30 nov 2005

I was eating some Fish and Chips the other day. The first french-fry I absent-mindedly put in my mouth was, by a large margin, the absolute worst item in this genre I have ever eaten. First of all, it was cold, as though it had just been in the refrigerator for an hour. Secondly, it was unbelievably sour, and when I bit into it it released some kind of cold, acidic juice into my mouth. Of course this particular french fry would have made an excellent wedge of lemon for my fish. In fact, it was an excellent lemon wedge. As a fry, however, it was very deficient. What this has to do with poetry I have no idea. I'm sure there's a lesson here somewhere.

28 nov 2005

To judge poets by their participation in communities of their peers is to judge a group of mostly very introverted people by a strange, alien criterion. Must poets be gregarious? Or is this compensatory, given that the actual activity of writing is so solitary, that it can in fact be done in complete isolation? I don't judge a novel by whether the novelist has lunch with other novelists. Of course I have suffered by having a mostly very attentuated sense of knowing other poets.

Of course there are extroverts too among our ranks.

26 nov 2005

So much of reading poetry--and writing it--is ruminative and fragmented. An anxious, frustrating searching through books and magazines. The attention flags. There is not that unitary 6-hour experience of reading a novel, or the novelist's feeling of writing through a certain portion of the narrative.

23 nov 2005

I got a copy of Coltsfoot Insularity by Jess Mynes and Aaron Tieger. I'd order yours fast because there are only 150 copies printed.

It's an interesting collaboration because the style of the two poets seem to meld. I can't usually tell which poems are by which poet, except when I happen to know already from having seen the poems in my capacity as editor of The Duplications.

Other recent acquisitions:

Laura Sims, "Practice, Restraint."

Kenneth Koch's Collected.

I like a few of Sims' poem quite a bit. One in particular that I'll be getting to later. As so often is the case, I find a few poems that really catch my attention rather than thinking the entire book is consistently strong from start to finish.

My plan for the Kenneth is to read it from start to finish--something I never do with a Collected Poems.
I was thinking while driving in the car today about three or four dimensions of emotion in poetry. There's the basic feeling of the poem, its mood in simplest terms. Then, the strategy of concealment or self-dramatization by which that feeling is made manifest. Is emotion let out or "contained," for example. Is it understated or histrionic?

Also there is all the emotional freight that has to do with the actual writing and reading of the poem, that isn't part of the mood "behind" the poem. This is a kind of emotion intrinsic to the act of writing, and may or may not be consonant with the original mood of the poem. For example, exuberant self-confidence (about the act of writing) might go into the writing of an expression of elegiac despair. That is a kind of "intrinsic" emotion that I haven't seen discussed very much if at all.

There is also the emotion having to do with the expression of a very particular cultural moment, a time and place. Emotion that seems very particularized in this way. To know what it was like to be alive at a particular moment, quick as foxes on the hill, as Wallace Stevens might have said.

If there are about 9 basic emotions, about 9 varieties of each of them, about 5 or 6 basic strategies of "expression," and about 35 other emotions intrinsic to the act of writing, then the permutations seem quite overwhelming. What are the main variables to be considered. I have only just begun to think about this so please don't jump all over me right away. That would make me very "emotional."
Ron, in a comment on his own blog, mentioned how I had taken a picture of Jordan on the "SUNY-Lawrence" campus. I assume that's a deliberate joke--the State University of New York, Lawrence, Kansas campus!

22 nov 2005

Mayhew's Mood (II)

To be a ritual

it must be repeated

Each hamster was buried

in a shoe-box

They were all named George

19 nov 2005

18 nov 2005

Some hands have a poetic conversation with a kite that they are flying. The poem has thirteen sections; the hands speak seven times, beginning and ending the sequence, and the kite's voice is heard in the remaining six sections. Each section consists of a few fragments written in very short lines of free verse.

Taken in its entirety, the sequence is an allegorical story of love and passion, control and freedom. The language is easy to read but difficult to understand, as one of my students put it. I translated it a few years ago but did nothing with it. Now I'm thinking of placing some of these fragments in magazines. I started with my own magazine, The Duplications, since I haven't been getting any submssions this month. It was to be the all female month there, but almost nobody submitted.

17 nov 2005

in class discussion today, a poem that sent mixed emotional signals. A description of an interior patio in an apartment building with noises of vacuum cleaners, saxophones played by children, Mingus's "Pork Pie Hat." The tone is whimsical and so some students took the mood to be basically contented. Yet there were also images of a black cat jumping into the void, babies crying, the setting sun committing suicide on the television antennas, as other students noted. There is an ominous melancholy tone but also a lightness of touch. Melancholy rather than desperation. Students tended to want to see it one way of the other, define its tone as either optimistic or pessimistic.

In another text read recently, a mayor of a town decides to start a municipal band. The town is devoted to the raising of chickens, and for some reason the chickens are averse to music; several chickens sicken and die. After a series of improbable events, all the townspeople have become musicians, but play out of town in order not to kill the chickens. The mayor lives in town alone and has become owner of the all the chickens. In the last paper I got a few readings of this story as a fairly straightforward denunciation of the abuse of political power. As if the story had been only: the mayor devises a scheme to steal all the chickens. Even many fairly good students want to read texts in a fairly literal-minded way. Of course, they may be right. That is, the capricious abuse of power is one thing brought into play here. Why music, though? Why chickens?
Why am I oriented toward feeling now whereas a few months ago I was more oriented toward thinking? Is that a pendulum swing or a permanent trend in that direction?
Academic Excercise

The articulation of affect in poetry is a rather complex subject. What are the basic questions? Not just what the underlying tonality or mood of the poem is, but the basic approach taken, the attitude toward the emotion, the strategies for articulation or evasion. If you took Plath, O'Hara, Ashbery, and Creeley, for example, you would find four separate and unequal strategies for expressing and/or evading the expression of affect. You might even find several strategies in a single poet.

Our emotions about poetry include the actual emotions of the poem as well as our feeling about poetry itself. The experience of being moved by a poem includes these secondary feelings of being moved by the very existence of poetry in such a moving form. For example, I might be moved that Bach existed and wrote this music I am now listening to, by the fact that I can emotionally respond to something written hundreds of years ago.

Explore some dimension of this topic in an essay of fewer than 300 words. You will be graded on your emotional articulateness and intelligence.

16 nov 2005

Surely nobody needs to be taught how to feel? The point is that students approach literature as any other academic subject, and are judged by their intellectual responses, their knowledge of the field, their interpretations, their mastery of critical language--everything except their emotional response. It's as though the reason for reading poetry in the first place were removed from serious discussion, made virtually unmentionable. Then we can complain that the students don't get it at a fundamental level, that they are not feeling literature as they should.
One of my favorite collections of vocal music is "Dinah Jams," with Dinah Washington and various musicians, mostly from the Max Roach / Clifford Brown group. Could Dinah be my favorite jazz singer? Yes, I think she could be. There is no confusing her with anyone else.

13 nov 2005

A poetic voice that's unafraid, fearless. That's a concept I found recently in an essay by Alice Notley, from a book of her essay which I bought in New York last weekend. I take this as, unafraid to be itself. Don't try to write other people's poems, because that is a losing game. Nobody else can write your poems as well as you can. (If they can, you are in trouble.) Imitate all you want, but even if you imitate it will end up sounding like yourself eventually, because you won't be a perfect mimic.

That's what "Mayhew's Mood" is about. Learning to be unafraid to speak with my own voice.


The recent Field has a few poems by my aunt, Lenore Mayhew. Also, a nice little cluster on Jean Valentine. I was moved by Lenore's poem "Absence," because I took it to be (possibly) about the death of my own father, her younger brother--and others in our family. This year we've lost another from this family, my aunt Martha Leigh. My father's sister, but also one of my mother's closest friends. Lenore was always my favorite aunt, probably because she wrote poetry. I remember as a child coming across a book of poetry by a writer named "Poe," and noticing that he had poems featuring names of my two literary aunts, Helen and Lenore. There seemed to be a magic in these names--Poe (as in Poet), Lenore, ahd Helen. That magical coincidence is still my earliest and strongest association with poetry. I'm pretty sure these were the first poems I read. I wondered whether Poe became a poet because of his name, or whether my aunts were writers because they had names from Poe's poetry. I'm pretty sure I was about nine or ten.


First Intensity has some Jordan Davis, Theodore Enslin, some posthumous work by Gustav Sobin. It also has some local poets like Irby and Roitman. I had a nice talk the other day with Lee Chapman, the editor and publisher of FI. She has never asked me for poems before because she did not know that I wrote poetry. It seems odd, but when I first met her I believe that I was very self-effacing about my own work. This is not the first person who didn't know I was a poet--a person I know from the poetry world, I mean.

9 nov 2005

The Poetics Seminar, which I direct here at the University of Kansas, Hall Center for the Humanities, has been going on since 1998, when I founded it. There are many Faculty Seminars, the British Seminar, the Gender Seminar, the Andean Seminar, in which faculty and sometimes graduate students present their research. We also have some money to bring in outside speakers. I have brought in people such as Marjorie Perloff, Jordan Davis, and Ron Silliman. David Shapiro is coming in the Spring.

Today Judy Roitman spoke. In attendance were Stan Lombardo, Jim McCrary, Ken Irby, Lee Chapman, Denise Low, Joe Harrington, and others. I am particularly proud of the way that the Seminar can attract an audience unaffiliated with the University. I doubt many of the other Seminars have as many people not from the University in attendance. It is a kind of bridge between the University and the poetic community at large.

We have had some less than stellar presentations in the seminar, but very few. The great thing about bad presentations is how forgettable they are. I really only remember the good moments. Irby and Silliman on Duncan, Perloff on Silliman and Howe, Davis on Koch, Roitman on Alan Davies or Maryrose Larkin. McCrary on himself. Denise Low. David Perry. I have given talks myself there on occasion.

I gave over the seminar to my colleague Jill Kuhnheim for a little while; then she passed it back to me. It really is my lifeblood. That, and the blog you are now reading. These things connect me with other people who share my passion for poetry.

6 nov 2005

There was one person I met in New York, however, who was pretty much a total asshole. It wasn't a cab driver or a waiter. Everyone was unfailingly nice--except for this one particular guy, a poet.
Drew's reading was amazing. The poetry/jazz thing can easily be cliché, but this was about as far from that particular cliché as you can get. He scored his poetry like Mike Post might score an episode of Law & Order, if Mike Post were a more free-wheeling and improvisatory musician. The music was eerie and never distracting. It was improvised on some basic motifs for each poem, yet sounded remarkably tight. I loved his bass player, whose name I cannot recall this moment.

The poems themselves are amazing, on the page, but gain a great deal from an impeccable sense of timing and pace. This is probably the best reading I've ever seen in my life. Now I know why I hate poetry readings--they are not like this, usually. There are few poets who are as equally good at writing and at the performance of their own work.

I had a good time hanging out with friends and meeting some new ones, both at the CCCP conference and at the book party and reading. New friends and acquaintances include: Kaplan. Linda. Steve and Jennifer. Sawako. Rodrigo. Nada. Marjorie Welish. Lee Ann Brown. Tim Peterson. James Sherry. Alan Davies. I also saw others I had met before. David Shapiro. Douglas. Nick and Toni. Steve. Drew, of course, and Katie. Gary. Raphael. Pierre Joris. My cousin Ann.

It's pretty intense for me to see all these people in two or three days, when my normal routine is not to see anyone at all from the poetry world if I don't happen to run into Irby at Borders or in the hallway of the building where I work.
I'm back from NYC. I lost an email submission to The Duplications sent to me over the weekend. Please, if you are the person who sent it to me (whose name I don't remember), please resend. Somehow I deleted it with all my spam, hoping to come back to it later--but it was gone.

3 nov 2005

Another question for Kasey at Limetree on Dead Kitten Poetics. Is craft an "alibi" only when we use it to dismiss a poem we don't like, or is it also a similarly suspect move when we use judgments about craft in a positive sense for what we do in fact like? It seems to be that if we don't really know what we're talking about when we talk about craft (a debatable point, which is why we're debating it), this might also apply to positive valorations of craft or technique.

That is, if you say "Jonathan doesn't like that Mary Oliver poem, so he projects his dislike onto the poem's technique, which is actually unobjectionable," could you also say, "Well, Jonathan likes that Creeley poem, and gives answers pertaining to technique or craft as his reasons, but the real reasons are elsewhere." If so, what are those other reasons? Am I deluding myself in valuing WCW or Creeley or Niedecker for their command of language and rhythm. I don't think so. Nor am I deluding myself (I think) when I affirm that Mary Oliver doesn't have that kind of command or technical competence.
I'll be in New York and away from the blog until Sunday. Away from email too. If you need to reach me in New York please use the top secret cell phone number: 314 550-4789.

2 nov 2005

Maybe that's the difference too between two different cultural approaches to poetry. One is oriented toward a sort of workshop consensus model, where tactics are discussed in detail but strategy is left unntouched. After all, the workshop can only work if there is some broad agreement first about what is acceptable and what is not. There have to be unarticulated "givens." Maybe even articulated givens.

The other is oriented toward "poetics," the idea that each poem must be judged in relation to an overarching aesthetic project. It's not a question of correcting a line-break here or there, questioning an image or line. A lot of us don't really think like that. It seems almost amateurish, though curiously it is the mark of a certain kind of "professionalism" in some quarters.

I assume I have enough poetic "technique" to do what I want to do, within my limits. That is, I assume I don't have to sign up for the line-break seminar, the simile refresher course. If I fail, it will be because my aesthetic vision fails to be convincing enough to that particular reader making the judgment. It will be a failure of connection, on the phatic level almost, not a deficient command of poetic technique. I could improve on technique or craft too, I'm sure. I'm no Ronald Johnson. But I don't see the workshop culture as producing Ronald Johnson-style technique either. That is, poems that have been workshopped to death still don't seem technically masterful to me in any way I'm at all interested in, even if they don't have obvious flaws. They just seem "beige" to me, to quote Gary Sullivan earlier today.

I'm not even sure I want to be Lorine Niedecker or Ronald Johnson. Even if I had the choice to write as well in that style as they do, that's not the model I would be interested in pursuing either. I'm using them as shorthand for a certain pared-down, technically adept poetics derived from objectivism. I lack that sort of talent, obviously, but that's not what I was meant to write anyway.
I agree with this post by Josh. I don't particularly care for that particular Chiasson poem, but I agree with the general principle that you can't discuss tactics without discussing strategy first. Do you think one of my favorite poems from Notley's Mysteries of Small House could survive a good poetry-board hashing out?

Chiasson has written some children's books that my daughter has enjoyed. (Is that the same guy?) I'm willing to give him some BOTD. The poem did seem odd to me, because I didn't know what code to read it in. Is it in the Dean Young/Albert Goldbarth mode, but aching to be Jim Behrle? The tone of voice is way out of control--I'd just bring it further out of control. Why stop at clubbing baby seals and hapless college students? The poem needs to be even wilder if it is going to go this far. Otherwise it risks cuteness.

In a culture that puts ice in all its drinks, it seemed odd to suppose that someone might prefer to become dehydrated than drink frozen water. I myself would rather drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log, before joining one of those "poetry boards" that Jeffery describes. I didn't know such a thing existed. It's not that I can't take criticism (well, ok, I can't, but that's another discussion). It's that I would never take criticism from someone that I don't fully respect. If someone liked that Mary Oliver poem about the Cyclops poem, why would I accept that person's criticism as valid? I would only actually take criticism or advice about my poetry from a two or three people in this world. No offense to the rest of you.

1 nov 2005

The Duplications: Jenna Cardinale, "Flaws"

This poem kicks off November--all female month at The Duplications. I have no idea who Jenna Cardinale is, but I know I like this poem. So much for cronyism.
When daylight saving time ends--that's when we can begin to hoard darkness once again.