29/6/2007

"The comic, in a poet like O'Hara or Wallace Stevens or Byron, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Lautréamont, Max Jacob, is a part of what is most serious for art to get to--ecstasy, freedom, completeness, dionysiac things. One can get a hint of this ecstasy, a whiff from these heights even in a small parody, in one funny line someone writes."

--Kenneth Koch, "An Interview with Jordan Davis."

That's an essential insight. Koch goes on to argue against the tedious idea of humor as "the absurd" in everyday life. I'ts not about "thinking the world sweet and finding it bitter." We can take ourselves back to the existentialist absurdism of Koch's postwar period of formation. Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Sartre. Sisyphus and Charlie Brown. Against this absurdist comic dourness place "I love you as a sheriff searches for a walnut" or "I sailed the Indian Ocean for a dime." It's revolutionary. A poem in Ottava Rima featuring cartoon characters...

I don't think that the comic in Wallace Stevens is that close to Aristophanes, or Byron to Max Jacob for that matter. Yet I can see how they all converge in Koch.

Isn't Koch also funnier than the postmodern fiction writers like Barth and Barthelme? Only Sorrentino at his funniest comes close.

28/6/2007

Classical Chinese poetry is extremely constrainty. For example, a word (character) is not repeated in the same poem. There are complex rules for repetition of tones and syntactic parallelism is obligatory in pairs of lines. Rhyme is just one of many constraints.

What I find interesting is the idea that the reader of Chinese poetry in translation is presumed to be uninterested in this aspect of the poetry. In other words, that is not a criterion (or a pleasure) that enters into play at all, in all the wonderful (and non-wonderful) translations from the Chinese into "English poetry." The idea of reproducing or reinventing a set of complex rules in English is seen as totally non-interesting. Instead we have themes, ideas, philosophy in an orientalist lyricism.
Another quality I value is languaginess. It's when you sense in a piece of writing that sense that the poet was aware of the language used. Not just the choice of words (diction), but at the level of syntax and morphology.

I like too a certain enmeshedment, or feeling that the poem is tied to a certain place and time (and language) and cannot be taken out of there. Untranslatability would be a good word for this.

Constraintiness is another one. The sense that the poem is following invisible and mysterious rules, or visible yet still enigmatic rules. Constraintiness is not the opposite of freedom. In fact, they often are found in the same vicinity.

Not all poems I appreciate will have all these qualities, or have them in the same degree. For example I might like many poems that aren't constrainty in the least. I might like an anonymous lyric poem that is not distinctively written by a particular poet, etc... These are not criteria for poetry, but names for particular kinds of aesthetic pleasures. I would argue, though, that there has to be some kind of pleasure, whatever the set of names given it.
Final Exam on Surrealism in American Poetry

Is "surrealism" a style? A method? A movement? A tone?

"We sailed the Indian Ocean for a dime."

Is that surrealism? Why do people call things surrealist that ain't?

"Who are the great poets of our time, and what are their names?"

When did having a book cover with a Magritte painting become the cliché that it now is? A Joseph Cornell box?

Is Russell Edson a surrealist? Why or why not? Why is Max Jacob a more influential model than André Breton?

What was surrealism? What wasn't it? When did it stop being what is was or wasn't?

Is Merwin a surrealist? Spicer? Wright? Ashbery? Lorca? Why is "surrealism" so boring? Why didn't Roland Barthes like it?

(Ron Padgett is not a surrealist.)

Is this a surrealist poem? Explain.

27/6/2007

Maybe you never thought about in this particular way, but the surrealism of the New York school isn't really surrealist. It doesn't put faith in the unconscious, irrational mind. New York school poetry is all about being attentive, hyperconscious of reality. It's zany and kind of fun, not quite as vatic and self-important. It doesn't exalt dreaming at the expense of everyday reality.

When O'Hara gets vatic and oracular, you can tell he's not taking himself too seriously. As in "Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets." He knows he's not Shelley, but he allows himself to go "purple" anyway.

Of course, this doesn't prevent Auden from distrusting this aspect of Ashbery (see preface for Some Trees). Or Elizabeth Bishop complaining in a letter that O'Hara is too surrealist.

Then too you notice the preference for modern French poets who come just before surrealism. Reverdy, Apollinaire. Or those who come after, like Michel Deguy. When Kenneth Koch describes Deguy in a brief essay, he could be describing his own poetry. How it includes a lot, doesn't want to be tied down to a narrow surrealist dependence on the unconscious mind as source of sacred truth.

***

There's a new Góngora translation out from the University of Chicago Press. Apparently I think it's good, because I have a blurb on the dust-jacket, which I wrote a few months ago and promptly forgot about until someone reminded me of it today. It's an excellent blurb that will convince you to buy this book.
It should be clear to almost anyone now that Kenneth Koch is a "major" (yikes!) poet, not just a name to be mentioned along side of other New York School poets in the obligatory list. The range and depth of his work is breathtakingly ambitious and successful, in so many genres and modes. Brilliant and influential.

You know those critical books published in the 80s and 90s dealing with the REPRESENTATIVE VOICES OF OUR AGE. There was usually a chapter on Ashbery (or O'Hara if the critic was a little hipper), a chapter on Adrienne Rich, one on Merrill or Merwin. Koch was not taken seriously. When I wrote a grad paper on him for Sorrentino more than twenty years ago I had the feeling of doing something new and slightly outrageous: critical prose on Kenneth Koch. Such a thing still barely exists. There is Harry Mathews on The Duplications, for example, but you couldn't imagine one of those Bloomian blurbs on a Koch book. You can imagine a Dissertation Director telling a student to take Koch out and put Ashbery or Ammons there in his stead.

It's not a lack of gravitas in the true sense. It's a lack of what people recognize as gravitas in, say, Heaney, Walcott, Merwin, Merrill, Rich, Graham, Ammons, and even Gluck or Strand. I don't want to tie that albatross around his neck. The albatross of "faux-gravitas." It doesn't fit, precisely because of his levitas. Some prefer the unexuberant, the humorless, the solemnly self-important poet. Merwin, say.

24/6/2007

Here are some "angles of approach" that I like to use to describe various kinds of pleasure I get from poetry.

Accent, distinctiveness

Could the poem have been written by anyone, someone else? Does it have a distinctive accent or is it more "generic"? Is its distinctiveness such that it is a self-parody? Are there obvious "mannerisms"?

"The tune of a cold trunk is thin
mute cate behind glass
that I write at all is bannered
in the close grains of sight outlasted" (CC)


Poeminess

Does the poem have a definable shape to it? Is it the right length for what it is? Does it go on too long? Is it a poem or is it "passages" of poetry? How is it at beginning, at carrying on, at ending?

(I have a hard time writing poems with this quality. I don't know how to end a poem, or make it go on for very long, though I am very good at begining.)


nioi, scent

Is it suggestive? (It shouldn't tell or show, but suggest something beyond what the words say.) Does something "catch" on the mind. Or does it use explicit "statement" in an interesting way?


cantabile

Is it cantabile? Does it sing? Does it sing too much?


freedom

Does it break its own rules? Does it make all the rules irrelevant? Is it "disobedient"? (Bernadette Mayer is a good one for this quality.)

23/6/2007

I was fooling around yesterday with some criteria for poetry yesterday. I came up with a few, like nioi, poeminess, etc... But then I thought that imaginative freedom trumped and superseded everything else. It is the criterion that makes all other criteria meaningless in the end. It's when the poem doesn't behave like it should, like a well-written poem, but instead takes you somewhere else. How soul-deadening is the idea that every good poem should be coherent or clear or have concrete visual images--or whatever.

So I'll spare you my list of criteria. Ideally, there should be a new list every day, superseding and making irrelevant yesterday's list. It's easy to lose sight of what poetry is for in the first place. When you realize that, then you know that any criterion that arrogates to itself the entire field, trying to be more significant that imaginative freedom, is the enemy.

18/6/2007

(a)

Catalpa with a skirt
of fluted ivory bloom

oblivious to dandelion
globe to reach stars

robin intent succulent
& loam-pulsing worm

***

(b)

YOUNG ENOUGH STILL TO BE YET TRUE

But kilter askance snow is just
when mounded time
left over from when it was visible
going

Still around and nothing doing
you can't put it back into motion lacking
poem that in its stillest drops
never stops

(c)

TURRET

What is your version, raking hay, reading law
In turret, transferring documenta?

What is origin of miscellany, misdemeanour,

from whence doggerel?



Whose profile is margin

where small animals lie, toad, minnow, book of Saints,
olives.


In the first poem, there the guiding idea that precise, objective observation of nature and careful choice of words are paramount. The poetic "subject" is in the background. Yet this is ultimately a paysage moralisé. The catalpa tree is personified as an aspiring organism indifferent to the humble dandelion weeds. The ideas are in the things, but they are very prominent as ideas.

The poem seems to ask for a certain kind of "close reading." For example, the words "skirt, fluted, ivory" suggest a woman, a musical instrument, and an elephant. There is a metonymic spill-over that you might want your students to notice. Language is compressed but still very clear.

In the second poem, the snow, in its dual states (falling/fallen) is the analogue of the creative process. The words "kilter" and "askance" point to other usages of those words, not other objects in the world. "Kilter is usually only found in the phrases "out of kilter" and "off kilter," but there is no such thing as a "kilter." Similarly with "askance," which is only used in the phrase "look askance" at something/someone. The effect of "kilter askance snow" is to suggest an altered state of perception of the object in question, bringing into play notions of equilibrium and slant/bias. Notice how (a) uses a short-hand, minimal syntax but is still perfectly understandable, whereas (b) requires a little more effort.

There is also a different idea of how the poem should look as a finished product. (a) is meant to be engraved in stone. (b) reads like an entry in a notebook. Smoothing out the rough edges would destroy it.

Finally, we have a poet for whom the external world does not weigh as heavily. The physical objects are props in the poet's mental theater. The result is a kind of ethereal, "floating" style, more similar to (b) in its subjectivism, but echoing the deliberate elegance of (a). There is pleasant preciosity here, as in (a). The implied narrative in (c) is a little harder to grasp, even though the syntactic flow is less jagged.

In each case, the choice to write this way and not that way is palpable in every word, every punctuation mark. You would not confuse poet (a) with poet (b) or (c). It's not just the style that's individuated, but the entire approach to language, self, and world. It's not that their language expresses a world view, but that the poem instantiates an attitude toward this complex triangle, a theory of what poetry is supposed to do.

You might prefer (a), (b), or (c) or none of the above. These aren't the only three ways of writing, but three among many, many aesthetic options available at any given time.

NOTE: Authors are revealed in the first comment if they are not obvious to you.

17/6/2007

I know this is not very recent, but I didn't have a blog in 1995:

When the Academy of American Poets announced it was giving Merwin the Tanning Prize, some said Merwin's best work was behind him, that since his 1967 book, "The Lice," a gloomy volume about the destruction of nature, his work had become obscure and abstract. (The critic Helen Vendler once called Merwin "a lesser Eliot," and his poems "elusive pallors.") In addition, Merwin is a chancellor of the academy; the judges -- the late James Merrill, J. D. McClatchy and Carolyn Kizer -- were all friends of Merwin's.

Initially, Kizer wanted the prize to go to Gwendolyn Brooks, an African-American. "My qualm was it would look like the white male establishment handing around prizes to each other." But James Merrill was chairman of the jury. "We wanted to find a real master," he said last fall. "Gwendolyn Brooks would be very distinguished. But somehow I don't think she's a master." Kizer, herself a potential candidate for chancellor, was outnumbered and eventually voted with the rest. "I revere him," says Kizer. "Thank God it was Merwin, who has such enormous stature."
.

Yeah, thank God it was Merwin, and not some OTHER white-male poet of lesser "stature." "Somehow" it's hard to see Brooks as a "MASTER." I wonder why that is? Not tall enough, maybe? It's a good thing that these Chancellors of the Academy have such a strong sense of ethics. Otherwise we would have them giving $10,000 prizes out to their friends. We couldn't have that.
Unless it is a canonical novel from before the 20th century, (or a super-canonical novel like Proust's), there will be only one translation into English of a given novel. Maybe two. Contrast that with the number of translations of Lorca's Romancero gitano or Poeta en Nueva York. My point is that with poetry the existence of multiple competing translations is a given, for almost any poet who is part of the poetry-in-translation canon. Baudelaire, Li Po, Basho, Neruda, etc...

Translation is seen as integral part of any poet's basic training. Who has not translated? The same couldn't really be said for novelists, ttbomk. Novelists don't have time to translate other people's novels.

The translation of prose is considered more or less transparent. That is, the book review might mention the translator and quality of version, but might not mention it. It is not the focus of the review. On the other hand, when someone brings out a new Duino Elegies, the point has to be how satsifactory (or not) the translation is.

16/6/2007

Faux-naif formalism

"No one explains me because
There is nothing to explain.
It's all right here
Very clear.
O for my reputation's sake
To be difficult, and opaque!"


"We went to church, obeyed the laws
And voted on election day.
The peaceful farms surrounded us
The battles far away."

I'm not saying that Sam Hamill's press publishes a lot of bad poetry, but...

(Well, that's the conclusion you could draw, actually.)

I'll stop once the School of Quietude admits that it EXISTS. All those disengenuous denials are getting on my nerves... This is the evidence, and I could go on and on. I haven't even started in on Mary Oliver yet.
Rod McKuen-esque

(also from Copper Canyon Press)

"How do we come to be here next to each other
in the night
Where are the stars that show us to our love..."

"When you have nothing to say,
the sadness of things
speaks for you."

"Only now
I see that you
are the end of spring
cloud passing..."

"God comes to us,
or should come to us, all"

"The fog is the body it can't quite be
these evenings of early August,
coming together"

"What the beloved wants
Is to burn more brightly,
To have more life."

"It is like the moment
after I say goodbye.
We become ourselves
for a slow moment
I want to lengthen
between us."

"Being without
You was almost more than I
Could bear."

"These things I had once. This brightness, softness, sweetness
She gave me once to my keeping.
Piece of this true sun."

I have to think Rod is the most influential poet in America, based on this evidence. Sure, I cooked the books, put my thumb on the scale, but it only took me a few minutes to do it.


They take comfort in cardboard,
in people pissing in their neighbor's yard.
Was it this I was mentioning to you
as we walked through their habitat?

In people pissing in their neighbor's yard
menace is kept a footfall away.
As we walked through their habitat
we took care to disturb.

Menace is kept a footfall away.
Long hair or short hair makes no difference.
We took care to disturb
the residue.

Long hair or short hair makes no difference.
I taught someone the mispronunciation of a word, once.
The residue,
There is nothing to do about the residue.

I taught someone the mispronunciation of a word, once.
She repeated it until it became correct.
There is nothing to do about the residue.
But you already knew that.

She repeated it until it became correct:
"They take comfort in cardboard."
But you already knew that.
Was it this I was mentioning to you?

The "flat" narrative. (from the Copper Canyon Press catalogue that just reached my mailbox)

"The grandmother wants me to excise a little freckle like a teardrop just below her granddaughter's left eye."

"Our colonial was the only blue one in the neighborhood, a color I liked, but I wasn't allowed to paint it with my father when it needed a fresh coat."

"When my propane ran out when I was gone and the food thawed in the freezer..."

".... finally I'm alone with the television as you are ..."

"A breeze nudges the empty aluminum boat as it drifts at the end of its rope, its lightness wallowing within it like a fat man who has fished all day."

"He is sulking again because whatever she does it's the wrong thing or she's talking to somebody else and he can't stand it. But he won't tell her about it oh no he walks away from the museum shop."
There is no contradiction between the idea that poetry has no rules, can never be learned, and the idea that it takes a lifetime to learn anything about poetry. If there were rules it wouldn't take a lifetime.

A lifetime might be Keats', or Rimbaud's, or Spicer's, or O"Hara's.

Or it could be Sophocles'.

Some old people can't write any more. They might have thought they already learned the rules.

Some young people can't write because they don't know enough yet.

"The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne." Is that the first English language reference to poetry as a "craft"?

Illusory metaphor.

15/6/2007

Ok, I'm in a public library blogging, and the blogger interface is all in Chinese! I still know how to push the orange button to publish, but it's kind of unnerving.
If we knew what poetry was in the first place, criticism of poetry wouldn't have any interest. It is mainly interesting to me as an unstable, contested reality. I am not a relativist in this; I think my own perceptions are better than yours, but I like to contrast them with those of others.

For example, reading some essays by Helen Vendler I recognize that all the equipment of a reader of poetry is there. Yet she comes to divergent conclusions; I share maybe 40% of her taste. What's valuable is to see where perceptions diverge.

If I look at Koch's Making Your Own Days I see his taste (in the anthology section of the book) is infallible. There is nothing bad there, from my perspective. In fact it's uniformly great stuff. This gives me a base-line to work from, in the sense that I know I'm not completely insane, but it doesn't give me insight about my inability to appreciate the poetry of Diane Wakoski.

Reading through Alice Notley's essays I notice that whatever she quotes is marvelous. It all leaps off the page at me. Once again, my own perceptions are confirmed.

Pretending to like something you don't is not just dishonest, but does harm to others. Maybe the anthologist who leaves out my favorite poets should be commended.
That's not a cross look it's a sign of life. Hate is only one of many responses. True, hate and hurt go hand in hand. Who'd have thought that snow falls. It always circled. So many echoes in my head. There is this to be said for Sunday morning, that if I have been very bad the night before and feel like a drab on a sunny day, Dick will pop by and invite me out to the high, abandoned airfield. There the sun will seem properly chilly. Grace to be born and live as variously as possible. The only way to be quiet is to be quick,so I scare you clumsily or surprise you with a stab. A praying mantis knows time more intimately than I and is more casual. Good fortune! you would have been my teacher and I your only pupil, and I would always play again, secrets of Liszt and Scriaban whispered to me over the keyboard unsunny afternoons. I don't know what D.H Lawrence was driving at when he spoke of lust rising from the bowels. Or do I. I wanted to be sure to reach you. I am the least difficult of men. I'm getter rather Lorcaesque lately and I don't like it. Better my poetry were than my lives. Instant coffee with slightly sour cream in it. All things are tragic when a mother watches. So I had to break his watch. My heart is in my pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy. Ah Jean Dubuffet! When you think of him doing his military service.

My quietness has a number of naked selves.
For a few years I have searched through the poems of Kenneth Koch for this passage, but could never find it, despite my clear memory of having read it there:

So many lousy poets
So few good ones
What's the problem?
No innate love of
Words, no sense of
How the thing said
Is in the words, how
The words are themselves
The thing said: love, auto...


Well yesterday I finally found it. I also discovered the reason why I had been unable to find it. It is in "The Morning of the Poem" by James Schuyler. I probably had been reading it the same time as one of those later Kenneth Koch poems about writing. I don't think Kenneth would disagree with JS in this case either.

Schuyler grew up wanting to be John O'Hara. He could have been this elegant New Yorker short story writer. Instead he became a New Yorker poet (Howard Moss liked his work so he published there a lot).

"The Morning of the Poem" is not as good as "Hymn to Life." Not as good as my memory of itself. Today I might read "A Few Days" which in my faulty memory is the best of these three poems.

13/6/2007

I forgot how good "Hymn to Life" was, not to mention Hymn to Life.
I have been reading Andrew Epstein's Beautiful Enemies on friendship in postwar American poetry. It's really very perceptive on O'Hara. I haven't read much of the book yet but I've already found a few quotes I'm going to appropriate (I mean quote with proper attribution) in the book I am writing. It always helps to have some really well-written quotes that make your point for you. Not your main point, but one that you need to make along the way. In this case, a very good summary of O"Hara plurality of selves. It's one of those books with quotable ideas on every page.

I noticed Kevin Killian has a mightily perceptive review at Amazon.com of this book, up already. Kevin has single-handedly converted Amazon into a serious venue for criticism.

Like Kevin, I am less interested in the American pragmatist and Emersonian angles. Perhaps not being an Americanist I don't care as much about tracing everything back to Emerson and Wiliam James. Isn't that the déformation professionelle of the Americanists? Not that it isn't a valid critical path to explore. There is a lot of Emerson in Ashbery, and a lot of Emersonian self-fashioning in O'Hara.

It also looks like it's going to be perceptive on Baraka/Jones.

***

I cheated a bit in my McKuen/Merwin quiz. I had to make quotes by Rod very short and less frequent, because once you get past a few lines he becomes too obviously McKuenesque.

***

I can make an argument for O'Hara as better informed about Spanish culture than most of his contemporaries. He curated that New Spanish Painting and Sculpture Exhibit for the MOMA in 1960. He had long conversations with Motherwell about Lorca in the 1950s and the last poem of his Collected Poems is "Little Elegy for Antonio Machado." It's not much, but it's more than most people of that time and place. (Too bad his elegy for Machado isn't all that great a poem.)

***

In a letter to Robert Bly James Wright agonizes over the translation of a very simple phrase in Spanish in a Lorca poem he is trying to translate. He doesn't notice, however, that he has confused the verb "sonar" with the verb "soñar." It's like the New York times crossword that makes you write "ano" [anus] for año [year].

***

I've been thinking about Reginald Shepherd's recent post about on-line discourse. It seems to invite a response, since he points the finger explicitly at avant-garde bloggers. Obviously, the degradation of discourse on the internet is the function of political blogs, adolescent chat-rooms, and the like. If there is some of this on avant-garde poetry blogs too, that is just spill-over--trolls finding a place to nest, like XXX in YYY's comment boxes. I agreed with Reginald in his general points until I noticed he could be talking about people like me. When I make a critical statement that seems irresponsible, it is usually something I can back up. My sometimes hyperbolic style shouldn't fool you: I actually do know what I'm talking about.

11/6/2007

Here's an idea. Every poet has three literary contexts.

(1) The immediate past. The writers imitated or admired in youth or during a formative stage.

For Lorca, that would be Rubén Darío and then Machado, for Pound, Browning or Whitman. For Creeley, Pound and Williams.

(2) The present literary moment during the writer's maturity. For Lorca that would be the avant-garde movements of the 1920s, Dalí and Buñuel. For Pound--Joyce and Stein.

(3) The "usable" parts of a more distant past. Not all parts of the literary tradition are actually usable in this way. For most of us most of the time the literary tradition is inert, not reactive.

For Pound it might be Calvacanti plus Noh drama, etc... For Lorca, the entire poetic tradition of Spain.

The first modernists were not fully modernists yet. They are 19th-century poets still. Their sucessors will be full-blown modernists in their literary formation, but by the time they reach their own maturity there will be a different situation in which modernism can no longer be the same thing, so their modernism will look like something else. Literary careers develop over long periods of time. The kid who grows up wanting to be Tennyson discovers that there is no Tennyson anymore.

So a poetic style is a layered, intertextual construction. There should be at least three temporal moments to think with respect to any poet. Think of a Pound translation of Calvalcanti, done in a style endebted to Rossetti. That makes my point more "visible." But I contend that similar things are going on even when it isn't as easy to pinpoint those three "moments" so neatly.

The fourth factor is the poet him or herself--experiences, readings, preferences. Along with the "usable past" this is the most variable ingredient, since not everyone shares the same foreign languages, the same periods, etc...

So it puzzles me when people write in more or less the same style as other people. Usually it happens when poets want to fit in a peer group, or imitate a prevailing model, and have little sense of the poetic tradition beyond the immediate past.

***

An anthologist should never put *self* into anthology. The only exception is when it is an anthology of a particular group done from the inside. So Breton would be allowed to put himself in the surrealist anthology, for example. His absence would ruin the anthology.

9/6/2007



The mysterious
strategist,
she who lets the seasons
pass
and piles up
matches
because in her territory
it's always winter.

8/6/2007

Cal it confirmatory bias, but I've found Frank O'Hara to be a lot more like Lorca than Robert Bly is. I don't mean that O'Hara imitates or is visibly influenced by Lorca (except in one or two poems.) It's a deeper similarity. They are the same kind of poeet. Both have a Protean sense of self; both are poets with a variety of styles and masks, involved with the best painting and music of their day. (Either could have been a concert pianist if the wind had shifted in a different direction.) Both were charismatic figures, the life of the party, with a more somber side, suspicious of the source of their own appeal. Both were intellectuals who didn't want to be seen as intellectuals. Both are condescended to by ignorant fools. Both play with "camp" elements. Both wrote texts derived from the cinema.

Bly on the other hand has nothing temperamentally or poetically in common with Lorca. Lorca is the master of many meters, forms, and genres. Bly of none. Lorca draws on the fullness of folk and popular traditions of his native language. Bly doesn't. O'Hara and Lorca are polyfaceted, complex, resonant figures. They are the greatest and most representative poets of their respective times and places.

7/6/2007

I'm resurrecting this post from 3 years ago. I took the quiz again myself and looked at the answers. I failed miserably:

***


Reading some W.S. Merwin poems in APR, it struck me that the style was a lot like the great Rod McKuen. So here's my test: which fragments are from Merwin, which from McKuen?

a.

Who knows how many dreams
die out of season
reaching for some added darkness
or twisting upward where the sunlight
sits on haunches in the tops of trees.

b.

Not enough has been said
ever in your praise
hushed mornings
before the year turns new

c.

So you are leaving everything
the way it is
taking only your day with you

already you are out of reach...


d.


The air was bearable to me
only just because I had to breathe
but then you must have known that.

e.

You are what we believe
even if we know better
seeing is believing. . .

f.

not forgetting you
forgetting you
in the dark of the shoes
in the sounds of the stairs
in the opening door

***
More-- Merwin or McKuen?


(1)

It should have been poco
divertimento from the second
act, intermission from the dead
line, time lapse from whatever.

(2)

one fluted phrase
floating over its
wandering secret
all at once wells up
somewhere else

(3)

everything I remember
and before it before me
present at the speed of light
in the distance that I am
who keep reaching out to it

(4)

When you are already here
you appear to be only
a name that tells of you
whether you are present or not
and for now it seems as though
you are still summer

(5)

you who arrive
with blue plums
that have fallen through the night
perfect in the dew
Night
takes off
her strangler's
stockings
and a force
alien
to my will
keeps me
from moving.
They are everywhere.
The gravediggers
of dreams.

Life
is a pyramid
that robs
its own shadow
and they still
don't know it.
I got my copy of Lola Velasco's El sueño de las piedras yesterday.

She who rests
above a landscape
of skeletons,
and wonders
how it is possible
that the universe (still) exists.




***

I checked out The Rova Improvisations from the public library. I don't own this book, for some reason.

"The music is a physical world / the sensing organ must reach into / synaesthesiac exchange of senses."

6/6/2007

I have always wondered about those jazz piano "voicings." I have a relatively untrained harmonic ear (and mind) so I've never really understood what was going on. But a tiny bit of research over the web gave me a surprisingly simple answer.

The standard Bud Powell style voicing removes the 5th out of the chord, so basically it has a sparser sound, with the root, the third and the 7th. The 5th is not too sorely missed, because it doesn't really give the color to the chord.

The next generation, Bill Evans voicing puts the 3rd or 7th on the bottom and omits the root of the chord. (Let the bass player play it). So you'll have the 3rd, the 7th, the 5th, and maybe one more chord extension like a 6th or 9th or 11th. The tone quality is chromatic, colorful, and somewhat ambiguous and free floating because you don't actually hear the root of the chord. It's implied.

Most chords seem to use a 7th in some way, whether a major 7th or dominant 7th. That is, they are not simply triads. Once the triad is not the basis of harmony, you can drop out one of the notes of the triad, whether the root or the 5th, and get two suprisingly different sounding approaches. You can have a richly colorful sound, but at the same time one without too many notes.
Here are two other fallacies.

The idea that poetry should wear its technique on its sleeve. That poetry that advertises its craft (Lorine Niedecker or Ronald Johnson) is more technically perfect than poetry that hides its technique. It's not that these aren't very technically adpet. wonderful poets, I'm just saying that there may be others whose poetry technique is equal, but less "at the surface."

The idea that poetry should always hide its technique, that it should always sound natural, not "artificial."
We were taught the music of poetry was a poor thing.

We considered the fraudulence of our elders.
The idea of Lorca as a kind of anti-intellectual figure is deeply wrong. (Unfortunately, he has been hero to anti-intellectuals like Bly.) In the Spanish context, he seems less erudite than the "poet-professors" of his generation. The voice that speaks in his poems is often infantilized or faux-naif. His characters speak in concrete images, not abstractions. All this creates a false perception.

Lorca was an extremely self-disciplined and rigorous creator. He systematically mastered all the poetic styles of Spanish poetry, from the medieval lyric and "romance" through the contemporary avant-garde (passing through the baroque, the nineteenth-century, modernismo). He was the master of every conceivable meter and form. He didn't like automatic writing because he really wanted that strict discpline. The idea that he just strung together unrelated "surrealist" images is just untrue.

He seems to be an inspired figure, one for whom the muse or duende is more significant than discipline and self-conscious mastery. Nothing could be more false. He worked extremely hard, with quite a bit of the basic apprentice work coming before the age of 20. Look at the Obra inédita de juventud, his juvenilia. (His first book, Libro de poemas was published when he was 22, but the volume of juvenilia I am referring to predates even this.) That most of this juvenile poetry is just derivative detritus is part of my point. In Kenneth Koch's terms, he had a tremendous "poetry base."

It reminds me a bit of Coltrane, in the sense that Coltrane was an obsessive practicer from an early age. Another figure of pure, inspired genius, supposedly What such talent really is, then, is a talent for becoming so absorbed in the work that everything else disappears. (Coltrane reportedly was so into music that he didn't know who Willie Mays was.)

FGL and JC both created numerous major works before their premature deaths, works that are inconceivable as the products of naive geniuses.

***

Something I read in Reginald Shepherd's blog recently. Where someone in his class said, "You act as if you knew more than anyone else in the room." To which his natural reply was, I do know more than anyone in the room, than everyone in the room combined, at least about poetry. And if I didn't, you would have cause to complain.

I hope I can use that in the classroom some day. That is just the perfect comeback. The idea that poetry is just subjective crap about which everyone's opinion is equally valid pervades our culture. To the statement, "I have a right to my opinion" the proper response is no, you don't have a right to an opinion about something you know nothing about. This seems harsh, but really what good is it to tolerate ignorance about an art form?

5/6/2007

There are two equal and opposite fallacies. One is that the colloquial direct style is and should be the ideal for all poetic writing. That you should never write anything that couldn't be said. The other fallacy is that poetic language needs to mark its distance, be its own separate language. I could teach a whole course just on those two ideas and their permutations. Both are false, I suppose, and they are mutually exclusive on the face of it. Yet both are just true enough to create confusion.

It is true that a direct, colloquial style with lots of concrete visual imagery and speech rhythms will usually be pretty good. (With the caveat in the post below that this is not an easy thing to do. Some people can't even speak colloquially.) By the same token, a big part of what's bad writing is the product of the "shimmering glimmering school." In other words, the idea that putting a lot of flashy words in is a good idea. The Derek Walcott fallacy.

On the other hand, this primacy of the colloquial direct style is oppressively puritanical without the counterbalance of the opposite idea, that poetry needs to encompass and engage language beyond the immediacy of what one might verisimilarly utter in real life. Poetry is the fullness of language, not a limited selection. Styles that seem colloquial often aren't as direct as they seem, and people often can't state accurately what the diction of a poem actually is. (That is, they might not realize how elevated it is. There are many degrees of elevation. For example, when Williams speaks of "love's obscure and insatiable appetite." That's a nuggest of "literary" writing but it seems colloquial in the context of a poem about some sparrows by the iron fence post, barely seen for the dry leaves that half cover them, stirring up the leaves...

3/6/2007

We think of a colloquial, direct style as easy to achieve, but if that were true then anybody could write as well as Eileen Myles. But this is obviously not the case. Not even Eileen Myles can write like this--all the time and at will. The directness of WCW and some modernist prose writers too is an achievement. It isn't even that easy to imitate.

I was thinking about this because Lorca's biographer commits this fallacy of tracing his poetic style to the speech of his native community. The fallacy can be seen in the fact that there is only one Lorca, and that his mature style is an achievement. He had to work through a stage of late 19th-century symbolist decadence, in his juvenilia, then a stage of elegant Andalusian preciosity, in a second stage of juvenilia. Never leaving behind this preciosity completely is also a key factor, since it creates a kind of tension. At times the preciosity occurs as a kind of camp excess, baroque flourish, Andalusian picturesqueness, or morbose pathos. A really bare-bones purity reminiscent of the medieval lyric appears too, but it is a real achievement when it does.

So to say Lorca writes the way he does because that's just the way they talk in the province of Granada is unbelievable stupid. The idea that his language just emanates from the earth.