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