Byron & Shelley: The Making of the Poets

 

Byron_ShelleySo, the other book I read was Byron & Shelley in their Time: The Making of the Poets. This is written by Ian Gilmour. Gilmour’s writing is much different from Sisman’s. Whereas Sisman’s narrative voice is more generically reportorial, Gilmour packs his narrative with subjective opinion and analysis – revealing a knowledge of culture and politics that Sisman nowhere matches.  Gilmour digs in, hard, giving opinions on both Byron and Shelley’s behavior — and doesn’t pull any punches. I frankly like Gilmour’s style of writing more than Sisman’s. If Gilmour thinks Shelley was  being ridiculous, he says so. And there’s plenty of opportunity. Interestingly, it strikes me that Gilmour repeatedly dismisses Shelley’s atheism and I do have to wonder whether part of that is because of his having been a Conservative MP from 1962 to 1992, “having served as Secretary of State for Defense under Edward Heath and then as Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher.”  I don’t know if a conservative MP is the same thing as a conservative in the United States (those in the United States never saw a problem the Bible couldn’t fix.)

The downside to Gilmour’s biography is that there’s relatively little poetry. He spends much of his time on Byron and Shelley’s politics (which makes sense, I suppose, given his background) and sexual proclivities, speculating time and again on whether their various physical ailments were due to STD’s. To be fair, the lion’s share of the biography takes place before they had written anything memorable, and yet some influence on their later work ought to be demonstrable. If you visit Amazon you’ll see that other readers thought Gilmour dwelt too much on the “biography” and too little on the poetry.

As for myself, the whole book was an education on the brutal Lord of the Flies that was the British educational system, and the incompetent, self-interested, cruel corruption that characterized the rule of the aristocracy. What really struck me is how, in certain respects, little has changed. We still see the same forces battling each other today, including in the United States. The aristocrats have been replaced by monied conservatives and Republicans. The Republicans of Byron and Shelley’s day, on the other hand, have become our modern liberals. Just as the authoritarian English aristocrats felt they were entitled to their money and status (and didn’t owe a shred of their wealth to the less well off) so it is with modern authoritarian conservatives — whose cries of socialism are little more than an affirmation of Social Darwinism (which is all well and good when the money’s in their pocket).

The British  government didn’t serve the people; it was the other way around and knowingly so. And Religion, by the way, really was the opiate of the masses. The upper classes knowingly expected the Church (which has almost always enjoyed the status of an aristocracy) to uphold the social order:

Together with Napolean and many others, Edmund Burke was convinced that only if religion was able to keep the poor, if not contented, at least quiescent, could great inequalities of wealth survive. Thus to the Church — long an important part of the state — fell the task of providing ‘divine cement’ to hold society together by urging the poor to seek their consolation in the next world, not this one. [p. 48]

In our own time, the parallel is to the elevation of unregulated Capitalism. Just as the poor were urged to seek consolation in the “next world”, the poor in the United States are urged to seek consolation in the promise that they too, given the right  circumstances, could enjoy the ‘next world’ that the wealthy and rich already enjoy — the ‘divine cement’ of modern America is the illusion of “equal opportunity” or rather, the notion that all opportunity is equal, that the same wealth can be had by all — promised (though through different means) by both Republicans and Democrats. Gilmour goes on to add:

William Wilberforce, who took a much stronger line on slavery, of course, also urged the poor to be grateful for having to withstand fewer temptations than the rich, consequently they should be content to have ‘food and raiment’ (even though many of them did not have enough) since ‘their situation’ was better ‘than they deserved at the hand of God.’ [p. 48]

And for comparison’s sake, here’s Tucker Carlson of Fox News:

 “All of us should be happy about one thing, and it’s that for the first time in human history you have a country whose poor people are fat.  So this does show this sort of amazing abundance.  For the last however many millennia, poor people starved to death.  And this is a country that’s so rich, whose agriculture sector is so vibrant and at the cutting edge technologically, that our food is so cheap, poor people are fat! I mean, I don’t know. We shouldn’t take that for granted.”

It’s the same monied aristocracy alive and well today. By today’s standards, Shelley would be a scrappy progressive writing blistering jeremiads for far left think tanks, giving Republicans dyspepsia (he reviled marriage before settling, it seems, for an open marriage), and Byron would be the well-heeled Democratic Senator from Massachusetts (a devastatingly handsome, brilliant, womanizing, Ivy-League progressive with a gated colonial at Martha’s Vineyard). Both Shelley (and Bryon especially) came from aristocratic families, and both were active in their political leanings. For example, the British law of the entail requires that the passage of (a landed estate) [be limited] to a specified line of heirs, so that it cannot be alienated, devised, or bequeathed.” This meant, by law, that Shelley was entitled to his father’s inheritance and estate (and none of his sisters). And, as it turns out, William Bysshe Shelley was the first and only eldest son and aristocrat, in the history of England, who tried to disinherit himself — so disgusted was he by the whole system. Shelley’s father, Timothy Shelley, a cold, disinterested and inept father of strong conservative conviction would have been equally happy to disinherit his son:

Shelley had had no word from his father. As soon as Timothy received his son’s letter of 25 August, posted by Charles Grove (which, as we have seen, boorishly demanded his belongings), he hastened to London to consult Whitton, his solicitor. He would have liked to disinherit his son, but Whitton showed him that the entails ruled that out, much as they had ruled out Shelley disinheriting himself. [p. 280]

And that was that. Gilmour also devotes a chapter to Shelley’s trip to Dublin, Ireland.

The object of his Address to them, which he had written at Keswick and revised in Dublin where it was printed cheaply and shoddily, was to ‘awaken… the Irish poor’ to the evils of their present state and suggest ‘rational means of remedy — Catholic Emancipation, and a Repeal of the Union Act, (the latter the most successful engine that England ever wielded over the misery of fallen Ireland,)… Hence, Shelley had ‘wilfully vulgarized its language… [to suit] the taste and comprehension of the Irish peasantry who have been too long brutalized by vice and ignorance.’ [p. 306]

Gilmour goes on to assert that Shelley misjudged the Irish only insomuch,  it seems, as he was too progressive. “Shelley further offended his target readers by telling them that the gates of heaven were open to people of every religion, which was not the general view in a country where, as Byron had written… ‘jarring sects convulse a sister isle'” [p. 307] Byron, on the other hand, is portrayed as a more practical personality with a more  even-keeled intelligence. And that’s where I discovered that I liked Byron after all, and more than Shelley (though I don’t dislike Shelley).

Byron’s ill-repute is based on his womanizing, his  incestuous relationship with his sister, and his aristocratic hypocrisy (while decrying the undeserved entitlements of the ‘nobility’, he nevertheless took offense at the most trivial slights to his own). In another biography of Byron and Shelley (I’ve just started) the author, John Buxton, puts it this way:

Charles Hentsch, the banker, who at twenty-six was already well known [in Geneva] came [to Byron] to apologise for not recognizing Byron when he visited the bank on the previous day. He had the tact to say that he had had no idea that he was then speaking to one of the most famous Lords of England. Byron took to him at once (as he would not have done had Hentsch called him one of the most famous poets of England… [p. 6 Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship]

That made me laugh. And I’m inclined to agree with Buxton. The thing about Byron though (and this is also true of Shelley) is that one has to consider his upbringing before judging his adulthood. Byron was born with a club foot (or an abnormality that was inaccurately diagnosed as such). As a child, he had to wear a brace (concocted by a quack) which was ostensibly meant to correct the leg but only caused extreme pain and possibly worsened Byron’s leg. Once Byron landed in school, a brutal environment where a hundred boys might be ‘disciplined’ by a single adult, he was bullied mercilessly because of it  (like Shelley for smallness, eccentricity and effeminacy). Sex between adolescent boys was, if not rampant, tacitly accepted. Boys were expected to grow out of their homosexual experimentation (if not desperation) once they reached manhood. Education for the young men of the aristocracy was a brutal affair, a true Lord of the Flies tale of bullying, favoritism and ruthless hierarchy. Shelley learned to identify with the downtrodden, as did Byron, who pointedly protected younger students from bullying once he was old enough (another reason I like him).

Byron was also sexually exploited [abused?] as a child by his nurse, May Gray:

According to Byron, he ‘certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; yet he had sexual experiences. These were provided by his nurse Mary Gray. As the boy subsequently told his solicitor… his sternly Calvinist nurse ‘used to come to bed to him and play tricks with his person… [p. 35]

Add to this the extremes of anger and affection that characterized his mother, the utter abandonment of his gold-digging (if not sociopathic) father, and the Gordon and Byron family history of murderous dysfunction  (too much to go into), it honest-to-God makes George Gordon Lord Byron look like a Saint (compared to who he could have been). If incest and aristocratic hypocrisy are the worst of this crimes, then I love the man. As to Byron’s seemingly “misogynistic” attitude toward women, this was not unique to Byron, but was shared by nearly all men of the age (except perhaps the ‘pantisocratic‘ Coleridge). Women, by in large, were considered light-brained, trivial beings, incapable of much beyond macramé and sugar plums.

The opinion I have of the generality of women–who appear to me as children to whom I would rather give a sugar plum than my time, forms a barrier against matrimony which I rejoice in. ~ John Keats

And if we’re fair, women chased Byron with as much alacrity as he chased them. It’s not as if Byron thrust himself on them (or his sister). The Byron that I discovered (more so than with Shelley I think) was a deeply intelligent man, inquisitive, gentle, sensitive to the suffering of others, compassionate, with a fixed sense of right and wrong, but also proud, quick to take offense, and volatile. In his maiden speech to the House of Lords, prompted by the 1812 Frame Breaking Act, he could write the following:

But suppose it past,—suppose one of these men, as I have seen them meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life which your lordships are perhaps about to value at something less than the price of a stocking-frame ; suppose this man surrounded by those children for whom he is unable to procure bread at the hazard of his existence, about to be torn for ever from a family which he lately supported in peaceful industry, and which it is not his fault than he can no longer so support; suppose this man—and there are ten thousand such from whom you may select your victims,—dragged into court to be tried for this new offence, by this new law,—still there are two things wanting to convict and condemn him, and these are, in my opinion, twelve butchers for a jury, and a Jefferies for a judge!”

 The force of Byron’s personality (which he captured in the heroes of his poetry) led to the neologism: Byronic.

“…a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection” ~ Lord Macauley

All that said, if Shelley walked through the door, I’d drop everything: my best wine, a four course dinner. and maybe my lover if he asked. I mean, come on, it’s Shelley and Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein. Maybe, at some point, we’d discuss poetry; but to spend the evening with that keen and impatient idealist — and intelligence — would be pretty cool.

So, anyway, this post is just some brief impressions and the renewal of my friendship with Byron. Gilmour’s book ends just before Byron and Shelley meet, so while I can guess at the mutual attraction (similar backgrounds, sympathies and politics), I haven’t read the biography. Fortunately, John Buxton’s  Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship (written earlier) will pick up where Gilmour left off. I’ll report on that book too, when I’m done with it.

The Friendship: Wordsworth & Coleridge

Wordsworth&ColeridgeI’ve been reading about Wordsworth and Coleridge —  gaining perspective on their works and accomplishments. (I also read a biography on the friendship of Byron and Shelley which I’ll talk about in a later post — the curious thing is that I ended up disliking Shelley and liking Byron, and that was completely unexpected.) My dislike for Wordsworth, unfortunately, has only been reinforced. Now, not only does Wordsworth’s poetry exasperate me, but I find his person (at least as revealed in Sisman’s biography) more than a little dislikable. I don’t blame Sisman. He treats Wordsworth equitably, but it’s hard to ignore the man’s narcissism, self-centered’ness and the execrable way he treated Coleridge. The “friendship”, after all, appears to have been predicated on both mens’ idolatry and love of Wordsworth (and for  that, Coleridge doesn’t go Scott-free).

Wordsworth was prolific and produced poetry with apparent ease. Coleridge, initially, produced almost as much poetry as Wordsworth, but struggled to a degree that Wordsworth didn’t. Writing didn’t come as easily; and Coleridge was also afflicted with self-doubt (and self-recrimination) in a way that Wordsworth never was. As the friendship progressed, Coleridge fêted Wordsworth’s ego by calling him the era’s great genius and comparing him to Milton, which in some quarters was higher praise than to be called the “next Shakespeare”. On the other hand, Coleridge was considered the far greater poet by his peers and the general public. He was an extempore speaker of genius. He possessed a photographic memory and could recite from memory any piece of writing having read it once. Coleridge’s impression on his peers is hard to overstate.

And so Coleridge’s self-doubt and ceaseless self-recrimination is especially hard to swallow. I, myself, consider Coleridge to be the better and greater poet, despite his minuscule output (as compared to Wordsworth). In my opinion, there’s nothing in all of Wordsworth’s output that compares to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, or Kubla Khan. The Rime was initially published alongside Wordsworth’s poems in a joint publication called Lyrical Ballads. The critical reception of the anthology wasn’t good and was especially hard on Wordsworth’s poetry (Wordsworth was a nobody in those days); and Wordsworth didn’t take criticism well. Sometime later, though, Wordsworth and Coleridge decided to reissue the Ballads. Despite their poor critical reception, they continued to sell (if not as well as they would have liked). And this is where it gets hard to rationalize Wordsworth’s behavior as anything other than cruel (or not to characterize him as a self-serving liar — plain and simple).

The initial plan for the reissue was to include The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel, for which Colerdige had now written two parts. Wordsworth and his sister were initially ‘Exceedingly delighted with the second part of “Christabel”‘. (p. 320) Or at least they pretended to be exceedingly delighted, for the very next day Wordsworth decided to exclude it from the reissue. Not only that, but as plans developed, Wordsworth informed Coleridge that he would be publishing the joint venture without Coleridge’s name on it. Furthermore, Wordsworth would be taking any and all proceeds, income, money from their publication, despite Coleridge’s Rime being one of the most extensive poems in the collection. Wordsworth had concluded, self-servingly and with little to no evidence, that it was Coleridge’s poetry that had sunk the first collection (not his own). What did Wordsworth substitute for Christabel?

“Meanwhile, Wordsworth was writing a new poem to fill the vacant place at the end of the second volume, ‘Micheal’ was the very antithesis of ‘Christabel’, a pastoral poem evoking the sturdy qualities of the sheep farmers among whom he was now living.”

La! Sheep farmers. There you have it — one of our language’s great poems traded for a didactic poem on sheep farmers. It makes me want to climb into a time machine to  throttle him. Worse yet, Wordsworth, having deluded himself into thinking that his rightful genius was unrecognized solely because of The Rime, persuaded Coleridge to rewrite the poem . Coleridge, by now thoroughly pickled in the Kool-aid of Words-worship, obediently complied. The rewrite prompted the following from Charles Lamb:

“I am sorry that Coleridge has christened his Ancient Marinere ‘a poet’s Reverie’ — it is as bad as Bottom the weaver’s declaration that he is not a lion but only the scenical representation of a Lion. What new idea is gained by this title, but one subversive of all credit, which the tale should force upon us, of its truth? For me, I was never so affected with any human Tale. After first reading it, I was totally possessed with it for many days…” (p. 316)

According to Sisman, Lamb summed up his opinion of the second volume (of the original edition) stating “that no poem in it had struck him so forcibly as the ‘Ancient Mariner’, ‘The Mad Mother’ and ‘Tintern Abbey'”. This, apparently, is not what Wordsworth wanted to hear. Wordsworth’s riposte is lost, but not Lamb’s.

“The Post did not sleep a moment. I received almost instantaneously a long letter of four sweating pages from my Reluctant Letter-Writer, the purport of which was, that he was sorry his 2nd vol. had not given me more pleasure (Devil a hint did I give that it had not pleased me), and was ‘compelled to wish that my range of sensibility was more extended…’ — With a deal of Stuff about a certain Union of Tenderness and Imagination…” (p. 317)

Then Lamb goes on to mention a letter received by Coleridge:

“Coleridge, who had not written to me some months before, starts up from his bed of sickness, to reprove me for my hardy presumption: four long pages, equally sweaty and more tedious, came from him; assuring me that, when the works of a man of true genius, such as W undoubtedly was, do not please me at first sight, I should suspect the fault to lie ‘in me and not in them’, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. What am I to do with such people?” (p. 317)

Truth was, there were a number of Coleridge supporters who were very nearly fed up with Coleridge’s cult-like idolatry of Wordsworth, including Josiah Wedgwood, who had generously patronized Coleridge. Wedgwood’s intent had been to encourage Coleridge’s own literary efforts, not subsidize his subservience to Wordsworth. Even so, Coleridge spent the next several months editing the reissue of Lyrical Ballads, his thanks to Wordsworth for Wordsworth’s removing his poetry, his name, and any recompense. And as if Wordsworth weren’t delusional enough, he decided to preface Coleridge’s Rime with an apology to the reader:

“Wordsworth added an apologetic footnote to the ‘Ancient Mariner’ acknowledging the many criticisms of the poem, which ‘had indeed great defects’. He elaborated these defects before listing what he considered to be the merits of the poem. He claimed credit for its continued presence in the volume, ‘as the Author was himself very desirous that it should be suppressed.'” (p. 315)

Such was the gratitude Wordsworth extended to his “friend”. Sisman points out  that in another note written contemporaneously, Wordsworth “warmly defended his own poem “The Thorn” against the criticisms it had received”. Wordsworth’s interest in poetry that wasn’t his own was marginal, if nonexistent. (It’s said that Wordsworth died with an unopened copy of Keats’ poetry in his library.) While Coleridge devoted his time and energy to furthering Wordsworth’s career at every opportunity, Wordsworth’s thanked him by snubing his “friend’s” poetry and career (and especially if he thought it could benefit his own). Such was Wordsworth’s almost sociopathic narcissism. In fairness to Wordsworth, Coleridge seemed to “cheerfully” go along with it, but this was not the decision-making of a healthy man. It’s clear that Coleridge suffered from psychological issues that would gradually degrade his health and mind, manifested, in part, by an addiction to the pain killer laudanum. Wordsworth, in later years, would express deep concern over Coleridge’s health, but one questions whether his concern was for an erstwhile friend or an erstwhile admirer.

Sisman sums up the waning of their friendship this way:

“Wordsworth apologists have claimed that Coleridge accepted the rejection of ‘Christabel’ ‘cheerfully’, and quote his own self-justificatory letters afterwards in support of this argument. They cite Dorothy’s comment on Coleridge’s next visit to Dove Cottage; ‘we were very merry’. But Dorothy, though very fond of Coleridge, was blind to the possibility that her brother might be at fault. And Coleridge tried to put a brave face  on his disappointment. In reality he had suffered a mortal blow; his spirit was broken; he would never be the same man again. ‘I have too much trifled with my reputation,’ he reflected sadly to Poole….

Colridge concealed his distress from the Wordsworths, and perhaps they remained unaware of its true cause. His mind would no longer be wholly open to them. The wound continued to fester. As the years passed, entries critical of Wordsworth began to appear in Coleridge’s notebooks. Though the friendship remained warm a long time, it could never recover the same closeness…” (p. 325)

Sisman then concludes the chapter quoting Coleridge’s letter to Godwin:

“‘If I die, and the Booksellers will give you any thing for my Life, be sure to say — “Wordsworth descended on him, like the γνῶθι σεαυτόν from Heaven; by shewing to him what true Poetry was, he made him know, that he himself was no Poet.’

Colreridge’s confidence was in ruins. As he told Godwin, ‘the Poet is dead in me’. He was twenty-eight years old.” (p. 326)

This is a lot to lay at the feet of Wordsworth, but if Wordsworth had reciprocated with even a fraction of the generosity and encouragement devoted to him, Coleridge’s life and poetic output might have been very different. But my heart goes out to Coleridge. Everyman ColeridgeI feel like I’ve discovered his poetry all over again. I see myself in him: Frustrated by a feeling that I haven’t done enough, by self-doubt, self-recrimination, inadequacy. I wish I could have been Coleridge’s friend. His surreal poetry appeals to me like no other poet’s and I can’t help thinking we share a kindred spirit. I love his poem Frost at Midnight. I would trade a hundred pages of Wordsworth for another like it.

Wordsworth’s poetry, meanwhile, continues to leave me cold. As I wrote in a hotly contested previous post criticizing The Prelude, I find all but a handful of his poems tedious, repetitive, full of triviality and above all, exceedingly poorly written. At the close of Sisman’s book, the author quotes Coleridge once again, referring to Wordsworth, and this time the veil is lifted:

“Never does he turn round, or ponder, whether one has [already] understood him, but each word is followed by three, four, five syn- or homonyms, in a tiring sequence of eddies, and in this manner for three, four hours… I was repelled by the infinite number of dissonances which his way of thinking, feeling and arguing created with my own — the worst being his great worries over money and trifling money matters. Recently, all the shortcomings, which marked him in his early manly years, have increased considerably; the grand flourishings of his philosophic and poetic genius, have withered and dried. (p. 424)

 

Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • Three Books Added

Reviewed and added the following books to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:

  • Haiku for Lovers edited by Laura Roberts
  • Erotic Haiku by Oliver Grant
  • erotic poems: E.E. Cummings

You will find them appended to the larger review linked above.

On the Poetry of William Logan

I probably haven’t looked hard enough, but while I’ve found lots of criticism of William Logan’s criticism, I haven’t yet found criticism of his poetry. Perhaps one exception is an article in Slate magazine by Eric McHenry. McHenry demonstrates what others have only claimed, and that’s that Logan’s criticisms of others could be equally applied to his own poetry. McHenry writes for example:

“Then there’s the matter of his own poetry. The author of five collections, Logan tends to write a chilly, impersonal line. His poems have all the erudition of his reviews, but little of their vitality and swagger. And he commits offenses for which he’d pillory any other poet. Logan loathes contrived drama in poetry; how would he treat the lines, “The Spanish moss like hunger/ hangs from the dogwood tree,/ and no one pays the phone bill/ of eternity” if they’d come to him in a review copy, rather than in a moment of inspiration?”

I think the impetus behind this kind of commentary, sometimes, is the wish that the critic William Logan would turn his knives on the poet WilliamLoganWilliam Logan. That way, at least, all the rest of the poets he’s gutted could console themselves. But it’s a peculiar argument.  It’s true that Logan doesn’t always live up to the standards of his own criticism (if ever some might say) but what does this prove? Does this really exonerate the poets whom he’s criticized? Is it fair to accuse the critic of hypocrisy? Probably not, in my view. But it does raise the question: Why can’t he apply his own standards to his own poetry?

Criticism and artistic creation are two different abilities, it seems. It’s a peculiar oddity that though one may have the talent to recognize what is good or poor writing in others, that talent doesn’t always translate into the ability to produce art according to those same standards. You would think that it would, but apparently a superbly honed critical eye, along with an encyclopedic knowledge of any given art and its history isn’t enough. There have been any number of brilliantly prescient critics who were mediocre artists. In short, a capable critical mind is something different than the creative mind. It takes both faculties to result in the genius of a Shakespeare, Mozart or Bach.

  • The fact that certain MFA programs often seem to spend so much time fussing over history and criticism (as in critical schools) has always perplexed me. As if knowing Feminism, from Marxism, from Structuralism/Semiotics has anything whatsoever to do with how to write a good poem. Frankly, some of this criticism is, to me, like reading a credit card agreement. If I ever see evidence that a thorough knowledge of semiotics produces a good poem, I’ll change my tune.

Anyway, in lieu of Logan committing ritual seppuku by the tip of his own sword, the establishment (it would seem) chooses to ignore his poetry. (Though Maybe I should add a question mark after that, but it is a matter of record that Logan’s criticism has been variously blackballed.)

The Poetry

The first aspect I notice in Logan’s poetry says more about me than Logan, perhaps. I detest poetry written in the second person singular (because they almost always fall apart under close inspection) and my response to it might go some way toward illustrating why. In the poem On the Wood Storks, the reader (in this case me) is informed that they (I) have “walked to where you [I] wanted to be alone”.

Behind the movie theater’s neon beau monde
cooled the dank waters of a retention pond,

cyclone fenced, palm-guarded, overgrown.
You walked there when you wanted to be alone.

For weeks nothing stirred the blackened reeds,
which were enough, those days you felt in need.

Well, that’s funny, because I have no memory of this. Though I wanted to be alone, the evidence suggests that I wasn’t. William Logan (wow, I really have no memory of this) was obviously not going to let me be. While nothing was stirring in the blackened reeds, he was obviously being a complete butt, scribblng his little, black observations about my every move and thought. Later in the poem (presumably I’m still trying to be alone), Logan observes that a “black-edged wing, in search of food” somehow breaks my “somber mood”. Well, Logan has a fix for that. How about a timely reference to Dante, Hell and the Last Judgment?

Yet on they marched, like Dante’s souls through Hell,
awaiting the Last Judgment’s redeeming bell,

working their way in silence, fallen aristocrats.

Christ, no wonder I wanted to be alone. Apparently (again I have no memory of this) I mumbled something conciliatory.

You said they looked like ladies’ hats,

white as the color of love, if love has color—
bright white, you meant, only a little duller.

“Yes, like love — I mean, you know, if love even has a color. I’m not saying it does, but if it did, maybe bright white? —  I mean, not bright white, but duller, okay? Will you leave me alone now?” Ladies hats? I must have been drunk out of my gourd. What analogy was he going to dredge up next? Where do you go after Dante, Hell and the Last Judgment? So, anyway, this is why I detest poetry written in the second person singular. It reminds me of my days before Alcoholics Anonymous—the black-outs, the binges, the benders—and all those damned poets following me around.

But what about the poem, technically? It hints at Iambic Pentameter but the meter (if it can be called that) is like a finicky bird trying to land on a nervous twig. There are too many irregularities. I notice that one can read each line as having five stressed beats. In that case, one could call the lines accentual. It’s a nice feint, but that in itself doesn’t distinguish the verse from prose.  It’s the couplets. The rhymes aren’t always full rhymes but I like them like that. The accentual lines along with the couplets move Logan’s poetry beyond the usual pablum of his peers.

Something else worth noting about the poem — it’s practically a study in colors. But here’s the thing, and it’s a quality that  I notice again and again, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. There is one description after another and I can’t help be somewhat reminded of Ted Hughes. Any sense of narrative progression is undermined by one seemingly unrelated simile after another.

When bankers review their fat portfolios,
they draw such dark beaks open and closed,

There is, of course, a history behind this kind of writing, but the average reader isn’t going to know or care. The reader is only going to wonder why a banker and his fat portfolio materialized in the middle of a retention pond. There’s something almost Monty Python about it. No matter how the poet rationalizes it, the effect is to make the poem feel more like a patchwork quilt than a unified whole. The other factor that undermines a clean narrative are adjectives. Logan uses adjectives far more than he should, (a whole line is nothing but compound adjectives), and the effect is positively rococo: neon, dank, “cyclone-fenced, palm-guarded, overgrown”, blackened, gathered, Alpine, white, fat, dark, invisible, pale, newly, black-edged, somber, redeeming, fallen, bright.  Add to that the adverbs and you’ve got a poem that makes pea-soup look like a noble gas. Consider a poem like A Valentine for Matthew Arnold:

The Seas of Faith are full again with vain
Philosophies, empty orders of gods,
Demons of the mind and heart supplanting
The slow angers of love with hollow stares
And rhetoric. These are not days to love,
When the rare expectations of morning
Will be blackened by the shoddy evening…

If the poet is going to throw this many adjectives into the line, make them good ones, not borderline clichés. As it is, one gets the impression that Logan needed to fill out the line lengths (and there is nothing easier or more expeditious than adjectives). But adjectives are to verse what cholesterol is to a beating heart. Unfortunately, it’s a habit of writing that typifies all the poems that I can find online. One would expect a critic of Logan’s caliber to know better. The oddest thing of all is that Logan’s poetry reminds me of passages in Hart Crane. But no, I’m not going there.

Logan’s choice of imagery is repetitive. There are twenty-six of his poems hosted by the poetry foundation. Let’s take a black & white look:

from Punchinello in Chains: VI. Punchinello Dreams of Escape

“The dream of life is just another dream…”

A Valentine for Matthew Arnold

“Philosophies, empty orders of gods…”

“The slow angers of love with hollow stares…”

“Will be blackened by the shoddy evening…”

Anamnesis

“The white robe of the communicant…”

“The cold and the age of the season. Now
“The shirr of the lake under cold wind”

“A hollow loon cry from the water…”

“To the lake, a late walk on a dark road…”

Animal Actors on the English Stage after 1642

“in frenzied howls accepted empty purses…”

“though Cromwell’s ass just muttered empty phrases…”

In December, Thirty-One Moons

“The dark invades the pines…”

“Now the snow in the thin light pales the sky…”

In the Gallery of the Ordinary

“treated that blank pasture of the “heavens”…”

“or sunset a dull, worn-out gilt…”

“The nights there were scumbled with light…”

Joseph Conrad

“Hypnotic moon on black water…”

(Notice how black is frequently associated with water.)

“Under a blank sky…” (There it is again.)

“In the uneasy light” (The word light will reappear again and again as pale, thin, dimly etc…)

“Against Aeneas and his dark Trojans…”

Medusea

“…the first tentacles of dreams…”

“I dream of a wide sea…”

“I dream of you…”

“And wave in a shifting light…”

“I wake to cold…”

“I see your black hair a snaky tangle…”

Monocular

“…and the fainter stars wink
Dimly around them…

On the Wood Storks

cooled the dank waters…”

“…nothing stirred but the blackened reeds…”

“…through the gathered gloom…”

“eight white ghosts floated faintly…”

“the waters like a chessboard scattered with white pawns…” (The implication being, here, that the waters are, you guessed it, black.”

“the draw such dark beaks open and closed…” (Beaks also appears in a previous poem, but one can only illustrate so much repetitiveness.”

“The pale birds…”

“One lifted black-edged wing…”

white as the color of love…”

“bright white, you meant, only a little duller.”

Over the Dead Flatness of the Fens

“I watch the canvas of that underpainted sky” (Think “blank”.)

Queen’s Square

gilt silhouettes, the bars of soap..”

Song

It’s darker out and starting to snow…”

The Age of Ballroom Dining

“The hour’s thin contemplations recruit…”

“The flaking mirror wraps gilt faces…”

“they awake from the dream of ambitions”

The Desert of Reminiscence

“…The fragile, unreachable water
“Surrounded us, held us in the arms of the cold.”

The Moth Disturbs the Night

“…the inside light that glows/Duller…”

“Penetrating their white…”

“From a dark wall, a moth has/Fallen…”

“…it resembles/ The black clay…”

“…is as fragile as the/Feathers of blood…”

The New (Upper) Assembly Rooms

darker in these winter days…”

The Object

“in the weak/Reflection of light at dawn or sunset…”

The Other Place

“The sky revealed no sun.” (Yet another euphemism for emptiness or blankness.)

The Tree Frogs

“like dreamers awaking…”

“they hovered abovc the speckled pond’s black mirror…” (Yet again, the black waters…)

Thoreau

“as the fall’s chancels/ darkened…”

To a Wedding

“Miami sky turned gray as a blanket…” (Think blank or that it ‘revealed no sun’…”

Totenlieder

“..inviolate as the sulfur sky…” (This theme of sameness and hellish imagery runs throughout Logan’s poetry…”

“These notes, cast down the dark corridor…”

“…a woman/With black hair…”

“…back into the pale saffron dust…”

“Her husband and daughter under a/Cloudless sky in which no wind stirs,/and no music…” (In so many words, blank.)

“…which is like shouting, Shouting into the deaf light.”

So, these are just the poems at Poetry Foundation. It doesn’t take long before the reader starts having that repetitive deja vous feeling all over again. Each poem seems to be assembled from the same little grab-bag of whatnots. Each poem seems to borrow from the other. There’s a monotonous sameness to their imagery and ideas. Has Logan ever seen a sky that wasn’t blank? Has Logan ever seen water that wasn’t black? Although I didn’t isolate every example, the imagery of “dreams” keeps popping up — again and again. Logan’s use of adjectives is unimaginative. Adjectives like black, dark, white, and dull are done to death. It’s no wonder McHenry refers to Logan’s lines as “chilly”. The landscape of Logan’s poetry, at least in this selection, is unremittingly dark, bleak, blank, dull, soiled, oily, black, cold, faint, pale, etc… In Christmas Tree, his parents kiss for a last time. In the ostensible re-write of the poem, The Box Kite, Logan just about repeats the very same closing line, respectively:

“I saw my parents kissing,/perhaps for the last time.”

“…the last time they stood at ease with each other.”

If this is any indication of Logan’s corpus, I think I could spot a poem by Logan a mile away. It would be unremittingly dark, bleak, dank — wait, I’m repeating myself. This too illustrates the problem with adjectives. It’s bad enough that they’re bland. It’s bad enough to use them too much. It’s a criminal offense to use them over and over in poem after poem again and again, repeatedly. Logan once wrote that Cape Cod’s wildlife should get a restraining order to keep the poet Mary Oliver out of their lives. Likewise, I strongly recommend that adjectives, especially a select few, should consider a restraining order to stop Logan from fondling them. Similarly, Logan’s palate of imagery seems to always veer back toward colors, light, dark, black, green, red ,water, liquids, grime, blood, etc…

I mentioned before that Logan’s poems never seem greater than the sum of their parts. My stab at an explanation is that because Logan’s habit is to pile on adjective after adjective, simile after simile, metaphor after metaphor, any real sense of narrative unity is lost. One metaphor or simile may have little or no relationship to the next. Logan seems to write whatever pops into his head.  Consider a poem like Christmas Tree. It’s ostensibly a narrative poem — it’s telling a story. But watch what happens. Every time Logan gets just a little bit of momentum, just a little, he gets sidetracked by a simile. It’s like he suffers from a special kind of Tourette syndrome. Instead of barking out obscenities, he barks out similes (in italics). And then there’s the repetitive prepositional phrasing that keeps popping up  like whac-a-moles (underlined).

Christmas Trees

How should I now recall
the icy lace of the pane
like a sheet of cellophane,
or the skies of [like] alcohol

poured over the saltbox town?
On that stony New England tableau,
the halo of falling snow
glared like a waxy crown.

Through blue frozen lots
my giant parents strolled,
wrapped tight against the cold
like woolen Argonauts,

searching for that tall
perfection of Scotch pine
from the hundreds laid in line
like the dead at Guadalcanal.

The clapboard village aglow
that starry stark December
I barely now remember,
or the brutish ache of snow

burning my face like quicklime.
Yet one thing was still missing.
I saw my parents kissing,
perhaps for the last time.

Any sense of narrative flow just doesn’t stand a chance. Besides that, the repetitive phrasing lends a formulaic feel. If we take out all the bric-a-brac, we end up with a very short poem and that’s part of the problem. Logan appears to get so lost in verbosity that he forgets that the snow was falling (and his face was being brutishly burned) and refers to the December night as being “starry”. So what was it then? Was the snow falling or was it a starry December night? Is all that bric-a-brac to keep the rhyme scheme?

There’s a difference between writing poetry and writing poetically. To judge by his writing, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that, to Logan, poetry is nothing more than adjectives, a string of similes and a cup full of metaphors. Compare this to one of the greatest poems in the English language:

robert-frostStopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

There’s not a single simile in the whole thing. In truth, the whole poem can be read as a metaphor, and has been treated as such. That was one of Frost’s gifts. You’ll never find (or at least I can’t think of one at the moment) a Frost poem invaded by a bus load of similes, verbal and prepositional metaphors. It’s a peculiar thing that the very talent that makes Logan’s criticism a guilty pleasure to read is the pill that poisons his poetry. Here’s Logan dismantling our current Poet Laureate [sigh…], Natasha Trethewey. I’ve italicized all the little touches that ripple like cluster bombs in the black waters of his prose.

Though fond of form, she fudges any restrictions that prove inconvenient, so we get faux villanelles, quasi-sonnets, and lots of lines half-ripened into pentameter—most poems end up in professional but uninspired free verse. Trethewey wears the past like a diamond brooch. She writes of her parents with no fury or sympathy or even regret, just [like] the blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks. You read the tales of prostitution and slavery without feeling a thing—the slaves might just as well be dressed by Edith Head, with a score by Max Steiner swelling gloriously over a Technicolor sunset. Trethewey’s moral sunniness has all the conviction of Scarlett O’Hara gushing, “As Gawd is mah witness, I’ll nevah be hungry agai-yun.

“Half-ripened into pentameter” is brilliant. I love that. Why can’t he write his poetry like this?  And that’s another strange dichotomy. There’s a wicked sense of humor in Logan’s prose. His timing is perfect. His poems? Maybe I’m supposed to read that line about the banker’s fat portfolio as a moment of wry, self-conscious, maybe ironic humor but the timing is all off. There’s a bleak, moribund and oppressive quality to his poems. They’re the place where the wickedness of his humor implodes. Think of the poem “In December, Thirty-One Moons”. Logan sets the mood right away: “The dark invades the pines.” Substitute poetry for pines and you’ll catch my meaning. From there we go to “ruined columns”, “a sky heavy/With clouds”, “chalky moon”, a distant bird, an “arbitrary order”, the moon’s “starved shape”, a “thin light” that “pales the sky”, and then he wonders “if Death is a woman”. Yoiks! “Amid this dormant life,” he writes, “she is a friendly thing.” If we take the poem’s voice as Logan’s, then the poem could easily speak for Logan’s art.

  • It’s interesting to note that Logan has criticized Mark Strand’s poetry as being “shorn of metaphors and similes, prosaic as a paper bag”. Logan proves you can go too far the other direction.

If I were to draw an analogy, I would compare a poem by Logan to the music of a composer like Salieri. The center rarely holds. All the right ingredients are there, but all in the wrong proportion. The cake never rises. Haydn once referred to Sammartini (the true father of the symphony) as a “note spinner”. Logan’s poetry can be like that. I haven’t yet read a poem possessed by an over-arching idea, a central metaphor that could be compared to a symphonic melody (or theme the holds the entirety of the piece together). He doesn’t seem to think that way. He piles on his imagery like a John Fletcher (and that’s going to be an equally meaningless allusion so I’ll explain).

A Shakespeare scholar, William Spalding, was one of the first scholars to methodically wrestle with authorship questions in Shakespeare. In an essay called “A Letter on Shakspeare’s Authorship of the Drama Entitled The Two Noble Kinsman“, Spalding uses internal evidence (stylistic) to identify which parts of the play are by Shakespeare and which by John Fletcher (they collaborated to produce The Two Noble Kinsmen). Of direct relevance to Logan’s poetry is the following passage:

John_Fletcher_from_NPG[Shakespeare’s] poetical images were elevated into a higher sphere of associations by the dignity of the principles which they were applied to adorn. Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the truest which tries the presence of the faculty [talent for poetry]; metaphor indicates strength, and simile its weakness. Nothing can be more different from this, or farther inferior to it that the style of the poet who turns aside in search of description and indulges in simile preferably to the brevity of metaphor, to whom perhaps a poetical picture originally suggested itself as the decoration of a striking thought, but who allowed himself to captivated by the beauty of the suggested image, till he forget the thought which had given it birth, and on its connexion with which tis highest excellence depended. Such was Fletcher, whose style is poor in metaphor. His descriptions are sometimes beautifully romantic, but even then the effect of the whole is often picturesque rather than poetically touching; and it is evident that lengthened description can still less frequently be dramatic. In his descriptions it is observable that the poetical relations introduced in illustrations are usually few, the character of the leading subject being relied on for producing the poetical effect. Fletcher’s longest descriptions are but elegant outlines; Shakespeare’s breastfed metaphors are often finished paintings. Where Shakespeare is guilty of detailed description, [Fletcher] is very often labored, cold, and involved; but his illustrative ideas are invariably copious, and it is often their superfluity which chiefly tends to mar the general effect. [p. 17]

While Fletcher and Logan are obviously very different poets, and an aesthetic is being applied to Fletcher that can’t fully be applied to a 21rst century poet, there are still certain rules that apply. 2oth century poets have chosen to utterly ignore them, if not flagrantly defy them, but we all know how wildly popular contemporary poetry is. I think the majority of the public would rather have their teeth filed than read a book of contemporary poetry from beginning to end. What gravity is to the architect, the human mind is to the poet. What architecture can do successfully is constrained by the laws of gravity. Likewise, what the poet can do, successfully, is constrained by the reader’s capacity to comprehend him. All this is a simplistic way of saying that what made a poem great in the 16th century still makes a poem great in the 21rst century. The observations concerning Fletcher are applicable to Logan.

  • If you choose to listen to Logan’s reading, at precisely 1 minute and 17 seconds, a “blank sky” will show up. I kid you not, preceded by “drowned light”. Lest I’m accused of reviewing unrepresentative poetry, this reading is from 2011 and from his latest book. Also, the first poem he reads will end “Of all the things you were, perhaps that would be the last.” There’s that same idea as in the Christmas Tree and the Box Kite. It’s deja vous all over again. In the second poem the lake (read water) is gray rather than black. All the usual primary colors will show up. One could almost make a drinking game out of Logan’s poems. Another black haired woman shows up at 8 minutes. At about 9 minutes a “polluted pond” will appear. I assume that means it’s black or gray? Is there ever such a thing as potable water in his poems? When he reads Summer 1968 at the 12 1/2 minute mark, you’re definitely going to recognize the Logan-ean grab-bag  of imagery.

Beneath that chalk-blue sky with iron
stirred through it, the whitewashed windows
burned in faint phosphorescence.

It’s all there. We’ve already seen “chalk” applied to the moon. The light, once again, is faded or pale. In this instance, faint. Do I belabor the point? I guess I’m just surprised by how limited Logan’s pallet remains.

This and That

I think very highly of Logan.  He’s brilliant and prolific. His review of The Notebooks of Robert Frost was so matter-of-fact’ly devastating that rumors suggested the book would be withdrawn from sheer embarrassment (or at least until Robert Faggen’s monumentally bad editing could be corrected). I could only wish I were as capable.

I suspect that if Logan is remembered, it won’t be for his poetry.

I’ve exchanged some e-mails with him but I doubt he knows me from Adam. He’s unlikely to ever review my poetry simply because my latest poems will probably never make it into book form. Certainly no publisher has ever deigned to publish my poems individually (and not for lack of trying). At the moment, it’s no longer something that interests me — and was the reason I initially created this blog. So, all this is to say, I’m not too worried about being in his cross hairs. I should be though. I think it’s a pity that he hasn’t delved into the world-wide web. We can all guess the rationale. Poetry that hasn’t been screened by the publishing industry (read editor), is probably poetry not worth reviewing (let alone reading). However, since he seems perpetually disappointed by what he reads anyway, what’s the difference?

I would encourage him to look around.

You should try it, Mr, Logan. There’s more to poetry than is dreamt of in your book catalog.

Not One Thing

A while back I ordered a book by poet and author Carolyn Locke. The book is called Not One Thing: Following Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior. Locke’s book is modeled after Basho’s famous Haibun, Narrow Road to the Interior. Haibun is genre in which haiku alternate Locke_NotOneThing_lgwith prose passages. Basho’s haibun is alternately translated as The Narrow Raod to Oku or Narrow Road to the North or Narrow Road to a Far Province. In a translation by Hiroaki Sato, the first paragraph of the forward begins thusly:

Carrying a pack with his writing materials, a few pieces of clothing, and several gifts from friends who saw him off, the poet Basho set out on a hike to the wilds of northern Honshu in the spring of 1689. With his close disciple Sora, he planned to visit places famous as wonders of nature or significant in literary, religious, or military history—and he wanted to spread to the poetry lovers he would meet in the  towns and villages along the way his methods of writing renga, the communal linked verse that was his passion and greatest concern in life. [Basho’s Narrow Road: Spring & Autumn Passages, p. 9]

Many of the “famous places” that Basho was going to visit were called Uta-Makura. Later in Sato’s introduction to his translation, he explains their significance this way:

In Japan, where the first large-scale collection of verse dates from the eighth century, a great many places were routinely described or mentioned in poetry from the outset, and many of these came to be known as uta-makura, “poetic pillows.” Uta-makura then acquired the same significance as kidai or kigo, “seasononal subjects” or “topics,” each representing a certain idea or sentiment or a trigger thereof. For Basho the purpose of visiting such places was, as he said to Kikaku in a letter, furuki uta-domo no makoto a kan(zu)—to “feel the truth of the old poems.”

Basho is considered by most to be Japan’s greatest poet (their Shakespeare) and his haibun, Narrow Road to the North, is considered a masterpiece of world literature. I’ve read it,  in translation, and was moved by its humanity. Because of Basho’s fame, and because most of the landmarks he visited remain and continue to be enjoyed, a little tourism industry has arisen for those want to retrace his  footsteps (by bus).  And so it was that Locke wrote in her diary: “If I ever return to Japan, the one thing I’d like to do is follow Basho’s travels.”

“Now, six years later, Laurel Rasplica Rodd, the director of the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado, was calling fro applications for a Fullbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad Seminar in Japan. Sixteen teachers from kindergarten through post-secondary levels would be selected for this month-long “Journey to the Interior,” during which they would study Basho’s famous journals and haiku, and travel through northern Honshu, following the footsteps of one of Japan’s greatest poets.”

Locke was accepted. Her book, Not One Thing, is a haibun  modeled after Basho’s. Unlike Basho’s haibun, Locke includes many full-colored photos. In a sense, one could also say that her book has elements of haiga. Strictly speaking, a haiga is a style of painting that incorporates the aesthetics of the haiku. Buson, not Basho, was considered Japan’s greatest master of this form (and also considered, by a few, to be a greater poet than Basho). Buson’s paintings, accompanied by his own haiku, are considered masterpieces of the form. In the 21rst century I don’t see why photographs can’t be an alternative to paintings, and Locke’s haiku are sometimes paired with a photograph.

So, what do I think?

I think that you have to be predisposed to enjoy haiku, familiar with Basho, and be minimally acquainted with Japanese culture to enjoy Locke’s book. She herself states:

“What you will find here is a work of love that explores and honors one woman’s encounter with one of the world’s most incredible cultures ans well as her journey into her own interior world. Written in the form of haibun—a combination of prose, haiku, and images—it does not pretend to be an academic study, nor does it offer a complete explanation of all terms, concepts, and historical references.”

The lack of explanation will probably leave the unacquainted reader somewhat perplexed. On the other hand, that same attribute might spur a reader’s curiosity. I think that if one hasn’t already read Basho’s Narrow Road,  some of the enjoyment might be lost. Even so, being intimately C. Lockefamiliar with haiku and having read several translations of Narrow Road, I was mildly disappointed that there weren’t more photographs of the actual Uta-Makura. The photographs we do find, let’s admit it, are rather amateurish. They are nicely reproduced but amateurish. Personally, I find that somewhat charming and engaging. This isn’t a pretentious book. You will find pictures of snakes (which terrified Basho), irises, sandals and her own feet in a brook. I was reminded of an older era when the next door neighbor would have a slide show while they soliloquized about their adventures. Locke’s photographs do give the reader some sense of the landscape she traveled through. They’re quirky.

Basho describes his journeys and laments. He can write passages like this:

“The most loyal among his loyal vassals were selected and put up in this castle, but their fame lasted only for a moment and turned into clumps of grass. “The country destroyed, the mountains and rivers remain. In the castle it is now spring and the grass has turned green.” Sitting on our hats laid on the ground, we shed tears for a while…” [Narrow Road to the Interior, Sato, p. 87]

Or this:

“If left alone the seven treasures would have scattered, the jeweled doors torn in the wind, and the gilt columns decayed in frost and snow, the whole thing turned into dilapidation and empty grass in no time…”

There’s something in the tone that almost hints at Shakespeare’s King Lear. The feeling of loss, transience, and “beautiful sorrow” suffuses Basho’s work — or wabi-sabi. It’s this quality of Basho’s poetry and writing that lends it humanity and power.

While visiting this same area, Locke writes:

“On our trek up to Chuson-hi, we pass one souvenir shop after another, each with glittering charms, prayer plaques, and fluttering banners. Sunday visitors swarm the paths, and it’s difficult to feel any spirituality here. All the glitter and even the gold in the chapel leave me untouched, but I am moved by the scent of the lilies at the foot of the guardian Jizo, by the lotus blooming in the pond, and by the hint of lavender on my Matsushima hat, to which I have added a pink wildflower from the field below.”

Whereas Basho always seems to begin with the particular and move outward, universalizing, Locke more often does the opposite. She begins with the general and often ends by turning her gaze inward. The risk with this kind of writing is that some of the passages can feel a bit like navel-gazing. We sometimes know less about about what she saw than how she felt when seeing it. In this sense, Locke’s book can often feel more like Bashos Narrow Roada personal diary than something meant to be shared. This format may be enjoyable for some readers. As for myself, one of my favorite passages was her discussion of the Saint Tetsumonkai who, according to legend, methodically mummified himself, burying himself alive as part of the process. 1000 days later, he was exhumed and lacquered. Every 12 years his clothes are changed (which, by coincidence, is about as often as my children would like to change their socks) . The passage is an exception where, contrary to her forward, she “offers a complete explanation”. I enjoyed it.

R.H. Blythe, if her were still alive, would have a hard time with Locke’s haiku. Blythe preferred objective haiku and considered subjectivity (a trait he misogynisticly associated with women haiku poets) slanderous. She also hews to the 5/7/5 rule of haiku-writing that has been largely discarded by most Western writers of haiku. The result is that her haiku can feel wordy compared to the average Japanese haiku in translation. This reason for this is discussed in the link above but briefly, Japanese syllables are not the same as syllables in English. Writing 17 syllables in Japanese is roughly equivalent to 12 in English.

However, the West has no tradition of haiku. Asserting that we should write haiku a certain way is a bit pompous. If Locke wants to write haiku that are a full seventeen syllables, then why not? But anyway, here’s what I mean by subjective:

Last monk in the curve
of wind—lonely trout swimming
the Nakagawa.

The classical Japanese haiku poet would normally avoid using words like loneliness, words the describe an emotion. Further, the ascription of emotions to animate or inanimate objects ran counter to the aesthetic of the haiku (and to the Zen influenced culture in general). The Japanese poet would normally let the context cue the emotional response.  You will also find personification and metaphors (italicized) in Locke’s haiku—techniques much more typical of western poets.

Outside the window
a red roof, slick with misty
mountain tears

Blue umbrellas bob
along the road—shy flowers
bowing to the iris

Swift waters stirring
river mist, sulfur mists:
deep mountain breathing.

Sometimes the haiku can feel more like footnotes than actual poems:

Bracelets of clover
woven in the fields below
graces an old stone.

Nine centuries—curved
lines pooling around one sqaure
in this shallow plate.

Page 34

I don’t make these observations as criticism but more as an effort to describe the kind of haiku Locke writes. I enjoy the variety and experimentation shown by Western writers of haiku, even if the aesthetic spirit of the original form is often lost — whether by choice or inexperience. In Locke’s, the joy she takes in writing haiku, in the Japanese culture and the experience of visiting in Basho’s footsteps, is wonderfully communicated.

Not One Thing is hard to classify. It’s not a book to buy if you want a modern tour and description of Basho’s  road to the interior (despite the book’s subtitle: Following Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior) . You will likely be disappointed. The photographs surely have strong and enjoyable associations for Locke, but they can leave the reader a with polite smile and perplexed gaze. Part of that is probably due to her decision to omit “a complete explanation of all terms, concepts, and historical references”.  I guess the best way to classify the work is as one of those old slideshows in book form. Locke will share from her dairy and read poems as she clicks through the photographs.

You will get some sense of what it’s like to follow Basho’s journey in modern Japan, little glimpses of what you will see; but mostly, if you read the book, you read it to share in Locke’s enjoyment and enthusiasm. To be honest, that was enough for me. I read it in relaxed moods and enjoyed it. I admire the effort and care she took to put her experience to paper.  I’d like to see more poets make this kind of effort. The West could use its own haibun.

Victories & Foibles: Some Western Haiku  by David Seegal

victories & foiblesOn the subject of haiku by Western poets, I couldn’t resist adding Seegal’s book to the post. I found this yesterday at our local used bookstore. What a fun little book. My copy was “Made in Japan” according to a little sticker, and was published by Charles E. Tuttle Company of Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan in 1977. (Vermont and Japan, you know… We have a lot in common.) First of all, the physical appearance of the book is lovely. If you can get a good copy, it’s slip case is bound in rice paper and the hardcover binding is cloth. The pages themselves are a rainbow of subdued colors: cream, yellow, brown, blue and various shades of green.

The haiku themselves? They’re more like haikai, I think. In the preface to the book, Seegal makes no secret of this flavoring.

“The following haiku verses, written in an American style, are departures from the exacting nature of this Japanese poem. By relaxing the restraints upon subject and style, the American poet gains the opportunity to experiment with and to possibly enhance the classic Eastern examples.”

Now let’s define understatement.  If “American style” means glib, tongue-in-cheek, and smarmy, then Seegal is the acknowledged master of the American haiku. He’s almost managed to turn the haiku into a kind of harmless and truncated limerick. Expect lots of exclamation points—a bit like those folks at the party (whom we’ve all met) who nervously laugh at their own jokes as if to remind you that you should be laughing.

Night on city street
strangers excuse bumps in fog…
…no man an island!

Butterfly recalls
former caterpillar days—
“Those were ugly times!”

Sunny spring morning
there’s that same old frog winking
at me…. I wink back!

One gets the impression of an author who is inordinately pleased with his own cleverness. Every once in a while Seegal takes a stab at something like seriousness, but even there, one isn’t quite sure:

Excavating for
new courthouse in Salem town—
a frayed hangman’s noose

Or how about this little gem:

Prison gate behind—
walking in spring sun he stops
to touch dogs, horses…

The etcetera at the end of that haiku should worry us all. I ask you, will the dogs and horses need years of therapy?

And then there are the hallmark moments, the kinds of one-offs that belong on those little signs hung on kitchen walls:

Ah the warm pleasures
for aged upon finding
new facts and new friends

Why no exclamation point? — I ask myself. Anyway, the book is an object lesson in how not to write haiku if your aim is anything remotely related to the Japanese originals in either substance, style or merit (let alone poetry in general). So why do I mention the book? Because it’s so bad it’s a work of genius. It has to be intentional.  It’s irresistible It’s like an 82 car pile up (the number pages). You just can’t stop watching. You can’t. The way each hurtling haiku demolishes the next arouses an almost morbid fascination. Or think of it this way: The entirety of the book could be compared to a compilation of YouTube fail videos. You know how each little video is going to end, but you just can’t stop watching, cringing, and grimacing with a voyeuristic delight.

You just can’t consistently back into this kind of genius.

The book is a masterpiece of irony and satire. We can only mourn the fact that it wasn’t illustrated by Edward Gorey.

patternprintsjournal05gorey

Boston Orchestra
kettle drummer misses beat
…thousand backs stiffen!

Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • Four Books Added

Reviewed and added the following books to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:

  • Persian Love Poetry edited by Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis and Sheila R. Canby
  • Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda
  • Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
  • one thing leads to another by Wanda D. Cook, Larry Kimmel and Jeffrey Winke

You will find them appended to the larger review linked above.

The Art of Haiku by Stephen Addiss

The Art of Haiku: Its History Through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters

Art of Haiku

I have to say, it’s been a long time since I’ve been so sorry to finish a book. I may have to read it again, starting today. If you enjoy haiku, then you can’t go wrong with this book. It’s beautiful. Addis gives the reader a necessarily adumbrated tour of Japan’s most influential Haijin (haiku poets). His overview is chronological and begins with the tanka. The tanka was a centuries older form of poetry, also brief, but five lines rather than two. The syllabic pattern (Lee Gurga refers to  the Japanese syllable — an on — as a “sound” rather than syllable) was 5-7-5-7-7. It’s those first three “lines”, or that syllabic pattern,  that was to eventually be transformed into the haiku.

As Addiss’s overview progresses, he offers brief biographies of the various poets along with samples of their best haiku — mostly just a small handful or even two to three. That’s enough, though, to give the Western reader a flavor, perhaps, of the many different poets who contributed to the haiku’s development.

It’s when Addiss gets to Basho, Buson and Issa that he slows and examines. These three poets comprise the lion’s share of the book; and what makes his discussion enjoyable is his attempt to explain their greatness. More often the poets are translated, presented and their greatness is presumed. The Western reader, unfamiliar with the haiku’s history may well be  perplexed. What about a frog jumping into a pond is so special? Addiss tries to explain.

I do have some small gripes. The first is with his translations. Since I can’t read Japanese, I can’t say whether his translations are more or less accurate but I do know good poetry when I see it (and have other translations for comparison). By way of example, here are three different translations of one of Issa’s most famous haiku:

The snow has melted away —
A village-full
Of children.

Translated: Takafumi Sato and William R. Nelson

Snow melting —
the village is full
of children

Translated: Stephen Addiss from Haiku Landscapes: In Sun, Wind, Rain, and Snow

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children

Translated: Robert Hass

snow melts
and the village is flooded
by children

Translated: PDF

Of all the translations, the last is the best. The translations by Addiss, Saito, and Nelson are possibly more faithful to the letter, but Hass’s translation turns the haiku into poetry (and the last translation accomplishes the same with fewer words). Why are the last two better? Because the verb flood, whether or not it was in the original, plays on the idea of the snow melt turning into children. The first two translations don’t even vaguely imply the same. It’s possible that in the original the implication is more strongly felt; but without the word flood, in the English translation, the haiku is reduced to nothing more than a banal observation: When snow melts, children come out to play. Flood turns that observation into poetry. I can’t say whether Addiss’s other translations suffer the same flaw, but it does make me wonder. My own subjective opinion is that literal translations of poetry aren’t always the best translations; and that sometimes the best translators of poetry are themselves poets. They translate the poetry rather than just the words.

My other small complaint is that Addiss’s overview of Issa’s poetry is rather perfunctory in comparison to Basho and Buson. Whereas Basho and Buson’s haiku are discussed in the context of their lives, Issa’s biography is quickly dispensed with. Addiss himself entitles his short biography: A Short Biography. He follows this with several pages of haiku, one grouping after another, with headings like Views of Nature, Issa and People, Animals, Frogs and Snails, Insects etc… That’s all well and fine, I suppose, but I don’t know why Addiss treated Issa differently than Basho or Buson (except, perhaps, that he favours Basho and Issa). One does get a sense of Issa’s originality, but I can’t see how this couldn’t have been accomplished with a richer biography.

My last observation would be that, to my knowledge, there’s no other book like Addiss’s. The only exception, perhaps, would be R.H. Blyth’s two volume A History of Haiku. These two books are much denser, consider far more poets and discuss culture and biography in a way that Addiss, writing a much briefer and arguably more accessible book, does not. Addiss also considers Japanese painting in the context of haiku, something Blyth does not.  If you like haiku, or are interested in learning about them, and want a more general and readable overview of its history, I can’t think of a better book than Addiss’s. If Addiss’s book piques your interest, then move on to Blyth’s two volume set. After that, you will have to learn Japanese.

Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • Three Books Added

Reviewed and added the following books to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:

  • Haiku for Lovers edited by Manu Bazzano
  • Erotic Haiku by Rod Willmot & authors
  • Cold Moon: The Erotic Haiku of Gabriel Rosenstock

You will find them appended to the larger review linked above.

The Poetry of Janice Potter

A Review of Meanwell

MeanwellBack in June I reviewed an Anthology of Vermont poets. Here’s one of the reasons I liked the anthology:

“[It is replete with]…the kinds of poems I like best: the poetry of the concrete, tactile, and sensual, poems joyfully aware (as I wrote at the outset) of season and place.”

I followed that up with a sampling of poetry by Janice Potter. About two weeks ago, Potter, a Vermont poet, sent me her recently published book “Meanwell” and asked if I would review it. In exchange, I asked if she would write up one of Anne Bradstreet’s poems. So you’re in for a treat. After the review, you can read what Potter wrote about Bradstreet’s poem, In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Anne Bradstreet Who Deceased June 20, 1669, Being Three Years and Seven Months Old.

Potter’s book, published in 2012, is called Meanwell and it’s like no other contemporary poetry I’ve read, though it’s not the first of its kind. The poems offer us a first-person narrative in the voice of Anne Bradstreet’s servant, Meanwell. Anne Bradstreet was the first woman to have her poetry published in (what was to become) the United States.

There are other contemporary books of poetry written as first-person narratives. The two that immediately come to mind are by our present Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard and Bellocq’s Ophelia. The former is written in the voice of a slave and the latter a New Orleans prostitute. They first came to my attention via a review by William Logan in roles in puritan societyhis book Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue. I couldn’t be any less impressed by Trethewey unless I were William Logan. My problem with Trethewey is the prosaic dullness of her language,  imagery and technique – utterly predictable stuff. Logan reads for content and pillories Tretheway on that count too. I mention it because Trethewey’s failings provide an instructive contrast to Potter’s successes. Here are two pertinent passages from Logan’s review of Native Guard:

There were literate slaves, all too few, and perhaps none among the lowly soldiers serving at the sandy, fly-ridden prison near Fort Massachusetts. (The major of the regiment, however, a slave-owning Creole, spoke five languages and was the highest-ranking officer in the Union Army.) To create a voice rendered mute by history, Trethewey has sometimes borrowed from a white colonel’s memoir to make do. Putting the words of an educated white into the mouth of a freed slave isn’t so bad; but, when Trethewey is forced to choose between the pretty and the profane, the pretty wins every time. She’s an aesthete in wolf’s clothing. (pp. 193-194)

A paragraph later Logan will write of Trethewey’s other book Bellocq’s Ophelia:

Trethewey wears her past like a diamond brooch. She writes of her parents with no fury or sympathy or even regret, just the blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks. You read the tales of prostitution and slavery without feeling a thing — the slaves might as well be dressed by Edith Head, with a score by Max Steiner swelling gloriously over a Technicolor sunset.

Potter’s Meanwell is not the obsequious narrator one might expect. Potter’s narrator doesn’t pay anne-hutchinsontribute to Bradstreet. The poet, rather, is just another blurry shadow moving through the icy dogma of American puritanism and the leanness of its cruel and unforgiving winters. The Puritans were an intolerant and narrow-minded bunch (who would soon, and venally, shut down the greatest theatrical flowering since classical Greece). The English were all too happy to send the savages to the New World (and we still haven’t recovered). Meanwell’s attachment to Bradstreet is portrayed as a fact of her station (and nothing more). Meanwell never really expresses any affection for Bradstreet and is jealous of the poet’s privilege (inasmuch as a Puritan woman could be privileged) and her protective familial bonds.

…but whether my mother was a book or not
I have no knowledge
other than that I was always without parent…

and then, in the close of the same poem:

…and I did marvel on this well-beloved child
whose dear mother Dorothy
wrapped her with her cherished book in arms

while my vexed eyes one blue and one brown
did cloud with desire
to seize her soft nest once sickness was done

Meanwell’s narrative will not be like the “blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks”. In fact, by the end of the book, one really wonders whether there’s any affection at all.

…odd cloaked as a muse she tends her wilderness
mansion filled with English chests and tables
and ancestral portraits and eight-hundred books
all of an Englishness I am meant to polish well
and preserve for those whose kind benevolence
allows me to grow old in service to this house

and I do polish and scrub here for twenty years
as she grows to love her nest feathered with things
that make her heart glad her husband her children
her writings on stashes of paper her vast hearth
her great baskets of carded sheep’s wool that catch
the house afire when a servant drops a lit candle.

To this reader, at least, it’s hard not to read Meanwell’s commentary on Bradstreet, her Englishness, her “things”, and her “kind benevolence”, as dripping with bitterness and contempt. Which servant was it, I wonder, who (accidentally?) dripped the lit candle in the basket of carded wool? Was it Meanwell? Whether or not that was Potter’s intention, I’m left wondering whether this poem, A Servant Drops a Lit Candle, was Meanwell’s Iago-like confession. She will later say:

[I am] bound to serve it
this dread-hell she [Bradstreet] suffered when on earthy

am I bound to serve what I hate

While only just before, in the same poem, saying:

weary weary that a man must look upon
servants doing what once was
the work of his wife in her constancy
and afterwards sleep alone

who will serve him and obey him
down to the smallest kiss of his most
unspeakable manly part…

How are we to read this? Is it pity, compassion, contempt, gloating? And how are we to read the sexual content of Meanwell’s observation. Earlier in the book, Meanwell acknowledges the memory and pleasure of a former lover’s body “covering mine”. She can “watch a seaman’s firm buttocks rise on the mizzen” and doesn’t miss it when a seaman catches a skimpy maid “coarse-handed by the arse”. The way I read these lines is that she imagines taking Anne Bradstreet’s place. She imagines kissing “his most unspeakable manly part”, that is, symbolically submitting to the master of the life-style she has and continues to covet (or thinks she does). Perhaps the notion is fleeting, but I think it’s revealing. To deny the desire for a thing is to admit the thing’s desirability. We don’t talk about things that we don’t notice.

And this is the curious and most enjoyable facet of this book. None of the characters are likable and, in truth, (and from a twenty-first century perspective) none of them probably were likable. Even Anne Hutchinson, who was tried for loudly condemning a vindictive Puritan patriarchy, comes off as gratuitously combative when she states in Potter’s words: “it came to me by direct revelation”. Here is what Hutchinson, according to sources at the time, actually said:

“You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm—for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah, my Saviour, I am at his appointment, the bounds of my habitation are cast in heaven, no further do I esteem of any mortal man than creatures in his hand, I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of our hands. Therefore take heed how you proceed against me—for I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state”

This sounds like a woman in the throes of a self-destructive delirium (and Hutchinson had good reason to be delirious given the hell she was put through). Meanwell idolizes Hutchinson (rather than Bradstreet) but is too cowed and has too much to lose to cheer Hutchinson on.

Hutchinson and her family, a number of her children included, were to be brutally murdered by the Siwanoy of New Netherland (in and around present day Bronx and New York City). Her children, including the youngest, were scalped and beheaded, then incinerated in their own house. The Siwanoy chief, Wampage, had forewarned the settlers. Whether because she felt a false sense of security or because of the same courage (or stubbornness) that characterized her dealings with the Puritan ministers, she foolishly stayed behind. To commemorate his courage and bravery in slaughtering an exhausted middle-aged woman and her children, the Siwanoy chief adopted Anne’s name, becoming known as Ann Hoeck alias Wampage.

Hutchinson.massacre

The various ministers, who had excommunicated Hutchinson, also “celebrated” Hutchinson’s murder by treating it as a sign that God agreed with them and had undoubtedly lent a divine hand to the gruesome and just slaughter of Hutchinson and her children.

Not Faithful But True

Bradstreet was born, 1612, when Elizabethan poetry and theater were at the pinnacle of their glory. At the hands of Shakespeare, Jonson, and the deceased Marlowe, blank verse had matched and exceeded the accomplishments of the classical Greek and Roman poets. John Donne was inspiring a whole generation of metaphysical poets. Though somewhat more constrained in subject matter, women were also among the poets being celebrated, admired and published — Mary Sidney being the foremost example, though there were others (see the comment section in my post on Bradstreet). For all that, Bradstreet’s verse doesn’t inherit the brilliance of the times. Her Iambic Pentameter is as conservative as her religion, stuck in the 1590’s, and she never tries the sonnet or imitates the brilliant lyrics of Donne.

Bradstreet’s only mention of a near English contemporary is in her poem: An Elegy Upon That Honorable and Renowned Knight Sir Philip Sidney, Who Was Untimely Slain at the Siege of Zutphen, Anno 1586. She references Arcadia, a prose work, but also describes him as “the brave refiner of our British tongue…” This makes me think that Bradstreet must have been familiar with Sidney’s poetry (and some of it very erotic). Bradstreet writes that “[Sidney in his] wiser days condemned his [own] witty works”; but that many “infatuate fools” were caught in the “gin” [the snare] of “his rhetoric”. In the most revealing moment of all, she writes that, nevertheless, “a world of wealth within that rubbish [lies]”: “learning, valour and morality,/Justice, friendship, and kind hospitality, /Yea, and divinity within his book…”

Bradstreet reveals that she was exposed to the erotic wit of the Elizabethan era, but also reveals her own tastes and what she values. She was a Puritan, first and foremost, by choice.  How much was Bradstreet exposed to during the early 1600’s? Donne was circulating his poetry privately and among his peers. It’s possible but unlikely that Bradstreet’s father (let alone Anne) would have been in that circle of readers. Most of his poetry, on top of that, was considered erotic. Donne would die in 1631, a year after Bradstreet arrived in America. Neither Shakespeare nor Jonson’s plays were published in Folio form. It’s highly unlikely that Bradstreet’s Puritan family would have attended the theaters (which the Puritans would later shut down in a fit of self-righteous probity). It’s also very unlikely that her family would have read any of Shakespeare’s published works, like Venus & Adonis or the sonnets, which were considered erotica by just about everyone. Marlowe, likewise, translated Ovid’s erotica. The theater was considered the den of iniquity. What did that leave? Pious and dull verses by pinch-lipped religious men and, especially, women. Women were encouraged to translate or write pious verse. As Christina Rosetti would demonstrate a couple hundred years later, some women need no encouragement to dip their quills in the venomous ink of self-righteous rectitude. It wasn’t all men making them do this. There was also Du Bartas, who Bradstreet read and eulogized, the French poet and Hugeonot famed for his religious epic poetry (which had been translated into English).

The older verse of the 80’s and 90’s along with translated religious verse (always more conservative) is probably what Bradstreet read and used as a model. It’s a miracle that she later wrote the kinds of poems she did. They start out bland and pious, but at some point she seems to have drained that cup. She begins to write about her life, her husband and her children.

So, with all that as a background, I was interested to see how Potter would “write” Meanwell. What would she imitate? Would she imitate the language, the verse forms of the era, Bradstreet? The questions are fraught with pitfalls. Should a modern poet avoid anachronistic verse and language, or dive into it, producing not only the voice of the period, but its literature? If so, to what degree? Should an illiterate servant be reciting her narrative in brilliant metaphysical rhymes and Shakespearean sonnets?  Logan’s issue with Trethewey, after all, isn’t that she put the words of a white slave owner into a slave, but that she did so with a bias for the pretty (rather than profane). Potter, I think, avoids that pitfall. Meanwell describes the facts of life, sickness and death with a brutal factuality map-picture-claes-van-visscherthat I found believable and true. In an era that had seen the plague, saw executed prisoners hang until they rotted from the rope, and the amputated hands and legs of traitors nailed to the walls of the Thames.

We, today, would have been horrified. In Meanwell’s world, that’s just the way it is. Get used to it. Get over it.

Heaving and setting with such force that the ocean might spill
from off God’s earth makes it a great wonder
to behold our sister ship the painted Jewel
for we need her midwife most urgently to disencumber
a good-wife retching under her bloody cloak on the shit-slick boards
where fearful ladies huddle under the hatches from the storm

though I mean well I cannot bear to look on her
small head where a twist of hen-scrapings might be her face
for she appears not a creature of a human nature
rather then entrails of an animal gouged alive from its earthly form
the shrieks swelling over its foul-smelling mire…

~ The Death of the Lewd Seaman Attends a Sea-Born Child

The quality of Potter’s poetry that impressed me in Birchsong, it’s concreteness of imagery — tangy, evocative and fresh — continues in Meanwell, and is the quality that saves her free verse from the generic dullness of her peers. I tried to discern whether any of her poems were in any sense formal — if there was any accentual,  syllabic or accentual-syllabic verse. If there was, I have missed it. There was no rhyme but for the occasional off-rhyme (so unpredictable and occasional as to feel accidental rather than deliberate). I confess a little disappointment in this regard, but only a little. It probably wouldn’t have been appropriate. Her poems do resemble, in their shape and rhetorical compactness, the flavor of 17th century verse.

As it is, Potter does dress her verse with the kind of extended metaphors and poetic personifications we’d fully expect from poets of the era:

Ruined as I am the sea makes no mind
as it leaps and licks higher by the moment
with the icy winds that hound us
like dogs baring long teeth at our bellies
and where is our God I wonder
who would seem to punish the revolt
of dour Puritan men against the prelates
with slanderous blows of the great water…

…as if a servant might possess a low power
to save souls from the monstrous jaws
of the watery beast that wing-spread doth
rise and bend over our whole company…

As the rough sea licks out bitten skin with salt tongue…

…and a great whale drifted along our side spouting water
as if it were God’s leviathan sleepily smoking his pipe at twilight…

Potter really seems to let her hair down when describing the animalistic gyrations of the ocean. I can’t help thinking she revels in the excuse to use the extended metaphors, auxiliary do forms, grammatical inversions, and personifications that contemporary poets, otherwise, wouldn’t dare use lest they sully their unassailable reputation for the boring. It’s in Potter’s use of language and imagery, rather than meter or rhyme, that she reminds us we’re in the 1600’s. That’s okay. I think it works and I think she manages the effect beautifully, not too much and not too little. Admittedly, it’s highly unlikely that a Jacobean servant would have narrated her life with such trenchant imagery or in such a poetic voice, but at some point one must grant that art’s job isn’t to be faithful but to be true.

Other than that, the reader will notice that poems aren’t punctuated. I’m not sure why Potter chose this affect, but I can theorize. One reason may be that she wanted to suggest Meanwell’s lack of education, that she’s not “booked”. Meanwell’s monologues plow from one thought to the next the way, perhaps, such an uneducated woman would speak. Another reason might be that Potter wants to make the reading a little more difficult, as if to suggest a different period of time and way of talking. Another is that Potter simply prefers to write that way. Some readers will be put off by this. I wasn’t.

When Meanwell is finally free to live her own life, the verse follows suite. The lines no longer imitate, in appearance, the blank verse or stanzas of the 1600’s, but the open and unstructured free verse of contemporary poetry.

Westward

In the back matter of the book, we’re told the following:

“Through Meanwell, the feelings of women, silecned during the midwife Anne Hutchinson’s fiery trial before the Puritan ministers, are finally acknowledged. In effect, the poems are about the making of an American rebel. Through her conflicted conscience, we witness Meanwell’s transformation from a powerless English waif to a mythic American who ultimately chooses wilderness over the civilization she has experienced.”

My own reading of Meanwell isn’t quite so pat, and that’s a good thing. There are no heroes in the book, least of all Meanwell, and that reminds me a little of Robert Frost and the characters in North of Boston. There’s a meanness and pettiness to Meanwell that makes her appealing and human. How could she be otherwise? In the poem Two Annes Have I served Half-Faithfully, Meanwell tells us something that Bradstreet Hutchinson has said.

once I heard her proclaim
that to be a woman was to be
blessed

that to be a woman was to possess mastery
of one’s own
body········one’s own
········mind

Jan, 25 2013 ~ Note: When I originally wrote the review, I incorrectly remembered that the above lines were spoken by Bradstreet. Potter sent me an E-Mail to correct me. She wrote:

“But I should point out one minor but intriguing misreading. I confess that I like your misreading because it opens a fascinating view down the road not taken. It is actually Anne Hutchinson who says (and did say in real life) that to be a woman is to be blessed. It’s part of her feminism, of course, and another reason why she so enraged the ministers. But–what if Bradstreet had said it? What a delicious irony!”

And that led me on a very interesting diversion. Did Bradstreet never once refer to her identity as a woman? So I got out my copy of Bradstreet’s writings and searched through them. The closest Bradstreet comes to referencing her own identity as any thing other than a Christian, first and foremost, or “soul”, is in her short prose autobiography To My Dear Children. She writes:

It pleased God to keep me a long time without a child, which was a great grief to me and cost me many prayers and tears before I obtained one, and after him gave me many more of whom I now take the care, that as I have brought you into the world. and with great pains, weakness, cares, and fears brought you to this, I now travail in birth again of you till Christ be formed in you. [The Works of Anne Bradstreet: Edited by Jaennine Hensley p. 241]

But for these brief words — “I now travail in birth again” — we might imagine a father writing this. That Bradstreet has so subsumed and suppressed (if that’s the right word) her own identity as anything other than a Christian whose identity exists only in reference to her husband and patriarchal faith, makes her contrast with Hutchinson all the more striking. It’s tempting to say that Bradstreet’s sensibility would be utterly foreign to a modern and secular woman. I’m not so sure. Meanwell, from this perspective, not only straddles two different paradigms of womanhood in her own day (with an ear to both and drawn to both worlds) but also, perhaps, speaks to modern women who, though now firmly in Hutchinson’s world, are nevertheless compelled, in some small way, by the perceived safety and certitude of a “traditional” woman’s role. Does a woman seek the solace and approval of children, family and faith, or does she risk independence, potential isolation and disapproval (excommunication). Anne Hutchinson’s isolation led to her murder and was understood by men( and probably women too) as a just warning to any woman desiring to reject the patriarchal roles assigned to her.

All that being said, I still wonder that Hutchinson’s words didn’t put it in Meanwell’s mind to burn a house down — she who had never possessed mastery of her own body — her fate.

Jan 27, 2013 Potter, via E-Mail, brought to my attention another passage in which Bradstreet briefly describes her position as a woman writing poetry:

“I like her poem, “Prologue,” for her musings on what she faces as a woman-writer.  I feel her taking a deep breath, and then diving into the wreck.  Especially pointed is part 5:

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits,
A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits:
If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.

Nevertheless, by the end of the poem, she bows once more to male superiority.   (I think she was politically astute.)  The only public acknowledgement of herself as poet that she claims to seek is a modest wreath of thyme or parsley, rather than the bay wreath, or laurels of famous men.  But she clearly wants some credit, and she wants it as a woman.”

The only observation I would add is that Bradstreet reveals some ambition, in addition to wanting credit. My own feeling is that she shows some awareness and pride in her own talent and is excited to write poetry. The passage also reveals the kind of thing she must have heard from men and women. Mainly, they didn’t believe women were capable of accomplished poetry, dismissed their efforts or accused them of plagiary or dumb luck. Elizabeth Cary, another female poet and contemporary of Anne Bradstreet, was most forcefully discouraged from poetry by her own mother (who didn’t approve of Elizabeth’s “devotion to books”. We can’t necessarily conclude that the “carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits” was solely the tongue of men. Nevertheless, what the passage does tell us is the difficulties and discouragements Bradstreet must have confronted and how lucky she was to have had (what must have been) a supportive husband and children – something Meanwell sorely envied.

puritans

Meanwell desired the outward privileges, as she saw it, of Bradstreet’s world, but did she ever fully comprehend it? I think it’s only when Meanwell is finally freed from servitude, in my reading, that she reveals something like admiration and compassion for Bradstreet and only then begins her search for her own identity and meaning.

…what a fool I was
to believe········to believe
rhymes with Eve so what if those
ministers may be right

no I believe········with two Annes
it is blessed to be
woman

My feeling is that this book is a keeper and well worth reading. The poetry is some of the best around and Potter’s trenchant, concrete imagery is perfectly suited to evoking the hard and cruel landscape of the old world in the new. There are other moments and nice details I haven’t mentioned, but you will have to read the book. My advice is to buy this book and buy Bradstreet’s poetry with it. The two go together beautifully.

Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • Two Books Added

Reviewed and added the following books to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:

  • Sanskrit Love Poetry translated by W.S. Merwin and J. Mousaieff Masson
  • The Complete Love Poems of May Swenson

You will find them appended to the larger review linked above.

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