Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson briefly discuss Terrence Hayes’s poem “Talk.”
Poetry and Poetics
After almost a year or two of putting it off, I and the other editors have posted the final issue of The Cartographer Electric! This was a magazine we started back as seniors at Binghamton University. Along with the issue, we created a reading series at the Belmar that still continues to this day.
After graduating, we quickly ran out of steam to continue putting out issues. This was a true community magazine, and it fed on the energy of the readings and was inspired into existence the other poets we knew and were excited to read. It was a great experience, and I think that everyone should start a small community rag like this. It doesn’t have to be big or ambitious…just something that you share between you, your friends, and their friends. I don’t spend lots of time reading the latest issue of Ploughshares, but I was always interested in reading local indie rags like the one we were putting out.
During grad school, I had the idea to start an accompanying online press that gave ebooks away for free. We put out a fantastic copy of Joe Weil’s poems that is still available (lovely typos and all–some day I’m going to fix that), a half-chap of poems by Eric Kocher (who is currently kicking ass down at Houston), and Gene Tanta. Gene’s book is currently unavailable as he is editing it for another edition (more on that later!).
The Press Electrrrric! is on the back burner for me right now, but some day I’d like to revisit it. Until then, I hope you enjoy all the archives of material (I know the website is not a looker right now–I’m gonna go back to that some day too!). I want to give one last shout out to my fellow-editors-in-crime Joel Davis and Adam Pelligrini. It was a good time while it lasted, bros.
Poets are limited if they read nothing but their own poetry and spend the rest of their time reading novels or thrillers. Most of my beginning students have never purchased a book of poems. They wish to write poetry, but they do not wish to read it. They read fantasy fiction mostly. So the first thing I do is give them books, a couple hundred or so, none of which are fantasy, and then I tell them to send me an e mail, quote an excerpt from the book, and riff off of it. I then riff back, and, very often, my prompt for them arises from the e-mail they’ve written or the excerpt they’ve quoted. This accomplishes five goals:
1. They are now in a relationship to a book, adding a sort of ongoing marginalia to it.
2. Their reading life and their writing life are being connected, in however arbitrary a way (in point of fact, the more arbitrary the better).
3. I am revitalizing the epistolary tradition and taking e-mail out of its fearful function as a less-easy-than-text form of sending sound bytes of information.
4. I am making myself respond to a student in a class of 20 as if it were an independent study, keeping myself sharp, and, very often, I write poems back or discover a new way into a text. So it is a great way to help me remain an artist as well as a teacher.
5. I am defeating snobbery. I am treating the student as a peer who is entering into a relationship with me in terms of the text.
I do not trust tabula rasa learning, but students have often known little else. Many tend to resist any process they are not familiar with. No one is more conservative than a student, and I have found graduate students to be the worst of all in this respect, because they are already turning into teachers, and, I’m sorry, but people attracted to teaching tend to like structure way too much. I also do not trust the current fad for group learning since I believe it does not promote relational give and take but further distances the students from his or her own mind by fitting his or her personality to a group dynamic that may not do anything except allow that student to be the same old introvert/extrovert, follower/director he or she has always been. It is further proof of Durkheim’s contention that the main purpose of education is to make students “conform to a norm.”
To me, all group learning is dangerously close to corporatism. I am not against group dynamics, but I find that they reward certain students unfairly, and punish others who may be talented, but who lack certain social skills. A group dynamic is a given. Four of the 20 students are going to be doing sixty percent of their class participation and there will be a group dynamic whether you want one or not. When you put them in groups, someone will assert his or her authority, and someone will feel like a pariah, and someone will be the chief minion of the assertive group member and form this weird, almost erotic worship thing I hate to see happen. They’ll act like a couple. I have no time for couples in my class. In short, typical ape behavior 101.
I want to create an oasis for students who have never been on the good side of any power structure, and I want to create a challenge for those who use groups to maintain their power or sense of comfort. Some group dynamics just work and others, no matter how good the prompts or how inspiring the teacher, fall flat. I prefer not to let my class ride on “group dynamics.” Here’s the truth: some students will hide. Others will want to draw attention to themselves. Still others will be contrary because they like being contrary. A lot of energy is wasted and for what? So we can find out what we already know? So and so is anti-social, and this one never shuts up, and that one needs everything to be structured to the nth-degree. Well I think we have gone too far in this direction, so I create an air of informality in my class. But I’ll be damned if I preside over three or four groups that are everything I despise about human primate behavior. You might say I am against the present love of groups. Fuck the Borg. Anyway, I digress….
Suffice it to say, I don’t use a common text book. I give each student a book of poems—at random. They write in to me two or three times a week, quoting a poem or excerpt, telling me what they liked, hated, or learned from the poem. Very often I have never read the book I gave them or have only read a few poems from it—so I am likely to be responding, not from knowledge of the book, but from past experience of poetry which allows me to make leaps between texts, to suggest other poets in the same style, to come at the material in a fresh, conversational way. I am not the expert teacher here, but the experienced learner, the one who has a love for poetry and gets excited by weird things like grammatical ambiguity, or how the poet used the weather to suggest a mood. A student might give me an excerpt in which a poet is brooding and the landscape is brooding with him. I call this pastoral narcissism. I send them Thomas Hardy’s “To A Darkling Thrush.” I gush about my love for this poem. I ask a question: Did you ever get annoyed at a beautiful day because you were in a horrible mood, sad and depressed, and the sun light, the happy faces of couples strolling through a park, the blue of the sky seemed to mock your mood? I ask, how hard is it to make a beautiful sunny day the back drop for a despairing consciousness? Can it be pulled off?
So they are each reading an actual book of poems—almost always by contemporary poets—and, meanwhile, I am bringing in poems. I might use Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last by the Dooryard Bloomed” as a way to talk about how to create image patterns in a longer poem. Whitman keeps bringing back the lilacs, the mockingbird, and the drooping star in the west, and he exploits every possibility of these three figures—symbolic, metaphorical, concrete—the way composers might use motifs in a sonata. I may bring in a sonata by Beethoven and show how recapitulation is used in longer works.
This is in a work shop! Yes, I hate, hate going around and around commenting on student’s poems. I have features instead, and I do not give the class the work ahead of time. I want them to be responsive in the here and now. I give half the class a written copy of the poem, and the other half listens. You can catch things about rhythm and overall mood from listening much better than having only the physical poem before you. You can also catch things by having the text you can’t get from merely listening. I want both.
Very often, if a student likes a poem, he or she will ask the writer for a copy. This is high praise indeed, and builds artistic affinity based on something other than forced group dynamics. I will sometimes have a copy of the poem before me, and sometimes, I, too, will be only listening. I will have the student read the poem once through. Then on a second read, I will stop him or her at certain points, make a comment, then let the reader continue. If the student is a poor reader of his or her work, I will read it aloud a third time. You’d be amazed what a student learns about his or her own poem by hearing it read by someone else, by actually hearing their poems come back at them. I will tell them to write down the spoken comments on their text. As for the written comments in class, these are handed in to the student at the end of class. I tell the class to listen to how I edit a poem, because it may relate to their work as well. Every student will have two or three features before the semester is over which amounts to the same thing as a normal work shop. In the meantime, they will have read a book of poems all the way through, lived with it intimately, learned something about their own aesthetics, and the amount of writing they will have done—both poetry and prose—will be four or five times the usual amount for a class.
These are the goals I have for a beginning poet.
1. To find out if they truly like poetry, or only write it to “express” themselves.
2. Find out what their aesthetics are, the limits of their aesthetics, and how these may be expanded.
3. Learn to be responsive to language both as written and performed text.
4. Gain exposure to major poems without having to take a lecture class.
5. Have a learning experience with their own minds and with the teacher far more concentrated than is usually possible in a class that consists of lecture, papers, exam.
6. Learn to write daily, rather than waiting for the last minute. This means they are not feeling they are doing a lot of work, but are, in fact, doing far more—minus bibliography, and all that formal stuff.
A writing work shop should also return literature to the study of the text as art since so many literary courses now use the text as pretext for theories on gender, identity, and so forth. Unlike Bloom, I have no problem with that, but once in a while, it is nice to look at the artistry. My job is to teach the students to read like writers: What can I take from this poem? How can I surpass what this writer is doing?
My most mundane goal: that they will know more about poetry than they did when they entered the class, and, just as importantly, that they will have learned something about themselves as conscious artists.
Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson discuss William Matthews’s poem “Cheap Seats.”
My dad gave me some hard line rules to live by: never cross a picket line. Be good to old ladies. Know that any job, no matter how prestigious, is just a job. And when all else fails, never cross a picket line or rat someone out.
These are some hard line rules for readers of poetry:
1. If you are reading in an open, do not, not ever, not on pain of death read more than your time allotted. It smacks of conceit and disregard for others. It’s garbage. There are very few people I want to shoot, but I would shoot a conceited poet and not have trouble sleeping. Dealing with assholes is part of a host’s job. Don’t make them work any harder.
2. If you are a feature, don’t ever complain about whether you are first or last. If you are that good and they put you first, you will make the host look stupid for putting you in the opening act position, and, if you are not that good, you belong first and should do the best you can to read well– and not overly long.
3. Never, never read more than the time given you as a feature. You want people clapping because they like your poems, not because you got off the stage.
4. Don’t bug the host, and play the difficult artist. If an artist is difficult, I expect her or him to be a genius. Only a genius could make me want to put up with that dog shit artistic temperament. Now-a-days, everyone has artistic temperament. Accountants have artistic temperament; it is boring. You may as well wear a black beret on your head, and snap your fingers to an Edith Piaf song while talking about Sartre. It’ out Herods Herod. Pray you avoid it.
5. Never leave after you have read as the feature and avoid the open. If you need to go somewhere, stay for a couple poems. Tell the whole audience you are sorry you can’t stay longer. Make a gesture. They had to put up with you. For many of them it was an ordeal. Show some sense of gratitude.
6. Never, never say: three more poems, or six more poems, or any number. Someone in the audience is thinking, ” Oh my God, six more? This is torture.” Just read and when you have come to your last poem, say thank you.
7. Section poems are only good if they are really sections. I hate when poets get up there and I know they have written a poem in sections only because they like the power of counting off sections. Drives me up a wall. I know you can count to ten. Don’t.
8. Do not ever ask an author to trade books with you unless you and she or he are truly broke. Wait for him or her to ask. Poets are never so poor. I know this because I have drink and smoke with them on occasion. They have money.They are being cheap. Poets who are cheap usually over read and think very highly of themselves. You should not suffer them to live much less trade books with you.
9. Listen to newcomers in an open. If they have a few good lines, try to remember them, and go up to them after the reading and tell them. It will make them feel welcomed. A reading is a communal event.
10. If a host makes a mike available to you, do not act as if he or she has handed you a snake. If you don’t want a mike, tell him before the gig. And don’t think the audience should listen harder if you have no projection. Stop the control games. Make sure everyone can hear you, or take the mike. It won’t kill you.
11. If you are a teacher, set an example by being self effacing and not over reading. Again, this is a control issue and gives students the wrong message.
12. Do not co-opt a reader and keep him or her from others who may wish to have face time. That’s tacky.
So those are my baker’s dozen. Try them.
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!