Poetry Fix Episode 9: Seamus Heaney’s “Digging.”
I don’t feel bad when poets are forgotten. We are highly forgettable beings. Very often, the children of poets try to forget them and fail. Poets can be pains in the ass. I once dreamed that poets became discarded shoes without a match when they died—the kind of shoes you often encounter while walking down a street or by the rail road tracks. Sometimes, these shoes are still in good shape, and are your size, but they are always missing their partner. Oh Alas! If we lived in a world where it was ok to wear unmatched shoes, I might value poets more.
But, putting this aside, discarding it like a three inch “fuck me” pump, I will say that I get very sad when good poems are forgotten. And so, I want to remember a good poem by a poet who was once prominent, and who is now seldom on the lips of graduate students (unless they think their professor will be impressed): Michael Benedikt.
Michael Bendikt, like many prominent second generation New York School poets, was involved in the visual arts. He was a true New Yorker, and spent the last few years of his life fighting eviction, and never leaving his apartment for fear they’d put a padlock on it. He also had advanced emphysema, which often puts a permanent damper on a man who inhabits a city where people walk everywhere.
His companion for the last 20 years of his life was Laura Boss, the editor of Lips magazine. Laura was good to Michael, and that’s an understatement. If Laura was a country song, she’d be “stand by your man.” It is not easy to stand by an agoraphobic poet in an epic eviction proceeding. As I said, poets are unmatched shoes.
I met him once. Laura runs a reading series out of a Barnes and Noble in New Jersey. I could not believe love could get a true second generation New York poet who had been widely anthologized and published by Wesleyen to come out to a Barnes and Noble in Jersey, but love has some strange powers. There he was, like a rare European bird blown off his migration route by a fierce ocean storm and perching on the neighbor’s satellite dish. He had a nice head of hair (I always notice hair). He was one of the first contemporary poets I read. I read him in the anthology Young Poets of 1965. This was September of 1995. This meant the young poets of 1965, of whom the youngest was Louise Gluck, were now in their fifties and sixties, and so it looked to me as if he were dressing up as an old person when, in fact, he was an old person. He was a nice looking man, and well mannered—not at all full of himself. He even sat through the open reading. Apparently, he was listening because he approached me and said: “I really like the way the way you make hyperbolic structures and then poke pins in them.” I did what you should never do. I asked him to sign his book, Sky, which I had purchased at a used book store for fifty cents (It had cost two dollars when it was first published). I explained that I hardly ever buy the books of single poets, and prefer anthologies, but had felt compelled to get his book when I read him in Young Poets of 1965. I larded on the compliments, hoping he would fail to notice that I was not buying his most current book (I had only six dollars and twelve cents in my wallet—not much wiggle room). He was gracious, and signed it: “With best wishes to Joe Weil, a really interesting, and skillfully droll poet.” Here is a poem I enjoy from that book called, “Go Away:”
Go away, go away, and as soon as you come back
Be something better.
For example a shell– one that has lain for days on the edge of a
beach, overturned and sparkling, light captured on an edge,
An oak-leaf-like cluster of sunlight that filters through elm
An earring bobbing like a float at high tide, against the neck of
somebody very sweet,
A weather beaten, moth eaten coverlet,
Or the arrows on the arm of a diving suit or a space suit
where to thrust through the arms.
Think: in reference to the mainstream of human desires and
What would you know now, if you briefly waved goodbye to the
Go away, go away Michael Benedikt and come back as something better: for example, one of your poems. Go—and whisper to roses.
Episode 8 of Poetry Fix now available.
Episode 7 of Poetry Fix: Robert Frosts’s “Once by the Pacific.”
I hope you’ve been watching Mary Karr and Chris Robinson’s excellent Poetry Fix YouTube Series. It’s the perfect-sized portion of poetry and comment to get you thinking, your poetry juices flowing. Mary Karr is also a great reader/interpreter of the various poems.
I just watched Episode 5 on Louise Gluck’s poem “Mock Orange.” I don’t often remember my first encounter with a poem or poet, but I distinctly remember reading Gluck for the very first time (her book The Seven Ages, and then later Ararat, perhaps my favorite). The power of her voice was overwhelming, and after I got out of my “try to sound like T.S. Eliot phase” I progressed into a “try to sound like Louise Gluck phase.”
Primarily, I tried to imitate Gluck’s minimalism. Minimalist art in general is one of those things that makes people stare in confusion for a few moments before moving on (especially public minimalist art). It seems potent, but also has a sort of inert stoicism. It draws you in by a straightforward opacity. Where exactly, though, does the power lie if there is literally nothing to hang a “message” on? As you might expect, its power lies in the fact that it says so little. Let me explain.
There is a minimalist sculpture I have in mind. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find it on Google image…so I shall have to describe it. It was three parallel blocks that leaned to the right about 30 degrees. That was it. My first impulse was to scoff. But I stared at it, intent to figure it out.
And I stared some more.
Eventually in frustration I slumped my head in my hand (it so happened) at about 30 degrees to the right. Suddenly, I realized that these three columns were not holding a message in and of themselves, but trying only to get me to tilt my head to the right at about 30 degrees. Then I looked behind the columns at the background and realized that I was seeing things from a different perspective: what the world would look like when your head was tilted at 30 degrees.
Minimalism is not about powerful messages about the nihilism or poverty of the human condition (though it’s certainly easy to think so!). Instead, minimalist art creates a framework through which you view the world. It gives you the bones of the skeleton and then you fill out the flesh. But watch out! The minimalist artist still controls the bones (and hence the body that you have put on them). Minimalism is as silent as the movie frame.
Anyhow, if you haven’t watched the first 6 episodes yet, check it out. It’s poetry for the average human!
I spoke of ontology before, the significance of being that stems from a poem, but there are minor poems, small triumphs of imagery, of rhythm, or beauty that make us think: “Why am I so concerned with truth or significance? Right now, my lover is asleep, and the venetian blinds are leaving their shadow across her face, and I wish I could stay here. Fuck Tolstoy. Fuck King Lear. I want to kiss her nose.”
Well, maybe others just take everything that makes life bearable for granted, or maybe they use this moment to consider how, in sleep, a lover may as well be a tree—that there is a certain terrifying aspect to the lover unconscious and unaware of, well, of me! I’ve had girlfriends wake me up because they were lonely. Sometimes, I don’t mind, especially if we start making out again. But sometimes it annoys me. None of this will win me a Nobel prize. But what I remember about Anna is not the plight of very rich noblewomen in 1870′s Russia; I remember the moment when Count Vronski breaks his horse’s back, or when Oblonski (Steve to his friends) wakes at the beginning from a very pleasant dream (dancing decanters with pretty legs, and opera) to realize he and his wife, Dolly are on the outs because he’s been schtupping the children’s governess.
I remember the details. I also mis-remember them, an equally wonderful thing, since what we mis-remember can be so vivid. I know people who misremember whole relationships, and, once their sour husband is dead, they get weepy eyed over finding an unmatched sock of his tucked away in a drawer. We do not mis-remember concepts or attitudes, or “truths” because they are the rather rickety frame on which we dab the mud of our memories and false impressions, and make for that doomed hut we call consciousness. As a friend of mine says: “caress the details, the divine details.”
The ontology of some poems is as follows: to capture, in however full a way, the precise, oh so precise feel of pussy williow against your neck the last time you saw Vanya, who spun about, and struck the soft spring ground with a stick, and then vanished into her career, her resume, the lie of just the facts which can never, never summon forth the quickened pulse, the despair of knowing you would not see her again and that she probably married some guy who never noticed anything except that he thought he ought to. Poets remind us of the obvious, the glorious obvious that we have forgotten while we were busy “living” our “meaningful” lives.
If you write enough poems that capture such a moment, you will be considered a minor poet, but we should investigate this term minor: rather than meaning less than great, it can mean great in a small, and specific way. Consider this Robert Herrick gem:
Feign would I kiss my Julia’s dainty leg
which is as white and hairless as an egg.”
In our humorless, and supposedly explicit (though not at all erotic) culture, we have lost the gift perhaps of appreciating such exquisite, and mincing desires.
I am worried. I am worried that people are out there having sex and never noticing what a leg feels like against their leg. What kind of world is that? Minor my ass. That’s the whole of the sky! It’s as important as believing in God, since God is in the details—not the maxims.
This brings me to truck out one of my old time favorite “minor” poems, “The Base Stealer” by Robert Francis. Besides the five senses, there is also kinetic imagery—those combinations of words that create a certain sense of movement in a poem, that describe movement. Rilke has a great kinetic image in his poem about the gazelle (Look it up on line. It’s there, and if you can tell me what that kinetic image is, I’ll give you ten extra credit points). Francis is the greatest minor poet America produced. Donald Justice comes close, and May Swenson gives both a run for their money. And Robert Haydn ain’t no slouch, either, (Those Winter Sundays may be the best sonnet written by An American poet in the 20th century). But, poem for poem, you don’t get more perfect than Francis. His work makes me so ashamed of everything I’ve ever written. This is the best depiction of a man stealing a base ever. It is also the best use of kinetic imagery I know, And look what he does with the word, delicate, in the last line!
The Base Stealer
Poised between going on and back, pulled
both ways taut like a tightrope-walker,
finger tips pointing the opposites,
Now bouncing tip toe like a dropped ball
Or a kid skipping rope, come on, come on,
running a scattering of steps sideways,
How he teeters, skitters, tingles, teases,
taunts them, hovers like an ecstatic bird,
He’s only flirting, crowd him, crowd him,
Delicate, delicate, delicate, delicate—now!
Francis uses gerunds (ings) properly—to create suspense, to create tension. The word delicate has a certain bounce to it—a perfect sense of bounce. It sounds like its meaning: ready to burst or break. “Come on, come on” in line five gives a sense that anticipating the runner’s break for second is becoming sheer torture. You don’t have to like or even know baseball to appreciate this. If you have never seen a ball player get ready to steal, or threaten to steal, watch a video on YouTube, and you will see the triumph of kinetic accuracy this poem happens to be. And notice how he uses his T sounds! The hard T sound appears in almost every line, sometimes as the initial sound of the word (taut, tightrope, tip toe, teeters, tingles, teases, taunts) and also in medial or terminal positions (between, taut, pointing, opposites, scattering, steps, skitters, ecstatic, delicate). It’s an essay on how to use -ings, and how to thread a sound through a poem for maximum effect. It’s a minor masterpiece, and I do not use minor in a demeaning way. Literary theorists use literature as an excuse for ontological truths (or gender, or sexual, or identity issues). This is a legitimate way to ransack texts, but it will not teach you how to write. Ontology begins with detail selection—in terms of word choice, verbal relationships, rhythm. A theorist wouldn’t know what to do with this poem, unless the theorist started to write a book on kinetics in terms of verbal constructs and the cultural bias of admiring athletes as per one’s gender, or class. Minor may only mean a theorist can’t find much to theorize about. Now Herricks little couplet could be an example of the “objectification” of a woman’s body parts. But suppose we get rid of all appreciation of the body in poems… have we not turned a human being into an “idea” then—a political or theoretical entity. I don’t know. But our culture is terrified of details. All governments and religions are terrified of details, especially when they temporarily re-route or short circuit “general” ideas. Power depends on symbols we don’t really think about—on orienting us towards the automatic. There is no more revolutionary act in poetry than to see or depict something from a fresh point of view, to liberate it from the graveyard of received ideas. “Make it new,” said the early modernists. I would qualify that statement to read: “make it obvious, and better still, makes us startled by the obvious.”
Episode 6 of Poetry Fix. Miroslav Holub’s “Ode to Joy.”
In a recent post, I based a discussion about the relationship between the poetic line and print culture on some of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas. I was recently listening to the below lecture by McLuhan and he discussed the effects of the phonetic alphabet. He said that the phonetic alphabet divorced the visual sense from the other senses by emphasizing it above the others. This separation creates the possibility of linearity, the space for “logicians, analysts, classifiers, the individualist pattern of Greek life.” The phoenecian alphabet made possible Euclid, who revealed that visual space is continuous and connected and homogeneous and static. All the other spaces created by the other senses–of touch, acoustics, kinesthesial–all these other senses are discontinuous, resonant and dynamic.” He gives an interesting example to demonstrate this. A boy is on his first flight and asks his dad, “When do we get small?” The “canopy” of the plane limits the field of vision, creates a static environment. The moment a man with a parachute jumps out of the plane, he feels one inch tall.
When McLuhan described linearity (I think he actually used the term lineality…not sure if there’s a difference? Spell check doesn’t recognize the latter, if that means anything!), I couldn’t help but think about the poetic line and the way it is changing. As print culture (and hence the divorce made by the phonetic alphabet) ends, we move from the line, back to the field, back to non-linear, acoustic space.
In my experience, poetry workshops speak about how a poem looks on the page much more often than how the lines work. Perhaps this is describing the move from line (poetic line) to field (the page)? I think this line (!) of thought might yield much as we think about the developments of modern poetry (beginning with Baudelaire and the symbolists/high modernists), though I don’t have much time to chase it down the rabbit hole at this moment. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comment section.
Watch the video. It’s worth your hour.
Episode 5 of Poetry Fix! Louise Gluck’s “Mock Orange.”
Episode 4 now available on YouTube. Wallace Stevens’s poem “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.”
Mary Karr and I have started a YouTube video series called Poetry Fix. Episode 3 is now available. Twice a week on Mondays and Fridays we’ll upload a 2-4 minute video where we read a poem and briefly discuss it.
We’re trying to pimp poetry for average humans. Any feedback is appreciated. We hope you enjoy. And if you do, consider joining Mary’s facebook page and following her on Twitter (@marykarrlit) for more updates. Also, please forward and spread the word!
Preamble of questions
Is there such a thing as “poetic language?” For example, which of the following words are poetic: Splat, emptiness, selvage, corporatization, loom, sequester, actually, rooster, surmise, demonstrate, fart, interpretation, destiny, tooth, ineluctable, meme, vector, duplicity, comma, consequence, drive, chant, teeter, tumult, fragrant, flounder, forget, suspend? Pick four words of five words from this list you think are most “poetic” and write a four line free verse or rhymed poem, using them.
The shadows of trees are a (loom)
On which you (sequester) your fear,
Containing it through the (ineluctable) (chant) of days,
through the weave, and thread of (tumult).
(Drive) South on routes 1 and 9,
Forsake (corporatization), and
the rotting (tooth) of conscience..
Oh love, (suspend) your adorations until further notice!
The lions (fart) in the sun.
(Fragrant) with longing, I think of them:
Those noble cats, ( teeter) on the heat waves of August,
on the verge of (consequence).
We (flounder), confused by a (vector) of days,
The (duplicity) of math baffles us—
This equation for happiness, this (interpretation)
No tongue can (demonstrate).
What (meme) for despair? (Forget) your body
a (comma) lost in the sentences of night,
Forget how it yearns to a be a semi-colon,
Holding independent but related thoughts together.
Remember the (rooster), the bright red (selvage)
of the East—those feathers cropped towards (emptiness).
The light raises its spurs, where blood (splats )
the wounded windows, (actually), the dawn.
We have used all the words in the list in these six examples. Now suppose we put these six four line stanzas together, using certain “connective” tissue. Let’s see what happens:
Actually, The Dawn
The shadows of trees are a loom
on which you sequester your fear,
containing it through the ineluctable chant of days,
through the weave and thread of tumult.
But drive south on routes 1&9,
forsake corporatization and
the rotting tooth of conscience.
Oh love, suspend your adorations until further notice!
For the lions fart in the sun,
And, fragrant with longing, I think of them.
Those noble cats teeter in the heat waves of August,
on the verge of consequence.
Meanwhile, we flounder, confused by a vector of days.
The duplicity of higher math baffles us—
this equation for happiness, this interpretation
no tongue can demonstrate.
What meme for despair? Forget your body,
a comma lost in the sentences of night.
Forget how it yearns to be a semi-colon,
holding independent but related thoughts together.
Remember, instead, the rooster, the bright red selvage
of the East—those feathers cropped towards emptiness.
Recall how light raises its spurs, where blood splats
On the wounded windows–actually, the dawn.
Now I did not know what I was going to do with these words. I chose four or five words each time to put into one of the six stanzas (quatrains to be more exact). “Actually, the dawn” is the most eccentric phrase in my opinion, So I took that as the title/ It can be read a couple of ways. We could think the speaker of the poem is saying this is the actual dawn. Or We could think the speaker of the poem is correcting an un-spoken error of perception, as in: “No, actually, it’s the dawn.” Actually is a hard word to get into a poem without sounding like a know-it-all. At any rate, I trust in certain liberties of poesis:
1. Metaphor and extended metaphor.
2. Invocation (such as “Let there be light!” We call this an imperative sentence, but it invokes, it wills, it demands—one of the oldest devices of poetry).
3. Animation or personification of the inanimate (light raises its spurs, wounded windows).
I could go on, but, here’s a good question: what the good god hell is the speaker saying? What does he mean? Lyrical poetry can be very dense. It can even be “high gibberish” (a form of ecstatic speech that does not yield readily to a standard meaning, but may create a mood, an orver all emotional or intellectual atmosphere). It does not usually explain. It is not prone to giving information in an overt and easy way. Why does it beat around the bush? Get to it! Say what you mean! Many a person has turned away from lyric poetry because it refuses to do the one thing people seem to insist on: get to the point!
This is exactly where modern poetry wanted poesis to go—to the thing, the object, the point. It wanted a vocabulary stripped of poetic “rhetoric” and overtly flowery speech. At the same time, it wanted the main meat of metaphor: the ability to link utterly different things together and make a connection between them—a paradox of sorts in so far as it was a connection of disconnects (What Rimbaud called a “derangement of the sense”). It wanted to get rid of abstraction: “no ideas but in things.” Actually, it didn’t want to get rid of abstractions (ideas, moods) so much as make abstractions covert. Take this famous poem by Ezra Pound:
At The Station of The Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
This is considered the most famous example of imagist poetry. Note that Pound does not use the verb “are.” In regular metaphor we’d say: The apparition of these faces in the crowd are petals on a wet, black bough. In simile, we’d say: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd are like petals on a wet black bough. Pound allows the reader to make the connection between these disparate things. We don’t look at crowds standing in a subway station or train station and say: Wow… their faces look like flower petals on a wet black bough!” Note Pound uses a semi-colon, a form of punctuation that holds “independent but related clauses together.” Some readers might stress the independence over the relatedness. They might prefer to keep the apparitions of faces in the crowd, and petals on a wet thick bough separate—they might choose not to relate them. Other readers might go to great pains to see the relatedness: it must be raining because the bough is wet and black. Faces blur from a distance in the rain, and become “ghostly” (apparition). What does a crowd and petals share in common? They imply more than one. If things are blurry because of the rain, and you stand at a distance, you might see a similar effect of clusters—pale points of skin against a dark back round, or pale petals against a wet, black bough. IN either case, by removing the “are” Pound gets maximum juice from both the disparity and the linking of these two different orders. Petals are more traditionally “poetic.” Faces in a crowd at a sub way station are not considered a particularly poetic image, and, at that time, such an image would seem the anti-thesis of poetic. Pound has written an essay in these two lines, a great essay on what energy can be created by linking the traditionally “poetic” to the unpoetic. By doing so, he gives a crowd in a subway station the poetic value of flowers, while he makes the way we look at flower petals new. He empowers the new with the old, and the old with the new. Pound got much of this idea from Japanese and Chinese poems, and so we will look at such poems, which do not use metaphor or simile, but, rather, present one thing with a disparate thing to incite the reader to make a connection.
Try using all the words I listed, but first, make six four line stanzas using them at random (not in order). Good luck.
(Note: Picture by Steven Hudson taken from Chicago Art Magazine)
These are my loose translations of a form in Ireland known as “three things there be.” Long before Saint Patrick came, the Irish thought in threes. They were a triune people, with a Celtic triune God, and they, like most Celts, cast spells, and framed their tales by the magic of threes. I have translated some Triads previously translated by the wonderful Irish poet, Thomas Kinsella. I am arrogant after all. *wink*
Wendell Berry recently decided to pull his personal papers from the University of Kentucky, and it got me thinking.
While I know this news story isn’t directly related to the topic of poetry (and this is–loosely–a poetry blog), I can’t help but feel it connects on some other level as we (poets) think about the relationship of our poetry to the world around us. Most of my exposure to the world of modern poetry has taken place through the university system. And while I know there are many poets writing and thriving outside the university system, it seems to me that the relationship of modern poetry is hopelessly enmeshed with our modern universities. Let’s admit it, the modern university (as well as the various foundations, titles, etc.) gives us poets the prestige we desperately desire. Would we be satisfied reading in bars the rest of our lives? Some of us would, but many of us would feel cheated. We want, as it were, to be “overheard.”
Most modern universities are “research universities.” I find even explicitly “liberal arts” universities cast their value in scientific terms. If you’ve been to a grad conference recently, you know as well as I do that academics dutifully toils away in a very narrow slices of their field, increasing knowledge (wherever that is stored…), writing books, gaining tenure. The language of conferences and academic panels has become scientific, calculated, professional. When you are asked about your studies, you must cast it in “pitch” it, so as to demonstrate the entrepreneurial value.
How much of this has seeped into the world of modern poetry?
Does the modern university ennoble (if I may use such an unfashionable word!) those of us (I’m still there!) who dwell in its halls? Consider Berry’s excoriation of the “research university”:
At a 2007 commencement address at Bellarmine University, Berry railed against “the great and the would-be-great ‘research universities.’ These gigantic institutions, increasingly formed upon the ‘industrial model,’ no longer make even the pretense of preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity. … The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirely determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.”
There is little doubt also that the modern university is, as one thinker put it, “the handmaiden of the military-government-industrial complex.” Certainly the poet can be the voice of conscience on the campus, but at what cost? Berry has the strength of his convictions (and the status to sustain them).
Then again, he also has a farm if it all goes to hell.