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The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Emily Vogel.

http://archive.org/download/InterviewWithPoetEmilyVogel/EditedInterviewWithEmilyVogel.mp3

Alfred Corn’s recently published tenth book of poems Tables is charming, confident, polished, ambitious, learned, elegiac, plus playful too, which makes the slim volume very seductive, poignant, intelligent, self-conscious, deeply-nerved and rooted; succinctly: humane. Tables brims over with both the visual and aural surprises we ought to expect from any and all great poetry, except here these serve Art and Humanity, not preachily, but indirectly, for the poet seems to be processing and re-processing both lived and creative experience for himself and us. A quick, direct listening in to this theme of re-processing can be found, for example, in these lines from his “Letter to Pinsky”: “…sheer chance/Which governs half of what turns out to happen/Can feel in retrospect like Destiny.”

Tables proves a raw, every-which-way roaming collection, an enterprise in full creative recall and exposure. Not only do we meet historical people here (Anthony of the Desert, Hadrian, Audubon, Brodsky), but also some related to the poet (Corn’s father, mother, grandmother, Pinsky, Hacker, Fenton, etc.), as well as some convincing shades of people affected by both personal and broader circumstances, like the imagined “senior chef” prepping bread in one of the towers on 9/11 in “Window On the World” and the “Unknown Soldier” who trails off by saying, “From nil and dark the self I knew calls out/For the small tag love once attached me to” in “From the Prompter’s Box.” The endeavor in Tables and its accomplishment/s are truly Dantean.

Corn’s latest poems consequently say there is no way through both the real and imagined life than living through them, which entails the facing and/or voicing of ugly or exalted extremes within families, relationships, friendships, the historical/spiritual, even such out-of-immediate-control externals as national or international conflagrations. Still, and this is what touched me most about the poems taken together, about the poet’s possible nature, if it may be deduced via the energy that made them and their sentiments be, Tables/Corn does not depress, does not sink into self-pity, sanctimoniousness, or misanthropy. Nor do the poems set the poet as above or better than the rest, though the poet is cognizant and communicative of his education, erudition, discipline, striving to grow, succeed, even please as an artist in our tragi-comical, rapidly changing world.

This is not a poetry/poet of self-indulgent escapism either. A poem like Corn’s “Window On the World,” which dares to offer critiques of and possible revisions for the way the 9/11 event has been told, its artifacts valued, proves it; just as do his more personal lyrics like “Resources” and “Series Finale,” where we only need an actual name or names to be dropped that we may have the personal drama/s more true-to-life. Alas, the poet errs on the side of manners/gentility here or perhaps what Aristotle termed “the universal.” Tables has its delicious moments of mirth, too, which lend a needed sweetness, for example, in the wistful, almost Disney/Downton Abbey-worthy poem “Dinner Theater,” where “Sharp Knife starts bantering with Mrs. Fork—/Quips and metallic whispers re Parsnip,/The fossil he’s been trying to butter up.” And more of this table-ready whimsy is at hand while deciding upon a dessert in “Fig”: “What’s to put forward but the sleek green fellow,/The veiny, five-lobed leaf your wineskin swelled/Beside?—like the one Vatican marbles wear/To spare shy gazers a betraying blush.”

So what exactly does Alfred Corn give to those who attempt an ambitious read, a daring to be moved by what is pondered over in Tables? Not only a voice that says life must be lived despite failures, gruesomeness, confusions, deaths, or residual/accrued pain, but a voice that says it is best done when we pause to reflect, consider, reconsider, talk, gaze, read, play, love, pray, eat, drink, fashion art; to pick, smell, consider not just the thorns on the rose bush of life, for they are there, but to acknowledge and celebrate the roses they protect! In effect, Tables shows how we can try and leverage as well as apprehend meaning in a rough and tumble, sometimes painful, sometimes misunderstood world of relations and situations with roots bitter and sweet and in-between. The collection insists upon a world and life that can be enjoyed, lived, examined, leveraged—personally or in community, over a meal, say, whilst at table, reminiscing, joking, or just breaking bread.

Poems from Tables that explore the above and ask for loving rereading: “What the Thunder Said,” “Resources,” “Series Finale,” “Window On the World,” “Coals,” “Dinner Theater,” “Corn, Alfred, D. Jr.,” “St. Anthony in the Desert,” “Priority,” “Vines,” “Upbringing,” “Audubon,” “La Luz Azul,” “Poem Found….,” “Futbol,” “Fig,” “Bond Street Station Underground,” “Letter to Grace Shulman,” “Letter to James Fenton,” “Domus Caerulea,” “New England/China,” “Antarctic,” & “Lighthouse.”

There are certain (uncertain) propositions that every poet must eventually encounter, if only to embrace or abandon. They are not propositions so much as ways of being, lifestyles; and, like the way one walks, or talks, or just stands in the rain, they are ineluctably intimate parts of ourselves, hence not propositions so much as self-images. What kind of poet do you want to be (I imagine a Bellovian unctuous trickster asking)? What kind of poet are you?

“Oh, she’s an angry poet,” they say, or, “The woman is far too sentimental for my tastes.”

These are cursory judgments, but some kind of truths are lodged in even the most mawkish and unhelpful of sentiments. So let’s begin at the beginning. A poem is a stance, a temperament, a philosophy, an ontologically practical, (if impractical), modus operandi. A vision – not necessarily metaphysical, but a way of looking at things that is that particular poet’s way. The proof? An Ashbery poem is not a Creeley poem. Read an Ashbery poem. You might immediately conclude that Ashbery is a funny poet, a strangely poignant poet, a curiously flat poet, like Warhol, or Clare, a poet of disappointment, a poet whose science entails the combining of words and phrases that, without Ashbery’s florabundant consciousness, would never have been placed together in the first place. Ashbery is a poet of surprise, of flow, a John Cage of language, whereby the chance coincidences of daily stuff form an abstract collage that is life heightened: an aesthetic.

Is Creeley – I’m thinking of early Creeley, from For Love – the (complex) opposite of Ashbery? What do Ashbery and Creeley share besides a certain kind of disappointment, a disillusionment with what Richard Rorty calls “the way things hang together”? For, aside from this initial bewilderment or despair at the way things are – ontologically, epistemologically – Creeley is the poet of the anti-flow, the inept and inert stutter, the desperation of someone who cannot say what he wants to say, so makes a poem out of that. To say that Creeley is funny is like saying that Todd Solondz’s movies are funny. For Creeley’s early poems are often cruel, and to say that they are “funny” is perhaps to say more about your own predilections for mean-spiritedness than, say, Creeley’s.

Still, like Ashberys’ early work, Creeley’s poems are, or at least seem to be, something new. They are not exactly adventures of the imagination, like Ashbery’s; in fact, I wonder if the word “imagination” is even appropriate for discussing Creeley’s early works. For if Ashbery’s philosophy is “Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination,” Creeley’s is, “Perhaps we can’t feel with more imagination.” Yet does that make for a coherent, or even interesting, poetics? If Ashbery’s poems are premised, if distantly, on a hope for the future, a hope for new imaginary communities, a hope for a new way of speaking, Creeley’s poem are cynical about the future, isolated from community, and unable to even speak.

It is for that reason, paradoxically, that they deserve some attention.

For the point of comparison, let’s look at two poems: one by Ashbery, one by Creeley, both with the same titles – “The Hero” – and from their first well-received books – Some Trees, by Ashbery, published in 1956, and For Love, by Creeley, published in 1962. I want to interrogate, foremost, how Ashbery and Creeley conceptualize their heroic figures, for in scrutinizing such humongously important matrices of ideas, we might therefore put our finger on the nerve, not only of what makes these poets so different, but also on how we might characterize and define their individual and idiosyncratic poetic (and therefore philosophic) stances.
Here is Ashbery’s “The Hero,” in full, (and notice the interestingly Creeley-esque form):

Whose face is this
So stiff against the blue trees,

Lifted to the future
Because there is no end?

But that has faded
Like flowers, like the first days

Of good conduct. Visit
The strong man. Pinch him –

There is no end to his
Dislike, the accurate one.

We might start by acknowledging how enigmatic the poem is – even, perhaps, how willfully obscure. Who is the eponymous hero? Is it the “stiff” face, “lifted to the future”? Is it “the strong man”? Is it “the accurate one”? All three? Is the poet himself the hero, and is his stance the one which we might take to be heroic? If so, how would we characterize his stance towards the “hero”?

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine that Ashbery’s “hero” in this poem is Robert Creeley. And imagine that Ashbery, like any competitive poet – locked in some regards into a good old fashioned Bloomian agon – wishes to carve out his own poetic voice in contradistinction to Creeley’s. How would this affect our reading of the poem?
First, perhaps Ashbery would be mocking, however quietly, Creeley’s “stiff face,” the unyielding way in which he denies all transcendence – not because Ashbery believes himself in transcendence, but because of the way in which Creeley denies it – so stern, so puritanical, so unbending. The “blue trees” might then be a trope for Ashbery’s poetic persona. In many poems in Some Trees – “Two Scenes,” “Popular Songs,” “The Instruction Manual,” “Meditations of a Parrot,” “Sonnet,” “Le livre est sur la table” – the color blue figures prominently and enigmatically: we hear of “the blue shadow of some paint cans,” “the blue blue mountain,” a “rose-and-blue striped dress (Oh! such shades of rose and blue),” “blue cornflakes in a white bowl,” “the razor, blue with ire,” and a “young man” who “places a bird house / Against the blue sea.” Blue trees are especially poignant, considering that the title poem of the book, “Some Trees,” is about trees as a metaphor for human connection. So maybe equating the blue trees with Ashbery’s poetic persona isn’t as hackneyed as it sounds.

But where does that take us? Is the face “lifted to the future,” or are the trees? Perhaps we might read the second stanza in two ways. If “no end” refers to the trees, then we might read the phrase as a typical self-referential Ashberian commentary on the elasticity of time. But what if it is Creeley’s face – a very distinct one, considering he had only one eye, and occasionally wore an eye-patch – that is raised to the future? Might we then read “no end” in completely different terms, as a kind of complaint, as if to say, “there is no end to my suffering”? We might then have the same tension in the first stanza – Creeley’s face, stiff against the blue trees of Ashbery’s persona – repeated in the second, where Ashbery is ridiculing Creeley’s stance as pompous and self-aggrandizing, as one who laments the endlessness of suffering and who must look (mawkishly), as a result, to the future, where perhaps there will be less pain.

Now let’s follow our divergent readings and see where they take us. If we read the next three lines – “But that has faded / Like flowers, like the first days // Of good conduct” – as more typical Ashberiana, then what we have on our hands is the Ashberian mode of replacing one image as quickly as he can with the next, as if we were reading a Stevens poem set to fast forward. But what if what’s faded – what Ashbery is arguing for – is the Creeleyan poetic stance – the cynicism, the disgusted high-mindedness, the seriousness, the darkness? Is this perhaps the moment at which Ashbery begins carving out his own poetic identity, by critiquing his reading of Creeley’s poetic identity? If so, then we might paraphrase those three lines as saying something along the lines of, “Yet your stance, for all its professed heroicisim and stoicism, has already faded like flowers, or childhood days when we cared about our behavior.” In this sense, Ashbery would be arguing that Creeley’s stance – perhaps like Lowell’s – is outmoded, and therefore not a viable aesthetic, at least for Ashbery.

In the final lines, therefore, we are faced with a massive ambivalence. For it is unclear if “the accurate one” is Ashbery or Creeley. We therefore do not know if this “dislike” is being criticized or commended. If we read “the strong man” as the Creeleyan poetic persona, then we might read the final lines as Ashbery critiquing Creeley’s misanthropic dislike, his fastidious need for accuracy. Yet if we read “the accurate one” as Ashbery, we might read the final lines as a self-critique, with Ashbery uncomfortable with his criticism of the strong man – i.e. the pronoun “his” in the second-to-last line would be Ashbery, and here we would hear Ashbery’s own exasperated sigh with himself. The point is not to find the exact right reading, but rather to call attention to the way in which, in Ashbery’s “The Hero,” these ambivalences are braided together. Yet it seems intriguing, to say the least, that “The Hero” is written in such characteristically Creeleyan form.

Now let’s look at Creeley’s “The Hero,” made up of eleven four-lined stanzas. How does Creeley’s stance towards the hero in his poem differ from Ashbery’s? Here is the whole poem:

Each voice which was asked
spoke its words, and heard
more than that, the fair question,
the onerous burden of the asking.

And so the hero, the
hero! stepped that gracefully
into his redemption, losing
or gaining life thereby.

Now we, now I
ask also, and burdened,
tied down, return
and seek the forest also.

Go forth, go forth,
saith the grandmother, the fire
of that old form, and turns
away from the form.

And the forest is dark,
mist hides it, trees
are dim, but I turn
to my father in the dark.

A spark, that spark of hope
which was burned out long ago,
the tedious echo
of the father image

– which only women bear,
also wear, old men, old cares,
and turn, and again find
the disorder in the mind.

Night is dark like the mind,
my mind is dark like the night.
O light the light! Old
foibles of the right.

Into that pit, now pit of
anywhere, the tears upon your hands,
how can you stand
it, I also turn.

I wear the face, I face
the right, the night, the way,
I go along the path
into the last and only dark,

Hearing hero! hero!
a voice faint enough, a spark,
a glimmer grown dimmer through years
of old, old fears.

The poem begins with the asking of questions – what seem important questions, for those who answer the questions are aware not only of the question themselves, but the “onerous burden” of asking. There is therefore a dialectic that is set up between questioning and asking, both activities which, as the poem continues, are anointed somewhat with heroic status, and given metaphoric clothing as adventures into the dark.

Yet we do not hear of this heroic adventure being undertaken by the hero him or herself. Rather, the hero, who disappears as a figure after the second stanza, and is replaced with the poet himself, does his vague heroic deed, and thereby lives or dies accordingly. Although it is difficult to read the tone of the second stanza, Creeley exhibits a certain sad insouciance towards the hero, as well as a disconnect towards the hero’s fate – i.e., he or she will either live or die, but either way, Creeley seems to be saying, these are the typical conventions of a heroic story, and there is nothing surprising about that. Here the speaker’s relationship to the hero is different from the Ashberian speaker; it is more straightforward, if similarly, though less complexly, ambivalent. In Ashbery’s poem, despite the title, it is never clear just who the hero is, so we are adrift upon a vague ocean of resemblances and concordances; in Creeley’s poem, it is more clear that the hero is the conventional hero of fairy tales, venturing off into the dark forest, but it is also Creeley or the poet himself, venturing similarly into the tangled thickets of memory, to try and devise a way of forming something lasting from this adventure, some redemptive offering, a poem perhaps. In this sense, Creeley’s poem is less ironic than Ashbery’s. It does not truck in a difficult-to-place irony, nor does it use discordant and puzzling imagery that entails a kind of cognitive dissonance for the reader. If anything, Creeley’s imagery – though his style still somewhat beguiles – is largely conventional: we have the hero, the dim dark forest, the grandmother urging the hero out, the father figure, the quest, night and light, the path. This all sounds rather yawn-worthy, however; so what is it that makes Creeley’s poem interesting?

What makes Creeley’s poem interesting is that, for all its stylistic compression, we are given a very standard and conventional narrative; and despite the tone of exhaustion and cynicism we might feel from the speaker towards his subject, Creeley does not revise the heroic quest story very much, or offer very many alternatives. Another way of saying this is that Creeley, and the Black Mountain tradition he emerges from, does not do irony. Creeley’s hero, therefore, is the hero of myth, of fairy tale and folk tale; and we might do well to read much of his work, consequently, in that light – as work in which Creeley posits himself as the conventional male hero figure, and all his various disappointments in love as commentaries on this figuration. This might make some sense, considering Creeley’s later work, where much of his intriguing bitterness is replaced with a kind of lazy contentment that seems to suggest an end-of-the-road poetics, whereby the earlier misanthropy of the young man is replaced with arm-chair speculation and hard-earned domestic satisfaction.

All of which is to say, that Ashbery, after this analysis, strikes me as the more radical poet. His poem takes greater risks – earlier we called it “willfully obscure” – but Ashbery does not seem saddled so much with the desire to be the Promethean quester, searching for the fire, venturing into the forest. He’s way too ironic to take these myths too seriously, although he’s radical enough to substitute new imagery for old. For that reason, if Creeley sees himself as the king of his own narrative, questing after redemption, where he will either live or die, Ashbery once again finds himself in the role of trickster and clown, discombobulating our awareness, turning our attention to his motley theatrics, and poking fun at convention. The New York School, if we wish to place Ashbery in that context, is far, far more ironic. If we wish to understand more deeply the relationship between the Black Mountain poets and the New York school, then, we might start by investigating and interrogating the role that irony plays in much of these poets’ works.

It was late in the smoke-painted bar, a quarter past the blue hour, when The Interviewer pulled The Poet into an even darker room. And in the dark of that darkness, came the first question. Tell me, said the Interviewer, where do your poems live?

You’re asking so you must have them and have them alive in the hand you hope will one day hold me.

The dark room was the color of closed eyelids now. Music reached in through a window deprived of its pane. With his eyes on the music, The Interviewer asked What was the last sin your poems committed?

My friend, my friend, I was born
to a father who didn’t want what I am. I am
doing reference work in sin, and born
to fuck married men with no shame in
confessing it. This is what poems are:
willing to burn in public
with mercy
and liberty and justice for not but
for the greedy,
and the six other sinners who say
they are the tongue’s wrangle,
the hair follicle,
the world’s pottage, the rat’s star
playing the chitlin circuit I call home.

A blade of moonlight cut The Poet’s body in half. The Interview liked this. The Interviewer wondered which half wanted most to be taken. Drinks appeared at the table without explanation. I want to know, said The Interviewer, pausing to take a sip of his drink,what your poems dream about?

They dream they are dreaming, and in that dream they never have to wake again.

Minutes were hours in that shut eyelid-colored room. The moon turned into the sun without apology. Music that had been reaching through the window pulled its hand away. The Interview looked less himself. Tell me, please tell me, what have your poems come here to do?

No big thing really—jus wanna fuk wit yr I’s til u c yrslf well enuf to admit that u 1 evil bitch.

It was late in the smoke-painted bar, a quarter past the blue hour, when The Interviewer pulled The Poet into an even darker room. And in the dark of that darkness, came the first question. Tell me, said the Interviewer, where do your poems live?

My poems have roommates, and until two weeks ago, slept on a loft bed they bought in 2006 while still a paralegal. The last girl my poems had over called that shit a bunk bed. They forget to take out the trash on Sunday. They are from Ohio, and know enough to start there. They live lives I can almost imagine, and rarely, but sometimes, ones that I can’t. In the subway, in karaoke dive bars, in my grandfather’s house. In my mother’s text messages. They’re trying to fall in love with someone tangible and special. Their stomach flips when the landlord sells the building. I know my poems can’t live in a nicer apartment than I do.

The dark room was the color of closed eyelids now. Music reached in through a window deprived of its pane. With his eyes on the music, The Interviewer asked What was the last sin your poems committed?

It’s the future you can change. Not the past. My poems don’t pick and choose when they want to be themselves. If anything, they’re party to the sin of silence. But that’s not their choice. That’s a muzzle I build for them. They’re everywhere: When I open the refrigerator. When the last of my hometown friends are married and having children. When I’m gentrifying a neighborhood I’m about to be priced out of. If my poems don’t materialize, I’m the one who makes that silence. When they’re afraid to speak. When I don’t read enough to nurture them into reality. That’s me. They’re waiting to love me. I try to be brave enough to reciprocate. They know when to listen, and what needs to be said. They know when I’m lying, and help me right that ship. They help me be bold. It takes a lifetime.

A blade of moonlight cut The Poet’s body in half. The Interviewer liked this. The Interviewer wondered which half wanted most to be taken. Drinks appeared at the table without explanation. I want to know, said The Interviewer, pausing to take a sip of his drink, what your poems dream about?

That all sixty-four of my great-great-great-great-great grandmothers are in the same room. That the poems are being watched by something larger, not judgmental, just something that is to them what they are to me. And that supervising presence is made from, not just the writing that came before, but playgrounds, divorce papers, two hours past my bedtime camp fires, journeys that ended in bloodshed, or silence, or catharsis, or surrounded by children each two years apart. Whatever explosion happened a million years ago to build the old light we see on this canoe ride. That’s who my poems dream to meet. Who they answer to. Who they often don’t find, but when I’m really proud of them–when my stomach has an ache akin to sorrow, but not quite. A somber pride, that’s when I know they are reaching. That they’ve dreamt big.

Minutes were hours in that shut eyelid-colored room. The moon turned into the sun without apology. Music that had been reaching through the window pulled its hand away. The Interviewer looked less himself. Tell me, please tell me, what have your poems come here to do?

Like quarter notes, brush strokes, like windmills. We journey to find the art. Our minds have to train, not theirs. The poem’s agenda is the specificity of truth, which is complicated, and delicate. Full of broken rules and emotional history. They aren’t here to save anyone’s life, and not because they don’t have the heart for it (I’d argue that art is the single most empathetic force in the world), but that salvation is not their journey to dictate. When I read something beautiful and my heart tells me it is true, that’s my pilgrimage to walk toward. To dissect, and wear in my mouth, to let change me. To experience the magnitude of something that doesn’t turn away. A force that can (and many times over, does) save me, yes.

But this happens in retrospect for the art, the artist, the audience. The poem whose foundation is a desire to effect change and alter the emotions of others, risks compromising its relationship to discovery. To saying what needs to be said. If I’m writing from a base of trying to make others turn right, I risk not being able to turn left, or backwards, or do a somersault. I turn the key and try not to crash. I open the rodeo gate and wrap my arms around the bull’s head.

Bob Marley songs, for instance, feel like they came to make so much available. But I’ve seen enough daytime frat parties where everyone’s singing “Buffalo Soldier” to understand that with every person comes a new way to experience and utilize a piece of art. Art’s job is to exist. To belong to the air around it and the eyes and imaginations that see it. An invitation to consider something deeper. I strive to know that whatever change comes from that, for both artist and audience, is on us. Not the music. Not the poems.

_______________________________________________________
Jon Sands is a Brooklyn based author known for electrifying readings. He wrote, The New Clean, released in 2011 from Write Bloody Publishing, and starred in the award winning 2011 web-series “Verse: A Murder Mystery” from Rattapallax Films. He is Director of Poetry Education at the Positive Health Project (a syringe exchange center located in Midtown Manhattan), an adjunct with the City University of New York, as well as a Youth Mentor with Urban Word-NYC. He’s represented New York City multiple times at the National Poetry Slam, tours extensively, both nationally and internationally, and makes better tuna salad than anyone you know. Say yes to www.jonsands.com.

The great English literary critic, William Empson, wrote a work called 7 Types of Ambiguity in which he promoted Ambiguity as one of the chief indicators of great literary texts, most especially of modern literary texts. Most contemporary poets start to publish when they learn this sort of ambiguity–to not over determine the meaning of a text, to make it somewhat ambiguous. Ah, but there is a great difference between ambiguity and slightness of meaning, poverty of meaning, or out and out lack of it–though most post modern editors would rather have a meaningless poem with poetic turns of phrase, than a clear poem that didn’t sound “poetic”. This just goes to show idiots wait on both sides of the fence.

To be ambiguous means the meaning floats, hovers, resonates, is everywhere present and no where seen. To be confusing means that the poet can not convey either the mood, voice, or cognitive meaning at all, or that neither mood, voice or meaning exist. How much a reader needs in the way of determination varies wildly. A language poet snubs any meaning that isn’t either ironic, dadaist, or so denuded of emotional resonance and voice as to be fey, contingent, hardly there. They have political “reasons” for this–or used to, having to do with authority, but now that thousands of poems have been written as “language” poetry, it has developed its own all pervasive voice. In short, their non-inaugurated I is as much a rigid orthodoxy as that against which they reacted.

Narrative poetry is, by definition, over determined–it has a story to tell. Lyrical poetry is poetry doing its utmost to draw attention to itself as an act of language–heightened speech, the vatic I, the extremes of both ecstasy and precision. All these “kinds” of poetry have their thousand gradations and often bleed into each other, and are better off for being somewhat mongreled. Each of these, done badly, will not achieve the ambiguity Empson extols. Each of these, done supremely well, can achieve all seven types of ambiguity and then some.

At any rate, on countless occasions a student has handed me a poem that did not do what Pessoa claimed a poem must do: make a bridge between the “personal” and the “human.” The personal is all Pessoa defines as endemic only to that particular consciousness. The human is the rough translation of that consciousness into an act of language that is capable of being apprehended and understood by the other. Great poetry not only makes a bridge between the personal and the human, but makes this bridge tentative, almost invisible, so that the reader feels at times as if they are composing the poem out of their own consciousness. This is why language poetry can be faulted in its theory though I believe their goal is commendable): they never take into account to what degree the reader already shares in the authority of the poem, co-creates the inaugurated I of a poem, how a poem, especially one in which the author does not seek too much certainty, can be co-opted by a reader as his or her poem. In short, it isn’t necessary to be non-linear, multi-voiced, non-authoritative. It is only necessary that the author leave enough room in the poem for the reader to step in and co-create it. I once had a student give me a poem in which dogs were bleeding and stars fell onto the bodies of lepers, and a coffin rose from the grave, and opened to reveal a guitar. The student was highly surprised and upset that I didn’t know this was a poem about the death of his beloved father. I realized he’d done the opposite of what Pessoa had said: He’d taken a well known trope (The death of a father) and personalized it to such a degree that no one would ever know unless he told them. This is fine so long as you don’t care that no one gets it. but if you do care, then a little clarity helps.

I am going to share a pretty good poem then by one of my students in the 350 class a poem that uses ambiguity effectively. The poet’s name is Carrisa Ely. Watch what she does.

An Image

She will remember everything
but the color of his harley. She’ll
forget which one it was
in line with all the others; was it red
or was it blue or was it black?
She’s too distraught in
the swirls of his vanilla ice
cream on a cone, it is sugar, it is
sweet the way his tongue follows
the ridges, is caloused hands
turning it.
He does this softly.
Softer than the cracked leather
of his clothes, than the part of his face
around the mouth, softer than the pavement
they both stand on now, a part.

And in this light, he makes her
think again of delicate things– bathing in
claw foot tubs, long cigarettes– God and
the sound walking.

The very end might be a typo. It imght be sound of walking (This is how it was published in arc of a cry), but there is no mistaking the sensual, erotic, sexual charge of this poem, even though the only action is of a “she” watching someone whose bike she can’t remember eating a vanilla ice cream cone. Why do we think the vanilla might just be her? Why do we think, if it isn’t her, she wishes it were? How does she know his hands are calloused, or is this a girl thing– much as men like legs? Note the wonderful mis-use of the word distraught, so much better than caught here: “She’s too caught up… distraught means this action is having an effect on her that is exquisite both in the sense of pleasurable and accute to the point of painful. What we have here is licking, and soft, and leather, and claw foot bath tubs, and long cigarettes, sugar, sweet, etc, etc, etc, but nothing is spelled out except she won’t remember his harley and she will remember everything else. This is ambiguity working to create an erotic charge. In point of fact, all the best erotic poems beat around the bush so to speak. Suggestion is always far more erotic than coming straight at it. We could ask Clarissa Ely if she meant it to be erotic, and she might say not at all, and that would be fine, because a writer is not the only author of the work. After it has been written, there is a different author every time it is read. Someone who wasn’t getting the erotic charge might complain and say: This is vague writing. We don’t even know his or her name, and who cares about some biker eating an ice cream cone? This poem skirts the danger zone. Someone else, someone looking for the sexual in everything, might think this poem too obvious. In short, it can be argued over, and that’s a large part of why it is a poem and not greeting card verse. It is very hard to argue over a hall mark greeting card. A poem might be said to begin when the arguments begin, when it makes us define what we mean by both meaning and poetry. Good job Clarissa.

It was late in the smoke-painted bar, a quarter past the blue hour, when The Interviewer pulled The Poet into an even darker room. And in the dark of that darkness, came the first question. Tell me, said the Interviewer, where do your poems live?

Most of my poems are conjured between the pages of old fairy-tale books and on flickering screens. It’s true that many of them wield swords.

Lately, they’ve been exploring the disappeared home of my childhood in Tennessee. The home I grew up with no longer exists, the gardens and woods I remember wandering nothing but ugly rubble I can only bear to look at on Google Earth once in a great while. They have never done anything with the rubble, so I must regrow everything from memory. The rocks and roots, the violets and daffodils, the acres of old oaks and bear caves. My brothers and their old pickup trucks

They’ve also been ducking into classrooms: algebra, cartography, old stories barely remembered. Conjuring memories yet again: Sunday school, high school dances, dusty yellow polaroid photographs that show a girl feral, big-eyed, holding her little brother’s hand.

My poems do best in a fantasy landscape. Colors metallic, ice mountains, enchanted deserts, alien flora and fauna…it’s where my poems really feel most at home.

The dark room was the color of closed eyelids now. Music reached in through a window deprived of its pane. With his eyes on the music, The Interviewer asked What was the last sin your poems committed?

My poems may bite. They may also reveal secrets, gossip, cry into a bottle of beer. And I don’t even drink beer! My poems are much less polite and they smile less than I do. They are survivors, the detritus of battles lost.

A blade of moonlight cut The Poet’s body in half. The Interview liked this. The Interviewer wondered which half wanted most to be taken. Drinks appeared at the table without explanation. I want to know, said The Interviewer, pausing to take a sip of his drink, what your poems dream about?

They dream of apocalypse. Of futures where she might be a robot, or a witch. Often, they dream of disasters: hurricanes, broken cell phones, girls who must rescue themselves from glass coffins. My poems bloom best at night and are pollinated by large green moths.

Minutes were hours in that shut eyelid-colored room. The moon turned into the sun without apology. Music that had been reaching through the window pulled its hand away. The Interview looked less himself. Tell me, please tell me, what have your poems come here to do?

They have come to tell you a story that comes with a warning and a gold coin. They have come to tell you about the inside of someone else’s skin. They have come to tell you about the hidden dangers of mud dauber’s wasp nests and goat’s milk full of cesium’s daughters. They have come to show you the way out. My poems want to rescue you but are often only able to watch.

It was late in the smoke-painted bar, a quarter past the blue hour, when The Interviewer pulled The Poet into an even darker room. And in the dark of that darkness, came the first question. Tell me, said the Interviewer, where do your poems live?

“Hello Darkness, you smell like hot dogs.” (from my poem “Ralph Wiggum, Redacted” – part of the chapbook Anoyed Grunt) Most of my poems reside at The Afterlife Bar and Grill.

The dark room was the color of closed eyelids now. Music reached in through a window deprived of its pane. With his eyes on the music, The Interviewer asked What was the last sin your poems committed?

A few of them got all dressed up in their Sunday best and presented themselves to the editors of some of the more prestigious, pretentious literary journals, who said things like “This one comes closest, but I don’t love it enough to publish it in The Hi-Falutin Review.” Such a pointless death, like the one suffered by my first car, not to mention Kenneth Patchen, who wrote “The animal I wanted couldn’t get into the world” and other lines penned, as Valery said, “by someone other than the poet to someone other than the reader.” Our prayers might be missives from someone other than us to someone other than God. Behind my beard is a face that’s different from the one my wife fell in love with years ago. Behind any given joke is the funk that made us look for laughter. If you don’t know what I mean, you’ll wake up one day knowing. You’ll look up and see sunlight hitting a mountain so hard they both seem ready to shatter.

A blade of moonlight cut The Poet’s body in half. The Interview liked this. The Interviewer wondered which half wanted most to be taken. Drinks appeared at the table without explanation. I want to know, said The Interviewer, pausing to take a sip of his drink, what your poems dream about?

They sleep in hotel beds and dream of flying and then falling beneath the sound of their own breathing. They dream of the broad curves of Crazy Woman Creek Road, which I drove down once as the sky hazed over. They dream of dying but it’s like a turtle entering water, the water creasing and then smoothing itself out.

“This morning my alarm clock tried to wake me
so my feet would take me away from my dreams
to my dream job. ‘Can I borrow a feeling?’
I sang along, which made my tongue feel
brand new, took me back to my childhood home
in good ol’ Springfield USA, scrunched me back into
my ten-year-old skin, which even then didn’t fit right,
and there was Homer, Dad, in a scrubbed new SUV,
dealer decals still on the windows, the proud provider.
I hopped onto the bench seat beside him, and the car
became a spaceship as Dad and I became Kang and Kodos,
tentacled and drooling. I turned to wake Jessica to describe the dream
to her, but just then I remembered that she’d left me
and the dream fell away like Timmy O’Toole down the well.
Jessica thinks I cheated on her, but she didn’t
see me do it. She can’t prove it.
Eat my shorts, I said to the nothing that wrapped around me,
not like arms, not like a blanket, but like midnight, like a rope.
I got up to shave, but my face had been erased,
lost, probably, in the smoke-clouds at Moe’s,
where a son, like his father, gets drunk off his Duff.
I looked closer and did see a face in the mirror.
I didn’t turn into my dad. I turned into Milhouse’s dad!
¡Ay Caramba!”

(from my poem “Bart Simpson, All Grown Up” – part of the chapbook Anoyed Grunt)

Minutes were hours in that shut eyelid-colored room. The moon turned into the sun without apology. Music that had been reaching through the window pulled its hand away. The Interview looked less himself. Tell me, please tell me, what have your poems come here to do?

Everything makes sense
if you squint just right, and at least once a day
I realize that whatever I’ve been saying
isn’t the point at all. I spend most days listening
to other people almost making sense, and I don’t
ask them what the hell they’re talking about
because they’re on television or the radio, or
because I’m eavesdropping from the next table.

AND

You may remember me. I drove a float
in the Springfield Parade. You wore your crown,
your sash, and your gown as you waved
and blew kisses at everyone but me.
Remember? I hauled the Marshalls
and tested the microphone for the band
that played your wedding reception.
You may remember me. I wore a tiny
red, white, and blue thong to the beach,
hoping to lure me some fish.

(from my poem “Troy McClure” – part of the chapbook Anoyed Grunt)

My first and last love are songs. I was all over the place. Late at night, my dad would listen either to country music or the BBC (guess he was all over the place, too). He and my mom would go to sleep with the radio on. I remember lying in bed and hearing the young Dolly Parton sing “Jolene,” and thinking I had never heard a voice or song like that except when someone would sing a snippet of an Irish ballad (not the tin pan alley Irish songs). Even then, to hear Parton without all the hair and make up was to hear a great singer/song writer. I thought she had raven hair down to her butt, and looked like the actress Barbara Hershey, so I was shocked when I first saw her. I heard her long before I saw her, and I would put faces to all the songs. Anyway, here goes.

Allison Krauss does justice by this great song. Mindy Smith ain’t bad either, but you can tell Allison and Dolly have that same high quivering thing goin on that makes for a great country voice.

“All the Things You Are” is a great song, and here it is performed by one of the greatest artists in history–Thelonius Monk. Monk, to me, was vital . I heard “Jolene” at 15, and Monk a little later, but when I heard him, I played him over and over–and he was in my head when I walked to the store. He made me weird in the all the best ways.

I had ADHD real bad as a kid and no one diagnosed it. I was weird and was mocked out a lot for being so. Monk was one of the places I could go where I didn’t have to put up with people’s snide bullshit–one of the best places.

I first saw Arlo Guthrie perform on PBS. I was maybe the only kid in my neighborhood who watched PBS. Glad I did. I didn’t know his father’s work, then I read “Bound For Glory”–amazing book.

The folk songs jived with what I heard from Jesus every Sunday at Mass. I could never be on the side of success after that. It’s a lie that hurts millions and in the name of what?

I love this song. It always chills me to the bone. This is a beautiful version.

Took a long time to find her. Glad I did.

Elizabeth Cotten was in her 90s when she picked like this. Amazing.

It’s not how pretty the voice is, but how real, and how much it wants to help the song be the song it was meant to be. Elizabeth Cotten did this. Her pickin’ was ragtime style. She was born in 1892. This was done in the 70s.

My dad would sing this to me when I was a kid.

He got typed by Hee Haw, but Buck Owens was one of the inventors of the Bakersfield sound– a la Merle Haggard.

Another song I knew well as a little kid.

thethebooks2

Poet, fiction writer, and critic Alfred Corn applies his special language skills to a comparison of the two dominant versions of the English language. The United States and Britain have been described as “divided by a common language,” but this guide will help speakers from both countries make their way in the other.  Pronunciation, vocabulary, spelling, and punctuation are all discussed, and there is a brief presentation of British and American slang. The result is an accessible and succinct overview appropriate for tourists, for teachers of English as a foreign language, for book and magazine editors, for actors, and for courses on British and American literature.

Available in the following formats:
Kindle
NOOK

Certain sections of broca’s area of the brain are involved both in how words are given syntactical order and how gestures, physical movements are interpreted as flow, as arc, as coherent actions. We know that broca lights up like a pin ball machine when shadow puppets are introduced before the eye. My theory of narrative is that it is arc, gesture, syntactical force the most common of which is what we call a story, but not exclusive to story. We have difficulty seeing narrative as lyrical because it seems more “rule” bound than what we consider lyrical–thus, my students tendency to resist turning their gerunds and participles into active verbs, as if adding “ing” to the verb kept the language safe from being overdetermined and definite. This use of gerunds and participles creates a lot of syntactic ambiguity and I think the brain recognizes this as somehow more “lyrical” because it does not activate the broca region to the degree that a syntactically definite sentence (or concrete sequential gesture/action) would. I have often been called a n intensely narrative poet. Truth is, hardly any of my poems use story as their main agent. There are antidotes or gestures toward action in my poems, but very little plot or tale. If I think of four of my most well-known poems, only “Elegy for Sue Repeezi” is a true narrative. “Ode to Elizabeth,” while using antidotes, is truly an ode–a poem of praise and its narratives (I never have one narrative in any of my poems) are illustrative of a panoramic attitude toward a place rather than telling the story of that place. My poem “Fists” is also without a plot. There are actions and memories, but nothing happens that could be construed as a plot. “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch” is not at all a strict narrative.

So if this is true, why do I have a reputation for narrative rather than lyrical poetry? First, with the exception of Whitman, I loath floating or ambiguous syntax. I find blunt sentences, strong verbs, and concrete gestures to be far more aesthetically appealing than ambiguity. Floating is not a desire of mine. Words with no definite position are active principle tend to be inert and uninteresting to me. I also am not a big fan of conventional plot, or linear progression. I like quick bursts of energy, the voice strong and moving between different registers of speech. this does not fit the groove of what we currently recognize as lyrical poetry. It also is outside the groove of what we call narrative poetry proper (which I often find pedestrian and boring). I am far more interested and turned on by affective–narrative, poetry that excites with many gestures and strong movements. My poems are too cognitive for many contemporary poetic tastes, yet, among the narrative poets, or those more conventionally anchored to narrative, I am considered too lacking in progression and the nuance of progression. What many contemporary poets admire I often find inert and faux-lyrical. I also have no love or particular patience with neutral registers of speech and much of what passes for lyrical shares this very middle brow way of uttering–a sort of ongoing equivocation and mincing around nuances that may or may not exist. No thanks.

So if narrative poetry is not story, or linear progression, or antidote, what is it? It seems to be that form of poetry that engages the syntax of gesture,of action, that lights up the part of the brain that wishes to create an arc, to make sense of an action or series of actions. I write poetry in this manner because, while prose can relay information or story well enough, it can not come close to poetry and line in terms of creating the vital tension and speed of gestures, and it cannot isolate single lines, or rhythmic gestures as well as free verse. Prose, except in its more experimental forms, insists as an ordering agent that is closer to logical progression and priority of information, and its stories then are never pure modes of action. They are set up by exposition. Poetry allows me to dump exposition and cut to the chase. Poetry allows me to move between the ordering of the Broca region (syntax and gestures) and the isolate, monolithic qualities of single words as words–language as a form of pure sound and vocality without locality. Poetry for me is the realm of affective action. line moves, line itself is narrative. It makes sense that much language and experimental poetry, getting rid of coherent meaning or story, would start skewing and playing the line in a far more dramatic way. Why? Because the line is a gesture! The line itself then becomes the story or story arc.And gestures also stimulate the formal, narrative impulses. Narrative does not go away, it simply is transformed into the actions of the lines. As for prose poems like those of James Tate, much of Tate’s work is hyper narrative, a series of gestures that may add up to something very different than a coherent story, but which activates the sense of kinesis, and verbal action I think we need to stop seeing narrative as antithetical to poetry. Lyricism in its manifestation of divine possession and afflatus and ecstasy (thus closer to speech as the gift of tongues, and steeped in mystification) made an unholy marriage with prose a while back. Most of what we now call lyrical poetry is merely neutral middle class equivocation complete with line breaks, and the absence of any strongly gestural speech. In short, little of our current poetry talks with its hands. I believe both the greatest narrative and lyrical poetry is gestural, in infinite process of gesture and flux. My poetry is not so much anchored in the understandable as making a dance out of the understandable and the obvious. I like to set the overt dancing. And the most rhapsodic, non-cognitive poetry which we tend to think is lyrical does the same–only from a covert position that must be careful it is not simply a species of class identification. True lyrical poetry moves. It has its being in movement. Both the genuinely narrative and the genuinely lyrical speak with their hands. Poetry speaks with its hands.

The visual has always been an important means of communication, from caveman paintings, to graphic novels, to IKEA instruction manuals. We know it fits in somewhere with poetry, beginning with how poets and artists have always looked lovingly upon one another, and ending somewhere more uncharted. It’s been proposed that the use of illustration with poetry is redundant, but what this forum is interested in is not translating the words, but a much wider vision: illustration as a kind of poetic form. Poetry and poets who interact with the visual has limitless implications, from traditional use of the comic-strip and comic book, to a much more experimental use of text and image. I wish to go boldly, willingly, into Poetry Comics, and see what people are doing out there. I’m not entirely concerned with defining what I mean by Poetry Comics, but rather seeing how many tiny silver arrows we can launch at it. And perhaps how many it can launch back at us.

Every month we will look at a new artist/poet(s). They will share some of what they love to look at and read. Let’s call it Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Poetry Comic. Let’s call it WTF is a Poetry Comic. Let’s call it The Fallacy of the Mental Image. Let’s begin.

We’re going to start with the amazing poet and artist, Sommer Browning, who has done several drawings for several poems by Noah Eli Gordon’s series of poems called “The Problem”

BIANCA STONE

 

Links For More of Sommer Browning:

Visual Poetry Review of Thomas Hummel’s chapbook Point and Line to Plane(Projective Industries, 2009) in Octopus Magazine.

Sommer’s book page with a poem and a comic.

Sommer’s Twitter account.

Sweet-ass Things Sommer Browning Loves:

Cartoonist Victoria Roberts.

Author Robert Benchley. This 75 year old comedy short is the British Office’s equivalent. It might take a little old-fashioned patience to enjoy, but the awkwardness and non sequitur humor feels very modern to me.

_____________________________________________________________

Sommer Browning writes poems, draws comics and tells jokes. She is the author of Either Way I’m Celebrating (Birds, LLC; 2011), a collection of poems and comics. She also has three chapbooks out, most recently THE BOWLING (Greying Ghost, 2010) with Brandon Shimoda. With Julia Cohen she curates The Bad Shadow Affair, a reading series in Denver.

Noah Eli Gordon is the author of several books, most recently The Source (Futurepoem, 2011). Gordon is the co-publisher of Letter Machine Editions, and an Assistant Professor in the MFA program in Creative Writing at The University of Colorado–Boulder.

These two poems and illustrations are from the forthcoming collection, 62 Problems (1913 Press, 2014).

What should we make of Plato’s old quarrel between philosophy and poetry? Does poetry think with philosophy? Or might we re-pose the question: does poetry rely on philosophy to think?

For Plato, the poem is dangerous for philosophy as it forbids access to the supreme truth, the truth that provides unity with the ultimate principle that allows the Republic to maintain its transparency.  The problem of poetry for Plato is deeper than that though.  It rests on the fact that mimesis is always tied to discursive thought, and this blocks reason and teleology in grounding the truth.  For Plato, the poem is opposed to the ideal of a perfect means for the transmission of knowledge, and hence is dangerous for philosophy.

Wallace Stevens declared the modern poet a “metaphysician in the dark, who must give sounds passing through sudden rightness, wholly / containing the mind, below which it cannot descend, beyond which it has no will to rise.”   The battleground of the poem becomes the poets mind.  But Stevens doesn’t give us clear sense of the relation between philosophy and poetry, he suggests that the poet is isolated to a performance of thinking in the poem.  In this post, I want to introduce the ideas of two prominent French philosophers working on the intersection of philosophy and poetry.  Judith Balso and Alain Badiou’s present two concepts of philosophy and poetry’s separation from poetry, the idea of presence, and the affirmation, that reveals that poetry indeed does not rely on philosophy for grounding its own truth.

Judith Balso has created a conception of poetry’s relationship to philosophy that helps us understand both Plato’s fear of poetry, and Stevens’ relegation of the modern poet to the dark recesses of the mind.  For Balso, modern poetry consists in the creation of a new space for thought and imagination that does not simply seek to criticize what exists; but that invents an entirely new ontological capacity for thinking.  In this sense, poems are more than merely artistic events for aesthetic contemplation; they are events for thought, for a new kind of thinking.  This theory of poetry, Balso refers to as the affirmation, and its based on a close reading of Heidegger’s work on philosophy and art, particularly his Elucidations of Holderlin’s Poetry, but she is suspect of Heidegger, and opts to put Holderlin into dialogue with other poets instead of locking Holderlin inside the discourse of philosophy alone as Heidegger does.

Balso’s intellectual and romantic partner, Alain Badiou, (in a way they are reminiscent of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre of the 20th century), poetry presents a truth that is outside of philosophy’s capacity to integrate it.  Alain Badiou is probably France’s most influential anti-postmodernist philosopher.  In his book on philosophy, poetry, and art, Handbook of Inaesthetics, he claims that the legacy of Plato in modern poetry is alive and well, but that it functions like a ‘persisting nostalgia for the idea’. Every poetic truth in the poem, Badiou claims, is located in an unnamable core at the poems center that does not have the power to bring the idea into presence. He refers to this nostalgia for the idea as ‘presence’.

Pessoa offers an interesting example of this nostalgia for the idea in his poetic project, which he characterizes as ‘anti-metaphysical poems’.  For Pessoa, the idea of presence functions in the relation between the world and its representation in the poem.  He says, “when you see a thing in the poem, it is exactly the thing.”  The world becomes that thing whose presence is more essential than objectivity. As Stephane Mallarmé claims, the modern poem is centered on the dissolution of the object from its purity.

For Badiou, this play of presence in poetry gives poetry a privileged ground for the production of new truths by enabling truth to develop within the poem itself.  The poem produces a singularity for which philosophy cannot account for.  Each poem offers a singular type of truth, occurring as a sort of event.  Similar to Balso’s notion of the affirmation, the poem is like a decision of presenting oneself to the present.  The poem offers the possibility for the creation of a new space for thought and imagination that does not simply seek to criticize what exists; but that invents an entirely new ontological capacity.  In this sense, poems are more than merely artistic events for aesthetic contemplation; they are events for thought, for a new kind of thinking.

Presence, the affirmation, or the nostalgia for the Platonic idea occurs in the immediacy of the poem itself, not through an artistic expression of the world, but as an operation. The poem’s operation is the vehicle for thinking, a thinking that is internal to the practice, a thinking of thinking itself.

If we visit Pessoa’s poetic project briefly, we see both this idea of the affirmation and presence in action.  Pessoa’s poems are diagonal, like a Cubist painting. They look directly into the light, in an anti-Platonic stance; they are opposed to any absolute idea.  Badiou suggests that the operation of the poem for Pessoa is tied to a hidden mathematical code that philosophy can’t yet integrate or fully understand.  As we see in this untitled piece by one of Pessoa’s over 80 heteronym’s Alberto Caeiro, the poem’s idea of presence contained within the poem alone becomes apparent.

To see the fields and the river
It isn’t enough to open the window.
To see the trees and the flowers
It isn’t enough not to be blind.
It is also necessary to have no philosophy.
With philosophy there are no trees, just ideas.
There is only each one of us, like a cave.
There is only a shut window, and the whole world outside,
And a dream of what could be seen if the window were opened,
Which is never what is seen when the window is opened.

This paradoxical play of a “metaphysics subtracted from metaphysics” in Pessoa enables poetry to enter into a new ontology of truth, and ultimately, a new relation to the Platonic idea.  Pessoa himself had a great depth of understanding of philosophy, and this may be in part why he continues to baffle our preconceptions and confuse any possibility of developing a coherent way to place Pessoa’s contribution to modernity.

What is at stake in the quarrel between poetry and philosophy is still a very Platonic question.  The poetic perspective opened up through the idea of presence represents an opening of thought to the principle of the thinkable, where thought must be absorbed in the grasp of what establishes it as thought – i.e. in the poem itself.  Yet the modern poet, as Celan tells us, must still wrestle with the recognition that the whole is actually nothing.

So I’m reading, and very much enjoying Ray Hammond’s Poetic Amusement, his masters thesis on the influence of po’biz amid writing programs on American poetry. When I read, I interact with a text, start scribbling my own argument for or against, maybe write a didactic sonnet, or trounce about my house looking for other books that seem pertinent. In chapter 4, Hammond writes about the muse, how the muses have been put on the shelf and replaced by workhop craft. I’m enjoying it because no one speaks about the primal condition of poetry being the ability to “receive” from outside one’s ego, and even one’s consciousness–to be stupid. Stupidity, in its old sense “stupere” means to be stupefied, stunned, left with your mouth agape, and, lo and behold, Hammond quotes Levertov on the original definition of Muse:

To contemplate comes from ‘templum, temple, a place, a space for observation marked by an augur.’ It means not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is ‘to keep the mind in a state of contemplation.’ Its synonym is ‘to muse’ and to muse means ‘to stand with open mouth’–not so comical if we think of inspiration–to breathe in.

Being stunned out of one’s normal thought, to enter a state of ecstasy, to be made “stupid” (stupere–gape mouthed), awed by that which inspirits you is not so uncommon. Watch a child totally absorbed in drawing or coloring, his or her tongue hanging out, oblivious to his surroundings,and you’ll get a more precise sense of the alpha wave state the mind enters upon being truly engaged with any task or action calling for a forgetting of one’s self in a moment of concentration/contemplation. This takes place in “ground set apart”–in privacy, in solitude, in the midst of noise one has learned to tune out. The “god” is present in both the ground set apart (templum) and in the act being performed there. This is what I mean by presence, and so, for me, each genuine poem is a templum, a ground set apart, and we must enter it in a state of unknowing, of “stupidity” in its most ancient sense so that the “muse” may enter us.

All this might sound like spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but it is not outside what scientists have recently come to know, especially in neuroscience. Creativity does not come from our usual cognitive faculties (though our cognitive faculties help shape it as it comes forth). Its initial neural twitch takes place in what Robert Bly called the “lizard” brain, and what neurologists call the “affective brain”–the brain functions we share with other animals, especially primates: playing, seeking, caring, etc. It comes from a much more primal, animal sense of the spirit–a shaman’s flight over the houses, a forgetting of one’s own cleverness and benevolent fascism over the text at hand. We need time to waste, time to be outside our usual heads. Plato, who is still at the center of Western thought, agreed poets “received” their poems from gods (demons). This was exactly why he didn’t want them in the republic: because their thoughts, their compositions, though often more wise and profound than philosophy, had no systematic ground of order. If Plato came back today and saw the workshop, craft obsessed nature of poetics, he’d give his approval, but not for reasons poets might like: Plato would approve because the stupidity of inspiration has been removed from the writing of poems. We do not enter a temple and enter contemplation (mind free mindfulness) in the presence of a god, and, if this should happen, we revise the god out of the poem by work shopping it to death. Revision has its place, but it does not have pride of place. I submit that all poets should strive for bringing forth a presence. Anyway:

I never write from an idea unless the idea has started writing me. This morning, reading Hammond, I decided to write a sonnet playing with the concept of musing, of luring the muse through an act of contemplation. In the sonnet, the narrator of the poem stares into a ditch where a frog is sticking out his tongue to catch a fly. He loses himself in contemplating the ditch, forgets the social order, and makes a didactic plea for “staring” as a form of inspiration–just staring. I chose to write this in sonnet form because I was not trying to write a poem–contemporary or otherwise. I was trying to create a space (the sonnet form is the space) in which to versify everything I just said above. Form for me is a room to muse in–not a prison. I do not consider this a poem, but a piece of didactic verse. I had fun seeing if I could suspend the pay off of the sentence until the volta. What a way to have fun! You know I’m getting old. Anyway, consider it my coloring book while my tongue was hanging out:

Muse (Didactic Sonnet Number One)

To muse for a long hour on this ditch
in which a frog unfurls his froggy tongue
to haul the fly in, and the poor, the rich
the good, the bad, are, by the church bells, rung
(ding-dong! Goodbye!) into sweet disaray
so that you soon forget the social strain,
and press your eye against the pickerel weed
beyond all thought, though sunlight yields to rain:
this be the workshop then, of gods and time.
This be the meter–rhythms slow or quick
that stare and stare, till ditch and stare commune,
until the eye becomes a frog that flicks,
this ancient tongue which lures what it has sought:
the muse–this fly of musing–beyond thought.

At the insistent behest of Joe Weil I have picked up a few Kenneth Burke books. In Joe’s opinion, Burke is one of the great American minds who has been unjustly put out of fashion. The more I read Burke, the more I agree with Joe. I’ve found that Burke’s explanations of art resonate with me as an artist. For example, Burke’s essay “The Poetic Process” (from Counter-Statement) delineates the relationship between the “emotion” that inspires writing, symbol, and technical form in an incredibly believable way.

Burke begins with dreams:

…at times we look back on the dream and are mystified at the seemingly unwarranted emotional responses which the details “aroused” in us. Trying to convey to others the emotional overtones of this dream, we laboriously recite the details, and are compelled at every turn to put in such confessions of defeat as “There was something strange about the room,” or “for some reason or other I was afraid of this boat, although there doesn’t seem any good reason now.”

This is because, as Burke says, “the details were not the cause of the emotion; the emotion, rather, dictated the selection of details…Similarly, a dreamer may awaken himself with his own hilarious laughter, and be forthwith humbled as he recalls the witty saying of his dream. For the delight in the witty saying came first (was causally prior) and the witty saying itself was merely the externalization, or individuation, of his delight.”

In what seems to be the inverse of Eliot’s “objective correlative,” the emotion directions the choice of imagery. The imagery becomes “symbol” at this point. Burke compares this to a grandparent who tries to share all the details of his or her childhood as a way to communicate the “overtones” of the experience. The grandparent wants to express themselves, their feelings.

Yet an artist does not want to express their feelings. Rather, they want to evoke emotion in the audience: “The maniac attains self-expression when he tells us that he is Napoleon; but Napoleon attained self-expression by commanding an army….transferring the analogy, the self-expression of an artist, qua artist, is not distinguished by the uttering of emotion, but by the evocation of emotion.” One of the most dreaded things I hear is somebody describing their own personal poetry as self-expression. I don’t dread it because I begrudge that person’s personal art, but usually because a request to read their work and give feedback follows. And almost always the work is terrible. Why? Because it’s solely concerned with self-expression and the would-be poet feels no obligation to anyone but his or herself. A person like that will not hear any advice; they seek affirmation. Our writing goals are not the same. As Burke puts it “If, as humans, we cry out that we are Napoleon, as artists we seek to command an army.”

This is not to say that there is no element of self-expression in poetry. There certainly is, according to Burke. But “it is inevitable that all initial feelings undergo some transformation when being converted into the mechanism of art….Art is translation, and every translation is a compromise (although, be it noted, a compromise which may have new virtues of its own, virtues not part of the original).” The private poet cannot stand to compromise on their feelings and, as a result, they often write terrible poetry. But in the poetic process, a poet realizes there is compromise. This leads to a concern about the “impersonal mechanical processes” of evocation, and, eventually, leads the artist to a place where the means of expression are an end in itself. At this moment, we are in the realm of technique.

In short, we begin with emotion, which dictates choice of symbol, for which the systematic concern thereof creates technique. Tom Sleigh once memorably asked my MFA class “do you, as a poet, logos into eros or eros into logos?” I forget what my answer was at the moment since I was stubborn and probably more concerned with subverting the question. Burke’s essay, however, has interesting parallels. (For the record, today I’d probably say, with Burke, that I eros into logos, which might account for a recent turn toward formalism in my poetry.)

Before ending, I want to note the parallel between Burke’s point and my point (via Rexroth–or, more accurately, Rexroth via me) about Tu Fu, who I described as writing in a way that suggests “that the category break [between feeling and image/symbol] is weaker than we think. The image (object) is already interpreted: ‘values are the way we see things.’” If Burke’s description of the poetic process is accurate, Tu Fu’s poem is actually winding backward toward the origin of his poetry, backwards through the linked images interpreting one another, back toward the initial thought/emotion/impulse which led to the first decision to communicate, to attempt evocation.

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