Mar 26 2013

12 Months of Essays on Poetry and Craft: March 2013 Vol. 5 # 8

The Sound and the Fury:
A Brief Journal
Date 3/26/2013




Here’s how it goes: I say wa-ter, my daughter mouths back wa-wer, I congratulate her effort genuinely, and she gallops around the house shouting madly her wa-wer to the heavens. When she finally wears herself out, I am waiting there in the kitchen, cup in hand, to ask if she would like some more wa-ter.



One of my favorite literature professors in college said the entire Iliad could be boiled down to a single word: rage.



The first sonnet I ever wrote, I didn’t write out of love. I wrote instead, at the age of eighteen in my senior year English class, an angry little sonnet. It was Shakespearian, and I felt at the time that there was an automatic success bestowed upon anyone such as myself who had paid his dues with fourteen lines in strict iambic pentameter and a formal rhyme scheme. My reward: it was a poem. It was a very bad poem, which, like every other young poet’s first formal venture, followed dutifully “the letter but not the spirit of the law” (as Willard Spiegelman put it in his 2012 VQR essay “Has Poetry Changed? The View From the Editor's Desk”).


But I was a troubled eighteen-year-old, and the formal rules of old-guard poetry world soon felt like a close cousin of the societal laws with which I had so often found myself at odds (letter, spirit and otherwise). I wore leather, cavorted, smoked, drank, drugged, got arrested, hung a poster of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe on my wall, and in no time flat was writing free verse. It was good for me, even if (like Philip Levine said in an interview last year with Jake Marmer) “my earliest poems were not written with the benefit of the knowledge of poetry.” In those efforts, I learned how to be a poet, how to be inspired, to produce and to collect and to organize poems thematically. What’s more important, I learned why poets write poems—the dissatisfactions, the occasions.



A free verse poet without an ear is a dog without a nose—he has nothing left to follow, nothing certain to chase after.



            Spoken quietly: Anger is a gift



Rodney Jones told me the story of this poet, a student of his, who had real talent—the kind of talent most poets would envy, if not kill to possess. As Rodney tells it, she came to his office one day unannounced, sat down and asked if she had what it took. He didn’t follow. “You know, to be as good as Yeats?” she asked. To which he shrugged and said in his mild, egalitarian manner: “I don’t know. If you work fiercely at it for the next forty years… maybe?”

What he stopped short of saying is what I’ll add here: it’s not so much that a poet has the technical capacity to say something in poetry, but whether or not he actually has something to say. Virtuosity of language and syntax will only get him so far; the poet must be a human first, querulous, dissatisfied in some way with the world he inhabits, uneasy in his flesh. And then to be a decent poet, he also must be reflective, deliberate and inclusive with his indictments.

When Aristotle declares in his Nicomachean Ethics that “righteous indignation is a mean between envy and spite,” he is suggesting that the road to empathy passes through the heart of anger, that outrage itself is a compelling moral virtue. When poets can infuse syntax, sound and image with the energy embedded in the fiercest, most candid moments of human emotion, here’s what you get:


I’ll pull, you push, we’ll tear each other in half.

Come on, baby, lay me down on my back.  

Pretend you don’t owe me a thing  

and maybe we’ll roll out of here,  

leaving the past stacked up behind us;

old newspapers nobody’s ever got to read again.

            (Ai, “Twenty-year Marriage”)




The whiskey on your breath  

Could make a small boy dizzy;  

But I hung on like death:  

Such waltzing was not easy.

            (Theodore Roethke, “My Papa’s Waltz”)





Stop here.

Living brings you to death, there is no other road.

            (Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares)




Gray whale

Now that we are sending you to The End

That great god

Tell him

That we who follow you invented forgiveness

And forgive nothing

            (W.S. Merwin, “For a Coming Extinction”)




             There is no key to writing great poetry: only the will, the patience, and the confidence to do nothing else with your life.

Feb 10 2013

12 Months of Essays on Poetry and Craft: February 2013 Vol. 5 # 4


Poetry That Moves:
A brief definition of the Active Image
Date 2/10/2013
This isn’t a new concept. In fact, it’s as old as poetry itself. Perhaps though, for the sake of this short essay, the term, which Kerry James Evans and I came up with independent of any perfunctory research, just might be: The Active Image.
How does the active image differ from the plain old traditional image? Pound’s imagism? Simple. The active image accomplishes the piecemeal creation of the moving image in the mind of the reader—it is controlled and measured, and moreover the twenty-first century reader has been programmed (thanks largely to cinema) to expect this type of image development as just one part of the standard progression of scene.
It accentuates the fundamental truth that nothing is static. Even if we assume sometimes that the paper on the desk is motionless, the walls and roof around us as stolid as vault doors, we are only taking for granted the subatomic writhing, sparking and quirking which is actually going on within every single thing our senses come in contact with, forgetting the ground is shifting beneath us, that the earth is hurtling the known world through space toward some unknown calamity.
Look, neither I nor Kerry were (are, or will ever be for that matter) prodigious geniuses. We were drawn to write poetry more out of a kindred emotional discontent, rather than any intellectual pursuit: an addiction to the sonic resonance of language (set into the motion of syntax and broken with the line) within the restless spirit of humankind. That sounds haughty, scratch it from the record.
How about, poetry did for us what nothing else could, and one night during graduate school back in Carbondale, Illinois, Kerry and I were throwing darts in his home office, drinking Miller Genuine Draft, and trying to unpack this thing we’d found so appealing, this device. We’d looked at Pound’s list of Don’ts: “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” until finally Kerry landed on the term, to give credit where credit is due.
We settled that the image, at its most evocative, moves and participates in the play of ideas—in short, is active with a purpose. A very utilitarian example:
                        Green olive sunk in a martini glass
                        waits to be carried by a waitress
                        across the crowded bar to a table
                        to make the surgeon’s hand stable.
First: Green olive sunk in a martini glass: even when the verb is past tense, as with sunk, the motion is still implied, and the reader sees a replay of this happening in the present tense of the imagination. The object itself is all the reader has by the time the line break hits, and they’re left with a martini glass floating in the ether.
Second: waits to be carried by a waitress: the green olive is now waiting like someone shifting from foot to foot at a bus stop (note: the active image is often a mixture of character action and personification). There is both potential and kinetic energy at play in the verb, and at the end of the line we bring in the waitress—thus far we have zoomed out enough from the martini glass to incorporate the waitress station at the end of the bar.
Third: across the crowded bar to a table: now the scene is complicated or made fuller by the mention of two words: across and crowded. The reader is moving through the room, filling in the pieces, line by line, until the scene is ready, the table has been prepared.
Fourth: to make the surgeon’s hand stable: the revelation, of course, is the payoff—the joining of two forces, a symbiosis. It’s where the motion has led us both surprisingly and inevitably.
Now, one could make the argument that the second and third lines are filler, that the scene itself stands without them, that the waitress and the crowded bar are implicitly conjured in the reader’s imagination. One could make that argument, I suppose, but every great poem, every great story, is about a journey not just a destination, just as every impassible gorge needs a bridge to sway between its two sides, if we are to pass. The buildup gives resonance to any revelation. And not to mention, to favor the precision of the image and scene is to spend a little extra time developing it (purposefully developing it)—that the development, the building, is essential to animating the scene.  
Warning: the danger in overuse is no different than the danger in overusing any other technique: the stilted poetry of the one-trick pony. “Verb stacking,” Kerry James called it, which is quite simply an overload of action verbs used to sustain the motion of the scene for the sake of motion. Like most things that announce themselves, you know it when you read it. Its visual equivalent might be the indiscriminate use of stereoscope in any new film. 
I know craft-speak is good, wholesome fun, but I need to get back to writing poetry; so rather than parading out the army of historical and contemporary examples to make my case more compelling (the fodder of a much longer essay), let’s leave it at this: poetry has a few things it does uniquely better than other genres and mediums of expression: the editorial is more timely, the novel is more dogged in its pursuit of the narrative, the painting has more play between color, and the sculpture more dimension; music is more sonically nuanced while dance has more command over the human form; opera has a more expansive vocal range, drama has more momentary beauty and film has the ultimate collaborative power.
Poetry though, is more methodical than any other genre of writing, more present in the imagination than any other medium, and more precise in its ability to create an image, to build a scene, line by line, and the active image (so far as I can tell) is the key to setting that scene in motion.


Jan 1 2013

12 Months of Essays on Poetry and Craft: January 2013 Vol. 5 # 1

Learning to Write Poetry
Date 1/1/2013
            There is a moment in every poet’s life when he realizes that poetry is no longer a passing flirtation, an occasional obsession, that it is not even something he continues to write with conscious motive—no longer just drafts in a journal, drafts to hang on the wall with thumbtacks, drafts to read to friends, drafts to turn into a workshop or drafts to submit to literary journals. The actual moment itself is perhaps scarcely memorable after it has passed, and even many years later the poet scratches his head wondering why exactly he continues to write poetry: “I don't know really—I just want to,” as a seasoned John Ashbery once said in an interview with Peter Stitt at the Paris Review.
            Writing poetry that goes beyond mere teenage angst and idle navel gazing is an enormous charge, one that requires patience, determination, and, no surprise, some version of learning (neither literature classroom nor poetry workshop being requisite)—and there are no guarantees. Keats, who died at twenty-five and was generally unsuccessful at building an audience for his work in his life, had no formal literary training; and yet, a line like “I see a lily on thy brow” didn’t spring forth from Zeus’ forehead either. It came through the unique, personal endeavor of reading closely the poets he loved and admired and using those poets to fashion his own distinct method of problem solving or style. Wordsworth’s work gave Keats a great bit of confidence and direction, and in turn Tennyson found his strength and strategy in Keats.
            Perhaps the only prerequisite to learning poetry is this: the poet has to love reading it first, so that he can find his own inarticulate answer to the great question “why write poetry?” after going page by page into the books and lines of his predecessors, contemporaries, and the long-dead bards of yore; thus, I suppose the impetus to write springs forth in defiance (not fealty, as one might suppose, as allegiance leads only to gratuitous admiration) of those poets whom have written memorable, admirable poems, and whom the young poet has come to love in some way. The inspiration to write, though? I suppose the inspiration springs from the soil of the earth itself.
            Walking the earth, that is, seeing the world and making something of it—even if it’s just a backyard garden. I’m reminded of one of the “Matins” (or morning prayers) from Louise Glück’s book Wild Iris:
                        You want to know how I spend my time?
                        I walk the front lawn, pretending
                        to be weeding. You ought to know
                        I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
                        clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
                        I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
                        my life will change, though
                        it takes forever, checking
                        each clump for the symbolic
                        leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already
                        the leaves turning, always the sick trees
                        going first, the dying turning
                        brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform
                        their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?
                        As empty now as the first note.
                        Or was the point always
                        to continue without a sign?
I’m reminded, too of my good friend Timothy Shea, and his poem “Larkin Shaving” which appeared first in Poetry London a few years back:

                        Slowly, like a rain-soaked branch in wind,
                        he limps into the toilet and eyes himself in the mirror –
                        cheeks a white pear or swollen purse;
                        champagne’s electric kiss fresh on his lips.
                        He cracks the large-print bible’s tight binding,
                        and a fat smudge of crows, provided for
                        and unwanting, flips and settles outside on the lawn.
                        A splash of warm water and the pores open.
                        Half-pleasure, half-rite, he spreads the foam
                        as if mapping a route for God through a pass
                        in the jaw line, cutbacks over the Adam’s apple.
                        His stiff bristles soften like the church tasters
                        at St Stephen’s, sitting quiet in their pews.
                        He will make the rough smooth. He will bow his back
                        to rinse his face. He will put his mouth to water.

Neither poem is much longer than a sonnet, and each one seems to find its emotive power in the quietest harmonies of the everyday task: weeding and shaving—very similar acts, too, and both of them are full of such personal ritual. Whether I see Plath or Eliot or Bishop or Larkin lurking inside the tapestry of these poems is ultimately moot with regards to the success of each poem. What makes each one successful though (or at minimum shareable) is the confidence of the poet to clearly assert his and her own individual style: Glück’s and Shea’s syntactical choices, line breaks and the imaginative leaps of language feel so unique and authentic, because, in fact, they are unique and authentic.  
            This may be a foolish digression, but if I am to discuss the art of learning poetry here, it would be impossible not to discuss learning in a workshop environment, which is the predominant experience of my contemporaries and it appears as though it will continue for the next generation as well.
            Sadly, I don’t think much can be explicitly learned from lecture, save perhaps the abstract fundamentals of meter, line break and other basic tools of the craft. Nor can much be learned from the feedback of peers or professors, other than perhaps the poet’s own tendencies: strengths and weakness, that is. I remember catching hell in early workshops for striking high moments of diction in poems that otherwise strove for rhythms of natural, everyday speech. I also learned one hard and valuable lesson from workshops: poets, oftentimes, must cut the best lines of a poem for the sake of the poem. Seems counterintuitive, but I assure you it isn’t.
            Perhaps the most important lesson the workshop teaches is distance between the poet and the poem—real, honest to goodness emotional distance. No bullshit middle ground here. The poet must learn to bring in a poem like it was a tender slice of his heart, to go stoic while it gets kicked around the table for awhile, and to disavow any relationship with the poem other than the name he has reluctantly attached to it. This distance is invaluable, because writing has an ugly cousin named publishing that, if the poet is lucky, will eventually come to call.
            A friend I correspond with fairly religiously told me that Louise Glück’s first book Firstborn (first editions selling for a modest $300 these days) was rejected twenty-eight times before it was finally accepted for publication; my own was rejected thirty-four times; and Timothy Shea is still shopping his first collection around (no doubt, “Larkin Shaving” will have its rightful place in there). What no one tells the young poet, although I wish they would, is how strong he must learn to be in the face of these high levels of impersonal rejection, and how steadfast he must be, believing in the rightness of his choices and in the immutable, timeless quality of his own poetry.           


       Finally though, after all of that tiresome workshop critique and blather, and after all the publisher rejections have come and come and come again, the poet has learned to write better poems in the quiet hours he spends at his desk writing longhand or typing furiously against the keyboard. And when he has stopped attempting to please and delight anyone but himself and perhaps his internal coterie, the imagined audience (but first himself of course), then, and only then, will he have learned to write poems with enough confidence and swagger and failure hewn into every fragile, indestructible line to allow those poems to stand on their own two legs and take on all comers.