poetry

One Man's Surface

Book Review

Poet Mark Dow, from Houston, Texas, has an ear for tricky syntax, making his sentences read with what seems a unique logic. His poems abound in embedded rhymes and echoes, creating a dense texture of effects that becomes more fascinating with each reading. And as collections of sentences, each poem—some are verse, some prose—plays with expectations, creating an individualized, highly concentrated language that can be quite beautiful, as well as philosophical, funny and, at times, baffling. As one poem states, “One man’s surface is out of another man’s depth” (p 33).

What’s going on here?, you might find yourself asking as you dip into this slim volume. It begins with a poem invoking a mother’s consoling presence and “the pity of one / who could see in another what / the other had yet to discover or forget” (“With,” p 13), then moves onto a father beating his son (“One Fell Swoop”) that contains a glimpse, by the child, of the parents having sex. It would seem we’re deep into Freudian family romance territory, a view born out late in the collection by a long prose poem—partially a narrative—called “Water and Light.” There, Mama and Daddy are joined by Handyman, a lover figure who may be an archetypal stranger, contributing an estrangement that gets taken up by the son—“He and I and she and I were a perfect mishpack until I was born” (p 46). Both mother and father tell tales of their encounter with an other—an angel, a hobo—stories that arrive as “The overheard version was handed down in a spiral of tell-and-no-telling” (p 52).

Indeed, the genius and the genesis of the tale, as we hear it, is in the telling and not telling. Dow has arrived at an elliptical manner of storytelling that compels us to receive the story as we might a dream, but a dream borne by the way sound and sense never quite mirror each other, but act more like light on a stream: “I had a story to tell but the edges were blurred. Instead was a song which your ears might have heard. The hard horizon stops short of the sky and what slipped into that gap was the I” (p 54). What’s clear is that Dow is contemplating origins—of the person of the speaker, of his poetics, and of the creation itself. This is not so tendentious as it may seem because Dow’s poetics, a combination of craft and vision, make us feel presence as a certain kind of being-in-the-world, and that world is itself a linguistic conception. In the beginning was the word, and “Water and Light” ends with the Hebrew characters for “one term for / the one considered One, / big O, a.k.a. the creator” (p 56). The story resonates as foundational myths do, as the kind of tale, metamorphosing as we read it, that one finds Joyce mining so richly in Finnegans Wake.

The key poem for Dow’s poetics in Plain Talk Rising, it seems to me, is “Between the Lines and Above the Gaze, Which is a Phrase of Mallarmé’s,” its title a good example of the way Dow plays with rhymes and patterns throughout the collection. Early in this eight and a half page poem, we encounter what struck me as a key statement: “It may be that you’re the window and the / being seen through it at once and between” (p 33). The notion that language is a mirror, able to render reality with always a degree of distortion, is almost commonplace. Language—where the eye and the I combine, fortuitously, in English—lets us contemplate a window we see through that is also us being seen through. It’s our only means of consciously “seeing” the world, “at once and between” because we know that, even if we want to believe our perceptions are nothing but a window on the world, there is something “between” us and the world—consciousness itself, or, as some philosophers and poets would prefer to say, language. Mallarmé, of course, is the supreme poet of language as game, a kind of hide-and-seek of meaning where the slightest departures from the norms of syntax create gaps and slippages that almost suggest an alternative way of seeing and saying. That too is the province of Dow’s best poems.

This is not to say that Dow is never simply a poet talking about the prosaic world we generally, or generically, live in. He can be marvelously apt at converting something real into grist for his word-mill: “In the pool in the crownshaft fifty-some-odd hard candies with tiny tongues attached are snails. Mouth is filled with teeth the tongue touches” (p 31). That short prose poem—“Double Lull”—is little more than a tone poem creating an analogue for “Middle-night rain with two voices.” The next poem, titled “Partial Inventory of Immediate Surroundings Omitted from the Preceding Poem,” gives a litany of mundane objects to let us know that, yes, Dow is aware he’s not often using language to take pictures, but then, when he does, watch out: “Wall calendar from last year / with photographs of national parks, / six or seven toilet seats, a sombrero. / Cigar boxes covered with glitter and glue. / A Wiffle ball, sunglasses, / the Los Angeles County / Driver’s Education Handbook, / mouse droppings, mouse traps, / signed pictures of ex-presidents, / pinball machine, crucifix, / small bronze Buddha, / and about a thousand cheap spoons / of every conceivable size” (p 32). Detritus, random junk? Specificity, we’re often told, is the mark of the true writer, able to banish abstractions to the void and give us “no ideas but in things.” And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, its box “covered with glitter and glue.”

Dow’s playfulness is often the point. His mind, it seems, tends to be alert to the kinds of linguistic conundrums that need a sharp eye to divine, but he lets that challenge buoy up his imagination rather than drive him into doldrums about meaninglessness. The poet is the one who gets to define things, after his own fashion: “For years one mind, or so I thought, it part of me, but recently, / that world complete in terms with which we’ve yet to come to terms, / secession starts, autonomy yet wholly me” (“Interim Agreement, p 17). Coming to terms with the terms one’s mind—in its autonomy which is also the “me” of the speaker (perhaps his defining characteristic)—invents? arrives at? while witnessing its “secession.” This could be something like a dissociative personality, or it could be a creative crux, a moment when one is aware that the writing has its own logic, its own way of getting at the world, creating a world with which the writer must “come to terms,” in every sense of the phrase.

And that phrase—“every sense of the phrase”—is something Dow is ever alert to. There are more senses in most statements than the speaker ever senses, and a poet like Dow is apt to find that that’s where, as Emily Dickinson might say, “the meanings are.” Perhaps the best place to end, giving you a sense of the self-consciousness that Dow mines so effectively, is “A Poem by Mark Dow.” Here, the poet looks askance at himself, not in a mea culpa way, but rather in the way we might contemplate a photo of ourselves, recognizing things we dislike and things we must admit, all the while asking “is that really me?”

Before he’s lost or bored you through the door you’re
headed for and Mark Dow looped around to head
you off at so that he could open it in time if he can
find the handle, he’ll try to make up for that fact
he’s always been unable to make things up

and turns, in fact, to find my breath leads back to
back to him and then the outside’s renewed as if
windows had been washed in Mark Dow’s absence.
His poems are nothing but I enjoy saying them to
you or reading them to myself to see if I’m here. (p 27)

The pleasures of following this corkscrew syntax are great, letting us feel “looped around” indeed, even as we can sort of glimpse “Mark Dow” trying to get us to the door, as he gestures to the “outside” we can see through those newly washed windows whose presence recalls his absence. An absence that is present whenever he reads his own poems to “see if I’m here”—he and his own breath somehow “back to back.” The feints and bobs aren’t distractions to throw us off the scent but are instead the main game, keeping in play a way of being in the world of language like “involutions in the corner of some empty warehouse / elaborating as they aspire to their own proud demise” (p 27).

Mark Dow’s Plain Talk Rising is a vivid performance of a self-aware poetics, able to make us feel our lived-in time and a kind of eternal time, addressing the world as a state of mind and a land of language to be mined for what value we can find. Dow’s brilliant wordplay is equal to the stringent—and playful—task he sets himself. His themes, of creation, identity, and the mystery of our sex-engendered existence, reference a possible mythos while always keeping poesis as the wildcard up the sleeve of meaning.

 

Plain Talk Rising
Poems
By Mark Dow
PTR, 2018

 

Before being "self-published," Plain Talk Rising was a finalist in the Colorado Prize, New Issues, and Yale Series competitions; it was a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press.

Dow's work (poems and nonfiction) has appeared in a variety of print and online journals, including Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Chicago Review, Conjunctions, Drunken Boat, Fascicle, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Paris Review, Pequod, PN Review, SLAM! Wrestling, Threepenny Review and New Haven Review.

Plain Talk Rising can be found for purchase here: IndieBound

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Priorities

James Berger’s first book, Prior (BlazeVOX, 2013), is not so much a collection as it is a condensed career. Drawing on decades of poems, Berger compresses his past into a book. We don’t read for a dominant theme but rather to see the different threads revealed. And yet this is also not a “selected,” where the volumes drawn from would be clearly marked. Berger has compiled his poems, we might say, and chosen an arrangement for them. And that’s what we read. That said, we can isolate different versions of Berger the poet, and different interests over time. The book is divided into four sections, linked by recurring short poems entitled, severally, “Prior to Earth,” “Prior to Air,” “Prior to Water,” but the sections seem to blend the kinds of manner to which Berger is prone. There is the abstract poet, pursuing a more disembodied style, where a sense of language is the key pursuit; there is the family man poet, who reacts to a death, to the birth and growth of his children, who reflects on his sisters, and explores the imaginative dimensions of marriage; there is the discontented commentator on culture and, to use the Onion’s phrase, “our dumb century,” a poet who finds little enough to praise and chafes at his status quo; then there is the more profound poet, who sees that the purpose of poetry, after all, is its ability to contain life and thought, the actual existence and the virtual existence. Poetry may be cloying if it tries to be wisdom literature, and Berger is too ironic toward language to endorse gestures too large, but moments of careful reflection surface due to the poet’s willingness to attend to the implications in a turn of phrase, a new shade of the mind.

In the first section, “In the Shape of Breathing,” the dominant mood is the poet’s discontentment with himself and his world. “He asks his father, ‘Am I Oedipal?’” Almost a joke, the question is answered, “Of course not, no one will harm you.” Which, of course, is a tremendous lie. The harm of attachment is interrogated again and again, as the poet tries on alternative lives (“There is always some slim girl”), which seem to include becoming a nature poet, and is haunted by “My sister and her beautiful serious face,” and reflects on, more than anything, the attitude one should wear toward a life that inevitably disappoints.

The section opens with a 10-part poem called “In the Shape of Breathing” (“What have I lost— / the whole fucking deal that’s what—“) that sets a tone anxious and defeated. Toward the end of the first section, “A Place to Start” alerts us to all the things the speaker doesn’t have to do or be: “live forever or be happy”; “I don’t have to be good in bed”; “I don’t have to exude anything.” The idea that “Life might have turned out differently” produces, we might say, mature reflection upon the poet’s task: “seeing it through / all the way / as it is.” Insisting “the imagination has no right / to metamorphosis,” we can see that, “Oedipal” or not, the poet is in a struggle with those who would use poetry as wish fulfillment, or as means to avoid or obscure “the deep, daily commitment to this life’s / limits and needs.”

Section II, “New Resolutions of Memory,” seems to kick back at the notion of a poetry adequate to life as it is lived. The title poem of the section plays with recurring phrases, detached from their referents, seemingly, but still able to be turned to account: “I’ve always found occasional schools / of children living in ruins, / hiding from vehicles. / Everything I’ve loved / will take you away from us.” The entire section is given over to a different sense of poetic possibility—“Word-photons,” “The only thing open is wild / experiment.” And yet a phrase on the first page of the section—“My heart accepts its pitch”—keeps open the sense that discourse on form and on the daily encounters with the assaults of our time (“The Children of Terror”) cannot distract, ultimately, from poetry as operations upon the self: “Tacit” considers as inadequate a theory of writing that has left out of account, till now, the human dimension of a family affliction, and “Epithalamium: The Contraption” has the courage to imagine marriage as a kind of surrealist machine, using all it comes upon in untold and unpredictable ways: “A million parts churn and fidget, we have no idea what’s going on.” Here, the anxious and defeated tone gives way to something more definite, grasped, perhaps, in the final line of “New Resolutions”: “Later, mature, you will enter one.”

Part III, suitably enough, is called “The Enclosure”, and we might say that here we find Berger restlessly at home in his house of poetry, bending his attention on the ways in which the world can still fuck up our best intentions, and having fun at its expense: “There may be a Malthusian problem. / There may be a problem of vaguely defined invasiveness, / It could mean zombies.” “Civilization Credits” even smacks of the truly satiric toward our age of scarcity (for the many) and ludicrous abundance (for the few): “Eternal dominance is the price of comfort. / Amnesia is the prerequisite.”

The main poem of this section is not the title piece, but a 17-part poem called “The Fragilist.” This figure—in some respects an alter-ego—confronts the task of concocting poisons, of registering Jewishness in the figure of Mosiach, of rebounding from imaginative recreations of pregnancy and of making pregnant, of parental injunctions and moments of instruction, of becoming an object: “poured to a shape, / unable to blink; / the same baked function.” Other poems investigate, again, roads not taken (“I could have turned a hundred times”), the burden of family (“I See Where it Leads”), and the “vaguely defined invasiveness” that demands a poetics, a project. Berger hits upon, in place of poetry workshops, the poem makeover TV show, and pronounces his rather more morose goal: “to slog / my mortality in the dried vein / of lyric.”

In Part IV, “I Do Return, I Keep Returning,” we could say the poet has found his way to live up more directly to the injunction about “the deep, daily commitment to this life,” with poems about middle-aged love (“Return”), his daughters’ naming (“The Naming”), a story about, seemingly, ancestors—two sisters (“Sara and Lili”)—and poems that, like “My Goal” and “Only Happiness,” attest to the poet’s struggle to undertake the most quotidian of cares—fatherhood—while retaining a right to his own imagination.

My aim, which is my goal, is to love babblerockthis semblance, ordering of bordering babblerockbatshitdubreturn to the true strophes bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbthat delineate the catastrophe.

(“My Goal”)

The most problematic poem in the final section, wherein Berger seems to become a much more plainspoken poet, is called “The Art of the Future,” for there we find the poet trying as many pirouettes as possible so as to keep up a hope in an inspiration still to come, while returning to formal experiments dating back to W. C. Williams at least:

theWhat makes it theWhainteresting eWhat thmaare the changes. What makes it theWhatare the changes themakesarewhat makes theWhataretheit interesting are thechangeswhat makes the thechanges.whatchanges arethecthe what makes it changesthewhatwhat makes changestheit interesting changesthe changes

Throughout the book, Berger flirts with what used to be called “confessional poetry”—the poetry that assumed an existential continuity between the author and the speaker of the poem, so that everything said reflected on an autobiographical self. Berger, who studied with Kenneth Koch, is too much an ironist and a lover of the self-animated phrase to allow his poems to reduce to one man’s experience. And yet, there is a presence in the poems that we accept as the peculiar in-dwelling of James Berger as he tries to reflect and represent the world as he knows it and the world as he projects it. As “The Art of the Future” warns: “Don’t mistake / my intention / for intention.” Berger reserves the right to elude his own formulations through radical skepticism, perhaps, but, in middle-age, we may see that he was all along a poet of retention, that rather than having lost “the whole fucking deal,” he has kept it—and at it – all along and after all.

One wonders, then, what work this lengthy debut will be “prior” to.

James Berger Prior BlazeVOX [Books] 2013

James Berger, a resident of New Haven and a Senior Lecture in American Studies at Yale, reads with Joel Lewis, Saturday, March 29, 7:30 p.m., at Infinite Well LLC, 123 Court Street, New Haven.

I Has Cheeseburger!

A Review of Mark Lamoureux’s 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years Linking experiment to tradition without becoming stodgy, Mark Lamoureux’s 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years (Pressed Wafer, 2013) comprises two short Bildungsromans divided into tidy Elliptical poems that explore the self’s relation to consumerism.

The consumerism theme is apparent immediately, for who can glance at that delicious-looking, orange-and-white cover without craving an Orange Julius; who can see the title’s defiantly analytical plus-sign, and not be reminded of Fugazi’s Repeater + 3 Songs? The fast-food of “cheeseburgers,” the fruit-flavored smoothie coloration, and the typography of a post-Hardcore album sold in Hot Topic all bring to mind a shopping mall.

This is the world Lamoureux’s speaker inhabits, with all its empty glitz, and Lamoureux is well-aware of the fact, even as his speaker clings to his kitschy surroundings as models of how he wishes life were: Dualistic, plastic, with Hollywood-endings—in other words, easy.

Specifically, the speaker’s many enumerations of pop-culture references—some referring to actual products and media, others to imagined “properties”—can all be read as adolescent daydreaming. Intrusions from outside voices only carry trauma, as when the prosaic coherence of “Your father’s not coming back” inserts itself into “No. 5 Bernice Burger, Shady Glen Restaurant, Manchester, CT.”

Locating 29 Cheeseburgers’ scenes within the year-in-review poems of 39 Years, then, we realize these intrusions only exacerbate the speaker’s focus on his naively materialistic fantasies, as in “1982”:

            … Zicon*        X-Ray Man Cryasor, master of elements Chess Man Blue Swordsman‡ poetry review Red Lance§ Steel Star Knights: Lance, Sword, Axe, poetry review Mace, Bow      Thunderball¶ Utopian god of sound & light New Haven Review The terrific Triton Review of New Poetry, New Haven The changing Vulture…

Yes, much of 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years is escapism, but, as any American born after 1950 will recognize, escapism is almost universally a very real facet of our late 20th-century childhoods. Perhaps taking a cue from Carolyn Forché, Lamoureux is ostensibly reporting reality. The difference is that Lamoureux’s speaker is both subject and reporter, allowing for all the complex subjectivity implicit in a report on action nearly exclusively internal. Is, for instance, a “Cryasor” a bad-ass ‘cry(ogenic)-(dino)saur’ the speaker idolizes? Or is it the speaker’s at once humorous and tragic name for himself: ‘cry-a-sor(e)’?

In fact, Lamoureux is ingenious in unaffectedly offering such complex, refracting details, and in the case of the “Cryasor,” he is revealing a momentary flash of misunderstood maturity among the speaker’s thoughts. The “Cryasor” is a powerful idol, a disappointing reality and a terrifying beast all rolled into one, not merely a popgun prop or pun.

As such, this piece of pop-culture bric-a-brac foreshadows greater circumspection: As one of the objects with which the speaker identifies, the “Cryasor” is the ideal self, actual self and animal self—or super-ego, ego and id. It is “master of the elements” in every sense because it semantically unites all three elements of self into one word, one identity. After all, as Lamoureux is subtly telling us, power comes to the child when all aspects of the individual accept they are part of the unity; that is what we call, “adulthood.”

Of course, there is plenty of comic relief too, and much of it comes from the many riotous jabs several poems’ footnotes take at stodgy “literariness,” as when, footnoting “Doctor Doom” in “2000,” Lamoureux directly quotes the referenced comic-book character: “Before I tell you of my plan, let me demonstrate the power of my magnetic brainchildren.” Importantly, Lamoureux doesn’t use the footnote in a traditional way to explain what he’s referencing, nor does he surround the footnote’s text with quotation marks.

The reader unfamiliar with comic books, then, has no point of reference for this particular footnote. And, as Lamoureux is not attributing the quotation or even indicating it is one with punctuation, it becomes part of his speaker’s monologue, rather than authorial material intended to elucidate. In fact, cut off from its context as much any group of words can be, the statement becomes a cheeky aside from the speaker, the poem commenting on itself.

Moreover, this meta-text is a bit of facetious showboating, inserted as it is between the deftly executed mouthful of a pop-culture litany and an equally well-executed explication of that litany’s import. In other words, here we are hearing from a fully confident, adult speaker who has no problem taking the words out of Stan Lee’s mouth, while explaining and executing—at once—one hell of a verbal hat trick. Or, put even more simply, the words in the poem’s opening enumeration are the speaker’s “magnetic brain children,” while the less unmooring text following them is the “plan,” and the speaker is who else but Doctor Doom himself.

What more can we say about such goofy, if often bewildering, prose appendages, except that Lamoureux is obviously being a smartass with them. As with the example given above, every footnote in 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years bucks the traditional purpose of footnotes and obscures more than it reveals for any reader unwilling to unpack the text; sometimes, Lamoureux uses the notes to argue with the book’s editors, rebelliously reinserting deleted lines, while at other times he is telling readers to research a reference themselves or fuck off.

But, in any case, as with the “Doctor Doom” footnote and the “Cryasor” reference, there is typically a lot more going on psychologically for the speaker of 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years behind every word of its kitschy confusion than might initially come across. Lamoureux’s book simply wants acutely engaged readers willing to break out Google and Wikipedia as they read, and should that really be too much to ask?

Finally, we have the question of how to read this book. As mentioned above, Lamoureux is writing Elliptical poetry that, in some instances, borders on Language poetry. Yet the problem with placing these poems in either the Elliptical or Language categories is that Lamoureux isn’t disregarding syntax and diction or using jarring parataxis merely to be cute, unnerving or gimmicky.

Rather, these mechanisms make his poems cinematic, and the reader would do well to read each word as a frame in a montage: As when watching a movie, our minds must construct the book’s narrative out of pieces that are actually discrete. In this way, Lamoureux’s poems, in their presentation as products of Hollywood, are structurally true to their settings and themes. What results, then, is a melding of method and theme into a totality that would satisfy classical aesthetics while doing so in a way that answers the postmodern call to experimentation and disjunction to a degree of which few poets are capable.

29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years Mark Lamoureux Pressed Wafer, 2013

 

Mark Lamoureux, a New Haven resident, reads Saturday, March 29, 8 p.m, at WAVEMACHINE, 1175 Chapel Street #601, New Haven, with poets Ossian Foley and David James Miller.

I Read Poetry to My Daughter

My daughter is a very talented poet.  She is also a first-year college student struggling--as, I think, many students must--to articulate a fully formed criticism of a poem that she had taken on for a term paper.  In her last year of high school, she and I sometimes sat together to iron out our thoughts on poems about which she had to write.   Recently she asked for my thoughts on a poem she had selected to explore.  "Fire Is Not a Nice Guest," written by the prose poet Russell Edson, was not an easy work.   (You can read it here for yourself.)  Since she is in college over 1,000 miles away, and I'm here in New Haven and her request came between classes, I decided to write my response.   After writing it, I realized it might, in turn, be worth sharing with those who wonder: "So how does one read a poem?"  Of course, there is no one way.  But what I offer here is one of the more common approaches--particularly if you are trying to gather ideas for writing about a poem.  So here it goes...  

Hey, kid,

Let me write for you something not only about the poem “Fire Is Not a Nice Thing,” but also about the toolbox needed in order to write poetry criticism.

A poem is a carefully shaped textual object. It emphasizes two things, in particular: form and economy. By form, I mean everything from the sound of the words to their order and rhythm to the line breaks; by economy I mean a certain dependence on concision—the saying of a lot in fewer words than might be said in a story or an essay.

When reading a poem, the first step in the process is to read it several times through and just let it soak in. As you read, and re-read, again and again, you should begin to pay attention not so much to the poem itself (that is, the poem on its own) as to the kinds of associations that light up in your head and the dark spots that show up by contrast and require more attention—with more re-reading or thinking about or even background research.

In analyzing a poem, you can first split it apart by its form and its content. This is never a neat split. For good poems, it’s not supposed to be. But it is a good starting point. By “content,” we refer to what the poem is “about”—most commonly the topic(s) discussed or suggested, the story being told (the narrative), and the images that are being used. By form, we refer to the literary devices employed that give the poem its distinctive shape.

The formal elements come in several major categories…

  • Phonemic: This refers to the sounds of the words, either alone or in relation to one another. The devices commonly associated with this category are things like assonance, alliteration, sibilance, rhyme, onomatopoeia, etc.
  • Rhythmic: In poetry this typically refers to the pattern of word stresses and line meter(s), the use of punctuation and line breaks (for creating longer and shorter pauses).
  • Syntactic: This refers to word order and thus to devices like chiasmus, ellipsis, palindrome, and numerous others.
  • Semantic: This refers to the meanings of words or phrases expressed or more often stretched or distorted through such devices as metaphors, similes, slang, and idioms, as well as portmanteau words and unusual word choices.

There are other types of formal aspects to poems—dramatic (apostrophe), poetic (couplets, Petrarchan sonnets, villanelles, haiku, free verse), and so on. But you get the idea about separating form from content.  With respect to form, it doesn’t hurt to think of devices through these categories. I should also note that many of these devices are not exclusive to any one category.  Ononmatopoeia—words that sound like the sound to which they refer, such “pow” or “woof”—is both a phonemic and semantic device.

But let’s move on. The point here is not to learn how to use these devices. That’s for the writing of poetry. What we want to learn here is how to recognize these devices when they’re being used, figure out why they are being used, and, even when we can’t figure out the why, then at least explain their effect on the reader--which brings us back to those associations that I mentioned earlier.

You know all of this already to a certain extent as a poet. But what we need now is to figure out how to use this knowledge as a reader and critic.

This is the view from 20,000 feet in the air. So let’s get down to earth.

A good way to write any analysis of a poem for a term paper is to first free associate and then record in bullet points your impressions.  This is essentially data gathering.  You may not be ready to make an argument until you’ve written a whole set of notes on the things you noticed first—your responses, your guesses, the links you see or think are being made.

Let’s take the title: “Fire Is Not a Nice Guest.”  Here are some of my associational bullet points.

  • The sentence is very simple.  It uses the simple equational verb “is.” The construction is basic: subject (“fire”) verb (“is”) object (“guest”).
  • This is a negative sentence.  That suggests to me negativity could become an element of the poem.
  • Guest is used as a metaphor.  Guest suggests an invitation, friendliness.  Fire could be friendly, a “guest,” if it warms one.  But generally guest suggests a house visitor, and fires and houses don’t mix well at all.
  • Nice is the adjective used to describe fire.  It’s a very simple word—too simple—almost  as if a child had named the poem, and that points to the dramatic aspect of the poem of who the poem’s speaker is supposed to be.  (As you and I have discussed, every poem has an implied speaker who is sometimes the same as the poet herself--but just as often not.)
  • This title is also, in a funny way, kind of stupid—that is, it reveals the stupidity of who named it because it states the obvious.  Fire is, metaphorically speaking, no guest!  (If the poem were called “Fire Is a Nice Guest,” that would really have me wondering what the poem would have been about: I imagine it then in a hearth warming my feet and thus a rather mawkish poem to follow suit.)

Important note here: I haven’t made an argument yet.  I’m just recording impressions—ideas suggested by the arrangement of the words, the implied tone (and perhaps intelligence or lack thereof) of the persona, the image I thus draw of the persona (is this a child? Someone mentally challenged? A not-too-bright adult?  An arsonist telling a story from prison?).  Actually, the type of notes that I’m recording here are examples of "reader response criticism" in action: I’m making a series of assumptions about the poem without having read the poem all the way through—many of which may be right or wrong, but whose validity as impressions are personally valid, even if mistaken.  Eventually, after one reads a poem (preferably many times), these impressions may come together as an argument or undergo heavy revision or more than likely both!

Again, I’m giving you a process—a way of reading poems—that hopefully can help in your getting to the point of writing about them in the form we call “criticism.”

OK, now into the poem a little.  I won’t do a line-by-line analysis.  I’ll just pick out parts that got my attention.

“I had charge of an insane asylum, as I was insane.”

  • For a first line, this is pretty bold.  Is it to be believed?  Is it just a metaphor? Is the speaker  really insane, or is he or she just exaggerating?    For now let’s take the assertion at face value.
  • The line begins with a clear contradiction. Inmates generally don’t run the asylums in which they are placed.  However, this sentence implies that because he(?) is insane, he’s in charge.  That assertion is, in itself, insane because it is a paradox (semantic device alert!).  He runs the asylum because he’s insane?  That’s just nuts!  It makes no sense—and thus perhaps serves the poem’s purpose.
  • Also the order of the phrases is interesting.  The first half is a reasonable assertion, until one gets to the second half. Suggestion: someone seemingly normal who, upon a second look, is clearly not?
  • Why “as I was insane” instead of “because I was insane”?  Since this is a prose poem, it doesn’t appear to be a question of meter.  The comma is suggestive—a pause, an afterthought, a bit of information being added to the main clause.  The narrator holding back on us (and maybe a little on himself, too).  The “as I was” would support that comma.  “Because I was” would not have.

I could go on then, line after line, noting, for example, the use of personification (a subset of metaphor): the fire eats logs, curtains, beds, etc.  It is hungry and has no restraint. It has a family. It really isn’t a very nice guest.

Now the poem begins to assume shape at the level of a poem (rather than line by line). It could be read as the tale told by a madman (woman?) of the fire that consumes his (her?) house.   The mad narrator reconstructs the event (assuming there even was one) with fire as a guest who has overstepped polite bounds, taking over altogether the home.

But let’s say the poem’s not about an actual fire. Instead let’s treat the fire itself as a metaphor.  But of what then?  Perhaps of the house that is his mind.  Notice that there’s implied safety upstairs.  If we work from the idea that what’s being housed is the narrator’s mind, then upstairs would suggest physically the brain, the seat of the mind or soul or whatever that lives in the upstairs of our bodies.  This kind of reading is certainly viable.

Of course not everything in the poem fits neatly into this reading of it.  But then again, that, too, makes its own kind of sense: the narrator is not altogether coherent anyway. He’s crazy! Still, we would want to be careful with this idea: it can sound like an excuse for not explaining the difficult sections of the poem (I consider the line “Hey, that’s where the dusts have built their cities” one of those more challenging parts.)

There are strong suggestions that the narrator is the subject of his own discourse—he is insane, he is one of the lunatics, he is the maniac.  My attention was especially caught by the line the 2nd line’s end: “…but do not go upstairs and eat a dementia praecox” Dementia praecox was an old psychiatric diagnosis for what we call today schizophrenia (easy enough to read up on in Wikipedia.)  What’s particularly strange about this line is that dementia praecox fell out of use as a formal term by the 1920s and Edson’s poem was written in the 1960s.  (Edson himself was born in 1935—thanks Wikipedia!).

Is the narrator an older individual?  Or did Edson use this older term mistakenly?  This is unclear.  But it is a most interesting word choice—medical and yet also, technically speaking, out of date, even for the time period of the poem (semantic device alert!).

Where does this leave us?  I won’t spell out what your reading/interpretation of the poem should be. I’m offering a series of ideas to rev the engine so you can construct your own reading of the poem, bringing together here what Edson is doing: mixing “crazy talk” with a broad array of poetic devices.  In fact, this type of poem—crazy man talks and it sounds like poetry!—resonates with some standard ideas about poetry:

  • It taps into the traditional link between madness and poetry (poetry as an inspired kind of madness).  The idea itself originates with the Greek philosopher Plato and the dialog he wrote called Ion.
  • Who says madness can’t create art?  Artists mad and great at the same time abound.  Could Edson be illustrating that in madness can be found art or that madness can be reshaped as art?
  • It’s probably here worth discussing the fact that this is a prose poem, which was Edson’s métier, his specialty.  In some ways, the prose poem makes the most sense for a mad persona’s speechifying.  A more traditional poem—with rhyme schemes and well-defined meters—would come off as, well, pretty weak.  We know that people who are mad aren’t that coherent.  Such a poem—the words of a madman cast in iambic pentameter—might work for Shakespeare, but for a modern poet it would look highly contrived (artificial) and probably fall flat.

I’ll stop here.  I wrote a lot, but I wanted to give you something to work with, to absorb and most important of all, a way of reading.

Dad

Poetry. Performance. Party.

Mario Biagini is a man who believes in the power of the word—spoken, recited, sung.  As a performer and director he has brought together 9 performers—musicians, singers, actors—to travel to Yale and New Haven as part of Interdisciplinary Performance Studies at Yale (IPSY).  Biagini’s group, originating in the Open Program of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, pride themselves on a collective approach to performance that aims to include its audience, creating an environment that feels like “a holiday, a relaxation” of our routine responses.

While in New Haven, the troupe will perform a show called Electric Party Songs, twice at Yale’s Calhoun College, Feb. 22 and 23, and, in a more extended version, at BAR, March 3—the latter show is billed as “an experiment in the potentialities of a party as an art form.”  If your winter has been as low on energy as mine, you too might find yourself intrigued by that idea.

The troupe will also perform I Am America at the Whitney Theater in the Whitney Humanities Center, with a set built by children at the Eli Whitney Museum, Feb. 28 and March 1, and will hold a symposium on Poetry as a Practice of Encounter, also at the WHC, on March 2.

The Open Program likes to include the contribution of locals in their shows, using materials found in the streets of the different cities they visit, and at times, as in Italy, have set out to create self-generated festivals in the streets.  Traveling about New Haven by bus, Biagini noted the racial segregation of New Haven where almost all bus riders are black and almost all students at Yale are white.  He told his collaborators: “we should do our show right here on the bus.”  Instead, he does his best to engage people wherever he finds them, offering a kind of contact high from his joy in performance.

The performances consist of an unusual mix: selections from the poems of Allen Ginsberg—the late Beat Guru, Bop Buddist, Singalong Shaman and Clown Prince of Poetry—are turned into songs and are then intermixed with African American spirituals, shouts, and worksongs.  The mix is thoroughly American, as Ginsberg is perhaps the poet of the last 60 years most concerned with trying to live up to “America” in a Whitmanian sense.  Whether or not he succeeded, Ginsberg was astute at assessing the kinds of mash-ups that drive our national psyche.  He was into jazz, rock, folk, blues, as well as dipping into most religions, particularly Judaism via his upbringing and Buddhism via his own searches into mysticism.  He also participated readily in the cults of personality that float so many boats in the media, and could make pop culture read like holy texts.

Some of the best moments in Electric Party Songs come from the performers’ grasp of the essential showmanship at the heart of Ginsberg’s poetry (Lloyd Bricken, looking a bit Waits-like, is particularly effective in his delivery).  Ginsberg’s work is about exposure—of the highest self, of the lowest urges, of the deepest shame and the most inspiring ecstasies.  The troupe does not offer reverential recitals, but rather dynamic musical numbers that bounce off Ginsberg’s lines, making the songs assume a bodily urgency—whether it’s Biagnini recreating an old and infirm poet or Alejandro Tomás Rodriguez writhing about on the floor to the yearnings of love.

Add to that the spirituals—with many rhythmic shout-outs to Jesus—and you have a kind of revival meeting that may make all feel either welcome or uncomfortable.  These lithe and sinuous young men and women sing gracefully a capella (Felicita Marcelli and Agnieszka Kazimierska ) or with the accompaniment of guitars and percussion, and to see them up and swaying to songs from the South is to harken to a kind of cultural trance and transcendence.  How are these predominantly European performers—from Italy, Poland, France and elsewhere, looking like an ad hoc collection of gypsies and free spirits—able to lose themselves so readily in traditional songs?  And what is the principle force behind the vibe they create like a band of charismatics?

Biagini likes to think back to the farm he grew up on in Italy, where a holiday was a true transformation.  People knew the value of letting down their guard, of giving up their daily tasks for a collective enjoyment of the free flow of time.  His group has sometimes staged a “night watch” where the audience and the performers stay together through the night, interacting, singing, playing, sleeping, moving about freely, finding themselves, in the end, not the same as they were when it began.  He believes fervently that letting music and poetry, lyrics and rhythms inhabit one is to liberate—at least for a little—the spirit.

The spirit—that’s the place where the poet Ginsberg meets the songs of faith amidst oppression.   And that’s where Biagini and his troupe try to meet their audience.  It may take a leap of faith to get beyond your New England reticence and intellectual skepticism on a cold February night—but it might just be worth the effort.

 

Interdisciplinary Performance Studies at Yale presents The Open Program of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards

 

Electric Party Songs: Feb. 22 & 23: 8pm, Calhoun Cabaret, 189 Elm Street

I Am America: Feb. 28 & March 1: 8pm, Whitney Theater, 53Wall Street

Symposium: Poetry as the Practice of Encounter: March 2: 11 am-4pm, Whitney Theater, 53Wall Street

Electric Party Songs: March 3: 4 pm, BAR, 254 Crown Street

 

Events are free and open to the public.  Seating is limited.

Poetry Review: Sarah Lindsay's 'Twigs & Knucklebones'

Sarah Lindsay is in the minority, a poet uninterested in the self. Rare is the appearance of the first-person pronoun in her 2008 collection, Twigs & Knucklebones, a conspicuous absence that sets her apart from other poets compelled to reveal and confess every secret shame.

Even the sole love poem, “Stubbornly,” is externalized, cordoned off from the self. No one gives or receives love. It’s a mock argument over poetic symbols of love. Lindsay picks the unlikely lichen over the “showy rose” and the “changeless diamond,” because the “alga and fungus [that] made one fleck” will continue:

crocheting its singular habit over time, a faithful stain bound to its home, etching on the unmoved rock the only rune it knows.

Lindsay does this kind of thing throughout Twigs & Knucklebones. To express what’s inside, like love, she turns to the material world. Of course, this is what poets do. Her poetics call to mind William Carlos Williams, who advised poets to let ideas emerge from things rather than things from ideas. In “Stubbornly,” love is not like lichen; it’s lichen, rather, that’s like love. A “faithful stain,” something that doesn’t go away, that combines with a “singular habit,” a behavior that’s focused and steady, best fits love as a metaphor. In this way, what appears ironic might instead be read as something heartfelt and genuine.

Lindsay resembles Williams in another way — she has a day job. The 1997 nominee for the National Book Award is a copy editor for a company that publishes trade magazines. Williams linked his poetics with his profession as a doctor, in which he experienced the immediate and “the local” every day: “That is the business of a poet,” he wrote. “Not to talk of vague categories but to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, upon the thing before him, in the particular to discover the universal.”

I don't mean to make too fine a point of this, but I’m sure Lindsay spends time working on the thing in front of her, the words that need her attention, and dealing with its immediate particulars, words and their meaning. Given the mostly unambiguous nature of copy editing — language is used correctly or not — Lindsay likely avoids Williams’ “vague categories” in her daily routine. If she’s like other writers at all, the force of habit at least informs aesthetic principle and not as much the other way around. So my gut tells me this copy editor-poet finds value in intensifying the “external moment,” as Williams advised, stuffing her poems with all sorts of concrete things from the natural and ancient worlds.

In “Why We Held On,” an external moment begins with the slow gathering of petty details and culminates in what Williams might have called a “radiant gist” — an image so clear that you get it without knowing you’ve gotten it.

Future doctors, Lindsay writes, may learn that an infestation of parasites in our minds explains why we cling to the past, to the “illusionary satisfaction” of mimicking “the letter / that mentioned Granny’s mules were named Huldy and Tom.” We obsess over “the leavings of people we couldn’t get back, / wouldn’t see again or never saw —.” Even so, “[i]t wasn’t our fault.” We cling just as:

the housefly filled with a fungus knows only that it must land in a high place, and dies there obligingly in an odd position suitable for the firing of spores at sunset.

What an image!

Sure, it’s a grim worldview that sees human behavior as pre-determined as a housefly’s gut fungus. And sure, it’s made grimmer by Lindsay’s lucid style in compact lines. But cynicism in Twigs & Knucklebones is often counterbalanced by the sublimity of her images and the force of their implications.

That includes the disconnect between nature and man — the workings of an amoral universe independent of human notions of morality. Good and bad don’t really apply to nature. She’s perfectly indifferent. Even so, how do we “labor to comprehend” and find meaning in a world, Lindsay writes in “Song of a Spadefoot Toad”:

where minute crustaceans pierce the side of a swordfish to lodge in its heart, where spadefoot toads wake from eleven months’ sleep and sing till their throats bleed, where humans do everything that humans do, where a fig wasp pollinates a flower while laying her eggs, then lies on her side as baby nematodes crawl from her half-eaten gut … ?

Lindsay frequently returns to parasites. It seems they are an apt metaphor for her tragic worldview. Parasites need a host but slowly kill it in spite of themselves. One's desires lead to one's undoing. And Lindsay jams human behavior inside a list of horrible things parasites do, obscuring the divide between thing and idea: Are we like parasites — or are parasites like us?

But just as you find tragedy, you also find external moments of stunning beauty.

At the end of “Spadefoot Toad,” Lindsay answers despair with another image. Meaning can be found inside this image, the thing itself, but unlike a rose or a diamond, it has no metaphysics beyond itself. It is what it is — a thing of beauty, a stripped down picture in which we might take comfort.

These images reflect a wholeness of understanding in Twigs & Knucklebones, an old-fashioned way of seeing the world that used to be called wisdom, in a place:

where faithfully every day in a mangrove shallows paired seahorses — armless, legless, without expression — dance with each other at sunrise.

ABOUT THE BOOK Twigs & Knucklebones by Sarah Lindsay Copper Canyon Press, 117 pages, $15

Blood, Sweat and Tears: Bassist Ben Allison plays poetry of Robert Pinsky

I didn't have a proper appreciation for On the Road until I saw a video excerpt of its author, Jack Kerouac, reading an excerpt of the novel on Steve Allen's variety show. Allen made a habit of interviewing guests while vamping at the piano. Turns out it was a perfect setting for Kerouac, and he used it. [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzCF6hgEfto[/youtube]

Words and music have a history together, as Ben Allison reminded me recently. And it's a continuation of that history that Allison, a native of New Haven and one of the hottest bassists around, is going to do this week with none other than Robert Pinsky.

Pinsky is well known as a former poet laureate of the United States, a frequent commentator on PBS on poetry, art and culture, and a translator of Dante's Inferno. He is generally a spokesman for poetry though he once lent his voice to an audio book of a biography of legendary pitcher Sandy Koufax.

More importantly, at least where this latest project is concerned, is Pinsky's background as a musician. He once said that while he was translating the Inferno, he'd take a break to blow a few licks on the tenor saxophone, which always sat by his desk.

"Words and rhythm together are as old as words are," Allison says. "But over time, the poetry has been separated from the performance and Robert is doing what he can to bring that back."

Allison met Pinsky some years ago at the Arts & Ideas Festival, where Allison has played many times. Its director, Mary Lou Aleskie, introduced them with the hope that something would spark between them. He really didn't know Pinsky or his work, but Allison had worked with poets in the past. Just before Allison was set to go on stage, they improvised a little set and knew something sparked.

"His poems have a kind of Americanness to them," Allison. "It's very New Jersey, lots of subtle and not-so-subtle elements that I love. I'm a big fan of high art and low art and everything in between. Simple words carry a lot of meaning with Robert."

Allison is no stranger to poetry. His mother is an English teacher. His brother is a poet. But the musicality of poetry escaped him. It wasn't until he started working with Pinsky that he realized that poetry had to be performed to really come alive.

"It's like reading a screenplay or watching the movie," he says. There's really only one way it's meant to be.

Just before our conversation, Allison testified before the U.S. Congress on the unfairness of royalties. Currently, radio stations pay songwriters for the rights to broadcast their music, but they do not pay the performers who made the recordings.

He wrote on his blog after testifying: "What we’re talking about here is whether people believe that music has value – that after all the blood, sweat and tears that American musicians pour into their craft, they should be afforded the same rights enjoyed by musicians throughout the rest of the developed world."

Amen to that.

Click here to hear Pinsky read "Samurai Song." Samurai Song

Then play the video below to hear the same poem with Allison's group.

IF YOU GO: What: The Ben Allison Band with Robert Pinsky When: 8 p.m., June 27 Where: Morse Recital Hall, 470 College St. Tickets: $35-$45 Info: artidea.org

Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.

En Français, s’il vout plaît

Treason.  Poems by Hédi Kaddour.  Translated by Marilyn Hacker.  Yale University Press, 168 pp. 2010. Hédi Kaddour writes a verse with clear antecedents in the meditative, ironical poems of Baudelaire and Verlaine.  If that dates him a bit, so be it.   Kaddour’s poems enchant with their ability to retain an intonation we immediately associate with Romanticism and Symbolism, hardly “state of the art” these days, combined with a wry sense of how a poet of that tendency inhabits uneasily, or maybe at times breezily, our much less “poetic” world.  The flâneur of today must live in a world where “a man declares / That buying books will soon become a clear / Sign of derangement, yes, insanity” (l’homme affirme / Que l’achat de livres sera bientôt un signe / De très forte aliénation mentale).

The world Kaddour’s poems partake of is a world where that possibility has always been the case inasmuch as “the Poet” has always been a figure of “très forte aliénation mentale” – a view that became commonplace after Romanticism, and, one suspects, Kaddour finds no reason to relinquish it.  He wears that outlook, we might say, as a mask over the features of his more persistent strain of polite skepticism about the Poet’s grand sense of outsider status, the inspired “folie” that makes poetry possible in that tradition.  “‘Save your tears,’ his mother told him early on, / ‘For more serious things.’ Poetry, / Grief contained by meter.” (“Garde tes larmes, disait très tôt la mère, / Pour des choses plus graves.” Poésie, le chagrin contenu par le mètre.)

Can this interplay with familiar territory in French verse come across in English?  I have my doubts, but those are doubts of long-standing since French is simply too flexible to suffer transformation into English, so that translations tend to seem hamfisted in comparison.  Take for instance a poem on the rather phallic bust of Verlaine in Jardin du Luxembourg:  “Verlaine?  He stands erect there on the grass, / Lyre and palm tree behind him, a bronze bust / Of Verlaine atop three good yards / Of cement prick around which writhe three / Unlikely Muses …” (Verlaine?  Il est dressé sur l’herbe / Lyre et palme dans le dos, Verlaine, / En buste, au sommet de trois bons / Mètres de pine granitique où se tordent / D’improbables muses…).  Kaddour’s “lyre et palme” references symbols for Apollo, but "palme" can simply mean the leaf, generally a symbol of success, the way we use the term "laurels," whereas "palm tree behind him" causes us to imagine an actual palm tree behind the statue which is a bit surprising, given that "dan le dos" suggests "on his back" as much as "behind him".  And we lose that repetition of the great man’s name that Kaddour uses with a shrug as if to say “eh, Verlaine, as a bust” (with all the attendant irony at the spectacle) that “a bronze bust of Verlaine” cannot convey, simply a flat declaration of the object of the poem.

Which is to say that I’m very pleased that this edition contains the French on facing pages.  Reading Hacker’s Kaddour without the French tended to leave me with very little impression of the tone of the poem.  She renders faithfully enough the words of the poem, but even there I have my cavils, as for instance here in “The Double,” one of the denser poems.  Kaddour says: C’est presque aussi la même folie de poussière / dans le même rayon de soleil; Hacker says: “It’s almost the same dusty madness / in the same sunbeam.”  Literally the phrase is: madness of dust, not very felicitous but closer to what Kaddour wants: the image of dust motes in their “mad” dance in the sunbeam, a figure that I can’t find in “dusty madness” – which reminds me more of my unvacuumed desk.

Ultimately, all I’m pointing out is how hard it is to render the effect of verse like Kaddour’s in English.  In French such effects may seem a bit staid, but I’m enough of a classicist in things French to appreciate the effort of these poems, most of which begin with lines that are rhetorically quite graceful.  And every now and then there’s a jab of that Gallic spleen we expect from the French:

Knothead wears jeans knothead Wears blue he writes to be A writer writes that he is a writer And gets his pals to write That no one could be more a writer His photo says it all it’s the face Of a writer with a flair for writing.

Hédi Kaddour reads his poetry (in English) at the Whitney Humanities Center, Room 208, 53 Wall Street, New Haven, Wednesday, October 27th, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.

An Inspiring Read

Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets. Edited by Alexander Neubauer.  Knopf, 342 pp. This book is a perfect gift for any reader or writer of poetry.  It consists of transcripts excerpted from the amazing classes held by Pearl London at the New School in New York, from 1970 to the late '90s.  The class, Works in Progress, featured invited guests -- some of the major American poets of our day -- to speak with London and her students about poems the poets were working on, distributing drafts and commenting on the process of revision that goes into the making of a poem.

These exchanges should be of considerable value to anyone who writes, for it's safe to say that not even the most grizzled veteran of the poetry workshop circuit can lay claim to having been in the presence of such an array of literary notables.  From Maxine Kumin in 1973 to Eamon Grennan in 1996, twenty three poets in all, featuring the likes of Frank Bidart, Louise Glück, Robert Hass, June Jordan, Philip Levine, James Merrill, Robert Pinsky, Muriel Rukeyser, Derek Walcott.

Neubauer, who taught fiction at the New School, provides an informative introduction about London and the class, and a brief forward on each poet, focused on the stage of the career when he or she appeared in London's class, and often characterizing the mood of the exchange.  Neubauer had access to 90-minute tapes of each class that, transcribed, ran to over fifty pages apiece.  Distilling each exchange to about fifteen printed pages took considerable editorial skill, but it means there's rarely a dull moment.  In each case, Neubauer selects a substantive discussion that gives real insight into a poet's personality, frame of reference, and attitude toward a particular poem and to poetry in general.

Not surprisingly, all the guests take their work very seriously, but it's quite refreshing that they don't seem ponderous or self-serving.  The book demonstrates that a great public value of contemporary poets is their ability to speak engagingly about their craft and their motivations as writers.

The exchanges also make one marvel at how fully in her element a great teacher like London can be.  She leads the discussion but never dominates, nor is she timid or fawning.  Informed, relaxed, she easily inserts comments the featured poet has made on other occasions -- sometimes previous visits to the course -- and, like the poets, is quick to call to mind lines from poems to illustrate points about great poetry.

And that is the main issue under discussion: how to make a good poem better.  Each poet confronts this problem in an individual way, but each is clearly committed to a sense of poetry that does not permit being satisfied with anything less than the best effort.  And each is quite candid about the trials and errors that goal entails.  Neubauer helpfully provides a photostat of the poem under discussion, in most cases in both draft and published versions.

I could cite examples from every exchange that illuminate what choices poets consider in creating a poem.  In particular, I liked the way several poets pondered what they consider to be the main tasks of form, and of the relation of the sentence to the poetic line.  But to pick a favorite moment, it's this comment from Glück, in 1979: "Something can be marvelous and still need to be stopped.  Otherwise you don't change.  It's as simple as that.  And if you don't change, then you stop writing good poems."

This is a truly challenging formulation, not simply to student writers but to the most accomplished poet.  And it shows that teaching writing is not simply about improving the words on the page but should inspire constant exploration and discovery.  Poetry in Person does that.

In the Sea's Grey Suit: The Poetry of Don Barkin

That Dark Lake cover Review of by Don Barkin Antrim House, $19

The misty mountains that grace the cover of Don Barkin’s That Dark Lake suggest what lies within this collection of poetry. It also bespeaks the atmosphere that pervades the sensibility of this New Haven poet. Barkin’s work is divided into four sections, each with its unique character, which at times creates a dissonance that can be either welcoming or off-putting by virtue of their congruity.

The energy that underwrites the collection, modified, as it were, by that darkness, is evident in poems like“Eighteen”:

In Springtime a young brook throws the whole mountain in an uproar.

It crashes through the rocks like a blind man in a hurry. Its froth leaps like a stallion’s spit in terror of the bridle.

Don’t get upset. Think of the day when you’ll smile a little sadly as the brook disappears in the sea’s grey suit.

At the age when in Western society, a child becomes an adult, Barkin captures the cusp of that transition through the liquid metaphors of “brook” and “froth” and “spit,” whose vigor dissipate into the grey stream of adulthood. In this respect, many of Barkin‘s poems bear the linguistic stamp of modernists like William Carlos Williams, who could capture and even subjugate readers’ hearts and minds with a few, simple words.

Sometimes Barkin constrains this rare prowess by letting stringent rhyme schemes tie down his lyrical, even chaste gems of insight. Fortunately this is not omnipresent, and many of the poems reflect the sincere, almost affable ambience, of That Dark Lake as a whole. The collection delves not just into human emotion but the everyday bustle of life. Experience serves as root and cause of all artistic experience in the world, that “lonely hour of the single light bulb,” as Barkin frames it. Consider such lines as

In the weight of the great trees on the lawn, In the timid, curving love Of the tree limbs on the bright grass, They can see that really Nothing ever goes anywhere

or

In middle age you smell the end The way you smell the snow …

Paradigms of innocence possibly lost suffuse Barkin’s voice. In the smallness of things lies the greatness of reality, of Being itself. And yet, the collection is domestically minded enough to grasp the solace offered--as this collections offers--mental creature comforts: a good book to pick up after a day of “rush[ing] off, then com[ing] back…walking in too fast” and listening to the “office women” gossip. It’s a book meant to slow you down, to remind you that “out there / water flows somewhere / and the quiet people rule.”

Stranded

When I heard Mark Strand read at Yale the end of spring semester from his New Selected Poems (NY: Knopf, 2009), I resolved to get a copy and read through it. The impression I’d had that Strand’s work inhabits a certain constant place is sustained by this reading, and it’s fitting that the New Selected should appear after Man and Camel (2006). There is a wryness in the latter volume that, I realize now, inhabits much of Strand’s verse from the earliest, but which wasn’t quite so forcefully apparent before, to me, at least. His reading was so affable, jocose even, that the sense of the poems as austere imaginative landscapes into which one peers with metaphysical intent collapsed somewhat, leaving a stronger sense of playfulness. Strand’s poems have always been inflected by a sense of words as symbolic more than descriptive. He’s about as far from being a nature poet, who yet describes a natural world, as one could be. He’s also rather far removed from confessional verse, even though he does at times clearly write about himself, or as himself. Such poems are not meant to create a scene to contemplate, or to reveal the dramatic movement of events, but are aimed to make a statement. For Strand, to create a poem is to offer a kind of précis that renders the state of consciousness, that articulates a grasp of lyric presence, or rather articulates the lyric presence that we might spend our whole lives trying to grasp.

Sometimes, as with 'Man and Camel,' the sense of parabolic meaning is so deliberate its effect becomes quite funny. For Strand has a very dry sense of humor and he knows how to use it. He’s able to make us feel in on a joke that may very well be played on us nevertheless. The poems often seem quite solemn, and they are indeed ‘austere’ in the sense that they don’t seek out fun and music and sensuous detail, very little in the way of sound effects or vivid impressions.

'I walk / into what light / there is.' This, we can say, is so pared down as to be minimalist. To be so toneless is not easy, and the goal seems to be for the poem to be read as if the page itself speaks. There are a lot of imperative sentences, words that simply surface and command our hearing. And the actions are generally simple too: walking, looking, speaking, writing, sitting, thinking; sometimes there are dreams. Nothing very much happens, but everything is poised to happen because each poem is running a course, moving to an end that will clarify its intention, its statement. As with this poem, from Darker, way back in 1970, that in some ways defines Strand’s project:

The Remains

I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets. I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road. At night I turn back the clocks; I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

What good does it do? The hours have done their job. I say my own name. I say goodbye. The words follow each other downwind. I love my wife but send her away.

My parents rise out of their thrones into the milky rooms of clouds. How can I sing? Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same. I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

The nouns are so precise and yet so generic; we could almost say Strand seeks a poetry of the generic. If that were all he were doing, it might be interesting enough for a volume or two, but there is always more at stake because the generic can become the allegorical: 'The words follow each other downwind'; and the metaphysical: 'Time tells me what I am.' But there are other typical registers here too: the familial thread is alive in each stanza, from ‘family album’ to ‘my wife’ to ‘my parents,’ so that affective relations, the human community, is always ready to burst into Strand’s meditation. And the gesture toward nature or to metaphor, ‘the milky rooms of clouds,’ can bring a clear, unforced lyricism to bear at any moment.

So what is the poem’s statement? Much depends on whether you view the final verse as illustrating futility (‘What good does it do?’) or whether it has managed to slyly change the terms while we were looking. ‘How can I sing? / Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.’ We are bordering on ‘I am that I am’; could God sing a song of praise? Or, what would God praise other than himself? The parents off their thrones and in their clouds is a joke image; the wife is sent away from this paradise of self-knowing, self-perpetuating Godhead. All the other names are vacated. Only the one remains. The poem is stuck constantly in the groove of its own making, like a needle stuck on a record. Empty/remain; empty/remain, ad infinitum.

And that is Strand’s characteristic jest, to start singing just when about to be cut-off, to point the way out as he leads us back to the start. In 'The Monument,' a long poem, written in prose as responses to quotations primarily from other poets, Strand says: 'my voice is sufficient to make The Monument out of this moment.' To make a monument of any moment, one need only write a poem, but it will be a poem which conceives of each moment, any moment, as monumental.

Reading through the 267 pages of poetry in this volume, covering forty-two years of publication, one is struck again and again by Strand’s fidelity to that task. His ability to bring it off is based upon that keen sense of emptying and grasping what remains, but it’s also based on what I take to be the jest of originary utterance. God, the Hebrew scriptures tell us, spoke first and created everything. After that, there can be no originary utterance. The poet, in enunciating his poem, speaks in an ancillary manner that purports to begin things again, to empty, or to praise, but there is always the remainder of that pre-existing world. Strand is far too canny to take that as a point of despair or of futility if only because the mind allows words to happen to it, and when they do, there is no telling what possibilities for speech might also remain.

Apnea Caesura Hold Break

Silence is all we dread.There's Ransom in a Voice -- But Silence is Infinity. Himself have not a face.

-Emily Dickinson

Andy and I have been driving from Burlington, Vermont and back to New Haven a lot lately. Headed north from New Haven, the rise of New England and her green mountains unfolds like mighty sets of biceps, whose arms stretch out and point up and up till we reach the shores of Lake Champlain. Heading south from Burlington to New Haven feels like packing too many clothes into a small, square suitcase.

There is one particularly magical stretch of Route 89 between Montpelier (Capitale du Vermont, 12 KM) and Burlington that’s cause for pause. At this place, the road cuts through a jut of rocks, and for a second or two the road is pinched narrow between the cragged and geometrically planed ravine. Andy calls this pass Silent Rock. When we drive through, heading north or south, at the very start of the rock, we turn off the radio and look ahead, silent. “Yeah, but the funny thing At the end of the pass, the radio's back on and one of us is finishing our sentence. “about it is, there wasn’t even a stove in the house!” Maybe it’s six seconds long, maybe two. But, that silence inside the lash of our speed barreling down the highway has got gravity. It feels like we are living a line out of an Emily Dickinson poem. Silent Rock is our dash.

A friend told me the other night that her son’s been diagnosed with Sleep Apnea. She’s relieved because now there is a name for what’s been going on in his sleep. He simply stops breathing. Snores like an old drunkard. (He’s two.) And then stops breathing again. Maybe he’s got a Silent Rock in his sleep. He is left in the morning exhausted, hungry, clingy, and grumpy. There are various contraptions, of mediaeval proportion, that people strap themselves into to in order to stop themselves from stopping breathing. In this child’s case, he’ll have his tonsils and adenoids out. The cavities where those body pieces will be-apneas of flesh.

In a yoga class the other day, for which I was totally unprepared and much too inflexible, the instructor would remind us in the midst of the hardest most twisty, muscular moves-- to breathe. The sound of breath would rise up again from all of us in the class, as we remembered that we actually need to make conscious the things that are automatic. Like forgetting to breathe is actually a natural thing.

So what of these holds and breaks that we construct or that the body stores as reflexes? All the spaces of silence between things makes me think there is a poem in that. (In truth, there are many poems in that, this is not a new idea!)

Last night on my way south again, I was blasting sad, old John Prine on the radio as I drove straight through Silent Rock. When I realized I missed the place of silence, I felt sick, unholy, and sorry. But, I couldn’t figure out why.

Charles Simic writes of poetry that he’s “in the business of translating what cannot be translated: being and its silence." In the silence, there is witness to being. In silence there is witness to being-even if you are holding your breath, and grumpy or twisted, staring ahead, or alone in the car, you are sharing the silence with being. And silence is the twin of being. Poetically speaking. The excitement of holding your breath passing a graveyard or going through a tunnel is the same thing. Superstition, or an empathetic gesture for the dead or the still? We are honoring, in our apnea, a ghostly infinity, honoring the silence we are not, just to prove we are alive.

Seidel'd

One of my more interesting reading experiences last fall was provided by Frederick Seidel's Ooga-Booga (2006). I don't know much about Seidel except he's rich, was born in 1936, published his first book of poems in 1962, and didn't publish another book until 1979. His Collected Poems, 1959-2009 was released a few months ago. I'm hoping to dawdle through it this summer. Whatever we expect a poet to show us, it's rare that he shows us a lifestyle to which only that elusive 5% of the population with 37% of the wealth are accustomed. In Seidel's case, as in "Barbados," there is an outrageous tendency to be as rancid as anything he might witness. Poets with political axes to grind do, of course, give us glimpses of brutal acts and consequences to jar us out of our literary complacency. But Seidel somehow seems to suggest that all he's grinding is his pencil, to make it sharper. Whatever the outcome of the chaos we live in, he seems to shrug, I was there.

But what makes his writing so hard to fathom is its childlike simplicity. Or, rather, its simplicity is so arch, so tongue-in-cheek, so craftily artless, that one always waits to be slapped or jabbed by the inevitable line that arrives with all the specific, precise density -- drowning in acid -- of Robert Lowell or T. S. Eliot when they suddenly drop the right phrase into its inevitable place.

Huntsman indeed is gone from Savile Row, And Mr. Hall, the head cutter. The red hunt coat Hall cut for me was utter Red melton cloth thick as a carpet, cut just so. One time I wore it riding my red Ducati racer -- what a show!-- Matched exotics like a pair of lovely red egrets. London once seemed the epitome of no regrets And the old excellence one used to know Of the chased-down fox bleeding its stink across the snow. --"Kill Poem"

Yeah, and "a savage servility slides by on grease." To me, the echoes of Lowell's "Skunk Hour" dance through a poem that strikes me as a Charles Bukowski poem for an uncannily different demographic. But Bukowski came to mind while reading Seidel, not only for the "fuck you if you can't take me" ethos that these poems exude, but for a sense of the poem as the only possible response to a life of this tenor. Once your lines become this spare, they spare nothing.

But look at how the diction does whatever it wants -- the beautiful balance of line 3 ends with that hanging "utter" that is itself pretty damned utter. And then the "what a show!" interpolation in a flash makes speaker and poem as cartoonish as anything -- or at least as any inconceivable commercial for Ducati racers(!) could be. Then the "matched exotics" of "egrets" and "regrets" so funny and so baldly bad, as we veer into "the old excellence" that ends with a line worthy of Lowell and an image that suddenly brings in the death and blood that lurks so smugly behind all our diversionary tactics. Gee.

What I like about Seidel is the way he plays our banalities back at us, but first subjects them to a sea-change that causes the acrid brine of his own peculiar vision to cling to them:

The young keep getting younger, but the old keep getting younger. But this young woman is young. We kiss. It's almost incest when it gets to this. This is the consensual, national, metrosexual hunger-for-younger. --"Climbing Everest"

What is said is what anyone commenting on how the rich old court the fresh young might say -- but it would be said in a wagging finger way, or at least with mockery of the jaded, fading oldster trying to ignite himself via youth. But Seidel says it with a kind of rueful surprise at being the oldster accepted by youth in his "hunger-for-younger." In other words, it's not jaded at all, but almost charmingly surprised by the mores of "almost incest," where the words "consensual, national" do the job of making both old and young part of a machine that operates simply because it operates. "My dynamite penis / Is totally into Venus" Seidel quips, the intonation of youth appropriated by age to make the sex act partake of "the moment" as, we tend to think, only youth can. The insinuation of the poem -- that such sex acts, like that Ducati racer, are grandiose acts of death-courting -- never stops asserting itself after that first verse of foreplay, and each joke gets a little edgier, stripped of any self-satisfaction, but gripped by the vanity of vanitas, which is to say that being vain is a vain endeavor, that the grave is grave, and that "the train wreck in the tent" is addicted to all the tender mercies he can get.

Judging by Ooga-Booga, Seidel is an acquired taste that I'm on my way to acquiring because his poems confront me in a way that the poets I end up living with for awhile do. Bring on those Collected Poems.

D.A. Powell at Yale

D.A. Powell’s reading late March, at St. Anthony’s Hall in New Haven, was subdued, offering the stringent lyricism of his poems in a quiet, undemonstrative manner. The week before, in a poetry reading group at Yale, we had kicked around a selection of poems culled from all Powell's published volumes; from that brief introduction, I had the impression that the poems in Chronic (2009; Graywolf Press) were the best of his career thus far. After the reading, while getting a copy of the book signed, I mentioned that to Powell and asked if the book had been well-received. A little bemused, he said it had gotten some unfavorable reviews—later, I came across a on Poetry’s website where Jason Guriel takes Powell to task for "easily attained opacity" and the "fashionable gestures" of contemporary poetry. The enumerated failings that Guriel finds in Powell’s verse might well apply to an entire cohort of poets of our day, but I can’t see the reason in laying that at Powell’s door so specifically. It's as if Guriel simply needed a whipping-boy and Powell, highly praised in other quarters, could sustain the attack better than most. Guriel, it seems, is in search of "stylistic tics" that might still seem "risky," and accuses Powell of stock footage "filmed on modernism's backlot," as though an achieved style were simply something readily available and thus overly familiar.

About Powell’s reading, I’ll just say that I don’t think he presented the best of the book. My feeling was that the poems we read for the group were better chosen than those he elected to read. For instance, the poem "Republic," with its litany of diseases and health issues, seemed to fall a bit flat in the reading. And Powell didn't read the somewhat longish title poem of the collection which struck me as a standout of the selection we read in the group. The best moment of the reading was in the excellent paired poems that conclude the volume, "Corydon & Alexis" and "Corydon & Alexis, Redux." Powell ended his reading with them, and there was a breathless intensity in the room as he finished.

oh, you who are young, consider how quickly the body deranges itself how time, the cruel banker, forecloses us to snowdrifts white as god’s own ribs

If you're of Guriel's mind, you might believe the Eliot Waste Land crib is ersatz modernism ("you who are young, consider Phlebis"), that time personified as a banker foreclosing on us is a bit obvious, even if effective, and that the choice of a verb phrase like "deranges itself" is deliberate poeticizing. In fact, what I like about Powell is his willingness to poeticize in this register: using allusions, flippant or witty similes, somewhat off-putting word choice. I found myself having to listen pretty intently, while reading his poems to myself, to catch, again and again, a very deliberate music that, in his reading, was even easier to miss: "forecloses us to snowdrifts white as god’s own ribs"—the course of the o bouncing through the entire line, set-off nicely against short and long i. At his best, Powell’s mastery of such music is woven effortlessly into his poems so that it constantly teases the ear while reading.

In "Chronic," this tendency is pushed to its fullest development. The lines, collected into irregular stanzas, seem almost to float in space, notational, not quite connected to the preceding lines but by a certain intonation, a kind of implied affective relation that sustains interest both as mood and as a train of thought. The poem looks back at a life spent becoming a poet, sketching recollections of sex, spring ("in a spring of misunderstanding, I took the cricket's sound"), loving and sensual details ("sprig of lilac, scent of pine") that are also fused with remorse and foreboding ("daily, I mistake—there was a medication I forgot to take") to create a richly textured portrait held in time—static, and chronic: "light, light, do not go / I sing you this song and I will sing another as well."

I hope Powell will continue to sing songs so well as those collected in this at times difficult, elliptical, but always intriguingly lyrical volume.

The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan

By Ted Berrigan (Edited by Alice Notley, Anselm Berrigan, and Edmund Berrigan; University of California Press, 2005)

I had a friend at high school called Andy Mitchell (Mitch) who had the knack of befriending anyone he happened to meet and charmingly cadging anything from confidence to cigarettes to sex. No , he was at the time a slightly overweight boy of fair if unprepossessing features, hair tending to the lank and clothes tending to the untucked. His charm was his vulnerability, as well as his gusto for life and the ideas that glue its disparate parts together. He was a voracious and wonderfully perceptive reader, though, who, courtesy of one of the most favorable offers they could give, headed off from our unfashionable provincial grammar school to read English at Oxford.

Reading is like a journey into an adult American Mitch. Berrigan has the same gregarious vulnerability of the perennial outsider (he came to New York with the so-called Tulsa Group and had a love-hate relationship with Columbia, where he knew students) mixed with the surprisingly sinewy literary mind of a true believer in language. His poems, stretching across the 1960s and , document a life, a lifestyle, and an attitude to life that is refreshingly different from what’s modeled by some of the circumscribed, corporate, careful artists of today. Along with throwaway lines testifying to his careless promiscuity (“If I fall in love with my friend’s wife, she’s fucked”) from the children’s-book-looking “Bean Spasms,” his oeuvre includes comic poems like “Winter” (“The Moon is Yellow. / My Nose is Red”).

Allowing him the formal leeway for such experiments, perhaps, was his book (1964), for which he received the Poetry Foundation Award. It is a sequence of seventy-seven poems that deal with his daily life, his loves, and the sonnet form itself. The sonnets he uses are a far cry from Donne’s or Shakespeare’s, but this sequence tracing Berrigan’s own poetic education offers treatments of the sonnet more sympathetic than might be expected from an experimental beat poet. Berrigan showed that the sonnet was not necessarily about iambic pentameter, but rather a form dependent upon certain intimate relationships of rhythm and understandings of the world. To effect these relationships he borrows liberally from the world and the poets around him. The sequence contains translated, unattributed verse from Rilke and Rimbaud, snatches of conversations overheard, and recycled lines of his own from earlier in the series. It is, perhaps, the most impressively contemporary book about the sonnet that the twentieth century produced.

I’ve lost touch with Mitch, but I hope he has a better fate than Ted Berrigan, who died on July 4, 1983, of liver complications after years of health problems exacerbated by amphetamine use, long-standing but undiagnosed hepatitis, and inability to afford medical care. If Mitch did die early, he could do worse than be commemorated by a book like this--a comprehensive book lovingly packed full of life and serious daily literary exercise by Berrigan’s poet wife, Alice Notley, and his poet sons, Edmund and Anselm Berrigan. It’s a book to pick up for half an hour every week for the rest of your life, share the experiences of a lifetime lived in and for art, and witness in action the reformulation of poetry for a modern life.

Dan Friedman is an associate editor of . He is the only writer for Da Ali G Show to have a Ph.D. from Yale.