troop of Apes.
Swinging right over your head.
With parachutes white,
They make quite a sight.
Don't let them land on your bed!

"B" is for Bears,
A sloth of Bears,
Raiding your kitchen for food.
They've eaten the jam,
Are downing the ham,
Could they be any more rude?

Here's an excerpt from another longer ABC poem I wrote:

Zany Alphabet of Creepy Bugs

Black ant, red ant
A huge compound eye,
Six skinny legs,
Can they fly?
I'll tell you a tale
If you keep still.
I have seen red fire ants
That live in Brazil

Big beetle, black beetle
Crawling on the floor,
Don't let him out,
Close the door!
He'll be a fine pet,
Don't think he'll bite.
But he may have buddies
That come out at night.

Dance cricket, sing cricket,
Rub your wings so fast,
Can you not stop?
An hour's passed.
Jumping legs so long,
Springing on me.
If you hop in my hand,
Will I set you free?

You can view the entire poem by clicking here.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Viral Poetry Particles

Poetry is viral. It is highly infective, invisible to the naked eye or common microscope, and self-replicating. Deep inside the poetry envelope, an ordered and immensely intricate informational architecture directs the maintenance and operation of the poetry organism.

Recently, researchers at the Yale Literary Research Laboratory (YLRL), in New Haven, have successfully isolated and sequenced the first authentic poetry viral genome. The poetry particles were originally isolated from the blood of an undergraduate student who became infected with a rare disorder after reading too much Shakespeare in a survey level poetry class. Iva Hedachia, a 22 year-old English major, became ill during an exam and was later found by a friend in the bathroom reciting the Preamble to the Constitution in iambic pentameter. She was rushed to the ER and was initially screened by an EMT specialist, who, fortuitously, happened to be the wife of a scientist at the YLRL. The technician phoned her husband, Dr. Seymour Smalley, who rushed over and was able to take a sample of the blood back with him to his lab.

Smalley and his colleagues were successful in isolating the first genes in the so-called “poetry allele.” Using a PCR amplification process, the researchers produced enough viral-encoded message to map out the mysteries of the poetry genome. What they found was as startling as it was beautiful.

In a paper in this month’s Nature Genetics Journal, Smalley et. al. report that certain informational quanta can spontaneously arise in the brains of especially astute and passionate literary majors. These high-energy bundles of genetic material, dubbed “Poetry Virome Catalysts (PVC’s),” can lie dormant for months and suddenly become activated by a single extrinsic event or emotional stimulus.

Smalley, in his groundbreaking paper entitled, “Poetry Viromes and Shakespeare,” suggests that these hotspots of genetic coding are formed somewhere in the amygdala, a center deep within the brain which communicates with the hypothalamus and is responsible for controlling levels of the emotional response. Smalley and his coworkers discovered that Ms. Hedachia had gone far overboard with her reading of Shakespeare. In fact, she stayed up for three straight days (an 82 hour period without sleep) reading through most of the Tragedies and all the Shakespearean Sonnets, memorizing most of the latter to perfection. Her boyfriend caught her on the roof of her eight-story dormitory, with a lavish table set with fine bone china, polished silver, and a complete gourmet meal for two. It wasn’t until the researchers completely explained the syndrome in detail to the boyfriend that he realized the full import of the nametag set for William S.

Smalley has been literally inundated by the media. However, as a caveat to the research conducted at the YLRL, it should be stressed that these PVC’s have not, as yet, shown themselves to be long-lived. Fortunately, the pathological effects of PVC infection and propagation are quite innocuous. It turns out, most people have high levels of “poetry blockers” that quickly attach to the PVC molecules and inactivate them before too much cognitive damage can occur. Moreover, and quite interestingly, complete amnesia seems to accompany most PVC infections observed by the researchers.

Smalley and his team of molecular biologists are currently working on a unified theory of pathogenesis that they say will revolutionize our understanding of how we process the emotional input from reading poetry. The work, in his words, “will ultimately explain why so many of us cannot understand or appreciate anything about poetry, be it modern or classical.” In fact, both Roche and Bayer Pharmaceuticals are interested in developing small molecule “unblockers” that can be taken, for example, just prior to a reading of, say, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, or even T.S. Elliot’s, The Wasteland. Moreover, an executive for Roche commented, with exhilaration, that the market alone for English majors could be in the hundreds of millions (US dollars).

Monday, November 26, 2007

New Poem in Atlanta Review

My poem, "The Wrong Poem" has just appeared in the Fall/Winter 2007 issue of the Atlanta Review. This is a paper only journal, but please click here to check out their webpage: The Atlanta Review

I'm really proud to appear alongside some great poets, including Ted Kooser (two-time US Poet Laureate), Louis Simpson (received Pulitzer Prize for poetry), Albert Goldbarth (National Books Critics Circle Award), Ann Lauterbach, Brighde Mullins and many other luminaries in the poet world.

Poems on Poems

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves.
Memory by memory the mind--

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

-Excerpt from Ars Poetica, , 1926, by Archibald MacLeish

There is a fascinating body of poetry that looks inward into its own craft and asks the unanswerable question, what is poetry? These poems, perhaps self-conscious, often purposefully pretentious, and certainly noticeable in their peculiar form and voice, have much to teach us about what makes a poem a poem. What are the distinctions? What are the qualities in a poem that leave us breathless, caught up in the transport of an image away from our accustomed vantage and reference points, that lead us into new, unfamiliar territory?

Many great poets have written poems on poems. I’ve taken a look around and chosen some examples that I think will interest you. As well, I offer one of my own to chew on. Hopefully, this will inspire you to think about your craft, not only in writing poems, but prose as well.

Robert Frost once said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” In looking at what poets have said about poetry in their poems, a striking number have dealt with the effect of words on an individual’s feelings and the resultant impact on all of the senses. It is true, I think, that poetry accentuates the moment in its form, by nature given to brevity (when compared to prose). Perhaps it is this punctuation of the moment that arms the poem to eventually fire rockets into our emotional being.

A poem can shoot off a receptor in the brain with two well-placed words; and, at least with me- I rarely see it coming. This unanticipated dart to the soul is what I love about poetry. Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), a wonderful poet out of the New York School, put it this way:

My Heart, by Frank O'Hara

I'm not going to cry all the time
nor shall I laugh all the time,
I don't prefer one "strain" to another.
I'd have the immediacy of a bad movie,
not just a sleeper, but also the big,
overproduced first-run kind. I want to be
at least as alive as the vulgar. And if
some aficionado of my mess says "That's
not like Frank!", all to the good! I
don't wear brown and grey suits all the time,
do I? No. I wear workshirts to the opera,
often. I want my feet to be bare,
I want my face to be shaven, and my heart--
you can't plan on the heart, but
the better part of it, my poetry, is open.

-from poemhunter.com

Robert Frost said, “A poem begins with a lump in the throat." Often, this kind of response can come from the majesty and sound of words linked artfully together by a master poet. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) wrote a superb poem on the effect of the spoken word in poetry on the senses, entitled, Sound and Sense, which begins:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense...

The sense of sound in poetry is paramount. When all else fails, it is often the pure sound of a great poem that grabs us and prompts our emotions. This lyrical quality is something poetry can claim as a distinctive. Not all poems, obviously. But I’ve often sat in front of a poem trying to figure out what it was that I liked so much about it, and then finally realized it was simply the beauty of the words put together in a magical way.

What about the obtuseness found in some poetry? How many of us have thrown up our hands (versus our lunch) and remarked, what in the world is this poem talking about? Have you read any Wallace Stevens lately? Or what about T.S. Elliott? If so, then try some excerpts from the following two compelling poems on for size and tell me if you feel any better.

Introduction to Poetry (excerpt), by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive...

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

My Poems, by Robert Currie.

My poems
are slim bombs
craving explosion
Their fuses lie
dark on the page
awaiting your arrival with a light.

Appears in a text book, Literary Experiences, Vol. I by Oster, Iveson and McClay (in the section entitled "To the Student")

So what is poetry? I imagine there are as many answers to that question as there are readers. However, in examining poems written by well-known poets on what comprises the essence of their craft, I’ve been happily surprised by what I’ve encountered. A striking poem on this topic comes from Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), who saw and felt his way through poetry, in the delineation of the imagery of ideas and the effects of those ideas on the senses. Stevens said of modern poetry, “…[it is] the poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.” His sardonically honest poem, “Poetry is a Destructive Force,” brilliantly captures one quality of poetry that is incontrovertible: its potential influence and power over the reader.

Poetry is a Destructive Force

-by Wallace Stevens

That's what misery is,
Nothing to have at heart.
It is to have or nothing.

It is a thing to have,
A lion, an ox in his breast,
To feel it breathing there.

Corazon, stout dog,
Young ox, bow-legged bear,
He tastes its blood, not spit.

He is like a man
In the body of a violent beast
Its muscles are his own...

The lion sleeps in the sun.
Its nose is on its paws.
It can kill a man.


Marianne Moore (1887-1972), was a Pulitzer Prize winning American poet who was influential in the early writing careers of many young poets who went on to become great American poets, including Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery and James Merrill.. The following poem is astounding in its clarity and understanding of the nature and distinctive qualities in poetry that make it interesting and appealing. I highly recommend reading it a number of times.

Poetry, by Marianne Moore

I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers
that there is in it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a high
sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
useful; when they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat,holding on upside down
or in quest of something to eat, elephants pushing,
a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under a tree,
the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that
feels a flea, the base-ball fan, the statistician--
nor is it valid to discriminate against "business documents and
schoolbooks"; all these phenomena are important. One must make
a distinction however: when dragged into prominence by half poets,
the result is not pretty,nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of the imagination"--above insolence
and triviality and can present for inspection, imaginary gardens
with real toads in them, shall we have it.
In the meantime, if you demand on one hand,
the raw material of poetry in all its rawness
and that which is on the other hand genuine,
then you are interested in poetry.


Here's one by a lesser known poet:

How to Write a Poem, by Edward Nudelman

First, arise very early in the morning. Brush your teeth
and floss (if you forgot last night). No wait. First drink
a cup of dark black coffee on a couch, alone, while you
gaze out the window and watch the school kids march
solemnly to St. Catherine’s. Strike that. Better to first
open the window, then you may catch that beautiful
mockingbird song (or, if not there, imagine that you hear
a mockingbird). If today is a warm August morning,
(which it is not, for me) you may be able to pick up the
pungent orange blossom which can coat your tongue with
enough perfume to literally exclude the need to brush
your teeth (this is a lie). If no birds are singing, try to find
the sound of rustling wind. And don’t forget, if the school
kids are walking by, you may be able to see them slowly
proceeding in single file (if your sidewalk is very narrow).
When you see them, quickly close your eyes and remember,
these are the moments of your life. Now, it’s probably past
your cutoff point, so quickly go upstairs and brush your
teeth (if no orange blossom). Steel yourself for the day.
Remember that Susan has been going through hell with the
loss of your dog (as have you, but that pertains to other
poems); see if you can think of something nice to say to her
that might comfort her, give her solace, or prepare her for
what looks like a pretty difficult day. (Note that these
notions are platitudes, but milk them for all they’re worth).
Hold Susan, and say, “I’ll come home for lunch today, if I
possibly can,” knowing that you certainly cannot. Strike that.
Simply say, “I love you dear.” Then kiss her on the very
top of her nose. Drive to work, trying to find a song that
you can cling to. Work. Look for that meager scrap of
paper in the pile in front of you that will free you from the
dread of all the other pieces of paper in front of you. Eat
lunch in your meeting. On the way home, take the car to
the dealers for the umpteenth time in the last month. Yell
nicely at the clueless manager. Hold that thought. Just
threaten him with a lawsuit. That always works. Drive
home in the rental car. Give Susan the flowers you forgot
to buy. Greet the dog you no longer have. Sit back on
your couch, where earlier you couldn’t hear the mockingbird,
and remember, as best you can, what that sound did for you
last summer, when everything else was just wind and scent
and moments piling on top of themselves. Like school
children in a straight line. Now write the bloody poem.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Pre-Raphaelite Germ

In the mid-1800's a group of artists and poets, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and J.E. Millais, founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) with their initial publication, The Germ. The groundbreaking periodical only survived for four spectacular issues between January and April of 1850. However, its influence on the art and literary community in England as well as the Continent was striking. This seminal vehicle for a new interpretation and expression of art in literature and the applied-arts displayed the poetry of William Michael and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Thomas Woolner, James Collinson, and Christina Rossetti, as well as essays by Ford Madox Brown, Coventry Patmore, and others.

The periodical, subtitled, Thoughts Towards Nature in Art and Literature, was an attempt to marry art, in the form of book illustration, and poetry. William Michael Rossetti, in an introduction to a 1901 facsimile edition put it this way:

…it was [The Germ] intended to enunciate the principles of those who, in the true spirit of Art, enforce a rigid adherence to the simplicity of Nature either in Art or Poetry, and consequently regardless whether emanating from practical Artists, or from those who have studied nature in the Artist's School.

W.M. Rossetti, further explained that the depiction of nature in and through art was to be their “paramount storehouse of materials for objects to be represented.” The artists and poets of the PRB studied nature, the representation of it in ideas, and the delineation of nature as seen through allegories and symbols.

Woodcut illustration by Edward Burne-Jones for the renowned 1896 edition of Chaucer's Tales. Burne-Jones, though not an "official" member of the PRB, was one of many artists of the period who associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and illustrated the books and poetry of the PRB. Burne-Jones contributed hundreds of woodcut illustrations in this tour-de-force. First editions of the work sell for over $100,000 on the auction block.

PRB artists and poets wanted to free themselves from the restrictions and mechanizations of the incipient Industrial Revolution as well as norms in art that became part of the institutionalized and commercialized "industry" of art. Their poetry was filled with rich imagery and symbolism. Rarely did a poem provide a contemporary context or a narrator, but rather aimed to address universal ideas, images and feelings. The Pre-Raphaelites drew heavily on the lore of mythology and the historical-literary archive of such classics as King Arthur, Norse and Greek Legends, Medieval culture, as well as romantic characters and poems in literature (Ophelia, Persephone, Eve of St. Agnes) They painted vividly colored pastoral and metaphorical paintings often illustrating a classical poem or legend. The Pre-Raphaelite poets formed their own distinctive voice, calling for a return to a more simplistic, contemplative life.

Probably Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s most famous book illlustration, “The Maids of Elfin-mere,” is a hauntingly beautiful etching of three young women with their arms outstretched. It appeared in the 1855 edition of The Music Master by William Allingham. DGR was very upset with the woodcut when he saw the first proofs, feeling it had inadequately expressed his line. He only begrudgingly let it be published. Many of the Pre-Raphaelites pursued the non-lucrative avenue of producing woodcut illustrations for the poetry books of the period. Most prolific of those artists were the celebrated William Holman Hunt and J.E. Millais, both founding members of the PRB. As well, these two, along with D.G. Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones avidly painted full-size oils with vivid colors and graphic representation. The best known and acclaimed of all the poets in the group was indisputably Dante Rossetti. His poems are often very long and heady, but a careful reading will review a genius in his verse. Here is a shorter poem which uncommonly (for DGR) speaks of peace in his world of torment, high stress, and eventual drug addiction.

Lost on Both Sides, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

As when two men have loved a woman well,
Each hating each, through Love's and Death's deceit;
Since not for either this stark marriage-sheet
And the long pauses of this wedding bell;
Yet o'er her grave the night and day dispel
At last their feud forlorn, with cold and heat;
Nor other than dear friends to death may fleet
The two lives left that most of her can tell:
So separate hopes, which in a soul had wooed
The one same Peace, strove with each other long,
And Peace before their faces perished since:
So through that soul, in restless brotherhood,
They roam together now, and wind among
Its bye-streets, knocking at the dusty inns.

Christina Rossetti, Dante's and William's sister, was an extremely gifted poet. Unlike the long, enigmatic and cerebral poems of Dante, Christina's voice was soft, sensitive, and full of the pathos and conflict that she experienced in her close association with the PRB. CR had a very vibrant faith in God which came out in her poetry in a marvelous free and moving counterpoint, unlike some of the more overtly "religious" poetry of the period. The following poem, entitled Aloof, is a masterpiece of poetic ambivalence with a strong assertive current of honesty saturating every line:

The irresponsive silence of the land,
The irresponsive sounding of the sea,
Speak both one message of one sense to me:--
Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand
Thou too aloof, bound with the flawless band
Of inner solitude; we bind not thee;
But who from thy self-chain shall set thee free?
What heart shall touch thy heart? What hand thy hand?
And I am sometimes proud and sometimes meek,
And sometimes I remember days of old
When fellowship seem'd not so far to seek,
And all the world and I seem'd much less cold,
And at the rainbow's foot lay surely gold,
And hope felt strong, and life itself not weak.

The opening number of The Germ begins with a stunning, lengthy poem by Thomas Woolner, one of the four founding members of the PRB. It is illustrated with a stunning woodcut etching by William Holman Hunt, another founding member. It is a split illustration, with the upper panel showing a lady picking flowers near a river with her lover pulling her back. The lower panel shows the lover collapsed on his lover's grave, with a procession of nuns passing behind him. Here are the first two stanzas of the poem:

My Beautiful Lady, by Thomas Woolner (first two stanzas)

I love my lady; she is very fair;
Her brow is white, and bound by simple hair;
Her spirit sits aloof, and high,
Altho' it looks thro' her soft eye
Sweetly and tenderly.

As a young forest, when the wind drives thro',
My life is stirred when she breaks on my view.
Altho' her beauty has such power,
Her soul is like the simple flower
Trembling beneath a shower.

It’s difficult to place The Pre-Raphaelites in the order and scale of art movements throughout history. Some decry their idealized representation of the human figure as evidenced in many of Rossetti’s over-romanticized paintings. Others have criticized their narrow and focused view. Most, however, agree that these kinds of narrow assessments sadly misrepresent the effect and value of their art. It was, first and foremost, a reactionary, if not revolutionary movement by a few very gifted artists who wanted to exercise their individuality in an area where that kind of action was vehemently opposed by the institutions in place. Putting it simply, William Rossetti captured the early motives of the founders in this way:

The Preraphaelite Brotherhood entertained a deep respect and a sincere affection for the works of some of the artists who had preceded Raphael; and they thought that they should more or less be following the lead of those artists if they themselves were to develop their own individuality, disregarding school-rules. This was the sum and substance of their “Preraphaelitism."

One of 38 full-color illustration by Edward Burne-Jones for The Flower Book, London, 1905

Monday, November 12, 2007

Four New Poems Just Published

Ampersand Poetry Journal just published four of my poems in their Autumn edition. Please follow this link to view them at the journal. (click here) Ampersand Poetry Journal

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Jar in Tennessee

After reading the first poem I ever read by Wallace Stevens, a strange thing happened. For several months afterward, whenever I heard the word “jar” or “Tennessee,” I would think of this poem. In fact, it still happens on occasion. This is an interesting phenomenon often characteristic of great poetry which is capable of eliciting an instant feeling or recollection by just the hearing of a word or phrase. The poem, entitled, "Anecdote of the Jar", appears simple on a first reading, but has so much to offer on various planes of thought.

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around; no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

(originally appeared in the 1919 issue of Poetry Magazine and later was published in his Collected Poems, copyright 1923, 1951, 1954, by Wallace Stevens.)

The poem has its roots in John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn. On one level, Anecdote is a commentary and comparison of Stevens’ own roots, a kind of critique of the poet’s homeland identification versus what one might have found in England, historically speaking. John Keats, as sort of figurehead for quintessential british Romantic poetry, had his London and the high society art-critic world, the sonnet, strict meter, etc. Contrastingly, the American contemporary poet (at the time Stevens wrote the poem) had Tennessee (a slovenly wilderness), a model for a much different art and cultural milieu. From a strictly historical perspective, this might be considered a slightly hyperbolic statement. However, Stevens is trying to convey a feeling. The poem seems to have purposeful “weakness” in rhythm (note the awkward flow in v3), as well as an unorthodox meter (the poem starts out with flawless iambic tetrameter, then has only two beats in v4 and variations after that). Add to this the striking contrast of a polished poem like Keats’s Urn compared to a poem about a jar in rural Tennessee, of all places. Helen Vendler, in her excellent book on Stevens, Words Chosen out of Desire, (I highly recommend reading this book) puts it this way:

"The American poet cannot, Stevens implies, adopt Keats’s serenely purposive use of matching stanzas drawn from sonnet practice. Stevens was entirely capable, as we know from Sunday Morning, of writing memorable Keatsian lines and stanzas; so we must read the Anecdote of the Jar as a palinode—a vow to stop imitating Keats and seek a native American language that will not take the wild out of the wilderness. The humor of the ridiculous stanzas and the equally ridiculous scenario of the Anecdote does not eliminate an awkward sublimity in the jar; or does it eliminate the rueful pathos of the closing lines."

Note how the poem speaks on so many different levels. You can imagine yourself being the jar. You find yourself on a hill surrounded by the great outdoors. Suddenly, the wilderness rises up, transforms. Something opens up for you, this little glass jar of self is now surrounded by an entire dominion. (As an aside, a friend of Stevens has said that the word “dominion” was intended by the poet as a double entendre for the famous “Dominion Wide Mouth Jar.” )

The indication of the jar being placed in the Tennessee wilderness refers to the complexity of human feeling in the natural world. A wild wilderness rises up. The jar is fixed, gray and bare. And what becomes of it? “It did not give of bird or bush, like nothing else in Tennessee.” The all important “it” must refer to the jar, and the insinuation is, that even in the throes of compelling and perhaps unavoidable natural events (hurricanes, cancer, even car accidents), still we can find a way to rise above and overcome what appears to be alien and unalterable circumstances. To “not give…” but continue to strive and be "a jar upon the ground."

Wallace Stevens (1879-1959) published his first series of poems in 1914 in Poetry Magazine at the age of 35. He published his first book of poems a full nine years later. Hart Crane, the famous contemporary poet of the period, said of Stevens, “There is a man whose work makes most of the rest of us quail." Indeed, Stevens was widely acknowledged in the 1940’s as one of the greatest American living poets of the period. His work became even more popular after his death, in 1955, and he is currently widely appreciated as one of America’s premier "poet of ideas" in the modern era. His poetry deals with themes of imagination, consciousness, the pathos of life, and the dynamic forces and influences of the mind. Stevens, through his poetry, has put together a sensual and imaginative worldview that is ultimately concerned with finding meaning and order in the universe.

Nowhere are these themes more apparent than in the late (chronologically) and fascinating poem, "Local Objects", where the poet reveals the depths of his own loneliness and inadequacies along with a longing for solace and ultimate meaning. Stevens was a man that never settled down, both emotionally and geographically. He had an early falling out with his father who disapproved of his marriage; they never spoke one word to each other after the quarrel. His marriage was unhappy and failed. In his poetry, he often speaks of resignation in referring to his shattered and lonely life. In "Local Objects", we see in the very first line a remarkable use of an abstract and uncommon word, “foyer." This is a word which Stevens masterfully uses to connote a space or locality where things ought to be peacefully and harmonically situated. But for Stevens, they never were. The poem spins an intriguing web of cognitive imagination around this one word.

Local Objects

He knew that he was a spirit without a foyer
And that, in his knowledge, local objects become
More precious than the most precious objects of home:

The local objects of a world without a foyer,
Without a remembered past, a present past,
Or a present future, hoped for in present hope,

Objects not present as a matter of course
On the dark side of the heavens or the bright,
In that sphere with so few objects of its own.

Little existed for him but the few things
For which a fresh name always occurred, as if
He wanted to make them, keep them from perishing,

The few things, the objects of insight, the integrations
Of feeling, the things that came of their own accord,
Because he desired without knowing quite what,

That were the moments of the classic, the beautiful.
These were that serene he had always been approaching
As toward an absolute foyer beyond romance.

Can you feel the sense of loneliness and longing? Can you sense a deep desire to have this foyer filled with beautiful, meaningful objects? The poem is wholly autobiographical and deals with objects as if they were not only things, but moments, snapshots of experience. Vendler describes this unusual transformation in terms of turning a spatial object into a temporal event: “it is for Stevens the axis on which his poetry turns. The world presented itself to him in visual terms; and yet poetry turned the visual object into the temporal integration, into that musical score for experience that we call a poem.”

Even though the poem has a somber tone, it is also clear Stevens takes delight in his poem. He is saying that these local objects are to be desired and understood. Perhaps not fully attainable, especially for him, but desired and appreciated. A foyer must be filled with spirit, with a past, a present and a future, with signs of our having visited and spent time there, even if only in the mind's eye.

So, what kind of objects is Stevens talking about in "Local Objects?" He doesn’t offer specific examples, but one might imagine rivers, trees, farmhouses, an attic, a rope swing, a local pub, a path, a hill. “Moments of the classic, the beautiful.” Stevens is talking about how important these objects become, especially for a man who had no “remembered past,” who was a “spirit without a foyer.” The poem speaks of the desire to find peaceful points of rest and identification. “These were that serene he [i.e. Wallace] had always been approaching as toward an absolute foyer beyond romance.” .

To read more of Wallace Stevens poems, click here
To read more about Wallace Stevens’ life, and what other colleague said about him, click here
To order (Amazon) a wonderful book about Stevens’ poetry, explicating many poems and discussing his ideas, click here:
Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire, by Helen Vendler, 1984, University of Tennessee Press

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Power of Poetry: Richard Rorty's Story

Richard Rorty (1931-2007), one of the more prominent and often controversial philosophers of our time, died this summer. His last months were spent battling painful and inoperable pancreatic cancer. Poetry Magazine occasionally has a feature ("The View From Here") where they present people from diverse backgrounds who tell how poetry has impacted their lives on a deeply personal level. The contributors are often celebrated authors, philosophers, artists, scientists and the like, but usually individuals with no real formal training or experience in writing poetry. In a recent issue, only months before he passed away, Rorty provided an installment which I found as shocking as it was revealing of the true nature and power of poetry on many different levels.

In his essay for Poetry’s feature (Nov., 2007), entitled “The Fire of Life,” Rorty begins by explaining what he was trying to convey in his paper, “Pragmatism and Romanticism,” where reason is described as being subservient to words. Without words, you can’t reason, Rorty submitted. While the poet tries to give us a richer language, a philosopher tries to convey real things using non-linguistic tools. In his article for Poetry, Rorty was reflecting on the rigorous nature of his arguments, and continued by stressing that at that time he was not particularly interested in the differences between prose and verse.

Writing, however, on his literal death-bed, Rorty goes on to make some startling realizations as he began to consider the value of poetry in his life-experience. Interestingly, though he had an extensive and renown writing career, and his father (James Rorty) was an accomplished poet and writer, Rorty the son, wrote little if any poetry. He did, however, read poetry.

While having coffee with his elder son and a cousin, he relates, Rorty responded to a question his cousin asked concerning what his thoughts have lately turned to, now that he was facing the end of his life. Rorty replied:

"Neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation…. Neither ataraxia (freedom from disturbance) nor Sein zum Tode (being toward death) seemed in point."

His son prodded him. “Hasn’t anything you’ve read been of any use?” Rorty’s response was swift: “Poetry!” He quoted two passages in the Poetry essay, one from Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine,” and the other from Walter Savage Landor’s “On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday.” The latter I found provocative:

Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life,
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

The power of verse, for Rorty, was not readily identifiable, although he was quick to maintain that he doubted the same effect could have ever been afforded by prose, and added:

"I found comfort in those slow meanders and those stuttering embers…In lines such as these [rhyme, rhythm and imagery] conspire to produce a degree of compression, and thus of impact, that only verse can achieve."

These are telling words from a very learned man who spent his life in the hallowed (and sometimes stuffy) University halls, offices and auditoriums, and a renowned philosopher who wrote seminal treatises on moral philosophy and the rigors of philosophical inquiry. Here, at the very end of his life, he is melted before the power of three bare lines of poetry. In a poignant conclusion, Rorty makes a revealing confession, of sorts, which to me conveys the power and sway that poetry can have on the human mind and heart. He says:

"I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. Rather, it is because I would lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts, just as I would have if I had made more close friends. "

Friday, October 26, 2007

Charles Simic

Charles Simic (b. 1938) is a great American poet whose influences are easily traced to his European upbringing in the midst of the upheaval during and just after World War II. Simic’s poetry richly draws on the bewildering despair and disorientation of those early experiences, retold in the modern vernacular with hidden treasures to be mined by the careful reader. “I’m sort of the product of history; Hitler and Stalin were my travel agents,” he said in a recent interview. “If they weren’t around, I probably would have stayed on the same street where I was born. My family, like millions of others, had to pack up and go, so that has always interested me tremendously: human tragedy and human vileness and stupidity.”

Simic, born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, immigrated to the United States in 1954 at the age of 16. He grew up in Chicago, received his BA from NYU, and is a professor emeritus of American literature and creative writing at the University of New Hampshire. In many ways a self-made man, Simic, found a voice in the 1970’s in minimalist poetry which inferred deeper meaning from ordinary experience. Simic held a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant from 1984 to 1989, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990, and succeeded Donald Hall as the 15th U.S. Poet Laureate, in August, 2007.

Simic’s poetry once received some criticism as being too obtuse, his poems likened to “tightly constructed Chinese puzzle boxes.” However, this opaque quality to his poetry is now almost universally seen as a prominent attribute of his genius. Indeed, Simic himself did not deny the deeper side to his poetry, saying, “Words make love on the page like flies in the summer heat and the poet is only the bemused spectator.”

James Billington of the Library of Congress, on the occasion of announcing Simic’s laureate, said he admired the poet because his poems were “both accessible and deep… the lines are memorable.” Billy Collins has remarked that he often reads a spate of Charles Simic to get him into a mood for writing. It's helpful to read Simic out loud. He doesn't use fancy language or big words, but the images he builds are lasting. You can easily log on to a website and with one click hear him recite some of his poetry: Simic Readings. The following is a striking ending to a poem you can find at this site describing some interesting qualities of a fork:

Fork (last stanza)

As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald beakless, and blind.

Here’s an excerpt from a poem entitled “My Turn to Confess,” from Simic’s 2005 book, “My Noiseless Entourage (Harcourt). In it one captures the ineffable task of writing poetry, couched in an illusory metaphor of a dog trying to explain why he barks.

A dog trying to write a poem on why he barks,
That’s me, dear reader!
They were about to kick me out of the library
But I warned them,
My master is invisible and all-powerful.
Still, they kept dragging me out by my tail.

One of my favorite Simic poems is Paradise Motel, a haunting commentary on war, undoubtedly rehearsed from memories of his childhood years, but set in the freakish veil of having to view it through the voyeuristic eyes of the television screen.

Paradise Motel (first stanza)

Millions were dead; everybody was innocent.
I stayed in my room. The President
Spoke of war as of a magic love potion.
My eyes were opened in astonishment.
In a mirror my face appeared to me
Like a twice-canceled postage stamp.

Another classic Simic poem is Hotel Insomnia, a telling of an incident that so many of us can instantly relate to, but spoken with such fine language and imagery, that the mental picture captured is one that sticks around for some time. It’s the kind of poem you always want to go back to, if only for it’s powerful visual representation. However, don’t be fooled by the brilliant images. Below the surface is a chilling, powerful and emotionally provocative poem. Here is the closing stanza:

At 5 A.M. the sound of bare feet upstairs.
The "Gypsy" fortuneteller,
Whose storefront is on the corner,
Going to pee after a night of love.
Once, too, the sound of a child sobbing.
So near it was, I thought
For a moment, I was sobbing myself.

The Supreme Moment is an astonishing poem with a curtailed, blunt, and some might say, anticlimactic ending. But I love this poem that speaks of the moment before annihilation, the boot acting and reacting in its own consciousness and consequence, a pervasive metaphor for human action (or apathy); the quaking ant, powerless and futile in its hope, has only a moment to see its frail life pass before itself, in the reflection (quite literally) from a boot. Here is the opening stanza..

As an ant is powerless
Against a raised boot,
And only has an instant
To have a bright idea or two.
The black boot so polished,
He can see himselfReflected in it, distorted,
Perhaps made largerInto a huge monster ant
Shaking his arms and legs

Of all Charles Simic’s poems, the one that has sticks with me the longest is a wry personification of death, entitled Eyes Fastened With Pins. Perhaps no other personification runs the risk of tiring out its own metaphor than that of death, but Simic succeeds where others have failed in the plain speech of the poem, and the detached viewpoint presented. The poem opens,

How much death works,
No one knows what a long
Day he puts in. The little
Wife always alone
Ironing death's laundry.

We’re quickly drawn into the nine-to-five of Death, watching him roam through the town looking for “someone with a bad cough” and finding him bewildered, with the wrong address and even “death can’t figure it out.” The poem ends in a tour de’force of human identification, to say nothing of drop-dead humor (pun intended):

Death with not even a newspaper
To cover his head, not even
A dime to call the one pining away,
Undressing slowly, sleepily,
And stretching naked
On death's side of the bed.

Charles Simic is currently co-Poetry Editor of the Paris Review. He received the Wallace Stevens Award in 2007 from the Academy of American Poets. Below is a bibliography of his published books of poetry.

Bibliography of Simic's Published Poetry Books

What the Grass Says - 1967
Somewhere Among Us A Stone Is Taking Notes - 1969
Dismantling The Silence - 1971
White - 1972
Return To A Place Lit By A Glass Of Milk - 1974
Charon's Cosmology - 1977
School For Dark Thoughts - 1978
Classic Ballroom Dances - 1980
Austerities - 1982
Unending Blues - 1986
The World Doesn't End: Prose Poems - 1990 (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry)
Hotel Insomnia - 1992
Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell - 1993
A Wedding in Hell - 1994
Walking the Black Cat - 1996 (National Book Award in Poetry finalist)
Jackstraws - 1999 (New York Times Notable Book of the Year)
The Book of Gods and Devils - 2000
Night Picnic: Poems - 2001
The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected Late and New Poems - 2003
Selected Poems: 1963-2003 - 2004 (winner of the 2005 International Griffin Poetry Prize)
My Noiseless Entourage : Poems - 2005
Monkey Around - 2006
-from wikipedia-

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Heat in Poetry

What is a poem? What makes a poem a good poem? Mark Flanagan, a contemporary poet and savvy free-lance writer, provides an excellent and concise definition: “Poetry is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response. Poetry has been known to employ meter and rhyme, but this is by no means necessary. Poetry is an ancient form that has gone through numerous and drastic reinvention over time. The very nature of poetry as an authentic and individual mode of expression makes it nearly impossible to define.” I like this because it makes two points that I have long held to be true of poetry. First, it defies formal description. A poem may have rhyme, and it may not. A poem cannot be simply defined by a set of parameters relating to its form. Thus, it becomes difficult to qualitatively assign value to different kinds of poems. The second point is even more important. Flanagan is careful to stress that poetry has a primary intent that reaches into the emotional perceptions of our consciousness. Robert Frost said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” This takes into consideration both the fundamental building blocks of poems (words) as well as the “fuel” (emotions) that one might say ignites and allows those words to burn. In writing a poem, we seek to find in the language a kind of expression that is filled with energy. We don’t look to language as a tool, necessarily, but rather work to uncover the beauty, awe, wit, paradox, understanding, beauty… (the list goes on), that already resides in the form and structure of our language.

I like to think of poetry as a collection of words, each with their own potential energy. We seek to group the words in such a way that will increase that energy, like rolling a huge ball up a hill. The higher it goes, the farther it will roll down. Poetry finds a language that is hidden in the vernacular of our imagination. It will have a certain sound (especially when read by the author, with the author’s full intent) that will sound like poetry. As prosaic as this appears, it becomes clearer if one listens to enough poetry recited out loud (podcasts of poets can be widely found on the web, not only by contemporary poets, but also past recordings of great 20th century poets like Auden, Frost, Plath, Bishop, and Dylan Thomas, to name just a few). It is in the hearing of poems read aloud that I have come to appreciate in a special way this dynamic force of building energy in great poetry.

In this connection, Robert Bly, one of our leading contemporary poets (as well as an acclaimed translator, essayist and editor), has much to say concerning what he calls the “heat” often found in great poetry. In his introduction to David Lehman’s, The Best American Poetry, 1999, Bly explains how easy it is to realize when you’re reading a truly wonderful poem full of heat. “We can tell when a poem has arrived by a certain feeling in the gut, as if a dismaying thought had slipped past our defenses. We feel that something has been taken seriously enough that it has hurt the poet.” A poem which he cites as one example, and one that I agree is packed with potential energy that gets unleashed at the end, is a little masterpiece by Ruth Stone entitled, “A Moment,”

Across the highway a heron stands
in the flooded field. It stands
as if lost in thought, on one leg, careless,
as if the field belongs to herons.
The air is clear and quiet.
Snowmelt on this second fair day.Mother and daughter,
we sit in the parking lot
with doughnuts and coffee.
We are silent.
For a moment the wall between us
opens to the universe,
then closes.
And you go on saying
you do not want to repeat my life.

Notice the tremendous and almost simultaneous convergence at the end of the poem of both cognitive recognition and emotional energy. At once you understand that the gulf of separation between the mother and the daughter is paramount, and your emotional pump, if you will, has been well primed in the intense sensations of beauty and simplicity that are found in the scene described before the last leveling couplet. Before you even understand all there is to understand here, you get a jolt, one that gets locked into your brain and your emotions. A jolt you likely won’t forget for some time. That’s a great poem. Further, and importantly, one is not struck here with the details of form, line breaks, rhyme schemes (even though there are none). One doesn’t have time to consider if the poem resembled prose or had a classical “poetry skin.” And this is not say that rhyming or metered poetry cannot have just as much heat. Let’s be clear on this point! What makes this poem wonderful is what it has to say and how it was said. You feel it.

But don’t always go looking for a bolt of lightening or a knock over the head that dumps you off your chair. Heat can affect different people in different ways. It can be subtle. It can be funny. Take Billy Collins, one of America’s most acclaimed living poet’s (and poet laureate) who is known for his profound levity and an uncanny perception of the foibles of everyday life. One example of heat in Collins’ poetry from a lighter side, is seen his poem, “Consolation,” in which he goes to great pains to describe how relieved he is to NOT be taking a holiday in Italy, but left to meander around his own neighborhood. The poem begins,

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hilltowns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets,
fully grasping the meaning of every roadsign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.

The heat is building up here, but not nearly boiling yet. Collins is laying the groundwork for a powerful, if not lighthearted ending, that sticks in the brain and evokes a response. He uses four more brilliant stanzas to fully hammer home the personal benefits found domestically, as contrasted with the headaches of an overseas junket where he might be found, for example, “slouching in a café ignorant of the word for ice.” Finally, the poem ends in a magnificent explosion of heat:

And after breakfast, I will not have to find someone
willing to photograph me with my arm around the owner.
I will not puzzle over the bill or record in a journal
what I had to eat and how the sun came in the window.
It is enough to climb back into the car

as if it were the great car of English itself
and sounding my loud vernacular horn, speed off
down a road that will never lead to Rome, not even Bologna.

I don’t know about you, but I’m nodding my head, grinning and thinking of all the times I’ve felt exactly this way, thanking my lucky stars that my car is taking me home for a hot shower and not to the mall (or anywhere else on the planet).

Elizabeth Bishop’s monumental poem, “In the Waiting-room, takes place in the waiting room of a dentist’s office. What appears to be an orphaned child is leafing through a copy of National Geographic and finding all those graphic pictures of natives in the bush, etc. (who can’t identify with that?) as her “foolish aunt” is being worked on in the next room. The poem is a complex commentary on the discovery of self and early delineations of language and discovery. Remarkably, the act of waiting is nimbly converted into a rite-of-passage experience as well as a startling discovery of her identity. The poem packs this kind of heat like a six shooter:

Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.


. . .What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I – we - were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I cannot end this short essay on what makes a poem a good poem, without giving you my own personal choice for one of the hottest poems I’ve ever read. It is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sublime poem, “Spring and Fall,” which, in my estimation, starts off hot and continues to build steam all the way through.

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man,
You, with your fresh thoughts
Care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name
Sorrow's springs are the same:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

That is potential energy mounting in each word, collecting heat with each new line- the heat of a grieving Margaret who mourns for the leaves falling off the trees in her beloved town of Goldengrove- heat building as she is warned that as she grows older, much more “sights colder” will befall… that she “will yet weep and know why.” All this amidst a beautifully strung series of white-hot words that draw you in to the final climax- reaching its atomic detonation in last fateful line, “It is Margaret you mourn for.” This is the kind of heat that I aim for in writing poetry, and only rarely achieve. I believe it is a hallmark of great poetry and a quality that we would all do well in trying to achieve, if only to catch a little of that kind of warmth in our words.
- -------------------------------------------

Monday, October 8, 2007

How to Read a Poem

The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:

A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists

The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived

Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,

Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,

Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.

-Man Carrying Thing, Wallace Stevens

What’s different about a poem? Let’s not belabor the question in this small space. Here’s some improper answers: it uses metaphors, it’s short, it has special form, it has a recognizable rhythm or meter, and the kicker… it rhymes.

I’m squeezing open the pages of my crackling new Best of American Poetry, 2007 and trying to discern a distinguishing poetic marker. Just when I thought I had one, I turned the page and found a stunner that had absolutely no properties close to anything on my ever changing criteria-list. Then I remembered the image I had formed from just a few lines in a poem by Jane Hirshfield, entitled Critique of Pure Reason:

Let reason flow like water around a stone, the stone remains.
A dog catching a tennis ball lobbed into darkness
Holds her breath silent, to keep the descent in her ears.

You can reflect on that thought picture for a lifetime. Granted, it was planted neatly within the context of a powerful poem, but still, the image holds up on its own. It has to. Poetry gives you very little time to make mistakes. It’s got to grab you on an impulse and somehow find a place outside of (or at least alongside) reason and reasoning. As Wallace Stevens writes, it must resist the intelligence almost successfully.

When you come to that three-liner in Hirshfield’s poem, or shortly thereafter, you lose a breath before comprehending the full import of how and why you lost that breath. That’s the power in the stroke, the torque in the engine of poetry. And to fully appreciate it, you have to give in to the temptation of having it all right there on your plate at that very instant: green peas, corn on the cob and a steak, medium rare. You have to be willing to sit there, reading, without any kind of a clue, but anticipating the grand possibility of somehow getting a clue. Sooner or later you just may.

To have a clue, reading very good poetry must be swallowed whole. Don’t sit there chewing away, gumming the food and trying to figure out if you like it (I’m not talking about fast food here, but fine cuisine). Most people know within seconds if they’ve got a really big fish on the line. The pole goes down and you get a tug. The response? Any self-respecting angler will exclaim in glee and start reeling away like a lunatic.

So, I’m suggesting, when you read poetry, do just that. Read it. It’s that simple. Don’t cerebrum your way through it, asking: what does this mean? What does that imply, what is the author trying to tell me? Oh dear, that poet must be in a very dark place… no, that poet can’t be talking about a real life experience, etc. There's plenty of time for that later. Sometimes you just have to swallow before chewing.

There are other similar pitfalls. George Szirtes, in an insightful essay in the latest issue of Poetry Magazine (October, 2007), comments on a popular confusion that ‘bedevils’ the reading of poetry:

"…it [the confusion] involves the reading of poetry primarily in order to find out about the poet as a person in real life. This involves reading the poem as symptom or evidence. Poetry is useless as evidence. As far as I know, no poem has ever been adduced as evidence in court."

I think one begins to see this operating in an online forum. Communities that are organized around poetry on the internet abound. Folks begin to become familiar with each other and suddenly poets are being sympathized with and counseled through their poems. Further, and interestingly, authors in this milieu often morph into a symbiotic relationship with their newfound observers, and begin to write poems that are shaped by the demands and reactions of others. Perhaps this will spawn its own 21st Century variety of fascinating poetry, but for now, it lurks as a danger to creativity for both the writer and the reader.

So what are you to do after you’ve breezed zenfully through a poem? You could ask yourself the following question (just for fun!) How do I feel? Here are some choices, circle at least one: sad, happy, perplexed, exalted, or even apathetic (a valid emotion). But don’t tell me you don’t feel anything. If that happened very often to you, I’d probably have never gotten you past the first paragraph of this essay. After all, we are talking about poetry here, not linear equations.

Some more options. You can always go back and reread the poem to see if your initial impressions are bolstered or amplified or diminished in some way. See if you learn anything new about the poem, or about yourself. See if an image fills out, a thought comes into better focus. See if you suddenly remember an incident or sound or reaction hearkening back to experience. Perhaps a thought sequence is jarred in your recollection.

Do you like the poem? If not, no worries. On to the dishes or a mystery novel. But if you like it, you may find yourself a little more open to understanding why you like it. That’s an interesting proposition and one that matters, I think. Maybe you’ll bookmark the poem and try to find other ones by this poet online or in a bookstore. Maybe you’ll write your own poem with a newfound perspective afforded by this poet’s work (secret: that’s how good poets write good poems!).

After all is said and done, my guess is, you won’t be impressed by the logic of the poem or the didactic way in which it presented in linear, irrefutable arguments (admittedly, there are such poems). Szirtes, in his essay, develops a rather compelling case for jettisoning reason as a primary tool for appreciating poetry (note here, this is not advocating the expulsion of meaning in poetry, quite the oppositie). He makes the following bold assertion:

"[the confusion involves] the reading of poetry as articulated intention; that is to say, imagining that the poet intended to mean some specific bare thing, then sat down to dress it up in pretty, graceful, elegant forms that you could then strip away to find the naked meaning. Fancy talk."

He goes on to make the point that such ‘plain speech,’ if it really existed, is not of much use in poetry. “Tell me what you really mean, the plain-spoken demand,” he argues, “the poet has a broad subject, but he cannot know what line or what word will come next in his poem. The poet listens as intently as he speaks and sings.”

This is perhaps revolutionary to some, and may elicit a knee-jerk reaction in poetry readers who do not want to abrogate meaning in text. I’m very sympathetic. Yet, I don’t think Szirtes is trying to convince us that poets don’t care about meaning! Quite the opposite. Yet, the purpose of poetry is not to convince or prove from premise on through to conclusion. We have other forms for that. I think a poem takes on a fragrance in reading, acquires its own shape and color and texture. To give it a pro forma look, bottled and ready to distribute, would be to kill the poem before it has one minute to breathe.

Poets do care about meaning. However, speaking as a poet who tries to communicate some very discrete ideas in his poems and hopefully identify emotions and observations that convey meaning in experience, I think I can still see the importance of decrying reason as the ultimate arbiter of understanding in the reading of poetry. How many poets, after all, will fall on the sword of their own explication? Not many, I think. That is to say, if pinned down (and I have been… more times than I care to think about), they will spew you their nuggets out of one side of the mouth, then, from the other, on a different day, or in a different mood, give you quite another explanation. This is no secret. And there is no shame in it.

Perhaps even more illuminating, however, is the observation that average run-of-the-mill spectacular poets will allow you to get away with a pretty wide band of interpretation of their vaunted metaphor and argument, if you insist on describing them in those terms.

Bottom line (and here’s where I’ll probably get chopped to pieces and spit out like a bad poem), most poets I know will be very satisfied that you are satisfied with their poems- even if you come up with some fantastic new gem that they never had one inkling of, while writing it (unless it relates to your cat). Life is short, and you write a poem, stick it out there, and hope it makes a splash somewhere. It’s not an essay and it’s not a sermon. Well, I suppose some are, but I’m not tackling that one today!

Thus, poetry is fluid, not static. Poems are water, not ice. They should be read with observation and sensitivity, realizing that they may die tomorrow, then be revived a month later by the taxi driver who reads a haiku waiting for a rider, or the professor trying to explain a bloody Shakespearean sonnet to dumbfounded students with slumping heads. Or, maybe they only live for one ephemeral blinding moment in your heart. For many, that’s enough.

EDN, October, 2007

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

An Interview with Didi Menendez, MiPOesias Poetry Magazine (2/26/07)

Didi Menendez is the creator and publisher of the online poetry magazine, MiPOesias Magazine as well as miPOradio, whose byline “where poetry tunes in,” aptly describes an energetic site where you can listen to podcasts of interviews and poetry readings from accomplished poets. She is a busy woman who has a passion for introducing new voices to the poetry scene. “But what I love most,” she is quick to point out, “is inspiring others.” It is clear she has been successful in this endeavor.

Among many other pursuits, she also hosts MiPO Café Café, a hip meeting room with serious poets critiquing and encouraging one another. This is but one of many sources which she taps for possible candidates to give podcast readings and interviews at miPOradio.

MiPOesias Magazine is a beautifully designed online poetry magazine that greets you with a seductive splash of images and drawings, then immediately ushers you in with a default podcast of a recited poem. Amy King is the Editor-in-Chief and Jenni Russell is the magazine’s Print Editor. Recently, Didi arranged to have Nick Carbo, a prominent author of three critically acclaimed books of poetry, take the reins as guest editor for the Asian-American issue of MiPOesias. The resultant product is nothing short of genius. I haven’t found anything remotely similar anywhere online or in the printed world.

Didi loves certain aspects in the design elements of the MiPOesias Magazine, but wrestles with the technical deficiencies of browsers and incompatibilities of formatting which can often frustrate contributors as well. She relates,

“For example, let’s say someone wants their poems formatted a certain way and they send me the poem attached in the way they think it is going to be seen online. Well, what I get is not what they necessarily are seeing at their end. First, many writers for some reason feel that they need to format their fonts at their end and send me all sorts of funky fonts that are not necessarily in my own computer, therefore my computer is going to default to whatever font I have. This is also the case of other people reading their work and whether it is being seen on a Mac or on Windows or on Mozilla Firefox....etc. This is the part where my head bangs against the monitor and I take my frustrations out on my peaceful editor Amy King.”

Didi (DM), Jenni (JR) and Amy (AK) were kind enough to address some questions I put together with a view toward giving our readers a feel for how one can interface and interact with online poetry magazines such as MiPOesias and miPOradio and begin to benefit from the richness available in this growing web sector.

EN: How did you come up with the name, MiPOesias?

DM: I was trying to write ‘all my poems’ in Spanish. I was searching for the availability of domain names, and mistakenly typed in MiPOesias. It was available, so I bought it.

EN: Do you like the term ‘ezine,’ in referring to online poetry magazines? How would you define that term, and what, in essence, makes an online magazine different from a paper-only printed magazine?

DM: I do not like the word ‘ezine’ and I do not use it. I treat my publication just as if it were on paper. I publish and design it in the same way any print publisher would. I treat the work I do as professional. I have been trying to bring this across from the very start of the publication. I have been trying to educate people and strive each year to make the magazine better than the year before. Hence my production of audio; and also, last year we made the magazine accessible with an RSS feed.

EN: What do you see as some advantages that online magazines provide versus printed?

DM: …since the audience understands this word [ezine] to mean that a magazine is available electronically, then the answer to your question is that MiPOesias, because it is available online, receives more varied readers than your print publications because it is accessible by everybody that has internet access. This gives our contributors a more varied audience and far more readers than a print journal will ever have unless that print journal has now been made electronically available as well. You may check our readership from the stats which are available online.

EN: Where is your time spent in managing MiPOesias? Which tasks do you prefer?

DM: I work on the magazine mostly on the weekends and on miPOradio on weeknights as well as the weekends. miPOradio actually takes up most of my time because it is a radio program which is available on the internet and we have various programs which need to be uploaded regularly. On the other hand, once I have created a template for the issue at hand, the magazine is easily updated (unless there is a format issue as mentioned earlier). I have taken to resolving formatting problems by using Adobe PDF and turning the problematic “submission” into a jpg instead of copy.

EN: How does one submit poems to MiPOesias? What is the acceptance rate?

AK: I really don't keep count, so unfortunately, I can't give you even a rough ratio. On the plus side of the question, I don't feel limited by how many submissions I can accept because Didi updates the magazine quite often, more so than any other online magazine that I'm aware of. We're something of a weekly or bi-weekly production – this allows me to accept good work whenever it appears. Sometimes there might be a lull on the receiving end, which sends me out to solicit work. I like this balance because we can publish a range of people who have never been published before side-by-side with established writers.

[EN} From the website: Submissions are only accepted via email. Do not send work being considered by another editor. Send only new work. Response time is within a four to eight months time frame, not including holidays. If you have not received a reply after 8 months, you may send a query. Once a submission is accepted the recipient will receive further details with the rest of required material for publication including a photo of the author not already online and audio of the accepted work. Publication of the magazine takes place once work is accepted and materials requested are received by Didi Menendez.

EN: Does MiPOesias have a persona or a particular style of poem that you look for? Could you give a general idea of the kind of poems you turn away?

AK: I suppose if I had to generalize the style, I'd use the very abstract word, “experimental.” However, I hesitate because I've accepted many poems that one could also classify as traditional, even formal. I like a range of work, and the foremost facets that I look for are shaped by the common elements of poetry: content and form. Of course, I prefer innovative forms that allow for multiple readings. I also appreciate carefully-crafted poems. These two adjectives, “innovative” and “carefully crafted,” are not always exclusive.

Poems I tend to overlook are those that seem to be striving for some sort of obvious message that one can summarize upon a first reading. In other words, I don't enjoy poems that can be read and digested instantly and attempt to incorporate some sort of romantic notion about life's ups and downs. I tend to think of these poems as “Hallmark-y” and too quick. I want work I can dig into a few times over and still be surprised by. I'm a firm believer in the act of reading, that the reader has a responsibility to participate in the poem's materialization vis-à-vis her own mind.

EN: Can everyone “tune in” to the poetry at MiPOesias or miPOradio? What does your readership profile look like?

AK: Absolutely. Poetry comes in all shapes, sizes, and sounds, just like music, which means there's something out there for everyone. It's my responsibility as an editor to locate an array of quality of work that piques curiosity, and further, gives readers something substantial to delve into. Luckily, our readership and submissions have proven to span many styles of poetry along with a smorgasbord of content. We have some very talented people sending their work in on a regular basis, for which I am grateful. I should add a qualifier here: our audience won't like everything we publish anymore than a person will like every song on the radio – but there's always something you'll find yourself moving to.

EN: I believe MiPOesias has a printing arm where you publish chapbooks. Would
you describe what that looks like? How many poems do you need to assemble a competitive manuscript?

JR: Our publishing arm is quite sexy but also tough. It has a huge bicep and tiny wrist. The manuscript should include 17-25 pages of poetry.
[EN]: From the website: Our print product is located at lulu. Submissions are open from January 1st through April 1st and from August 1st through November 1st each year. Manuscripts should include a table of contents page and a page including your name, email address and mailing address. Please DO NOT send illustrations or an acknowledgements page for previously published poems. We are not interested in where you've been published. Just send us your best work. Poems from the manuscript may be previously published, but the chapbook as a whole should be unpublished. We accept electronic submissions only.

EN: MiPOradio is fascinating. Given that this medium is rapidly expanding on the Web, where would you like to take it, personally? What are the benefits of listening to poetry, versus reading poetry?

DM: I believe your statement about rapidly expanding on the Web is incorrect -- I believe the real answer here is that if your journal does not have some kind of Web presence, you might as well go fishing and call it a day. Regarding the benefits of listening to audio versus reading poetry, I will answer it from a personal standpoint as a listener vs. a reader. If a poem is submitted with audio, I can listen to it while I work on the magazine. I get a better appreciation for it. Again this is a personal opinion on my part.
Regarding where I would like to take the magazine, it all depends on my creativity and resources-, and my study of web trends. Also, I am nothing without the good work of people in the front line such as Amy King, William Stobb, Grace Cavalieri, Bob Marcacci, Jenni Russell, Michelle Buchanan and our wonderful contributors. Plus, let’s not forget the help I receive on cafe cafe's community from Diego Quiros and all the writers who encourage each other there.

EN: Is the vocal recitation of poetry an innate gift, or can it be learned, perfected? What kind of reading style attracts you?

DM: What I have learned from producing audio on MiPOesias is that not everyone can read their poems well. Some people simply do not give the poem the energy it deserves. They actually forget to stop at the periods, to give the commas their time of day and forget why they wrote the poem in stanzas to begin with. Some people should not record their poems. It may actually turn a reader off. I don't know this, though, until I get the audio. Sometimes we can blame the microphone and software they used. I recommend that writers try to read publicly as much as possible. We have a Reading Series in New York every last Friday of the month at Stain Bar located in Brooklyn. Any contributor of MiPOesias or Café Café is invited to read.

EN: What would you tell the serious writer who is exploring writing poetry and would like to develop and hone their skills?

AK: Read a lot of poetry. Read widely. Locate a few poets whose work you strongly admire. Imitate, imitate, imitate their work. Get a book on poetic form and style and toy around with the ideas that catch your eye. Remember that you can enjoy writing. Join a community of writers like the MiPO Café Café forum and practice critiquing others’ work as well as posting your own. Learn the art of editing. Defend the parts of your work you love. Finally, make writing a habit. Set yourself a daily schedule, even if it's just an hour a day, and sit down to write. If you don't write, don't do anything else except sit there and read others' poetry, with your pen and paper in front of you. Stick with the schedule and allow yourself to write badly. Be patient. Don't expect fame or praise when you finally publish. Eventually, you'll be a serious writer.

EN: Can you tell us any “hot” new directions, programs or plans that you personally
have in the wings?

DM: I am always looking for new audio programs. It is very hard to find the right individual for this. I have approached a certain prominent poetry blogger a few times about having a version of his blog available on miPOradio but, again, the technology and time that is involved in getting me the audio and recording the audio and uploading the audio for such a task is limited not necessarily just on my part but on whomever is the one recording. So expanding miPOradio is more in my future plans than the magazine per say, and how to make this process easier, better, faster and friendlier on writers trying to get their work recorded. Then there is the matter of archiving the work on miPOradio. I have turned to PENNSOUND for this. I am not offering PENNSOUND everything at this time, because frankly I have way too much audio out there. However, every year I plan on sending them audio to archive in the University so it is available 100 years from now whereas I know that my publication will someday not be. Hence when I die, the magazine will too.

Recently I published the Asian-American issue guest edited by Nick Carbo. I approached Nick in the spring of 2006 and told him that I wanted to publish an Asian-American issue and that I wanted him to guest edit it and by golly he did and there it is now.

EN: Thanks to Didi, Amy and Jenni for taking the time to answer these questions.
-originally published on Gather.com, Feb. 26, 2007. Some of the particulars in the above interview may be outdated.

***** Click here to view Edward Nudelman Poems: http://enudelman.blogspot.com/