How does one choose which poem should be first in a manuscript? Ben Lerner’s new book, Mean Free Path, begins with something resembling a love poem. Joshua Beckman’s latest book, Take It, which I’ve been enjoying lately (click here to see the Believer’s review), uses a kind of apostrophe:
Dear Angry Mob,
Oak Wood Trail is closed to you. We
feel it unnecessary to defend our position,
for we have always thought of ourselves
(and rightly, I venture) as a haven for
those seeking a quiet and solitary
contemplation. We are truly sorry
for the inconvenience….
This is fairly witty–simply to put a short little charmer of a poem out front to ease the reader in–but it also overdetermines my reading of the first few pieces that follow. Then again, where else could such a poem go but at the beginning? I’m at a loss.
Today’s question: How should books begin?
I. What Do People Do?
I’d caught glimpses of them before. Maybe I’d been up very late and into the morning, taking the Brooklyn-bound train from Manhattan and had seen them standing with briefcases on platforms waiting for trains. Maybe I woke bright and early for my hangover, craving Naked Juice and sparkling water from the corner bodega. Maybe I had wild notions of pretending I had a nine-to-five writing schedule so that there would be an end to the thankless work.
They all walked in the same direction with a bounce in their step and cups of coffee in their hands. Because of them, the A.M. New York and Metro New York dispensers that had been magically filled sometime during the night were depleted by noon. Because of them, the trains in the evening were as crowded as summer hives.
Turns out, there’s this whole community of human beings who wake up in the morning, go to work, eat lunch and return home at around five o’clock. Midday, they people-watch while they lunch, they shop and they make transactions at ATMs. Late afternoon, they retreat to the fluorescent cocoons of their offices, and in the evening, like migratory creatures in early spring, they emerge and travel back where they came from, for a run, a shower, dinner and maybe a walk with the dog.
II. When Will It End?
My first week of full-time work, afflicted with existential motion sickness, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and lunchtime was designated solely for weeping, as was the brief window before work, as were the hours following, until, exhausted I dropped off into an uneasy half-sleep. On the third morning before work, caught in the murmurous haunt of commuters, I sat almost doubled over in a chair in Starbucks waiting for the barista to call out my $4 drink when a man rested his briefcase down on the bench beside mine. I was always slightly in the way of these people who moved through space and daylight with the certainty of lethal wasps. I made a motion to shift my tenuously held together waif of a body so as to avoid crowding the man’s hefty briefcase. The man had on a neat tie and a friendly face and motioned to me that I was fine where I was, saying, “You just look so comfortable.”
My stomach turned and my vision blurred as my most recent anxiety attack subsided. How I could have looked at all comfortable, I have no idea, though I suppose mild catatonia could be mistaken for deep repose.
In the window overlooking 17th Street, a mix of cold rain and sleet fell. The wasps, who had covered themselves with parkas and umbrellas and husk-like hoods, zipped furiously by.
“When will it end?” I heard. The businessman was looking at me.
He was continuing the interaction we had tentatively established. This is what people do, I thought, in the mornings before work while waiting in latte lines. When will it end?…When will it end?…Which thing?
I looked at him. “Which thing?” I said.
The businessman laughed. I made the businessman laugh. He replied, with a shrug, “The weather, the economy, everything….”
Then I laughed.
There was a pause. The rain and sleet had turned to only rain and was still falling. He continued, “But we have offices on the square, so when we get depressed, we can go for a walk.”
III. Is it really that simple?
I get coffee. I go to work. In the afternoon, I go for a walk.
IV. But What Would Herman Melville Say?
“Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid,–what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!”
V. Why Write?
MFA programs create a set of circumstances that one does not find anywhere else. You have money (lent or granted, most of which you give away to the institution who accepted you), you have a place to live, you have people to talk to who supposedly care about what you care about. This cushy existence might make you think, “How can anyone write—or even exist—without these circumstances granted?” This anomalistic life can cause a web of if-then theorizing about living: If I have a job, I won’t be able to write. If something is expected of me, I won’t do be able to do what isn’t—and only in graduate school will writing be truly expected of you specifically (and maybe not even then). Some programs even go so far as to hold events with titles like “Life After the MFA,” during which a panel of survivors either perpetuate or crush delusions of grandeur.
“The world is ugly, / And the people are sad,” Wallace Stevens writes. It is ugly. The people are sad. How clarifying, then, to remember what the world is and then go from there, because, isn’t the condition of the world and our condition in the world why (if there is a why) any of us are trying to write in the first place?
Before I post my regularly scheduled post, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I give you an excerpt from James Joyce’s “The Dead.”
Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terracotta and the salmonpink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.
He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.
Sunday evening I encountered this artifact created out of the weekend’s leftovers. I had been showing family around who had never been nyc before. That meant three miserable days of walking in the rain while forcing myself to be cheerful. This stream or river or rainbow or spittle-barf of umbrellas was an affirmation to me of whats most at stake in being conscious, (which could be described very quickly, I guess, as a reaction). Whoever made this left no trace of themselves nor stuck around to explain. Less is almost always more. I love you, whoever made this, for that.
If I am anything at all, I am a vaudevillian. Considering that vaudville has been stone dead the last 80 years, that’s a hard thing to be, but wouldn’t you want to attend a reading where, first, someone read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” beautifully, followed by a white poodle jumping through a fiery hula hoop, then a great tap dancer, and then a good torch singer doing “Strange Fruit,” topped off by a rousing version of Etheridge Knight’s “All Fucked Up”? Hell, I would, and this either means I have no aesthetic boundaries whatsoever, or that I prefer, during the course of performance, to do what Ashbery does in a poem: let the flow take me where it will, live in the process and variety of consciousness rather than in some fully set and determined structure. Now it would be even more fun if the poodle held the fiery hula hoop between its paws while the human jumped through, but why quibble?
I am making a point here. At least, I think I am. If the poodle act was done superbly, as most vaudeville acts were, if it was the end result of months and years on the road, honing the act, then I don’t see why it would be any less valuable than a good poem (especially if the human jumped through the hoop). Poems are made out of words, but poesis is made out of a chemical compound of ecstasy and precision. It need not be ecstatic, nor precise, but a synthesis of those qualities is important. By ecstacy I mean the entire spectrum between being good at and enjoying the writing and presenting of poems, and the sort of possessed by the gods kind of inspiration Plato feared. By precision, I mean something that must be done “just so.” If the poodle wavers in her resolve and does not hold the fiery hula hoop at the right angle, the human might go up in flames. This is the secret and mystery of presence: a good tenor goes dangerously to the top of his range. We are waiting for him to fail. He does not fail: wallah! ecstacy with precision!
Most poetry readings are boring these days because we do something absurd: the poet pretends not to be performing. They read in a lack luster voice, often intentionally so. The audience is there to be “present,”—but at what rite? Certainly not the rite of ecstacy merging with precision to become poesis. The rite is called identification: I am a well-credentialed and leading poet, reading to you. You are students in an M.F.A. program performing a snob’s version of cannibalism. By being in my presence (or non-presence) you are hoping to become what I am: a leading poet reading before a group of grad students. We do not clap. We do not do what the vulgar people do. We are all intelligent. We are all “serious.” Look at us! In our midst, a cough becomes significant. At the end, we may clap “warmly.” This is sad.
I hate it. I look for attractive faces and bodies in the audience. I moan and ooh when the audience moans and ooh’s because I don’t want to be left out. I notice the beautiful girl who is dangling one shoe from her well arched foot. I want her. She will never be mine. She will get naked and procreate with a boy who translates Wordsworth’s The Prelude into Bengali. I lament. Where is the fiery hula hoop of the blood?
Don’t think I am advocating that everyone become a spoken word poet. God forbid! That’s just as bad because it is often fake ecstacy, and total imprecision. Spare me your false epiphanies! Spare me your skeltonic rhymes if you don’t know who Skelton is. Spare me!
Let us go back to what I was saying by taking a concrete poet and putting her in an environment I would think showed her to best advantage: Louise Gluck. (Don’t know how to put the dots on her “u”. Sorry.)
I saw Louise Gluck perform at a high school festival about ten years ago. They trotted her out because she was a pulitzer prize winner. They trotted her out because she was a name. They didn’t care about her poetry which, at least in her earlier work, is fantastic. They didn’t care that she was a sort of reserved, introverted, Alfred Hithcock blond. Hitchcock would have known how to present her: Tweed skirt, nice legs (Louise has kiiller legs), a sort of tense primness that calls forth monsters by dint of its introverted splendor. I was on the bill. High school kids like me. I knew my audience. I read , “So Kiss Me Asshole,” a poem of mine. Strangely, Louise liked me, too. She said: “You’re a good performer, and your poems have some merit.” I have been in love with Louise Gluck since I read “Fear of Birth” and re-read it two hundred times in a day when I was 15, and saw her photo on the back of an old anthology. Call it the love of Caliban for that which is fully in opposition to him, yet equally monstrous: she was as introverted, and audience unfriendly as you could get, I am practicly a poodle act, but we talked for a full hour: about Schumann (I told her some of the shorter lyrics she wrote seemed perfect for Schumann, and she agreed). We talked about Oppen (we share this love as well, and she studied with him). She claimed there were too many voices in her poems, and she could never utter them. She hated to read aloud, but the money was good. I said: “Louise, I hate when you read aloud, too. They don’t use you right. They should have you read one short poem, and then someone could play a small Schumann bagatelle, and then you could say something about Oppen, and the importance of mentors, and recite a poem by him from memory. You should always wear tasteful skirts because, I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you have killer legs.” She smiled and said, “Thank you.”
It is a mistake to think poems written for the page can not be effective in performance. They need the right setting, the precision that brings out the ecstacy. A good poetry reading has the same aspects as a good poem. Lately, I want to strangle audiences. They don’t clap (they are all too intelligent to clap, and they are Mark Doty clones .About fifteen years ago, Doty said don’t clap, and they listened to him. Wretches! Theives of joy! They make me sick). I believe in clapping after any poem longer than a page—just to relieve the stress. Of course, short poems are different. I believe poets ought to work hard at finding the right voice and cadence, and way of presenting what they do. And they ought to be honest: it is a performance, a rite, the second you get in front of a room full of people. The ceremony should be performed with the same artistry as the poems—the right ceremony depending on the voice or voices of the poet. Louise Gluck is like Chopin, intimate: she loses something when placed in a room with five hundred high school students. You don’t get her best effects. You lose all the little trills, and false cadences, and intricate passage work. You lose the deceptively simple lines. She is writing splendid cabaret poems. These ought to be presented like good Kurt Weill songs, soft blue light included. To do that to Gluck and those students is detrimental to poetry. It’s far more vulgar and wrong than a poodle act. I heard kids saying: “She’s so boring.” I was angry. A woman with those tremendous poems and great gams should not be misunderstood. I said: “You liked my poems?” They said: “You’re great.” I said: “Louise Gluck is better than me, way better. They screwed you over. You need to hear her the way you would hear soft rain on a roof at night when you’re lonely, and fearful, and your childhood is dead. It can’t all be ‘So Kiss Me Asshole.’ That’s boring, too. Grow up!”
I fell a little in love with Louise that day because she was kind to me, and she didn’t have to be. She opened in the way a Louise Gluck should open: carefully, with a wonderful reticence and accuracy, with an inward passion. I got the performance out of her I was seeking. When she recited Oppen’s Bergen street by heart, she did so with feeling, and perfection. I was lucky.
So what am I getting at? First, poems that are subtle, or small, or call for pianissimo, should not be thrown into a Dylan Thomas frame work. Seeing a good cabret singer singing in a stadium is just wrong. Second, no poet should read before an audience more than fifteen minutes. All good acts are teasers. They should leave you wanting more. Now to the practical, pedagogical purpose of this:
In a class of ten poetry students, only five should be given the poem on paper at any time. Five should be listening, and listening hard. They should jot down a line that seems off, or one that they like. They should consider why exactly they like a line, or why it seems off. They should be honest about the poem’s effect on them. The other five should be giving the poem a close reading, and not just to find its “flaws,” but to first discover its intentions. “ur” poems, your idea of what a poem “should be” ought to be temporarily suspended, and you should enter the poem as it is—it’s intentions, it’s own private triumphs and failures. A good class trains listeners as well as readers. Poems should be memorized so that the language of poems becomes muscle memory. After a few poems, someone ought to tell a joke, or mention something that happened to them during the week. Digression, if it is good, is more to the point than being overly focused. Before a poet appears at the school, their work ought to be handed out. No poet should read for more than fifteen minutes unless it is an audience well versed in poetry. Over reading hurts poetry. It rams poetry down the throats of those who are not yet ready to recieve it. It’s bad fr the business.
There should be snacks, and, if possible, some music. A good piano player or guitarist (no tuning up please) ought to do something—no words, just music. Maybe some Ellington, a little Maple Leaf Rag. And then the poodle, holding the fiery hula hoop between its paws, and the six Hngarian acrobats leaping through the fire, and the girl dangling her she beside a by who is translating Wordsworth’s Prelude… but I digress.
When I was 19 I interned at The Bowery Poetry Club. I can tell you that I didn’t get much done in the way of writing press releases; I was there to experience poetry. I was there to meet the real live poets who didn’t seem to exist on my college campus. I attended a private Long Island university where writing poetry meant none of the business student boys wanted to date me and most of the frat guys thought a stanza was a complicated version of the keg stand. Therefore, at The Bowery Poetry Club, I thought I was going to find what I was looking for: Poets Who Took Poetry Seriously.
Performers with names like Lovely Lazarus and Serenity Divine would grace the stage in mismatched outfits and dirty hair and then proceed to swoon the entire audience with a kind of audible beauty I imagine the Sirens possessed. Their lyrical composition was balanced by emotive arm movements or by their ability to seamlessly weave a poem from Prince’s When Doves Cry. There was a kind of competition amongst these poets usually noted amongst athletes. The audience scored each performer on a scale of 1 to 10 and reigning champs not only had bragging rights but word-of-mouth-fame.
While these performers were certainly impressive, and the ability to memorize a fifteen-minute performance can undoubtedly be envied, I soon realized that this group of poets were really, performers. It wasn’t that performing their work automatically made them more performer and less poet. It was that the sole purpose of their poetry was to be heard. It was poetry intent on being sung, enhanced with jumping and hip-jutting and physical rigor. It was my first live introduction to slam poetry and the incredible presence of Bob Holman’s master performers. However, I realized very quickly, that while I could envy the ability of any poet who could make an audience both cry and laugh, the purpose of my recitation and reading would not be supported by numerical scores or competitive bravado. I didn’t see myself as that kind of poet—one who read with entertainment in mind.
Fast forward about five years later to a classroom at The New School where the late Liam Rector sat before us in a room pungent with his last cigarette break. He looked regal in his thick framed glasses, his hand stroking his chin as he demanded an answer: “Are you going to make it to your 25th year?” The 25th year was Rector’s figurative marker for a poet’s success. Basically, if we didn’t reach that 25th year, we wouldn’t become Poets For Life. Aside from Rector’s ability to shake the very fear of poetry into his young pupils, he also cultivated a level of respect from us that resided in his ability to quote, recite and often assume the voices of Gunn, Larkin, Yeats, Sexton, Keats, Wordsworth and others that he mentioned too quickly for us to write them down. This ability was part of Rector’s lure. We often left class dizzy with names, lines, and an ever growing list of books we had to read if we were ever going to be the kind of poets he would call Poets. At one point, this combination of my departure from the slam poets I observed as a teenager and now the notion that a serious poet worthy of being a poet had to be able to quote 100 or more “important poets” cultured an anxiety that made me shun the idea of memorization completely. Truthfully, I felt I was incapable of memorizing a poem and knowing it so well that one would be unable to tell where I began and the poem ended. The very idea numbed me. I felt the page was where my words belonged and I would read my poems for people to hear them, sure, but it would not become a kind of game like the competitive events at The Bowery Poetry Club. I suppose I had unknowingly resigned myself to the category of poets that Do Not Memorize. I realize now, this fear was part of being a green, insecure graduate student and also about being under the spell of Liam Rector—a spell that has transfixed all of us who were among the very last group of students he taught.
Fast-forward again to 2010. I give a reading at this beautiful wine shop in Brooklyn. I recite, from memory, a few sections of a longer poem. I proceed to read newer poems that are not memorized, but I can give three or four lines without glancing down. I know the poems. The poems know me. I don’t feel a separation between the words and my page and my body. There is something physical about the way these specific poems ask to be read. I didn’t choose this, they chose. Several people approach me at the end of the reading. They want to know how long it took me to memorize, how I chose which poems I would recite. Later, I’m inundated with fellow poets who talk about how they cannot memorize their poems and how it is just so hard to do, etc. I’m told that reading my poems from memory was “kind of badass.” I immediately think of Liam Rector and I suppose that for a moment or two, I feel like a Badass Poet.
Fast forward yet again a few weeks later. I read some of the same poems in a lovely coffee shop. One fellow poet compliments my reading and she says that she likes how they read like a monologue. A stranger tells me it was his favorite part of the reading. Later in the reading, James Copeland reads from his new chapbook, Why I Steal and for one poem only, he completely leaves the page. His eyes click with the audience and from memory he speaks to us. He isn’t even necessarily reciting the poem but talking to all of us as we recline in our little green chairs. The hazy moment of hearing the third poet of the night is now magical and memorable. My non-poet friends tell me that it is their favorite poem of Copeland’s. I too, agree. As Copeland continues, the poem lifts into the air and we can see it and touch it and we understand something about Copeland’s poems. There is a connectivity, a sincere quality that becomes apparent when he recites this one poem: the poem is human.
Obviously, I have been thinking about memorization a lot. A lot. I have always analyzed the way people read, their inflection, their tone. I pay attention to accents, to poets who read in a voice other than the one that they speak with and I like knowing that a poet knows his or her work so well that they feel it is necessary to give the poem the kind of life it wouldn’t have if it stayed locked in a line or inside of a book. I am curious about whether or not they pace their living room, reading the poems over and over so they can hear them aloud, so they can listen to what the poems want to do or how they should change.
Of course, there are poems I will never read aloud—they are too cumbersome in my mouth or their structure is complicated and only suited to burden the eye. There are poems that are written with an audible voice in my head and these are surely, the ones that find a sound stage. I have to add that I really enjoy reading. When I stand at the podium, sails lift inside of me. The Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria are off inside of my limbs and each poem is a new America. A nervous (sometimes very nervous) excitement builds until it finds itself in a new world. There is something familiar about reading the poem aloud—perhaps because I have done so many times. There is also the thrill of foreign discovery: moments the audience laughs when I didn’t expect them to or lines that hang in the air long enough for people to recite them back to me at the end. I often find myself feeling just as scintillated when I see someone recite his or her own work.
So why all of this obsessive thinking about the recitation of memorized poems? Many of you may feel that yes, well, knowing one’s work is part of a being a poet—a way of making the work, “one’s own.” The truth is that a friend and fellow poet and I got into a slightly heated (on my part) debate. He said that he didn’t like when people recited their work; it made him nervous. He liked a fellow poet’s recitation the least of one particular reading, which I only assumed, was also what he hated about mine. He said that finding recitation favorable was “a matter of taste” and that the time one spends time memorizing could be the time one spent writing. This is one of those moments when I realize that you, dear reader, may align yourself with the enemy and say, well yes it is a waste of time! Yes, one could be writing new poems instead of memorizing. However, what you need to realize (and probably already know) is that for every ten poems you write, one or two will be “good.” I say, you could have spent the time writing those crappy poems, memorizing the one or two good poems.
In short, My Friend Against Memorization believes that memorizing one’s poems and reciting them from memory at a reading is a waste of time, if not a little pretentious. Given my love of arguing, and the challenge (because it truly is a personal challenge) of memorizing one’s work, I made this a personal battle. I stated that for one, his poems were not the kind of poems that begged to be memorized and given flight by the reader’s eye contact and tone. He agreed. I offered this notion as a small white flag and suggested that perhaps this was why he felt so beleaguered by memorization. I also pointed out that some poems lie flat on the page but when spoken, are infused with a gorgeous rage that is confirmed on the faces of the people listening. Most poets I know are in awe of other poets who read from memory. So why does my friend disagree so wholeheartedly? Is there something I am missing? Am I caught up in the glam of performing? (I am a Leo, after all…)
I think part of the answer lies in the way we accept confrontation. Rector’s knowledge was intimidating to a young graduate student. However, his delivery also enforced a power that few recognize until they are faced with it. I’d like to think of the audience like the soon-to-be-prey of a rattlesnake or a deer in the headlights of a clattering car that will not have time to move. We are all shaken, even if just a little bit, by something coming head on. When a poet is at the podium, staring at you, reading a piece of work, there is no red cape. You can look away, but you feel that poet’s eyes on you like a bull charging. In a memorized poetry reading the tauromachy becomes human. It is going to draw an opinion from the crowd and that opinion is based on how one feels about being taken and swept up into someone else’s world. This isn’t to say that if you aren’t impressed by the memorization of a poem that there is something wrong with you or that you avoid confrontation or conflict. But I do think, that if you can’t find something innate, something diamond and startling about a poet who delivers a poem, eyes locked to the audience, like a line drive to the heart, that you are missing one of the targets of poetry itself. Why keep all of it on the page? Why not give yourself up to the poem entirely?
Poetry began in the mouth. It was given by the voice as a gift. Today we write on Macs and Dells and print out a stark white sheet with little black letters on it and these letters spell something and that something is read—silently or aloud. I think that there are poems that can exist and be resonate if only seen and read silently. I’ve seen Joshua Beckman read directly from the page and feel just as inspired as when Carolyn Forche recites The Colonel. But I also believe that hearing a poet recite a piece from memory is like watching a plane take off from the runway.
You know that both poet and poem are connected, but you also need to see and hear the poem delivered completely away from the page, to know it can fly. I felt this way when I heard Eileen Myles read. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Sorry, Tree before, but hearing her tone injected a fire into me that didn’t exist in the private experience of me and the page alone. Hearing her recite pieces of the book, hearing her give not only her voice but the poem to us, cemented the experience. This experience, I believe, is an experience. When you go to hear live music, you want to feel what the musician is singing. Of course some musician’s lyrics stand alone, but most require the live presentation to sustain a following. All of us are a little bit Amelia Earhart—we stand in the field and wait for that plane to soar over us just as we sit at a reading and pray not to be bored. When a writer is reciting from memory, I pay attention a little more and I’m less inclined to let the words slip in and out of me as fast as they are spoken.
The topic of memorizing other poet’s poems is one that I am preparing to delve into and I assure you, that if you stay tuned, I can offer more insight into what is a kind of craft—just as nostalgic as making a book by hand. Poets Who Memorize the work of “classic” and contemporary poets are like physicists who internalize the periodic table or pilots who know the migration of all the birds on their flight path. I have several friends who try to memorize another poet’s poem each week. I regard them with mixed jealousy and respect. I think if we want to be responsible writers, we should commit to knowing a few pieces that live inside of us, not only in a book. The truth is, it IS difficult to memorize many of the nuances in a poem, especially ones that are wrought with complicated enjambment. Therefore, by accepting the challenge, you can only further the ownership of each poem you write.
This weekend I had the pleasure of hearing Heather Christle read from her debut book, The Difficult Farm. She sat at the microphone and proceeded to recite—Every. Single. Poem. It wasn’t just the fact that Christle was a Poet Who Memorized, it was that the poems became ours too. She read in a slightly monotone voice, a slight smile on her face. It complemented, if not elevated, her work. Mid-reading, I messaged My Friend Against Memorization, who is also a huge fan of Christle’s, just to let him know that one his favorite poets could be scratched off the list of Poets Who Have Taste. Just to let him know that, you know, maybe I was just a little bit right about something. He texted me back: Reynolds-1, Me-0.
In a photograph of my father’s Rhode Island,
His home describes itself in tactile, sculptural terms.
A well looms. Once, I stared the photo down
Till I could picture it—till the clapboard
And shingles lay like any focused thought
Against a pure white backdrop. Now
It was an idealized beauty treated as a vision,
But an abstraction unquiet in its given body—
Insistant, puritanical & aware of its materials
And heft—stolid and wooden. The roof joists
Turn up, but return earthward decisively
Like a check-mark upside-down.
We staked it out when I ﬁrst saw New England.
My father pointed, Look at the well, it’s gone.
Posted in tandem with www.scatteredrhymes.com
Pick it up.
Consider it a machine.
Put it down.
Remember you need it.
Go back to where you left it.
Airport terminal, donut shop
seventh grade. Are you scared?
It’s ok. So am I.
Take a wet rag. Put it on your head.
Let’s retrace your steps.
Do you love your wife?
Is she made of dolphins?
I love my fucking life.
Even my secrets
and the terrible things I’ve done.
They’re like small smooth stones
in a green plastic bottle
with no label. What were we doing?
Driving down a long dark street?
Does it feel exactly right?
Little fist that pumps the blood.
The flicker in your empty.
We go out for drinks and attack a dumpster. D takes off his pants and tries to have sex with J. My lighter is busted. I run to catch the 22. “The next step is to think like Brian.” D escapes through the kitchen. I forget to lock up the knives. Her drawer is full of strawberry condoms. I look for the green bunny poem. She drops me down the building’s side. It’s sober day. Thanks for coming to the show. There is no origin. Your emails wince. I wish they were something else, not alone. J calls me shitface with tears in his eyes. We meet at 8 and grab a bite to eat. Someone says my name is Booth. She gives me my third drink for free. Z laughs whenever a kid starts a fight. There isn’t enough sex to go around. “I can’t believe they killed-off Bodie.” I manage to see three shows a week. I’ve decided to stop sleeping you. It’s a bag of baseball bats I hand the kids. Most of the day is spent on the floor. I never open the envelope marked C. I walk down Valencia over a grate.
When Time and Space Collapse Return This Poem to its Source
Do you ever think about love?
I believe love is Michael Burkard.
There are many disturbing facts
about the nature of reality. Burkard
takes the L to Lorimer St. and transfers
to the G. He is meeting friends for dinner.
All matter is just empty space revolving
around a pinhead of energy growing
more and more tired each moment.
Sadness is a kind of purity that Michael
Burkard uses to drain the darkness
from his fingertips. When droplets of rain
fall from the branches into the water
below it creates concentric ripples moving
outward into everything and cannot be stopped.
Michael Burkard is thinking about this poem
he won’t write until seventeen hours
in the future, while he sits alone in his apartment
feeling like a ghost. Purple light passes
through curtain after curtain until it reaches
the retina and escapes. Michael Burkard
is eating spaghetti with friends. He is rewriting
a line of poetry again and again in his head.
He is writing the Selected Poems of Michael Burkard.
Links to things mentioned in the interview; they will all open in a new tab so you can indiscriminately click without interrupting the show:
This is not my first year of teaching high school English, but it is my first year teaching at one of Portland, Oregon’s lowest-achieving high schools. There is much to say about my students’ backgrounds that might explain their sub-standard reading and writing: they come from a variety of places, including the mountains of Southeast Asia, refugee camps in Africa, former Soviet republics, Pacific Islands, etc; the neighborhood culture is, in general, one of generational poverty, which means that many students lack good role models and education-minded guardians at home (or they transfer to other schools in the district, as more than half of the neighborhood’s students have done based on their No Child Left Behind right to attend successful schools); a lack of steady educational funding and organizational constitution has created tremendous instability in this particular school in recent years; and this list of could go on forever.
But I’m not writing to regale you about the challenges of public education in North Portland. What I’m interested in today is how writers think about and cash in on unintended slips in language. For example, my ninth grade students recently wrote essays about a novel in which a character wakes up from a coma. In every third paper, however, I found this character waking up from a “comma,” and immediately wondered if I myself could capitalize on their typo by using it in a poem. This reminded me of hearing Matthew Zapruder talk to a gathering of graduate poetry students last year (myself among them) about his process in writing one of his books.
First, Zapruder told us, he had the romantic notion to write the whole thing on a typewriter. Second, he told us that when he made an error, he let the typo remain in place of the consciously intended word, with the rationale that typos plumb the depths of our consciousness and contemporary word processing suppresses or erases evidence of our subconscious language about the world. Zapruder seemed to feel that his typos weren’t missteps, but expressed what he perhaps truly, if only deep within, was trying to say.
Clearly, this is not what was happening in my students’ papers. The fact is, bless their hearts, some of them do not appear to know that “coma” and “comma” are different words. This suggests that Zapruder’s approach could, in the wrong hands, lead to automatic writing—which of course points to the experiments of Gertrude Stein and a whole host of early 20th Century ideas about the structures of our minds, identities, the occult, and language. I’m dubious about this as a process for writing good poetry, despite the scant mathematical possibility of a hypothetical monkey, given enough time and a typewriter, randomly recreating the works of William Shakespeare, and/or all of the “Chicken Soup for the [insert your typo here] Soul” books, and/or Matthew Zapruder’s poems (which I admire), and so on.
Yet this approach to writing also reminds me of the classical notion of divine-inspired artistry. In a more positive light, Zapruder’s method invites a muse, disguised as Accident, to write his poems. Per my own romantic leanings, I’m far more willing to accept this as an approach to making poetry. The poet, in this schema, is conscious of his or her agency as a conduit for divine creation. Mebdh McGuckian’s wonderful poetry springs to my mind here, as I long ago heard her use the word “vatic” to describe her process. Yet in this same discussion McGuckian was quick to mention that she remains highly conscious about words and their apt usage—she asserted that you only get to use some words once, and then never again. The word “fontanelle” was the example she gave as one that she never will be able to use twice, even if her subconscious or muse might will it. One’s ability thus to revise, to assert his or her consciousness on the muse’s inspiration, is required. The Ancient Greeks themselves were well aware that some people were better “conduits” for poetry than others.
Lastly, as a final thought on accident and inspiration, my students’ coma/comma confusion also reminded me of a poem by Stephen Dunn. “His Town,” which appears in Different Hours (which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize), bears the epigraph: “The town was in the mists of chaos. –A student’s typo,” and the first stanza reads:
He wasn’t surprised. What town wasn’t?
Everywhere the mists of property, the mists
of language. Every Main Street he’d known
shrouded in itself. The mist-filled churches
and the mist-filled stores in strange collusion.
For Dunn, accident is supple—a point of possible redirection from we expected or intended to go. In his student’s error he finds not a rueful mistake but a useful “mist.” And perhaps this is a clue about how to think about accident and inspiration. When lucky, our mistakes may become mists. We may credit the divine or the murky depths of ourselves for such slips, or we can acknowledge the great mistiness of where everything comes from, including our mistakes. For in the end, concern for from whence the products of our lives spring might amount to a bit of pedantic frippery—psychology, spirituality, whatever. Yet somewhere, someone will always be waking from or slipping into a “comma,” including the best educated, the most grammatically and syntactically refined of us. We should remember to thank our proverbial gods for this.
Life consists of propositions about life.
A certain esteemed professor requires that those enrolled in his poetry workshop meet with him in his downtown studio apartment, right off Washington Square.
Once inside, the student hands over a few poems and watches the professor–clipboard in one hand, red pen in the other–scrutinize every word of every line of every stanza of each poem.
At the end of the hour, the student will rise from the couch, the professor will rise from his chair, a small ancient French bulldog that has since settled, drooled and snored on either available lap (usually the student’s) will remove himself begrudgingly and resituate his arthritic corporeal freight on the floor, and fall back asleep. The student receives his or her scarred poems, exits the apartment, takes the elevator downstairs, crosses the courtyard, goes through a stone tunnel, and passes through the tall iron gate onto Waverly Place.
That is, believe me, the easy part.
Upon arrival for the appointment, the student would stand outside the gate. He or she would locate the correct code and buzz the professor. A corresponding buzz would sound. But nothing happened. The gate, unwavering, would not open.
The student would have, then, three options:
1) Buzz again, knowing that each additional buzz directly corresponded to the professors heightened annoyance level.
2) Wait for a resident of the building to pass through the gate, then sneak in behind them.
Let me take a moment to reproduce here the beginning of Kafka’s “Before the Law”:
Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. ‘It is possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not at the moment.’ Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior.
(Let me interrupt for a moment. This man trying to gain admittance to the Law has it easy compared to the MFA student trying to gain admittance to Poetry. The gate to the Law is just standing there wide open!)
Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: ‘If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.’
(Ok, sure. This guy’s situation looks a little bleaker. But I’d hedge my bets that no doorkeeper is so terrible that a little monetary persuasion wouldn’t go a long way.)
These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone….
(These were difficulties the MFA student from Virginia had not expected; Poetry Class, I thought, should surely be accessible at the appointed time and to me.)
I started bringing an accomplice whose function was to ensure that I enter the gate, not remain stuck outside it, crumbling to a ruin of a human being into a pool of my own tears and sweat.
This is how we’d work it:
1) Dressed in inconspicuous clothing, arrive a half hour to an hour before the appointment.
2) Wait for a resident to pass through the gate, going in or going out.
3) Student thrusts a limb between open gate and its jamb.
4) Accomplice waits outside the gate; Student waits inside the gate.
5) At the appropriate time, Accomplice buzzes Professor, impersonating student, if need be.
6) Student waits for signal–the sound of the mechanism buzzing but not unlatching.
7) Student hurries upstairs; Accomplice hurries to nearest bar.
by Marie Howe
VI. Sentimental Ending
Time is marked, I’ve found, by eras in which a certain combination occurs–that class, that job, that boyfriend, that song, that idea, those people, that uptown train, that crosstown bus, that metaphor, that place for coffee in the mornings. This winter, I’ve been thinking about that winter, the first winter I was finally living and writing in New York, when I felt like I was just outside the life I was trying to make for myself. That was the winter when, once a week, I’d take the 1 train to the R to 8th Street, where I had an appointment to hear about all the things I was still doing wrong. That was the winter when I’d meet Accomplice at the gate and we’d just stand there together, waiting.
With the creation of one of the high achievements of mankind, Twin Peaks, David Lynch made a world so ecstatic it demanded its own reality. I’ve been really thinking about Julee Cruise and Twin Peaks SO MUCH lately. What makes it so good? Where did this music come from? Who is Julee Cruise *really*!? Why is this music so appropriate after dark?
Lynch obviously takes a lot of cues from Kenneth Anger, particularly Anger’s bike films Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos. With these, Kenneth Anger added simple bubble gum pop songs over ritual cruelty and raw sexuality, (not only inventing music videos,) but also exposing basic desires as a violent, cold thing.
David Lynch uses Julee Cruise in his work the same way, but also in a new way. Lynch and Badalamenti wrote the songs that she recorded for the soundtrack, which are pretty much 60′s pop songs with a lot of 80′s dream-synth-wash. They use this heavy dream-style kitsch to provide emotional information outside of the acting and dialogue. Isn’t that what every soundtrack does? Ok, yes.
BUT It’s no secret that Twin Peaks is a world that is not our own. Most TV shows succeed by mirroring reality enough that we look for our own lives in them. Twin Peaks is the opposite. From the music, to James Hurley’s face, the black and white zig zag floor, the Twin Peaks feeling is so deep and uncanny, that when something happens in our day-to-day world that resonates with David Lynch’s world, well…I guess you make of it what you have to. Here’s all of this really densely in Blue Velvet:
So what happens in a world, our world, when we’ve gone through the looking glass, and come out and still wanted to say something true to our human concerns, but, like, to actually get up a do something serious as an “artist” is kind of a joke, (this is, after all, 50 years after Scorpio Rising, 30 yearrs since Ian Curtis died, and 20 Nirvana got signed to a major) ?
Maybe the people who are getting it right are the ones who don’t seem timeless at all is what I’ve come to understand. Maybe to deliver the absolute truth (don’t quibble) you have to go around a million galaxies (or so it appears) to get at the “real talk” of it. Ryan Trecartin comes to mind. His work is poetry-times-a-million.
I recently saw on TV that one of the farthest flung objects in outer space is a satellite containing almost a hundred languages detailing the instructions of our world to extraterrestrials. It gave me a good visual image of what I was kind of feeling. I guess sometimes you have to go that incomprehensibly out of this world to get an explanation for what the hell is going on, and how the hell we are actually feeling in 2010:
I’m planning on doing another entry today about Grossman, but I’m at work and I forgot my copy of Singer. In the meantime, I wanted to share a BBC series that is available on YouTube. A professor I know shared this with me, after I shared a link to Simon Schama’s Power of Art episode on Rembrandt.
I’m sharing this video (and my e-mail response to that professor) in an attempt to balance my Grossman post from last week, lest you think I’m only a cranky traditionalist.
First, the video…
And my email response to this professor…
an interesting set of videos.
though i’m not sure i’d start where scruton starts: art being buffeted on two sides by the cult of ugliness and the cult of utility. i think that’s putting the cart before the horse, in a sense, because it implies a sort of propriety about what art should contain and what it should not. i’m not the only poet who is grateful for the high modernist poets like eliot and pound and for the postmodern cornucopia of styles. on the other hand, i recognize the crisis that this freedom has unleashed.
for me, it seems the proper place to start with art is with the person, with a love of persons. in a sense, i would begin where scruton ends. and move backwards through the videos. i think it’s interesting when scruton finally talks about the value of persons (around video 5), he begins to acknowledge the way that messiness, filth, even ugliness can be great art. i’m thinking of a piece like guernica, which is just awful to stare at and ponder. it’s incredibly ugly, in a sense, yet what makes it great and vital, in part, is the fact that it contains the tragedy of persons.
when i look at emmins bed, i see an egoism that is ugly because it the artist has no care for the opinion of the those who see the art: “it’s art because i say it’s art and i don’t give a damn what you have to say about it.” there is no reaching out, no interest in the community that art could serve. the painting of the bed does not demonstrate this hatred for neighbor.
i’m really interested in the idea of the person, and have been reading a lot of jp2 recently. i want it to be less about finding a place where the “real and ideal meet.” i can appreciate that statement but i’m not sure how helpful it is. i feel like the “personalistic norm” is important somehow, but i’m still trying to figure out how.
What did you think of the video? Is Scruton just a cranky traditionalist or does he have valid criticisms about “the cult of ugliness”? Does this cult even exist?