The Academy of American Poets sent me my 2014 membership card. Have I mentioned I love membership cards. They’re so clubby. Like having a card for the neighborhood pool. The Academy is really excited about their new card design. I mean it’s okay. Kind of hard to read and it uses the same Arial-like font everyone seems to be using these days. Some marketing firm must be recommending this font to everyone. It’s the new Georgia O’Keeffe museum font, too. It seems so uncreative for these creative organizations. The Academy also tells me that my membership card symbolizes my (underlined) extraordinary commitment. I’ve only been a member for year so this seems a bit much. Three pages later, they just want me to renew early. Like nine months early. All this is interesting but I just want my next copy of American Poet which I haven’t seen in a while.
I caught up on my American Poetry Review, the Jan/Feb 2014 issue which had some good things per usual. Many good poems in this issue: William Kistler, Nate Pritts (who does the H_NGM_N online journal). I don’t always like juxtapositioned, accumulated nonsense poems but I did like Taria Faizullah’s, especially “Confabulation.” She had punching last lines. I also liked the vague poem “Things by Their Name…” by Circe Maia. And Jason Schneiderman’s “White Boy” and Caroline Pittman’s “Not Everything is a Metaphor” and Matthew Lippman’s “Blowhole.”
There’s a small essay by Robert Pinsky about coming back to a poem years later, compressing it and making it more explicit and how this felt like a translation project. Mira Rosenthal has a good review/essay on some new books of translation. She talks about the connection between a reader and a poem from another language and trying to feel out the translator’s approach as a reader. There’s an interview with Ellen Bass. Joy Ladin also walks the thin line between poems of sense, non-sense and silliness and questions where nonsense poetry breaks down for readers. There’s an informtive essay revisiting William Blake and an amazing, amazing essay by Stephen Burt on the simile and the work the word“like” does, an essay that is so meandering and comprehensive. It effectively breaks down the technology of the simile and extrapolates this how poetry works at all by assuming certain similarities (likes) between reader and writer.
I recently bought FLATT Magazine for a Cher interview (FLATT is a philanthropic arts organization that “celebrates creative entrepreneurs and contemporary philanthropic ideas”) and the somewhat substantial magazine is filled with art, photos and interviews and, surprise, some poetry. This issue had two poets. The poems were not quite clichéd but not fully original either. “Poetic Narrative” by Marc Straus (with artwork by Bruce Robbins) was my favorite of the two represented. His were lyrics with a lot of juxtapositioned, random lines. But there was still an undercurrent of a story about a father. These poems reminded me of William Carlos Williams because they were written from a doctor’s point of view.
The poems also contained a lot of scene-setting, some interesting lines like “Rivers drowned in each others’ mouths” and class issues touched upon in “He went to the suburb where/they judge your lawn” and American critique: “He said that 90 inch drapes were 89 inches long. /That one inch made America rich.” The other poet Jason Armstrong Beck was included with a poem called “Dust Storm” mostly a visual study. Beautiful magazine had there were typos that drove me nuts.
Books I’m Reading
Not much to post this week because I’m deep in the middle of three books which were recently delivered to me:
My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe: I heard about this book in my ModPo MOOC class last year. Since the book was billed as a new format of arts criticism, I bought it more as a reference for a pop-culture study of Cher I’m working on. Maybe this structure will be useful to see. It’s very fragmentary, like you would expect from a Language poet book. It’s interesting and beautiful in its own way but I’m not sure it appeals to my own style and obsessive need to sort and organize a subject. But that's more about me.
Nine Gates by Jane Hirshfield: This book was recommended in one of my classes last year with Barbara Rockman. It started out slow as molasses. In fact, I found it hard to concentrate on the first essay about concentration! But I’m really loving it now that I’ve found my way into its rhythms. Loving the essay on translations at the moment.
The Hungry Ear, Poems of Food & Drink edited by Kevin Young: I love poems. I love to eat. So how could I not love a collection of poems about food? This book was a Christmas present to myself this year.
New Addresses by Kenneth Koch: This is my first eBook of poetry! I received a Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas from Monsieur Bang Bang. I just finished three research books using this thing for my Cattle Trail project. Looking forward to the first book of poetry.
Will dutifully report back on my findings.
Our strength will continue if we allow ourselves the courage to feel scared, weak, and vulnerable.
This reminds me of a story I have about Melody Beattie's wonderful book, Co-Dependent No More, How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Taking Care of Yourself. Many years ago a therapist of mine recommended the book and it really helped me. Two years ago, I met a woman in Santa Fe who was struggling with the issue of trying to fix her alcoholic boyfriend. I loaned her the book and a week later she told me a story about how the boyfriend went into a tirade when he saw it, ripped it up and then threatened her physically. She kicked him out and then promised to buy me a new copy, one she said was already re-ordered and in the mail. Weeks later a co-worker was helping her after another drama with her estranged boyfriend and when she mentioned the word 'co-dependency' our co-worker, a horribly dysfunctional and co-dependent woman herself, told us she defiantly didn’t believe in co-dependency. The concept was a bunch of malarkey. Needless to say, I never saw a replacement of the book and I miss all my marginalia from the allegedly destroyed copy. I guess I should stop being so co-dependent on my book.
To let knowledge produce troubles, and then use knowledge to prepare against them, is like stirring water in hopes of making it clear.
Mark Nepo goes on to say "the mind is a spider that, if allowed, will tangle everything and then blame the things it clings to for the web it wants to be free of."
How can you follow the course of your life if you don not let it flow?
To be broken is no reason to see all things as broken.
"A form of hysteria…One thing he has demonstrated, the impossibility of getting anywhere with the Whitmanian inspiration. No writer of comparable ability has struggled with it before and it seems highly unlikely that any writer of comparable genius will struggle with it again."
Yvor Winters, Poetry
"An eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village—or anywhere else—cannot with impunity set at defiance the laws of gravitation and grammar…Oblivion lingers in the immediate neighborhood."
Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Atlantic Monthly
Reviews originally compiled by Bill Henderson in Rotten Reviews.
Perusing a local-paper poetry-themed insert I came across the mention of a new essay by Tony Hoagland called "Twenty Little Poems that Could Save America" from Harpers magazine: http://harpers.org/blog/2013/04/twenty-little-poems-that-could-save-america/
I support the idea of revamping the way we teach poetry in secondary schools and in college. Poetry has slipped outside of mainstream culture and there are many reasons for this. Baby steps back may involve rethinking the cirriculum, something many forward-thinking teachers are already doing. Hoagland wants to use more contemporary poetry and has created a list of poems he believes "the kids today" can relate to.
I anticipate resistance to this idea (so does Hoagland) and I think it goes back to poets worrying that their favorite poems will be lost forever. This fear actually hides another bigger very secret fear that someday their own (future famous) poems might also be judged out-of-date, old fashioned, or just not modern enough and therefore doomed to be forgotten as the new poems and poets continually roll in and take over. Perinneals entombed in concrete will prevent this slippage.
But Hoagland loses me when he goes off on pop culture. In the beginning he says "Culture is always reanimating itself" and then goes on to say celebrity culture is "a kind of fake surrogate for the culturally significant place gods and myth once held in the collective imagination....just as junk food mimics nutritious food, fake culture [fake culture??] mimics and displaces the position of real myth. [Real myth???] Real culture cultivate our ability to see, feel and think. It is empowering. Fake culture [again, fake culture??] makes us passive, materialistic and tranced-out."
First of all, obviously mainstream movies and music can cultivate our ability to see, feel and thik and are also empowering and can encourage us to be active and not passive. To argue otherwise is to be willfully ignorant. Not to mention there is no such think as an unreal or fake culture. Culture is what it is. Football, Kim Kardashian, violent video games, expensive cars and shoes...that's the culture now. Like it or don't like it. What you think of the prevaling culture is irrelevant. It reanimates regardless of the judgements on it from you or me.
But then Hoagland goes on to appreciate Glengarry Glen Ross and Citizen Kane. The thing is, nobody can be the judge of what is is specifically that moves someone else. It's not fake. It's just not your thing.
Anyway, we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. This essay continues the ongoing conversation about the role of art in schools and how we can better teach an appreciation of poetry.
I'm sure it will elicit many petty 20-poem list wars among poets battling it out for supremacy. But for those of us on the ground, a good weekend reading list if nothing else.
For Christmas I received this book of poems, I Could Chew on This and Other Poems by Dogs from my friend Julie. I assuming the book would be a silly parody of nonsensical dog poems. However, Francesco Marciuliano shows he has a mastery of that very meter of poetry that works to elicit a laugh. Call it doggerel (I couldn't resist), call them limericks, whatever...it takes skill. As some say about poetry, it can't be taught. As even more say about being funny, it really can't be taught.
All successful jokes and funny stories involve "comedic timing," which is another way of saying a finely tuned sense of the meter of the language. Bad jokes usually choke for lack of such timing.
I loved these very funny dog poems. If you prefer cat poems you might read instead his poems found in the book I Could Pee on This.
Last week I also enjoyed The Late Show, poems by David Trinidad. Yes, because I love pop culture and poems about old movie stars and movies. Yes, because there's an amazing poem about Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. Yes, because I collect Cher dolls and so appreciated his poem about how the cut-throat, back-stabbing world of poetry coincides with his passion for collecting Barbie dolls and accessories. Yes, because there was a surprising Sonny Bono mention in the book.
But also because I just started reading Frank O'Hara's collected poems and biography and Trinidad is reminding me of O'Hara in style (and not just because he's also a gay, pop-culture loving poet).
And also because the book has a crown of sonnets and I love those (ever since Joan Larkin turned me on to them and the ones called "the blackout sonnets" in her own book A Long Sound). And also because the poems are varied, some simple and short, some complicated and long. The lipstick-color collage is amazing. The movie-title poems are amazing, too. The book also deals with memory and childhood, toys, and the meanness of the poetry world. You get name-brand toy dropping and name-dropping of the regular ole literary kind.
They published a controversial essay by Joy Katz on sentimentalism and the absurd lengths we’ve been trying to avoid it. At least that's how I took the piece. I heard through another writer-friend that Alicia Ostriker (who’s book Stealing the Language practically changed my life), was upset by how the essay used her as an example, thinking she was being criticized for sentimentalism. This is not how I interpreted the essay at all. Joy Katz really drags you through the drama of sentimental-avoidance in efforts to please current avant-guarde practitioners; and I can’t see why she would do this if not in defense of sentimentality ultimately as a choice.
Katz re-enacts the writing of a poem where a baby appears:
“A baby turns up in a poem I am writing…Oh no… A baby has turned up in a poem I am writing. Fear the world enclosing it: too easy to inhabit, too pretty, too comfy, too female, too married, too straight. A poem with a baby in it is automatically possibly all of these things, no matter what I am in my life as a person…
A baby has appeared. Fear loss of world, loss of danger, loss of trash, loss of anger, loss of war, loss of surprise, loss of mattering, loss of dirt, loss of wildness, loss of scale, loss of geologic time, loss of continents, loss of rivers, loss of knives, loss of meanness. Lost: the chance to go somewhere that scares me...I am writing a poem about. A cloud of aboutness hovers over my draft….
(True story: In Paris recently, I read several poems with my young son in them. The work evinced a range of strategies, from fragments to collage to narrative to a lyric. An editor I was talking with afterward said, about the poems, “I’m not interested in content. Do you know what I mean?”)…Fear of loss of credibility…
Can you not see the irony here? If the editor (or the avant-guard, for that matter) isn’t interested in content, what difference does content (the baby) make? It should be irrelevant; but it’s not. Here "I'm not interested in content" means "I'm interested in content."
“(Fact: When a male poet writes about a baby, he is not accused of being “overwhelmed by biology.” Fact: One of my teachers told me and a couple of other women that we should never write about our kids. I later realized he wrote about his kids.)”
Katz's essay is both aesthetic and political and yet understated, unsentimental. It dosen't draw absolute conclusions but it raises doubts. Maybe this is how it could be misconstrued.
In this APR there is also an email conversation between Gerry LaFemina and Stephen Dunn on the topic of irony that goes into length debating whether irony exists in the Tom Lux poem “Refrigerator 1957,” a debate I enjoyed very much because Lux was my “don” at Sarah Lawrence College. We all heard him read that poem about ten times while there. We even used to impersonate his performances of it just like we impersonated Marie Howe saying “the plumber I have not yet called” from her very serious poem “What the Living Do.”
Kids having fun in the 1990s.
There's also an essay by Jane Hirshfield, an amazing piece about (in defense of?) the power of lyric poetry, speaking to “the inexhaustibility of existence itself” and therefore the inexhaustibility of the lyric. She even takes on Theodor Adorno. You go, girl!
There’s also a conversation with Philip Levine. Levine was the first famous poet I ever saw in the flesh, when he arrived one night for a reading in Slonim House at Sarah Lawrence College. I’ve been starstruk since. In today’s political climate, I’m developing a deeper taste for Levine just as I am for songwriter Billy Bragg.
By the way, for some amazing out-of-the-box poetry, I would recommend the 1998 album of Wilco/Billy Bragg taking unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics from Guthrie's family archive. Two nights ago, Monsieur Big Bang and I watched the documentary on the making of the album.
I also enjoyed poems in APR by Joe Wenderoth. And of course I loved the three Stephen Dobyns poems in the issue because I always love Stephen Dobyns poems a bit shamelessly. His poem “Sincerity” was particularly good in light of our ongoing debates about lyric poetry and writing from the "self."
Bright Star (2009) is another BBC Films movie focusing on the 1818 love story between John Keats, (played like a heartthrob by Ben Whishaw), and Fannie Brawne, (played by Abbie Cornish), with screenplay and direction by Jane Campion.
This was another winner with great depictions of the following:
- the pompous, insufferable poet who has no sense of humor about himself or anything else, played by Paul Schneider as Keats’ friend Mr. Brown
- sequestering yourself to get writing done
- poor reviews and poor sales
- choosing a life of poetry even though this entails poverty
- really good friends who are actually not very good friends whenever they provide blind, tragic generosity.
Just as she did in The Piano, director Campion makes another unhurried, particular movie. She is a master of shooting the outdoors, the outside lawns and forests of Hampstead Village, full of butterflies and the sounds of the woods. Campion is also good at including adorable little girls in her pictures, girls who run around the heath and steal the movie.
Here, Campion sets up a parallel of craft between Brawne’s labors over stitching and sewing her fashions and the labor of Keats' writing. There is a scene midway that is a remarkable bit of visual poetry itself: Brawne laying in her bed in the first thoes of love as her window curtain floats across the room toward her.
Campion also does a few studies in the ruffles of “almost-silence” (with interesting foley sound effects) and visually in a look at love’s madness (with a succession of butterfly scenes that begin with beauty and end in depression—hey, we’ve all been there).
Brawne suffers trying to relate to Keats, declaring, “poems are a strain to work out” before she asks Keats to teach her how to read a poem. Keats describes reading poetry to her as similar to swimming in a lake. The point is not to rush over to the other side but to enjoy floating in the middle of it.
Many of Keats' most famous poems are recited. You also get to feel the exhilarating joy and tactility of receiving hand-written letters.
But warning: this movie is not for those with a “delicate constitution” as the film requires a steady crying jag that lasts practically the full final half.
Tongues Untied is one of the documentaries listed in the documentary about 50 documentaries you should see before you die. The movie is both a collage of experiment and a personal statement by Marlon Riggs about his experiences as a black gay man. Between narratives, the movie weaves in spoken-word poetry, popular music and dance.
At the time of its release, the movie was labeled pornographic and used as an example in the attack against national funding for the arts. Looking back, that response looks shamefully puritan.
Beautiful performance poetry on issues of race and sexuality. Not for those who are squeamish about frank discussions and depictions of race and sexuality. Highly recommended otherwise.
While I was working at the Institute of American Indian Arts, I would occassionally come across copies of a book by Maurice Kenny called Connotations all around campus. Last week I finally finished one of the multiple copies found in my own office.
The poems in the book are primarily about Kenny's father but also stories farther back into his ancestry, stories of his childhood and how his experiences then concern him now as he faces a future idea of his death.
The first section contains musings on paintings of male nudes. I found this section to be a bit repetitive and vague.
The poems in the second section are much more particular and literal vs. figurative (we leave that to the first section...pun intended.). I didn’t really love these poems either at first but they have stuck with me. They depict his complicated relationship with his father and they work to give you a cumulative sort of rendering of his father that is strong in the sum of its parts (which are the individual poems).
The poem “Strange Love” about his sisters reconciliation with her father during a Christmas exchange of presents is indicative of the section's theme:
“His protection beat scars/on her legs and arms.”
The poem “Complicated” does this as well:
His knife drew blood/that his hand wiped off.”
Kenny struggles to understand his father who both protects and harms in visceral ways. You can take the whole of this book as a metaphor for the struggles many have dealing with parents who also harm on their way to help.
On our way home from Pennsylvania after Christmas, Monsieur Big Bang wanted to stop in Fort Smith in order to do some research on Belle and Pearl Starr for his consulting project with the show Quick Draw.
At the Fort Smith historic site, I came across this poem called "My Dream" written by Rufus Buck on the backside of a photograph of his mother. It was found in his cell after his execution for rape on July 1, 1896.
I've cleaned it up...there's a piece of punctuation after practically every word...blame his fragile state of mind...and I've fixed the spelling.
The poem reads,
I dreamt I was in heavenamong the angels fair;
I'd ne'er seen none so handsome
that, twine in golden hair.
They looked so neat and sang so sweet
and played the golden harp.
I was about to pick an angel out
and take her to my heart
but the moment I began to plea
I thought of you, my love.
There was none I'd seen so beautiful
on earth or heaven above.
Goodbye my dear wife and mother,
also my sisters.
1 Day of July
in the year of
Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Virtue, Resurrection
Remember me Rock of Ages
Poets with Sexy Hair