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.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Small Moment From a Large Author

Thanks to a fresh dusting of the keyboard, this blogging hiatus can come to an end. What better time than on the fifth day of National Poetry Month? I would have, admittedly preferred the first day of National Poetry Month, but a smattering of school social activities prevented that. During a caffeinated haze towards the end of last week, I actually promised myself that I would blog for every day of National Poetry Month. I soon realized, however, that doing so would require me to spend every spare hour thumbing through a stack of poetry volumes, paying little heed to dietary requirements and hygienic standards. Picture me wading through piles of dirty underwear, my current beard in a scraggy two-tone stage where the shaved bit is growing, but is still significantly shorter than the beard itself, forced to trade in my stash of Dominos Pizza MVP coupons in order to feed myself most efficiently, eyeing a stack of essays to grade, all with the word “environment” misspelled, but all in a different way, and a row of old, unrinsed orange juice glasses with their bottoms now encrusted with that lovely film that accumulates so quickly here in Arizona.

For my sanity, and perhaps for yours too, I have crumpled up the aforementioned blogging ambitions and tossed them towards the direction of the trash can, only to have them miss. They still sit there on the floor, uncrumpling slightly in an effort to remind me of their presence. I sometimes wonder if successful people give that uncrumpling ambitious idea a second chance. This certainly must hold true for the most prolific writers. Discounting the lack of a day job (they, unlike me, do not grope blindly at how to best impart the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions to 120 sixth graders during the day), these writers display a perseverance that helps fill their volumes and their coffers.

Thomas Hardy was certainly one such writer (Can you smell the transition? Don’t you love it?); this becomes all too obvious if you stack all of his volumes on a shelf. The total number of pages comes to 7762 (1). To put this into perspective, this figure is roughly six and half times bigger than the number of pages in War and Peace (1200). Furthermore, consider that most of these figures are based on classics editions, notorious for their small print; The Complete Poems is one of the most efficiently printed poetry collections I own, since it does not insist upon printing each new poem on a new page. While I cannot promise to adopt fully a Hardy-esque approach to writing, I will try to increase productivity for April.

Neutral Tones – Thomas Hardy

We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
- They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.

Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of long ago;
And some words played between us to and fro
On which lost the more by our love.

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird a-wing…

Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree,
And a pond edged with grayish leaves.

Despite all the above talk of prolific productivity, Hardy chooses his words sparsely and carefully here. Aside from the past participle “chidden” (from the verb “to chide”) Hardy’s language carries over incredibly smoothly to the present day given that it was written in 1867. As I reread the opening stanza, I detect an almost childish tone in the last line, detailing the fallen leaves. Perhaps this tone is the child of metrical obligations. The first three lines fit a rough tetrameter (four metrical feet per line), while the last line of each stanza is in trimeter (three feet per line). This shorter fourth line already leaves the reader with a sense of something missing (a sense reinforced by the indentation of each fourth line), but when the last foot of the line is occupied by “and were gray,” a predicate that could just have easily been removed by transporting the adjective “gray” to in front of the original noun that it modifies (“leaves” – although perhaps at the omission of “a few”), this sense of loss is heightened further.

But enough about the poem’s downfalls; Hardy molds a powerful and highly realistic moment out of thin air here, starting with his first stanza on setting. Notice the mundane scenery that, as the title suggests, has a neutral tone to it. The pond might be the most subdued body of water imaginable; it also has no movement or progression, like the dying relationship Hardy outlines in this poem. The gray leaves from the ash tree only further this sentiment, since their dead state mirrors the state of the relationship. It all reminds me of walking through parks in England in November: dead leaves on the ground, the white sun fighting its way through the clouds, and a still, murky pond as the only interesting thing in sight.

The genders of the two characters are never revealed, but the speaker sounds male to me, for he is still catching up with the female in terms of processing this breakup. The speaker learns the “lessons that love deceives,” which suggests to me that he had previously felt more optimistic than he had reason to feel about their relationship. She, on the other hand, seems hardened and brutally consistent in her external behaviors. The comparison that opens the second stanza shows some of this control, as her eyes are not actually roving over “tedious riddles,” they just look like they are. She is simply processing some tiresome mental exercises, suggesting that this is both old and unwelcome territory for her. As the speaker moves on to her mouth in the third stanza, he describes it as containing depressingly little life. The line, “the deadest thing / Alive enough to have strength to die” would serve as excellent fodder for some teen rockers in need of an emotive lyric. If you are reading, teen rockers, steal away, but thank me in the liner notes.

Analyzing the fourth stanza, we should notice the jump forward in time. The speaker has been reminiscing, and now communicates his harsh education. By framing the poem thus, Hardy draws attention to his achievement in crystallizing such a seemingly quiet yet significant moment in a human relationship. Because it affects the speaker greatly, it gains significance. The moment itself resembles a crucial scene in a Victorian novel not unlike those that fill most of Hardy’s bibliography. He spices up a Romantic scene with the bleak outlook of Victorian realism in a turn that could easily serve as the epicenter for an entire novel. I, for one, am left wondering who these people are and what happened.

1. Number of pages in each of Hardy’s published works:
Under the Greenwood Tree – 256 pp.
Far From the Madding Crowd – 480 pp.
The Return of the Native – 448 pp.
The Mayor of Casterbridge – 432 pp.
The Woodlanders – 368 pp.
Wessex Tales – 234 pp.
Tess of the D’Urbervilels – 592 pp.
Life’s Little Ironies – 304 pp.
Jude the Obscure – 464 pp.
A Pair of Blue Eyes – 448 pp.
The Trumpet Major – 411pp.
Two on a Tower – 308 pp.
A Group of Noble Dames – 188 pp.
The Well-Beloved – 418 pp.
Desperate Remedies – 464 pp.
The Hand of Ethelberta – 432 pp.
A Laodicean – 480 pp.
The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall – 80 pp.
The Complete Poems – 955 pp.

Total number of pages = 7762

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A sad tale's best for spring, if you're in Ohio

Note: I have added footnotes to tidy things up. If anyone knows of any elegant way to do this in html, please let me know. Also, I like that this is a note about footnotes. Do you?

For the last few days, I have immersed myself in Douglas Dunn’s 1985 collection, Elegies, while traveling around the country for spring break, the repose of many a teacher. I spent a weekend in Berkeley, CA, the land of interesting facial hair and mandatory recycling, with a day trip to Sonoma. Dunn’s volume, which was composed shortly after his wife’s death, clashed with everything I saw around me in California. The Scotsman’s reflective grieving process charted out so methodically on every page simply did not fit with the notes of elderflower I detected on a Gerwurztraminer in the Mayo Tasting Room. And how was I to sympathize with death while those around me vehemently squeezed every ounce of life out of a plastic bag, a water bottle, or even the straw from a juice box?

Luckily, I am in Ohio now. Thinking about death, mourning, and heartbreak just feels so right when it’s 35 degrees and raining outside. Apparently the real estate phrase applies to understanding poetry as well: “Location, location, location.” Here in the Buckeye state, where tomato juice is the state beverage, and flint is the state stone, I feel transported to Dunn’s Lowlands. This is the Scotland of America.

I originally purchased the slender Faber and Faber copy of Dunn’s Elegies in London at least five years ago. The Scottish poet first came to my attention through comparison with my beloved Philip Larkin; Dunn graduated from the University of Hull before working briefly at the Brynmor Jones Library under Larkin. This week’s choice also features some continuity with last week’s. We have homonymic poets (Donne and Dunn), identical structures (sonnets), and a shared theme (death), although Douglas Dunn might have gained some much needed comfort were he to seek solace in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X.

The Kaleidoscope – Douglas Dunn

To climb these stairs again, bearing a tray,
Might be to find you pillowed with your books,
Your inventories listing gowns and frocks
As if preparing for a holiday.
Or, turning from the landing, I might find
My presence watched through your kaleidoscope,
A symmetry of husbands, each redesigned
In lovely forms of foresight, prayer and hope.
I climb these stairs a dozen times a day
And, by the open door, wait, looking in
At where you died. My hands become a tray
Offering me, my flesh, my soul, my skin.
Grief wrongs us so. I stand, and wait, and cry
For the absurd forgiveness, not knowing why.

Dunn’s late wife, Lesley Dunn, is the focus here, as in most of the poems in Elegies. As the addressee of the poem, Dunn describes her habits in the two quatrains of the sonnet.(1) The first image of her cataloguing clothes suggests organization. She is not preparing for a holiday,(2) but merely appears to be doing so. Lesley Dunn implicitly cannot prepare for a holiday because of her terminal cancer. This diagnosis becomes clear in another fine poem in the collection called “Second Opinion.” Understanding the poem in this way also adds a connotation to “pillowed” in the second line. Lesley is “pillowed” not from laziness or comfort, but from weakness. Framing this image as holiday preparation instead of a chore of bequeathal keeps the poet’s spirits elevated.

Dunn postpones these bleak connotations in the second quatrain, which introduces an image of Lesley that is wholly playful, even if the object of her attention reveals her sickness. Kaleidoscoping (officially a verb, now that I’ve turned it into a gerund) has nothing to do with preparations for death. It is an activity of pure recreation. Yet it metaphorically points to a classic image of death: the dying person briefly returns to childhood through the use of a childhood object or upon seeing an old photograph. Instead of dealing with the rigmarole of what shall go to whom, Lesley has advanced a stage to simply enjoying her final days or weeks of life. Simply put, she is having fun, while in the first quatrain she was consciously preparing for death, even if her husband tried to spin the action as holiday preparation. Sadness sneaks into the end of this quatrain in the form of the aforementioned object of Lesley’s attention. The poet climbing the stairs in the first stanza was still in denial. He did not want to think about his wife’s death and her preparations for it. Now, however, his kaleidoscopic expressions (“foresight, prayer and hope) reveal that Dunn has reached a more advanced stage of acceptance.

This elegant switch of focus serves as an early turn(3) in the sonnet and eases our path into the closing sestet, which focuses on Dunn’s grieving. The first half of the eleventh line (“At where you died.”) hammers home the meaning of the sonnet with its emphatic monosyllables. In the next sentence, occupying the latter half of the eleventh line and the entire twelfth line, epitomizes Dunn’s devotion using the Christian image of offering. The poet wants to offer himself completely in place of his dead wife.

If the poem were to end with the twelfth line, Dunn’s grieving process would appear as simple and one-dimensional. But in the last two lines, he turns back on his offering, suggesting that it is an example of how his grief has wronged him. By leading him to such a sacrificial state, his grief has misrepresented his beliefs. Instead, he seeks some sort of forgiveness, while still realizing that such forgiveness is “absurd.” We are left with a difficult situation. The sonnet has ended, but poet has not resolved his problem.

1. Since two friends have recently told me that they cannot understand most of what I write in this blog, I will endeavor to translate technical terms to layman’s terms. A quatrain is a group of four lines of poetry. A sonnet is a form of poetry that consists of two quatrains (each of four lines) and one sestet (a group of six lines). Different sonnet structures have different rhyme schemes, but Dunn’s sonnet does not follow any of these rhyme schemes exactly.
2. Dunn uses “Holiday” in the British sense, which is almost identical to the American word vacation. Using the American meaning, one could interpret this first quatrain to mean that Dunn’s wife has an special outfit for each public or religious holiday: a Christmas sweater, a charming pant suit for Burns Night, and a Guy Fawkes Night strapless number. Dashing.
3. The “turn” or “volta” of a sonnet traditionally occurs in the ninth line and introduces a new tone or a resolution to a problem stated in the first two quatrains (eight lines).

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Vote or Die

In order to draw your attention to an oft-neglected feature of this modest blog and in order to prove the efficacy of said feature, I have let said feature dictate, in part, this week’s entry, postponed due to circumstances out of my control and caused entirely by an extensive game of cards and a gallon-sized container of cheap Tom Collinses. The feature in question is in fact the poll. It’s over there, on the right. Please direct your attention to the poll momentarily.

That should be enough time. Last week, as only two people can definitely attest to (last week’s poll attracted a meager three votes, one of which was mine), I surveyed you, intelligent, discerning reader, with hopes of allowing you to choose a broad category of poetry to blog on. Since the response “Canonical English and American poets” edged “Foreign poets whose work has been translated into English” by a nail-biting score of two to one, I’ve tracked down a famous poem about death by a famous dead poet.

Perhaps now is neither the time nor the place to reveal the detailed results of the aforementioned poll. The dead guys, represented this week by Donne, defeat the foreigners in something resembling a soccer score (I definitely wasted two minutes deciding between “soccer” and “football.” Neither will fully satisfy my true stance, a quiet perch in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, slowly drowning in the convergent linguistic waves of Britishisms and Americanisms that crash down upon me). This result could be somewhat invalidated by revealing my vote. In opting for the canons of the Anglo-Americans, I essentially chose the poem myself, since the two external votes canceled each other out.

Before reading Donne’s words, infinitely more efficient than mine, glance up that poll in the top right again. Go ahead, answer it! And be thankful that, after much beard scratching, I decided against a meta-poll on whether or not you read, or even respond to the poll.

Holy Sonnet X (Death, Be Not Proud) – John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

This strikes me as a rarity, but this week’s poem came to me while watching a film. In an attempt to explain the lesser-known tidbits of some famous director, I found Wit, a 2001 Mike Nichols take on a Margaret Edson play. The made-for-TV film focuses on the life of Vivian Bearing, a middle-aged Donne scholar who has just been diagnosed with cancer. The film explores the scholar’s musings on her own death and on Donne’s take on it; as you can imagine, this sonnet plays a significant role in this process.

In the film, several characters remark on the complexity of Donne. The professor’s class on Donne is considered one of the most challenging in the university at which she teaches. As a result, the film instilled in me an impression of Donne’s poems as being exceptionally meaty and rich with meaning. Fitting in with my misted memories of being navigated through dead-ends in Donne’s poetry as an undergraduate, this richness sparked hesitation. Could I handle Donne?

One potential difficulty paradoxically springs from simplicity. While Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope, three poets of a value equal to or greater than Donne’s, all floor the first time reader in archaic verbosity, Donne’s relatively limited vocabulary might lull said reader, disarming him of his protective shield he wields when confronting the canon.

With only three words containing three syllables or more (“overthrow,” “delivery,” and “desperate”), the poem would probably trip off the tongue of even a mediocre reader. The opening line’s nine monosyllables signify this simplicity from the outset. The pair of Death’s epithets in the second line, “Mighty” and “dreadful,” garners emphasis from the rest of the first quatrain, which features only one more polysyllable, “overthrow.” Notice that these three polysyllables in the opening quatrain all describe Death as he thinks he should be described. All three are mentioned by the speaker only so that he might point out that death deserves neither this pair of adjectives (“mighty” and “dreadful”) nor the identification as the one who overthrows people. Death is characterized by the pomposity of his polysyllables, which Donne’s speaker denies him.

In the second quatrain, possibly the most difficult to explain, might also perturb the reader unaccustomed to transposed word order. The quatrain’s opening clause, spanning the fifth line and half of the sixth, starts with a prepositional phrase (“From rest and sleep”), the objects of which (“rest” and “sleep”) are modified by a relative clause (“which but thy pictures be). Finally, in the sixth line, our much longed for subject and verb arrive on the scene (“much pleasure”).

One aspect of this poem that I would like to find out more about is that subject and verb, “much pleasure.” At least I assume it is a subject and a verb. The alternative, as I see it, is for an omitted verb phrase: something along the lines of “Much pleasure comes from rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be.” Either the verb phrase is removed, or the clause is ungrammatical. If “much” were the subject of the verb “pleasure,” it would surely have to stand for “many people.” My interest in this issue might well stem from a topic I am currently teaching: the difference in usage between “less” and “fewer.” The basic rule states that “fewer” is used with countable items, while “less” modifies uncountable ones. An unfortunately high number of you readers have probably been corrected by me on this issue at some point. If you haven't an amusing debate on the topic can be found here. However, “much” and many” pair up with “less” and “fewer” perfectly. “Many” suggests countable items, while “much” suggests uncountable. This explains the issue. People are countable. If asking about the number of attendees at a party, for example, you would ask, “How many people were there?” Is this an example of archaic style, or, as I suspect, simply a purposeful error for metrical purposes?

To return to the argument of the second quatrain, Donne shows Death that people enjoy sneak peaks of him during sleep and as a result, these habitual dozers would look forward to death, to enjoy more of the same. This aspect of Donne’s creative argument carries with it the calm approach of the opening’s monosyllables. But Donne is still just warming up. The sestet opens with an elegant structure of lists decreasing in size. The ninth line features a list of four causes of Death that call him to do his work. He is essentially employed by all these and constantly at their beck and call. Line 10 then lists Death’s three sordid bedfellows, and the eleventh line opens with a pair of drugs that do Death’s job better.

These lists reveal a departure from the original line of attack, which was much more subtle and subdued. As Donne finally cools off from his listing of Death’s employers, co-conspirators, and earthly replacements, he reveals the holy aspect of this Holy Sonnet. Legitimate Donne criticism can ignore neither Donne’s religious beliefs nor the religious climate of seventeenth century England. However, since this is a blog, I will close by saying that Donne only needs to decorate the top of his argument with a mere slice of cherry hinting at the Christian afterlife. This is more than enough, in Donne’s opinion, to vanquish death for good. As a secular reader, my attention is drawn to all the arguments in the first twelve lines of the poem. Yet I cannot ignore his confidence that closes this poem off so calmly and puts the issue to bed. Donne is so confident that we will “wake eternally” that he chooses it as the knockout punch.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Writing About Not Writing

Of the handful of poems I’ve blogged about here, this one is the first that I can truly associate with. Brehm manages to appeal to an audience that is not often overtly marketed to: the aspiring writer. Christian Lander over at Stuff White People Like sums it up pretty well on his entry for writer’s workshops.

This market not only signs up for writer’s workshops, they also apply for MFA programs, purchase charming leather-bound journals, and have folders of abandoned creative writing on their computer desktops. I know these things because I am one of these people and because I am friends with a lot of these people.

Our reasons for keeping the “aspiring” moniker vary from lack of time, talent, or patience to fear of failure, risk, or exposure. Whatever each member’s reason for not pursuing the dream further, we are a curious sort in that we are categorized by our lack of production. In my case, reading a poem like this refreshes me and alleviates some of the aforementioned lacks and fears.

Somebody told me that poetry is about the poet, whereas novels are about other people. This generalization, albeit a broad stroke covering literature’s nuanced nooks, holds true for most cases. The poems discussed on this blog, with the exception of Auden’s “James Honeyman,” have been personal. They have grasped at explaining their inner thoughts to the reader, but have had to use complex metaphor to do so. Brehm’s poem, I hope, blows fresh air through these digital pages by calling on universal experience to explain himself. It is about him, but it is also about me, and some of you, and millions of others who carry the “aspiring” around with them.

The Poems I’ve Not Written – John Brehm

I’m so wildly unprolific, the poems
I have not written would reach
from here to the California coast
if you laid them end to end.

And if you stacked them up,
the poems I have not written
would sway like a silent
Tower of Babel, saying nothing

and everything in a thousand
different tongues. So moving, so
filled with and emptied of suffering,
so steeped in the music of a voice

speechless before the truth,
the poems I have not written
would break the hearts of every
woman who’s ever left me,

make them eye their husbands
with a sharp contempt and hate
themselves for turning their backs
on the very source of beauty.

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: "Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

please strike me dead at once,
destroy my works and cleanse
the earth of all my ghastly
imperfections." Trees would

bow their heads before the poems
I have not written. "Take me,"
they would say, "and turn me
into your pages so that I

might live forever as the ground
from which your words arise."
The wind itself, about which
I might have written so eloquently,

praising its slick and intersecting
rivers of air, its stately calms
and furious interrogations,
its flutelike lingerings and passionate

reproofs, would divert its course
to sweep down and then pass over
the poems I have not written,
and the life I have not lived, the life

I’ve failed even to imagine,
which they so perfectly describe.

The opening line of this poem tickles me with its thought of being “wildly unprolific.” Since it denotes not producing much, “unprolific” is somewhat allergic to modifiers of degree, especially those that magnify, as “wildly” does. The most wildly unprolific you could possibly be is to write nothing, whereas the only limit to one’s proflicacy (it is a word—I just looked it up) is the length of the day. This nonsense winks at the reader at the outset, hinting at the fun he will have over the coming stanzas.

Brehm goes on with a list of jokes that describe his unwritten poetry in the format of playing the dozens, the originally African-American tradition of humor that entered popular culture through the wondrous world of “your mom” jokes. Brehm’s poem, by association, inherits a great deal of spontaneity despite being a poem, an art form notorious for its meticulous composition.

These jokes outline the structure of this poem, starting with the clichéd idea of something stretching over a large geographical distance (it is, by the way, a large distance, since Brehm resides in Brooklyn). From here, though, each new round of the dozens brings something new to the table. The Tower of Babel simile in round two operates first on the magnitude of unwritten poems, but Brehm refines his simile by adding the idea of the poems “saying nothing / and everything / in a thousand different tongues.”

Perhaps my favorite moment of the poem, Brehm’s third round opens with a delicious tricolon crescendo of participial phrases in which the hyperbolic ridiculousness of the poem becomes apparent. These poems are both “filled with” and then “emptied of” suffering, which I’m pretty sure does not make sense, but makes you think that they must be incredibly powerful poems. Then there’s the even more ridiculous final participial phrase, “so steeped in the music of a voice / speechless before the truth.” Something tells me that Brehm would win if I tried to unpack that one, that I’d be playing the lit crit game he is poking fun at.

Immediately afterwards, though, Brehm steers his poem back onto firmer, more literal ground with all his talk of breaking the hearts of his ex-lovers. Such a move reveals the control he has over this poem, because he satisfies a much broader audience with it. For instance, say I was to read this poem to my sixth grade students. Most of them would have no clue what was going on with those participial phrases mentioned in the previous paragraph on account of the metaphors and hyperbolic contradictions employed. However, once we arrived at the independent clause, they would be right there with me. They might not find it funny, but they would know what was going on in the poem.

Once we get into the hypothetical speech uttered by lesser poets and then trees, the volume has been pushed up to eleven. The use of trees, the material that is graced with the honor of holding the ink of Brehm’s unwritten masterpieces, takes the humor in a different direction, towards the likes of Calvino and other postmodernists. Poets have contemplated their audiences, lovers, and competitors for centuries, but drawing attention to the very materials of writing is a more recent innovation.

Then we come to the final round: the wind. The end of this poem reminds me of the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude. If Brehm was aiming to satirize such a style, then he excelled. But the ending also somewhat problematically floors me with its own elegance. Brehm says that he might have written eloquently about the wind, then he does write eloquently about the wind. In my enjoyment of the final stanzas, I fear I am falling into a trap of sorts.

Paradoxically, Brehm’s humor is both self-deprecating and self-assuring. With one full collection, I’d like to think that he has plenty of unwritten poems left in him. Unlike so many other poets that sink into themselves and rely on the reader to dig their way out, Brehm wants to play games with his reader. And, in the end, even if he can speak the voice of all those aspirings, he has dropped the moniker himself.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wilbur's Layer Cake

Since blogging about not blogging might attract the attention of the blog-cliché police, let’s focus on the job at hand. My relationship with Wilbur’s poetry says a great deal about the state of poetry today. During a freshman year world literature course, I read Wilbur’s translation of Racine’s play Phaedra. That was five and a half years ago, and in the interim, the work of Richard Wilbur, undoubtedly among the greatest by a living poet, was never brought to my attention.

Sadly, the poetical canon is quickly being sealed off as if it is already full. I have very little hope of the likes of Wilbur and Hecht being studied in a hundred years. Even today, to pass as well-read, or at least well-informed about literature, you don’t need to know much of anything written in verse after 1950.

Jazz is headed the same way, incidentally. There is no need for an avid music fan to know anything about jazz after Miles Davis and John Coltrane; it is a marginal element of our culture. As a fan of both, I feel like a cultural fossil. Perhaps there is a museum that will put me on show, where I could stand in dark jeans and a black turtleneck. My weight would lie firmly on my right foot, right hand akimbo, left hand groping vaguely at my facial hair. My forehead would be held in an eternal crinkle, a less-intense take on Rodin. They would insist upon me donning a beret, and a stale espresso would slowly evaporate on a nearby table.

But if I’m going to be entombed in a dusty display case, who on earth will appreciate Richard Wilbur? Who will stop to think about how he manages to capture the juxtaposed moments of life that are too subtle to make their way into pop songs? For the time being, I’m still here.

The Beautiful Changes

One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.

The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

This poem provides proof that we still need poets to observe and unpack the smaller moments in life. In “The Beautiful Changes,” Wilbur desperately needs the worldly language held in the two similes that occupy the first two stanzas. What is unexpected and somewhat challenging in this first poem is the way Wilbur balances these similes. In the first stanza, the experience tangible to the reader occupies the literal half of the simile. Wilbur relies on us being able to picture the watery walk that opens the poem.

In the second stanza’s simile, the title of the poem has occupied the literal position of the simile, even though it cannot possibly be literal to the reader; the images of the chameleon and the mantis appear vividly, making this simile something more like a generalization followed two specific examples.

This literal, observable, imaginable material forms the base layer of the poem. What makes Wilbur such an effective poet is that he builds more personal and unconventional material on top.

The addressee of the poem occupies the next layer, since the images of her, first her shade, then the way she holds roses, cannot be glimpsed by the reader. In particular, we should struggle with the way he nouns his nouns. (We can do it too, Mr. Wilbur!). By that I mean he uses the noun “valley” as a verb. It is precisely this sort of thing that we will miss if we stop reading poetry. Nobody save the poet can reshape language such.

As we come to the top of our Wilbur layer cake, we arrive at the title, the generalization if you will. This top layer bookends the poem (I did it again, Mr. Wilbur!) in that you cannot ignore the title. The title of the poem exposes us to this top layer before we even begin reading. Then, when we reach the end, we find the summary of the previous two layers. Its success derives from Wilbur’s exclusive use of abstractions here. From “the beautiful changes / In such kind ways” to the end of the poem, I defy you to find a word that you can draw a picture of. Sure, you could draw an example of something changing, of something beautiful, of something being sundered, of wonder; but you cannot capture the essence of any of these abstractions.

Wilbur then gives us an abstract thesis in his title which he expands upon at the end of the poem. Layered underneath, he stacks examples of this thesis according to their ability to be understood by the reader who doesn’t have the benefit of being a close personal friend of Mr. Wilbur and the addressee of this poem. This poem deserves to be called a poem because it combines unique, metaphorical ideas with a practiced, rhetorical structure to produce a clear, organized reading experience.

Over the course of this entry, I have found that the beautiful has changed for me as well. Under the light of examination, an elegant poem has transformed into a meticulously crafted poem that yet keeps its cards close to its chest. It does not want to tell us how organized, how planned it is. Instead, it flashes in front of our eyes a handful of fascinating images that grab our attention and help us to believe that we know something of what Richard Wilbur meant.