Sunday, September 13, 2009

What Depressing Stuff

It’s Sunday night, and were it not for the laundry, I’d be tucked up in bed, as I’m sure many of you on EST and GMT are right now. Instead of addressing the insurmountable pile of papers that need to be graded, I’ve opted to share with you a modern view of poetry that is particularly widespread today: that poetry is depressing.

I recently taught a trio of death poems to my sixth grade students: “The Mower” by Philip Larkin, “Stop All The Clocks” by W.H. Auden, and “Psalm and Lament” by Donald Justice. Admittedly, they share a theme that young mines might easily view as depressing. Nevertheless, I fought tooth and nail to draw the attention of my students to the merits of the three poems – of which there are many – and tried to maneuver the discussion away from the idea of poetry as depressing.

I could easily dismiss the complaints of my students by arguing that for the most part, eleven-year-olds cannot comprehend true depression. Instead, I could argue, they merely bandy the term about, quick to attach the epithet to anything with a tone that might be categorized as negative in some way. I could do that, but I also think that they are onto something. This view extends beyond pre-teens, and, in my opinion, is quite valid. After all, effective poetry must deliver intense meaning in a short format. The intensity of human emotions, from depression to elation, stands there exposed for the world to see, like a confused old man exposing himself on the platform of a train station.

Who knows where that simile came from. The point is that poetry poses a challenge to its creator. Compare poetry to the novel, for instance. Instead of having at least one hundred pages to develop character, theme, emotion, and conflict, poetry must do the job in several hundred words. There is no relatively normal and mundane chapter one of poetry. In this way, it is similar to visual art. Both have drifted out of the limelight of popular culture in recent decades as they have struggled to maintain an audience through the shock of novelty. A novel or film may deal with disturbing themes such as racism, rape, or drug addiction, but in most cases, these themes only gradually reveal themselves. Most novels and films start off by giving the audience a reference point – something to draw them in. Even in novels and films about wizards, dystopias, and aliens, the average audience member can ease into the crazy world in question through something – a fraternal squabble, anxiety about a job, or a parent’s attempt to protect a child.

The similarities between poetry and fine art bear significant relevance to the poem I’ve chosen here. “A Story About the Body” by Robert Haas features a painter revealing an intensely personal detail at an artificially early stage of her relationship with a young composer. She provides that shock quality that mainstream society has come to expect from both visual art and poetry. Yet even after this painfully awkward revelation, she creates a stereotypically modern work of art and leaves it on her admirer’s doorstep.

Before I leave you with the poem, I’d also like you to consider a similarity between Haas’ poem and Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” In both cases, the audience is privy to a private moment that deals with a woman’s problem. Haas shocks us with a double mastectomy, while Hemingway opts for unwanted pregnancy. However, these private moments arise out of seemingly innocent and tranquil territory. Hemingway chooses a beer break in Spain, while Haas deals with a summer romance at an artist’s colony. How idealistic, they want us to think.

Enough from me. Have a happy Monday, enjoy the prose poem, and revel in the painful delaying effect of those…things at the bottom of the bowl. Read it for yourself.

A Story About the Body – Robert Haas

The young composer, working that summer at an artist's colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused or considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, "I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you I have had a double mastectomy," and when he didn't understand, "I've lost both my breasts." The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity--like music--withered, very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, "I'm sorry. I don't think I could." He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl--she must have swept them from the corners of her studio--was full of dead bees.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Meeting the maker

During my recent absence from the wonderful world of Reason the Rhyme, I have been busy devouring culture, swallowing whole without chewing. I’m talking about the kind of devouring that can only occur on a stomach emptier of calories than Philip Larkin’s poems are of political correctness. The kind of devouring that you indulge in after forgetting to eat for a day, beads of sweat forming at your brow and a dizzy cloud filling your brain. (Un)lucky friends can attest to the CDs, books, movies, poems, and blogs I have been recommending, and anyone who wants in on the action, just let me know.

This consumption appeals tremendously to my short attention span; this blog’s infrequency, posts appearing at intervals of weeks and months, attests to this. News of people with life-long hobbies boggles my mind. How does the convention-attending Trekkie, the Shakespeare devotee clad in renaissance garb, or the bootleg-hoarding Deadhead avoid drowning in a mired bog of repetition? Variety then serves as the salt and pepper of my existence, the dash of cumin in my stew, and the dusting of nutmeg on my latte. Our accessibility to culture encourages this trend further, reminding us how much there is left to explore. Amazon’s hard copy book catalog, for example, offers readers a diversity of choice they would otherwise be without, unless they happen to have lending rights to a national or large university library.

This plurality of choice might explain my situation: since there are so many books available, I feel I must hurry through each one and forgo any rereading to move onto the next. Netflix operates on a similar model, but further rewards instantaneous consumption; the faster you watch and return each DVD, the faster you can move on to the next one. I offer Google Reader as a final example of this trend. Over the past year, I have started to read and explore the blogosphere. Though still a relative novice in the field, I now cast my net much further and wider than twelve months prior. This increase was magnificently bolstered by the discovery, thanks to Doug (hope you’re reading), of Google Reader. Upon signing on, I added my blogs and feeds, totaling about twenty, to my list. I was simply increasing my digestion rate of my current blog diet, adding extra enzymes to the mix, if you will. But then one fateful day, I clicked on the “Browse for Stuff” button, and started adding pre-packaged blog bundles left and right. Enjoy reading the NY Times book blog, Paper Cuts? Then how about trying the blog from the London Review of Books? The result? A forty-strong army of blog feeds in a constant race to outdo my culture enzymes. Sold on the inconvenient truth that quitting my job is not a solution, I still have the white flag firmly held in the air.

In the staff room I was recently expounding on the joys of Google Reader to a colleague. He told me how unsatisfying he found such practices, how he’d much rather linger over a book or return years later for a second reading, how, in his opinion, so much of what was being created today was total crap. While I disagreed with him, I did wonder what I was missing. A conversation with another colleague filled the gap. He opined that the recording industry had killed music, that without CDs and mp3s, we would all be forced to seek out live music, to watch musicians play, and they too would feed off our support, which would in turn enhance their performance. While this might not carry over neatly to literature, I have been prone to various levels of fan frenzy over one writer or another. I’ve had phases of idolizing Patrick Neate and Donna Tartt, and the idea of meeting writers and talking to them has always appealed to me. True, they are often not presenting their art to me, but knowing who is behind it, who is holding the pen or tapping the keyboard makes the reading of the work more personal.

I found such a chance when meeting the young poet Rachel Springer, a friend of a friend. Rachel started writing poetry in college, and now in her twenties has completed an MFA. Her poems have been published in or accepted by a number of journals, including (I believe) Versal. Through talking with her, I was reassured of how normal the act of writing poetry can be, or at least how the angst and passion I had always imagined can be concealed behind a cool exterior. She sent me her poems a short while after meeting her and has kindly allowed me to reproduce one here. Please leave your comments below.

The state I want to miss you in - Rachel Springer

So did you find yourself,
she asked when I got back,
since why else would I rope
myself across the country like that?
                                             (The fact
I missed your body: not
an explanation she’d accept.)
                                              Oh I guess
I hoped the wheat in North
Dakota’d whisper to me, free of charge?
I thought I’d learn some city laws?
I barely knew the man who owned the car.

                                              He set
the limit, what we’d pay to see, at fifteen bucks,
& when, in Baraboo, the circus cost too much,
we spied on trunks & lumps from the perimeter.
                                              What’s at
the centre of every state
I learned to ask
& not to care. In Madison I thought of you, but after
malls & lakes & mosquitoes, after tables
replaced canopies as overs
to sleep under, I didn’t miss a thing.
I stroke the strangeness of that summer
where elephants & camels stumble deep
in Wisconsin. A man takes my hand & pictures
of the other side of the river

                                              & if,
in his tent, we touch & I flinch,
the heat helps. I tell myself, I chose this.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Pass It On

While you and I might be in the thick of our raucous National Poetry Month celebrations, we sadly represent the minority. With just a simple scan of the bookshelves of your local Barnes and Noble or Borders, you can quickly survey the tastes of the average reader. They apparently enjoy reading books with big shiny letters on the front and prefer treading literary water in a fetid bog of repetitive plot lines centered on sex and violence. They seek a book that they can race through, turning pages at a rate of a three year-old learning his ABCs.

Judging and offending this readership will probably not further my cause, but perhaps this is the very hurdle on which so many contemporary poets flounder: they consider a literary audience, an erudite clique that understands their Vergil references, unpacks their metaphors, and mentally applauds their spondaic substitutions.

This trend matches the forms of cultural transmission used by poets. If we examine how poetry is transmitted, we begin to see why it serves such an insular audience.

The most successful poets will publish their poems in volumes through major publishing houses, such as Faber & Faber in the United Kingdom and Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux in the United States. Yet even this treatment, reserved for the cream of the crop of living poets, still relegates said volume to a poetry section, where it fights for meager shelf space with fat complete and collected editions of dead poets. To add some statistical analysis to show the painfully weak sales of even the best known living poets, I examined the Amazon sales ranks of three of Yale University’s resident writers: poet Louise Gluck, novelist Amy Bloom, and essayist Anne Fadiman. It is worth noting that Amazon’s basic criterion for a bestseller is “current popularity,” whatever that means.

All three have published critically acclaimed books in the last year or two, as well as winning or receiving nomination for some prestigious awards. Their relative sales numbers, however, provide some insight into the huge chasm poetry has to cross. Novelist Amy Bloom leads the pack; her recent effort, Away, sits at 6,370 on the list (although it takes the proverbial bestseller cake if we refine our bestseller list to Jewish American fiction). Next comes Anne Fadiman’s At Large and Small, ranked 49,039. I notice, incidentally, that Fadiman’s page is not graced, as Bloom’s is, with a video of the author discussing her inspiration. Finally we arrive at Gluck, whose Averno is ranked 423,983.

Volumes such as Gluck’s, while unprofitable, still find a space on many retail shelves; volumes and chapbooks published by more obscure and specialized houses, such as university presses, do not. These volumes might reside in a few independent and specialty bookstores, but will never be seen by average Americans. Where then, do they reside? On bookshelves accessible only to the aforementioned erudite clique. These bookshelves in turn can be found in university libraries and, perhaps, the largest of America’s public libraries.

As we work our way down the ladder, we reach poetry journals, or literary journals and magazines that feature some amount of poetry. Perhaps the most exposure a poet could hope for would be to publish in The New Yorker. Yet that publishes just a few poems each week, poems that are wedged into the layout puzzle just like The New Yorker’s popular cartoons. These poems interrupt the text of other more substantial, more significantly billed pieces.

In other unpublished forms, poetry is still transmitted through limited networks. Take, for example, poetry workshops and poetry readings. Both should help poets communicate their works to a network of others. But unlike fans of fiction, drama, music, or film, it seems to me that poetry fans are relatively unlikely to succeed in communicating the work of a new poet to someone outside the limited network. If I watched a film and told 100 people that it was the best film I had ever seen, I would expect at least 20 of those people to watch that film at some point in their lives. Furthermore, I would expect diminishing returns with music, fiction, drama, and poetry respectively. If any one of those 100 people purchased a volume of poetry based on my recommendation, I would be legitimately shocked. This difference can be explained in part by a host of related factors. In the case of the hypothetical film recommendation, that film is probably more readily available, and many of those 100 people would have heard of the film through other means (other friends, critics, or advertisements).

For poetry to succeed, it needs to re-establish its lines of communication and break out of its introspective bubble. I would be willing to bet that Pamela Spiro Wagner shares my view in her poem, “How to Read a Poem: Beginner’s Manual.” Wagner tries to bridge part of the huge and pervasive gap that exists in the transmission of poetry. I will forgo my usual analysis and will instead take a digi-leaf out of Carol Rumens’s blog and let you have at it. Please, let me and the score or two of other readers out there know what you think.

How to Read a Poem: Beginner's Manual - Pamela Spiro Wagner

First, forget everything you have learned,
that poetry is difficult,
that it cannot be appreciated by the likes of you,
with your high school equivalency diploma,
your steel-tipped boots,
or your white-collar misunderstandings.

Do not assume meanings hidden from you:
the best poems mean what they say and say it.

To read poetry requires only courage
enough to leap from the edge
and trust.

Treat a poem like dirt,
humus rich and heavy from the garden.
Later it will become the fat tomatoes
and golden squash piled high upon your kitchen table.

Poetry demands surrender,
language saying what is true,
doing holy things to the ordinary.

Read just one poem a day.
Someday a book of poems may open in your hands
like a daffodil offering its cup
to the sun.

When you can name five poets
without including Bob Dylan,
when you exceed your quota
and don't even notice,
close this manual.