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The Other

I’m sitting up in bed, or on the couch, as it were, where I have been trying to sleep off the slew of vodka-and-tonics I downed last night at our Sand Paper Press reading here in Portland.  Shawn Vandor, whose Fire at the end of the rainbow was just reviewed over at Dossier, and I read at 220 Salon.  Happily I had the chance to meet and fraternize with thethe’s own Evan Hansen.

Happily too I have had the chance to experience a temperate spring.  In my new adopted home we have a desert spring, which is an entirely different beast.   Anyway, it’s been good to see green grass against mud and cherry trees in blossom.  All of this reminds me of the wonderful lineage of cold muddy spring poems.  There’s ‘Spring and All’

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines—

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches—

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind—

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined—
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance—Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken

And then there’s ‘A Cold Spring,’ poem that adds its title to the marquee of Elizabeth Bishop’s 1955 updated North & South.  Unfortunately the wintereb is not obliging me, and I cannot find a text of said poem to paste and copy, nor can I manage to get myself out of bed, or off the couch rather, to open the actual book, which is about five feet away from me on one of Shawn’s shelves.  Truth be said, I have been consumed with convalescence lately; well, not consumed with it actually, more consumed by the idea of it.  But you never know when the time will come.   In fact, several people have been recommending Denton Welch’s In Youth Is Pleasure to me lately.

Anyhow, I’m still stuck in this rhyming couplet thing; I can’t tell whether or not it’s a good idea to post my own poems here; especially this one, which I literally just wrote; but nor can I see why this can’t be a forum for, eh, I hate to call it experimentation, or even worse, abusing the reader, but rather using and misusing this poetry stuff in our fraught digital kingdom.

Oh yes, back to the couplets.  Here are some more.  And to further dispel the mystery, I tried to do these while cycling through the vowel-sounds, or vowel-name sounds: ae, ee, aye, oh, you.  A little like Rimbaud, I guess, but without the intimidation.  So, throat cleared, couplets, voyelles, et le printemps froid:

Here in Portland another day
begins, the sky is the color of spring clay
and in fact it is spring, see
the blossoming tree
outside the window?  The sky
is the color of a sigh.
The blossoms show
that flowers too can mimic snow,
and fall, powdering the air they fall through.
The birds seem to have no clue:
can it be said that they pray
for wings they use to flay
the air and so are free?
Their wings must act the key
to a door locked to the sky,
locked no matter how hard humans try
to stick an intrepid toe
through it.  Unlike the winterland show
of crystallized precipitation, the blue
provides no backdrop to our dreams, who
dance against open black highway
of orbits at rushing play.
Their flight is galaxy,
not of this world; while the birds are free
to roost and be shy,
and only when they die
do they understand how gravity is foe.
One falls lifeless to the petals––or are they snow?
Armies of gust, the white specks form a crew.
Clouds retreat.  The Portland sky is blue.

Below are some candid photos I’ve taken of Poetryland’s Personalities.

“One of the marks of our world is perhaps this reversal: we live according to a generalized image-repertoire. Consider the United Sates, where everything is transformed into images: only images exist and are produced and are consumes… Such a reversal necessarily raises the ethical question: not that the image is immoral, irreligious, or diabolic (as some have declared it, upon the advent of the Photograph), but because, when generalized, it completely de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires, under cover of illustrating it.”

“Each photograph is read as the private appearance of its referent: the age of Photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumes as such, publicly.”

“The Photograph is an extended, loaded evidence — as if it caricatured not the figure of what it represents (quite the converse) but its very existence… The Photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand ‘it is not there,’ on the other ‘but it has indeed been’): a mad image, chafed by reality.”

In appreciation of Amy Lawless, to whom I dedicate this post.  

1. Please meet Amy Lawless. Some call her Amy Flawless. Amy is to cellophane as cellophane is to 1,000 empires. Amy will make you laugh. Amy will make you cry. Amy will laugh at you when you cry. Amy has a lot of thoughts in her head and with these thoughts she writes poetry. She has a blog. She teaches. As a guest blogger on the Best American Poetry Blog, Amy deliberately talks about important things. She takes thoughts that are in her head and transports them to our head. What fun we have with these thoughts! What inspiration she lends to our souls! What a joy!

2. Gavin Wassung makes beautiful things.

3. Please meet Ben Mirov. Ben Mirov also does a lot of things. He makes a spinage shake every morning and posted the recipe on his blog. His chapbook I is to Vorticism is really something great. You should read it.

Late again.

I’m at work, greedily eating the seeds of the last pomegranate in Manhattan (so far as I’ve checked below 14th St) and I bid a wistful farewell to pomegranate season. And naturally, I’m thinking about Persephone (who paid dearly for my lunch) and all this leads me here:

Pomegranate
Louise Glück

First he gave me
his heart. It was
red fruit containing
many seeds, the skin
leathery, unlikely.
I preferred
to starve, bearing
out my training.
Then he said Behold
how the world looks, minding
your mother. I
peered under his arm:
What had she done
with color & odor?
Whereupon he said Now there
is a woman who loves
with a vengeance, adding
Consider she is in her element:
the trees turning to her, whole
villages going under
although in hell
the bushes are still
burning with pomegranates.
At which
he cut one open & began
to suck. When he looked up at last
it was to say My dear
you are your own
woman, finally, but examine
this grief your mother
parades over our heads
remembering
that she is one to whom
these depths were not offered.

Micah asked me to guest-blog for a day and I said yes. It was a foolish mistake, but here I am. The format of the blog is somewhat antithetical to my natural predilection for complex and rigorous argument, for graphs and citations and all the byzantine wonder that is a well written (and mostly unpublishable) literary essay (or is that different? Do I mean an essay about literature?)—I’m rambling here, and you’re welcome. I’m doing my best to adjust to the conventions of the medium. Please forgive this paragraph break.

This is a poetry blog, and I’m a poet, and I’ve written many poems and essays about poetry, so you’d think I’d be a natural choice. But the thing is, I haven’t read or written a poem in some while. And it all has to do with investment capital. Several months ago, I finished a poetry manuscript and sent it out to world of contests. It’s currently awaiting judgment at the Yale, the Whitman, the Bakeless, and a dozen others. And since sending it out, I’ve found that I’m not really able to focus on poetry. The only explanation I’ve been able to come up with is the following: producing a manuscript, for me, is like starting a business. I’ve tied up my poetic capital in this venture. And until it’s either successful, or bankrupt, my poetic assets are not liquid.

This manuscript was roughly 2.5 years of my poetic life, an additional year’s worth of poems (none of which made it in) were the down payment on the loan I took out to build this book. That says nothing of the years of minimum wage back in undergrad, slaving away at poems that were spent over the weekend on a few beers and a bag of cocaine.

What I’m trying to say is: I’ve invested a lot in this project. And it’s been difficult for me to think about poetry at all while this manuscript rests under a dozen different Damoclean swords. For some, this would be a big downer. For me, it’s been productive. I’ve been writing fiction. I just surfaced from three months of novel-revision (crammed into a single month) and now my agent is getting ready to shop it. I’ve also started writing stories—and experiencing the joys and sorrows of beginning an art form anew. I’m really no good at stories yet—I’ve had a few successful pieces, but I haven’t figured out how to knock them out consistently (as much as that can be figured out for anything).

So, when my girlfriend asked me to participate in a local writing circle the other day, and to speak about a poem, I blanked. She would be talking about Junot Diaz’s “Ysrael,” and discussing “scene” and the transitions and ratio between summarized and habitual action and in-scene action. I looked through my immense wall of poetry books, nixing one poet after another. Pound, no, too stuffy, too abstract (except “Cathay,” but I always talk about Cathay); Williams, no, to voicey—we want scene here, to fit with the Junot Diaz piece. Edward Thomas? Cavafy? Dickinson?

I ended up turning to Elizabeth Bishop, as I often do. Later than night, I gave an informal talk about “The Bight.” I won’t go into the details here. If you’re curious about the use of scene in relation to a psychic state, just go read the poem, and think about this sentence I just now finished typing.

I bring it up though, because when Micah asked me to write this blog, I blanked again. My poetic consciousness still tied up in my manuscript investment. What the hell would I write about? While eating dinner (a delicious Cajun catfish fillet) I pondered this problem. And again, I turned to Bishop.

I realized that Bishop has so many poems that involve the ocean, fishing or fish. “The Bight,” “At the Fishhouses,” and of course, “The Fish.” There are others. But it got me thinking about fish, and fishing, and the ocean and the nature of metaphor.

And eating that catfish fillet, breaking up the soft flesh with my fork (did I mention it was delicious), I thought: some images, some actions, some situations are more naturally suited for metaphor. I believe that fishing is one of these.

Why? First off, there is a plane (the surface of the water) separating the fisherman from his potential prize. The line is cast into an area uninhabitable by the caster. You can’t stay there, you can’t breathe—you might get eaten! And then, a fish is drawn out, out of its element, where it can’t survive.

Now, you can make “hunting” or “skiing” or “crows lifting off from a tree” into metaphors, but these activities or situations don’t have this inherent barrier between the known and the unknown, the comprehendible (read survivable), and the mysterious (read: hel-gg-p me-gg-eee I-bl-m- drow-blr-in-br-g).
I think Bishop grasps this inherent separation between the two worlds at the end of “At the Fishhouses.”

“If you should dip your hand in,

your wrist would ache immediately,

your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn…

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:”

The fascination with the crossing of this barrier comes up as well in “The Bight.”

“Click. Click. Goes the dredge,

and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.”

And when the passage has been accomplished, as in “The Fish,” it cannot last—the speaker’s focus on the strangeness of this thing, the foreignness of it—only delays the fish’s eventual return. Such is the nature of the metaphor. It is a reaching in (that burns) to another world, and when you pull something out for good, it’s never a clean swipe—there are parts that don’t cohere—it’s a dripping jawful—or if it is intact, it must return.

I feel that this same sort of barrier has developed between my poetic consciousness and the rest of my writing life. And Bishop has been helpful to me: delineating the rules of this barrier, when and how to cross it, and what psychic damage to expect in the crossing. Perhaps this can be helpful to some of you, should you ever face this barrier to poetry. Or maybe it’ll just make the next fish fillet you fry up that much more delicious.

Congrats to Rae Armatrout, whose book VERSED won the 2010 NBCC Award. Here’s her poem “Guess”:

1

The jacaranda, for instance, is beautiful
but not serious.

That much
I can guess.

And that the view
is softened by curtains.

That the present moment
is an exception,

is the queen bee
a hive serves,

or else an orphan.

2

So the jacaranda
is foreign and extravagant.

It gestures in the distance.

Between there and here
you ask

what game
we should play next week.

So we’ll be alive
next week,

continuing
what you may or may not

mean to be
an impossible flirtation

…and props to the brilliant and charming finalist Doug Powell, whose Wednesday night reading of “corydon & alexis” and “corydon & alexis redux” made me weep:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=178536

When I’m blocked, blank, speechless, I fill the silence by internalizing a poem. I pick one that I know has something to teach me—some diction or rhythm that, once ingrained, might knock me free. I don’t think “memorization” is an accurate term for this practice. I prefer to call it learning by heart. It has little to do with rote remembering, and much to do with the commitment to know, invoke, embody the poem.

I borrowed the idea from Kim Rosen, whose book SAVED BY A POEM illustrates the difference between using the mind and using the heart in relation to reading and learning poetry—how poetry affects us on both cellular and spiritual levels.

“The healing did not come through writing poems or even through reading them. It came when I discovered that taking a poem I loved deeply into my life and speaking it aloud caused a profound integration of every aspect of me—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. I felt a wholeness I had never before experienced. I felt like I was flying. I was speaking the truth, and the truth was setting me free…

As you read poems, listen to them, and speak them aloud, try meeting them as you would a piece of music. Allow your rational, linear brain to relax. Dare to not understand, to lose your grip on making sense of the words. Let the images, like musical notes, pour over you. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes that poetry “comes before thought . . . [R]ather than being a phenomenology of the mind, [poetry] is a phenomenology of the soul.”

Tonight at the National Arts Club, Vera Pavlova (http://cli.gs/ma8q1) spoke her poems in Russian and her husband/translator Steven Seymour read in English. Steven mentioned that Vera knows all of her more-than one-thousand poems by heart—and she delivers them sweetly, as though saying the names of her oldest and dearest friends, without faltering. Poem 24 from IF THERE IS SOMETHING TO DESIRE:

Why do I recite my poems by heart?
Because I write them by heart,
because I know that kind of spleen
by heart. But I lie to the pen,
not daring to describe how I ambled
along the distant ramparts of love,
barefoot, wearing a birthday suit:
the placental slime and blood.

I have nothing to say today, or nothing specific, only miscellany, no fashion thing has occurred to me.  Here you have an image of Ferula scorodosma, the plant whose dried sap is used to make asafoetida, a rather pungent spice.  I received a packet of asafoetida in a box of spices given to me as a gift on my recent birthday – it tasted quite good in a stew of lamb’s neck and potatoes, simmered with orange juice and zest and some milk that had been heated up for coffee earlier in the day and left on the stove.

Speaking of nothing to say, I have been thinking this week about ‘Nothing To Say,’ an intensely sprawling poem from Ann Lauterbach‘s latest collection, Or To Begin Again.  The poem takes its title from the opening of John Cage’s ‘Lecture on Nothing.’

But where Cage seems to calmly meditate his absent predicament, Lauterbach tears into hers, into the failings and possibilities of language, deeply felt failings and possibilities.

I have long been a fan of Lauterbach in this mode.  ‘N/est,’ an overlooked poem in On a Stair, moves through variations and meditations on finding a home in the world, and preparing one’s body to be a home, i.e. pregnancy, abortion, figuring out how to speak, figuring out how to write.  Ethical considerations.

These texts, with their prose-like presence on the page, but broken, or rather with verse breaking into them, breaking the prose apart, approach poetry from the outside, expecting everything of it formally, emotionally, musically.  They are not easy to grasp, and are perhaps not meant  to be fully grasped, rather read, and deeply felt.

Enough from me, now some ‘Nothing to Say,’ after this 1977 portrait of Ann Lauterbach by Alex Katz:

the excess of a dream, we who had been speaking mildly to each other following collapse, sipping tea in the tearoom, there, sequestered against those others and their meridians on the char, it was difficult in this setting to notice, although the waitress was an actress, her lips scarlet, but this was only the lure of

glamour, toned muscles of the arm, cleft above the thigh.  Found her there again, walking the horizon, where what was alive and what not alive almost touched, as moments touch, walking now with her sister on the other side of the line which is an illusion, the line, not the sister, she was there, among all the sisters, their chorale in the meadow, now turning now following the path

*******

I also couldn’t resist posting this wonderful footage of Lauterbach in conversation with Grace Paley in 1975.

Richard A. Barney (ed.), “David Lynch: Interviews”

KM: If your paintings had sound what would it be like?

DL: Different paintings would have different sounds. So This is Love would have a muffled sound like talking through a glove. A Bug Dreams would be a really shrill 15,000-cycle piercing sound. She Wasn’t Fooling Anyone, She Was Hurt Bad would be an extremely slow motion, muffled breaking glass sound.

KM: What kind of things function as seeds for paintings?

DL: Inspiration is like a piece of fuzz—it kind of comes up and makes a desire and an image that causes me to want to paint it. Or I can be going along and see an old Band-Aid in the street, and you know how an old Band-Aid is. It’s got some dirt around the edges and the rubber part has formed some black little balls, and you see the stain of a little ointment and maybe some yellow dirt on it. It’s in the gutter next to some dirt and a rock, and maybe a little twig. If you were to see a photograph of that not knowing what it was, it would be unbelievably beautiful.

Italo Calvino, “The Uses of Literature”

Hands up, anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and the whole of Thucydides! And Saint-Simon? And Cardinal de Retz? But even the great nineteenth-century cycles of novels are more often talked about than read. In France they begin to read Balzac in school, and, judging by the number of copies in circulation, one may suppose that they go on reading him even after that, but if a Gallup poll were taken in Italy, I’m afraid that Balzac would come in practically last. Dickens fans in Italy form a tiny elite; as soon as its members meet, they begin to chatter about characters and episodes as if they were discussing people and things of their own acquaintance. Years ago, while teaching in America, Michel Butor got fed up with being asked about Emile Zola, whom he had never read, so he made up his mind to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle. He found it completely different from what he had thought: a fabulous mythological and cosmological family tree, which he went on to describe in a wonderful essay.

Clement Greenberg, “Art and Culture”

One cannot condemn tendencies in art; one can only condemn works of art. To be categorically against a current art tendency or style means, in effect, to pronounce on works of art not yet created and not yet seen. It means inquiring into the motives of artists instead of into results. Yet we all know—or are supposed to know—that results are all that counts in art.

Nineteen out of twenty—nay, ninety-nine out of a hundred—works of abstract art are failures. Perhaps the ratio of success to failure was the same in Renaissance art, but we shall never know, since bad art, even in ages considered to have had bad taste, tends to disappear faster than good art. But even if the proportion of bad to good were higher nowadays, and higher in the field of abstract art in particular, it would still remain that some works of abstract art are better than others. The critic of abstract art is under the obligation to be able to tell the difference. The inability to do so, or even try to do so, is what more immediately makes denunciations like Lewis’ suspect. And the suspicion is not allayed in this case by the statement that Moore, Sutherland, Bacon, Colquhoun, Minton, Craxton, Pasmore, Trevelyan, Richards and Ayrton form “actually the finest group of painters and sculptors which England has ever known.”

Christopher Ricks, “True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound”

Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hectht, and Robert Lowell under the sign of Eliot and Pound: the figure of speech comes from T.S. Eliot, who used it in a letter of 18 October 1939 to the scholar Edward J.H. Greene. Of the poems in Prufrock and Other Observations, only four (Eliot said) place themselves “sous le signe de Laforgue,” under the sign of Laforgue.

Here are five poets who mean a great deal to the world, to me, and—this being the claim of True Friendship—to one another. (Though not quite, I grant at once, to every single one of the others.) That Eliot and Pound were as fecundating for each other as had been Wordsworth and Coleridge—this is not news, although in this setting there may be a few new things to notice about it. Eliot and Pound cared diversely about Lowell and his art. Lowell’s poems and criticism engage in turn, albeit very differently, with Pound and Eliot. Hill’s poems as well as his criticism wrestle angelically with Eliot, with Pound, and with Lowell. Finally, Hecht’s criticism and poems undertake their fervent discriminations in apprehending Eliot and Pound, calling Eliot to account and calling Pound’s bluff. There is nothing by Pound, so far as I know, that touches upon Hecht or Hill, but there remains only the one two-sided vacancy that is of any moment: that Hill and Hecht, despite the shaded respects in which they comprehend their art and its common but far from commonplacec concerns, never really met. Which may provide the ground against which the other related figures can be seen.


Charles Olson measured 6’8″ tall and like many mammals of large appetite he died young, at 59. His life revolved around the history of the small coastal town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and its present, where he was born and lived until his liver failed. Vulcan was a god of fire in its destructive and beneficial iterations. Apollo was a god of fire too, but his fire was the sun that gives light and life. Or so I gather.

What I love in reading Charles Olson has never been the grasp of history evidenced by the Maximus poems and ‘on which his reputation rests.’ Rather it’s the scraps and asides George Butterick ordered chronologically in the 600+-page Collected. Lines like the plaintive ‘Letsuzstayawayfromparades’ from “O’Ryan 11-15″ pretty much nail it down: C.O. adrift along the streets along the edge and under the night, subject to emotions and what they have in store (as W.C.W. rumbled There is a world subject to my incursions…).

There are some wonderful clips of Olson on YouTube, I’m not sure who filmed them. But this 30-second aside gets at the total nutty self-possession of the man. Watch him Vulcan. Watch him Apollo. Listen to the foghorn turn. Watch him chuck that spent cigarette package into the ocean and bring the match’s sulfur head to flame!

First, I want to say it is an honor to be blogging with so many great minds and poets. Some of you I’ve met in person, and many of you I haven’t. I hope to get to know all of you, at least virtually. It will be fun to see where blog goes. Now, onto my first post!

I’ve been reading through Allen Grossman’s The Sighted Singer in the last few weeks. The book is actually a combination of two works: a series of conversations Grossman had with Mark Halliday and Grossman’s own summa (literally) on poetry. Much like the Angelic Doctor himself, Grossman provides many interesting terms, definitions, and distinctions that are worth pursuing. Even better, Grossman and Halliday often disagree, and this back-and-forth opens the terms up even more. Forgive me as I muddle through these ideas myself.

So….where to start?

I think I’ll begin with what immediately appeals to me about Grossman. Grossman is interested in the idea of “persons.” Recently, I began to encounter the philosophical concept of “person” through the work of Erazim Kohak, whose book The Embers and the Stars closes with the importance of the person. The person, I guess, could be seen as a basic unit of value. Animals have personality (cue the Pulp Fiction scene), and folks like Peter Singer consider animals to be persons, but let’s not go there (at least not yet!).

Grossman, too, sees persons as “value-bearing,” and he differentiates persons from “selves” along this line of value. The self is something that can be discovered or found. The self is what Freud parsed: a hurricane of secret desires, phobias, and complexes. Persons, however, are what poets write about; they are “artifacts.” Now, to say it is a construction of sorts, does not mean it has no “presence.” I don’t think of this construction as a mask, a falseness, something that obscures, but rather the actuality of what we perceive when we encounter other selves. In other words, I experience “Micah Towery” as a self—myself. You, however, encounter me as an object (in the Thomistic sense), but more: a person. You encounter my presence through my writing.

How does this connect with poetry? Grossman says that the role of poetry is the preservation of the images of persons. But it is more than just a way of remembering a person, who they were, their achievements. The poet is more than just a historian:

Horace’s assertion that the heroes before Homer were inlacrimabiles, incapable of being wept for, does carry with it an implication different from the mere suggestion that Homer was the principle of the transmission of a message [the recovery of the image]. It suggests that there’s something fuller, and more consistent with the whole nature of the person as precious, about the holding-in-mind by the poem of the picture of the person.

Some people often speak about poetry being purposeless; “art for art’s sake” it is said. I think this is usually a protective stance against reducing art to pure utilitarianism. It is still striking, though, that Grossman has no problem ascribing certain tasks to poetry: the preservation of images, and making those images present.

This brings me to another aspect of Grossman that appeals to me: his discussion of images. I use the word “image” in a more theological sense, as I am speaking from the Christian tradition. Theologically, the image is more than simply a picture. Humans are made in the image of God (who, incidentally, is a person—three actually). Eastern Orthodox Christians have long spoken of icons as a “window to the divine.” Even Christ was called an eikon (image) of the invisible God by St. Paul. (I would be very interested in hearing from other religious—or non-religious—traditions and seeing how other streams of thought think about the idea of the eikon/image.)

So, in my understanding, Grossman is advocating the poetry as an art against “forgetting.” The comparisons between Grossman’s concept and Forché seems inevitable. Forché’s poetry is a poetry of “witness.” Is this a purely historical witness? Or is it about the preservation of persons as Grossman states it? This is a question for those of you who know Forché better than I do.

That’s all I have for my first post here. Feel free to debate, tweak, or denounce in the comment section below. There are just so many things to discuss in Grossman that I suspect this “blogging through” will take quite a long time…I look forward to a lively discussion.