Let Poetry Die ❧ Redux

 

  • This is a rewrite of my earlier post Let Poetry Die. This version came about because I was asked to do a rewrite by the Wall Street Journal, who considered publishing the article in their essay section. Because their essays tend to be more informational than confrontational they ended up rejecting the rewrite (or that’s my theory). I re-submitted the essay to other publications including The Atlantic Monthly and Poetry Magazine. It was Andrew Sullivan, of the Atlantic Monthly, who first brought the post to “the world’s” attention, so I thought they might be interested in the rewrite. They weren’t.  So be it. Rather than let the rewrite burn a hole in my pocket, I’m posting it here. Enjoy, or refute, as the case may be.

On Nov. 5, 1913, Robert Frost wrote to John T. Bartlett, professing his ambition and, at the same time, defining what a poet’s ambition should be. “There is the kind of success called ‘of esteem’ and it butters no parsnips. It means success with the critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands.”

Frost’s driving ambition was founded on the belief that the general reader was equal to his own ambitions. Frost could have been echoing Walt Whitman’s assertion that “to have great poets, there must be great audiences.” But the populism of Frost and Whitman was increasingly distrusted by poets and critics stung by public rejection. The answer was not that their own poetry and vision might be mediocre, but that the public’s demands were mediocre. The obvious answer was to create their own audience and that thesis was formulated by Harriet Monroe, the founder of the Poetry Foundation. In a 1922 editorial she implicitly condemned the corrupting influence of the general reader. She contemptuously referred to poems, daily published in newspapers, as “syndicated rhymes,” and equated the poets to “movie-producers” who had learned that it paid to “be good”. It paid to give “people the emotions of virtue, simplicity and goodness.” And she meant that contemptuously. In short, she was accusing poets of catering to the general reader. Poetry needed to be freed from the corrupting expectations of “people”.

History cherishes irony. Robert Frost’s tremendous success in courting the public made Monroe’s vision of the poet, so different from his own, not only possible but triumphant. It was Frost’s popularity that wakened colleges and universities to the lucrative possibilities of the poet-in-residence. After Frost, more and more academic institutions established a poet-in-residence, then creative writing programs, then MFAs. Even if modern poets largely disdain catering to the general reader, the colleges and universities, who bait their hooks with them, make catering a science. There is no MFA equivalent to organic chemistry – a trial by fire that thins the ranks of premedical talent. MFA programs glow with the radiance of a sabbatical. The University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the oldest in the country, gives the feeling of a vacation brochure. “Workshop alumni have won sixteen Pulitzer Prizes (most recently Philip Schultz in 2008), as well as numerous National Book Awards and other major literary honors.” They might as well be describing sixteen award winning slopes, well groomed and with powder. To paraphrase Harriet Monroe, it’s a program that “pays at the box office”, but empties your pockets. The program promises nothing other than that students will be comfortably acquainted with the expectations of “the critical few who are supposed to know”.

Harriet Monroe’s vision of the poet won the day. And the triumph of Monroe’s vision was never so spectacularly endorsed as when, in 2002, Ruth Lilly, the last surviving great-grandchild of the pharmaceuticals baron Eli Lilly, bequeathed roughly $200 million to Monroe’s Poetry Foundation. Monroe’s vision of the poet, insulated from the corrupting influence of the general reader, now extends to the Poetry Foundation itself. Flush with fantastic wealth, public appeal is no longer a matter of life and death; and that’s fortunate for the Poetry Foundation. Monroe correctly assumed that the “large public [would be] little interested” in what she had to offer. She wanted readers who were “primarily interested in poetry as an art” and those readers, predictably, turned out to be other poets, critics and aficionados. Whether the Poetry Foundation’s aesthetic genetics deserve to survive will never be known. Survival of the fittest has been thwarted. The foundation’s future influence on America’s poetry for good or ill will be unrivaled.

Nonetheless, the failure of Monroe’s vision, and the Poetry Foundation’s own inability (or refusal) to court a wider readership, was unwittingly confirmed by the Poetry Foundation’s own expression of gratitude to Lilly. “Thanks to Ms. Lilly’s munificence,” they write in an online article, In Memoriam: Ruth Lilly, 1915-2009, “the programs of the Poetry Foundation bring poems to 19 million Americans who would not otherwise read or hear them.” Without her they could not offer “the annual $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize”. Without her “millions of readers [might not discover] the great magic of poetry for generations to come.” And topping it with a cherry, the Poetry Foundation’s President, John Barr, stated that “poetry has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly.”

The question arises: if the magic of poetry is so great, why did it need $200 million? Apparently, it’s not the magic of poetry that will bring the thrill of poetry to millions but the magic of $200 million. And John Barr’s own revealing statement that Poetry “has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly” is a curious self-indictment. It should have millions of friends – none any more or less great than the other.

What has been lost with the triumph of Monroe’s vision? As far as Frost’s general reader is concerned, American Poetry died with the modernists and their contemporaries: Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, WB Yeats. No poets ever filled their shoes. Few passing pedestrians could readily name a poet from the last 50 to 60 years – let alone the title of a poem, let alone a first line. Yet ask the same general reader to name a favorite novelist, golfer, band, lyricist or rapper, and watch them light up.

By asserting that poets shouldn’t have to cater to the marketplace of common opinion, poets were given leave to write without consequence. And when any human being can act without consequence, the dogs of mediocrity, narcissism and hedonism will be let loose. The most recent example was Elizabeth Alexander’s reading at Obama’s inauguration. Her list of credentials and awards are show stopping. She is a poet, essayist, playwright, who has degrees from Yale University and Boston University, along with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She was the 2007 winner of the first Jackson Prize for Poetry and, to boot, was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the George Kent Award and a Guggenheim fellowship.

But on the day when she was exposed to the marketplace of common opinion as no other poet since Robert Frost’s own reading at the Kennedy inauguration, the consequences were final. Her talents, as revealed in her poem Praise Song for the Day, were judged to be those of a mediocre poet whose poetic reach was strained by a clichéd phrase like “glittering edifices” and whose stanzas were typified by breathtakingly bland and unimaginative language:

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

The public’s reception was captured on John Stuart’s Daily Show when her reading was juxtaposed with images of a rapidly dispersing crowd. At present, Amazon offers 31 copies of her chapbook, Praise Song for the Day, (a print run of 100,000) for 1 penny each. New copies have been marked down to yard sale prices: $1.52. The public has spoken. If the general reader was to blame for the mediocrity in Monroe’s morning paper, public reception was the choke collar that restrained it’s durability. If the worst poets were permitted 15 minutes of fame, the next 15 years were payback. Currently, given enough publications and enough awards, a poet, despite having little to no public appeal, can expect the esteem of his or her peers to confer lifelong job security. After all, who publishes their poetry and awards them but other poets, critics and aficionados? The estimation in which the last decade’s poets have been held hasn’t reflected public opinion but the poets’ opinions of themselves.

Monroe’s stance excludes the general public from the evolution of art, but as Walt Whitman wrote, great poetry isn’t possible without a great audience, and if the audience is excluded from the development of a given art form, then it will no longer reflect the audience’s innate greatness. Interest among the general public has predictably collapsed. In January of last year, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that while 50.2 percent of adults had read a work of fiction in 2008, as opposed to 46.7 in 2002 (an encouraging increase) poetry’s adult readership had declined to a 16 year low. The general reader no longer turns to contemporary poetry because they cease to find their greatness within it. When the poet August Kleinzahler stated that Garrison Keillor’s 2002 anthology of poems, Good Poems, “makes no demands on his audiences, none whatsoever,” he might have added, with equal conviction, that the “audience hasn’t been permitted to make any demands on poets, none whatsoever.”

It would be better if poets were fed to the lions of public opinion. Drive them out of the universities, if not literally then figuratively. Drown institutional benevolence in a barrel of water. When poets were required to make their living by writing for the public there was a give and take – a kind of death and rebirth in every public appraisal of their effort. Artists disputed but also encompassed their audience’s demands and tastes. There was a balance, perhaps imperfect but a balance nonetheless. The interaction produced our greatest works of art. Hamlet was a product of the public’s demand for revenge tragedy. Mozart’s Magic Flute, one of the greatest operas written, was a direct appeal, not to nobility, but to the Viennese public’s taste for Singspiels and fairy tale operas. Conversely, careers sometimes sputtered and artists starved. But that’s the way it should be. This is how art thrives and improves.

It is a supreme irony that Monroe’s vision of the independent artist has recreated the very system of patronage that the great poets, composers and artists of the 19th century were so determined to escape. They wanted to write for the public. And it’s a curious state of affairs when criticism of John Barr’s efforts to steer the Poetry Foundation toward a more populist direction can be paraphrased (by Dana Goodyear, in her New Yorker article, The Moneyed Muse) as “the encroachment of cultural conservatism, money, and vulgar money people on a precinct considered sacred, and safely forgotten.”

Those making the criticism, those who fancy themselves independent artists, are hardly independent. Beethoven, whose music inaugurated the age of the Romantics, disdained patronage. The very definition of the independent artist, exalted by the Romantics, rejected the social and political norms of the previous century, and that included its patronage system. Ironically, there is little difference between that patronage system and the patronage system of America’s wealthy academic institutions. There is little difference between the hundreds of forgettable court composers who dutifully scribbled ditties for their aristocratic employers and the hundreds of forgettable poets who dutifully compose poem after poem under the auspices of their respective institutions. (No academic institution is going to patronize a poet who doesn’t reflect well on them.) If anything typifies cultural conservatism, it is the poet safely ensconced in the court of academic institutions.

Poetry answerable to common opinion might, at the very least, prevent the public from being lectured by “the critical few who are supposed to know.” They will stop being told they are too vulgar to recognize which poets rightly deserve their admiration and attention. Instead, maybe your neighbor will tell you. Maybe you will hear a poet’s lines absently-mindedly chanted by the stranger next to you. No one knows what the next great poet will sound like. But it’s likely the public will recognize him or her before other poets, critics or editors do.

And surely, a great many poets who are currently the darlings of their generation will be toppled from their esteemed perches. But why not invite these poets to actually make a living from their poetry? If they can’t, then maybe their poetry isn’t all that good? On the other hand, maybe the public has spoken after all. If there’s not a single poet the public finds worth praising or remembering, then maybe the argument is already over. Robert Frost’s legacy lives on in his poetry. Monroe’s legacy lives on in $200 million.

Make poets work for their bread and butter by being poets. Make them, as Frost wrote, stand on their own legs. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets, has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry too shielded from the destructive and re-creative impulses of common opinion. When the ancient myth makers invented the phoenix, they created a myth far more captivating and compelling than deathless immortality. They recognized the vitality of death and rebirth. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then the public may begin to see great poetry again – the greatness that stems from the re-creative collaboration between audience and artist. Let poetry die.

❧ January 10 2011

Let Poetry Die

Don’t Get Me Wrong

I love poetry; but as far as the public is concerned, poetry died with the modernists.

No poets ever filled their shoes. And though there remain a number of minor masters and one hit wonders, few passing pedestrians could name a poet from the last 50 to 60 years – let alone the same poet, let alone the title of a poem, let alone a first line. Even though I’ve never watched a single game of ice hockey from beginning to end, I know who Wayne Gretzky is. And even though I’ve never watched more than two holes of golf, I know  that Tiger Woods is not just a gifted philanderer, but a great golfer.

Ask anyone to name a novelist of the last half century and names will come tumbling.

How about JK Rowling?

Ask anyone to name a contemporary poet and you will be lucky to scrape by with John Ashbery, notwithstanding his much ballyhooed publication in  Library of America.  I know because I’ve asked friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers. Try it yourself. Harold Bloom made the comment that “since the death of Wallace Stevens in 1955, we have been in the Age of Ashbery.” And when you think about it, that’s about as back-handed a compliment as he could possibly make. If Ashbery is a virtual unknown among the larger public, what does that say about the generation scurrying around his ankles?

John Barr, President of the National Poetry Association, described much the same in his article, American Poetry in the New Century:

The need for something new is evident. Contemporary poetry’s striking absence from the public dialogues of our day, from the high school classroom, from bookstores, and from mainstream media, is evidence of a people in whose mind poetry is missing and unmissed. You can count on the fingers of one hand the bookstores in this country that are known for their poetry collections…

Or consider About.Com. The web site offers a TopPicks index that includes the  top ten contemporary novelists, but not a word about the top ten poets. Type <Top Ten> into Google and see how long you have to scroll before you find anything about contemporary poets or poems. (I finally quit scrolling.) Why? Because few people could name so much as one poet, let alone ten. And if ten were listed, who would recognize them?

The Need for Darwin

The recent death of Ruth Lilly got me started.

The event made me think of two things, Frank Deford’s Sports “Curmudgeon” and Darwin. Here’s how the Poetry Foundation expressed their gratitude to Lilly:

Thanks to Ms. Lilly’s munificence, the programs of the Poetry Foundation bring poems to 19 million Americans who would not otherwise read or hear them. From the annual $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize honoring a contemporary poet’s lifetime accomplishment, to five Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships that go to aspiring poets, to ensuring Poetry magazine continues publishing in perpetuity, to a host of new programs and prizes established by the Poetry Foundation since receiving the bequest, Ruth Lilly’s legacy will allow millions of readers to discover the great magic of poetry for generations to come. ¶ “Poetry has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly,” said Poetry Foundation John Barr.

Lilly’s generosity is praiseworthy but… but… what if she had generously donated such wealth to the NFL, Pixar, or Random House? Why bother, many would ask, they’re already successful. The Poetry Foundation, on the other hand, was headed toward irrelevance, at best, and oblivion at worst. Lilly’s contribution (and contributions) to the Poetry Foundation are the only reason it is what it is today. In other words, it’s not through any intrinsic or hard-earned merit that the Poetry Foundation is surviving and flourishing today, but because of a drug baron’s fantastic wealth.

The Poetry Foundation indirectly admitted as much. Without her, they tell us, 19 million Americans would not otherwise read or hear them. Without her, there would be no annual Poetry prize honoring contemporary poets. Without her, there would be no Poetry fellowships. Without her, millions wouldn’t be able to “discover the great magic of poetry for generations to come.”

Of course, the last assertion begs the question, if the magic of poetry is so great, why in God’s name did it need $200,000,000 dollars to rouse it from its death rattle? Apparently, it’s not the magic of poetry that will bring the thrill of poetry to millions of readers , but the magic of 200,000,000 dollars. Will the organization be made any better for the money? – remains to be seen. Would they have survived without it? – who knows… Did they deserve to survive? – maybe not.

The survival of the fittest has been thwarted.

On the other hand, this is precisely what the Poetry Foundation’s founder would have wanted. Wikipedia puts it this way:

Dana Goodyear, in an article in The New Yorker reporting and commenting on Poetry magazine and The Poetry Foundation, wrote that Barr’s essay was directly counter to the ideas of the magazine’s founder, Harriet Monroe, eight decades before. In a 1922 editorial, Monroe wrote about newspaper verse: “These syndicated rhymers, like the movie-producers, are learning that it pays to be good, [that one] gets by giving the people the emotions of virtue, simplicity and goodness, with this program paying at the box-office.” Monroe wanted to protect poets from the demands of popular taste, Goodyear wrote, while Barr wants to induce poets to appeal to the public. Goodyear acknowledged that popular interest in poetry has collapsed since the time of Monroe’s editorial.

In other words, Monroe wanted poets to write without consequence. And when any human being, let alone poets, can act without consequence, the dogs of mediocrity, narcissism and hedonism will be let loose. In the past, public reception was the choke collar that largely kept mediocrity at bay, but when poets were able to create their own audience (themselves) all those checks and balances evaporated.

It’s my own opinion that Monroe’s attitude is toxic and anathema to great art and poisonous to art in general. It’s a shame and the results are indisputable. When poets left their audience, their audience left them.

Monroe’s stance excluded the general public from the evolution of art, but as Walt Whitman wrote, great poetry isn’t possible without a great audience, and if the audience is excluded from the development of a given art from, then it will no longer reflect the audience’s own innate greatness. And that is precisely what has happened. The general public no longer turns to contemporary poetry because it ceases to find itself, its greatness, reflected in that poetry. The general public has been excluded.

So who’s to tell the poet if they’re poetry is good or bad? Poets themselves?

The fact that the Poetry Foundation continues to exist, not because of its intrinsic merit but because of a generous benefactor means that its aesthetic genetics (the attitudes, values and artistic principles) that were probably ripe for expiration, will now continue to exert an undeserved and unearned influence on poetry. John Bar’s own unwitting statement that Poetry “has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly” is a sad self-indictment. It should have millions of friends – none any more or less great than  the other.

It might have been better had the organization died a natural death.

Mob Rule

And it would be better if all poets were thrown to the dogs of public opinion.

Tremendous wisdom can be found in the myths and legends of our past. One of the most profound, in my opinion, is that of the Phoenix – both mortal and immortal. What the ancients knew (or some of  them), and which many moderns seem to have forgotten, is that without destruction, there can be no rebirth.

The reason the Phoenix appeals to us is not because it is immortal (mythology is rife with immortal beings) but because it can recreate itself. The Phoenix’s song of death and rebirth  transfixes us. Immortality can never hold the same gift and promise of rebirth and renewal.

And it’s precisely this cycle of death and rebirth that poetry has lost.

When poets were required to make their living by writing for the public there was a give and take – a kind of death and rebirth in every public appraisal of their effort. Artists disputed but also encompassed their audience’s demands and tastes. There was a balance, perhaps imperfect but a balance nonetheless. The interaction produced our greatest works of art. Conversely, careers sometimes sputtered, poets starved and some had to quit writing altogether. But that’s the way it should be. This is how art thrives.

The best thing that could happen to poetry is to drive it out of the universities with burning pitch forks. Starve the lavish grants. Strangle them all in a barrel of water. Cast them out. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry that  resists innovation. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then we may begin to see some great poetry again – the greatness that is the collaboration between audience and artist.

As John Barr wrote:

[Contemporary poets] operate on a network of academic postings and prizes that reinforce the status quo. They are sustained by a system of fellowships, grants, and other subsidies that absolve recipients of the responsibility to write books that a reader who is not a specialist might enjoy, might even buy.

There has always been criticism directed at the National Endowment for the Arts, for it’s use of our tax money to support artists who would probably (and otherwise) be in the unemployment line. And maybe I’m beginning to have some sympathy with that point of view. If poets and artists can’t make a living by writing poetry or producing art, then maybe they shouldn’t be writing poetry.

Let the fittest survive.

And, yes, I hold myself to that standard. I live it everyday.

Let Poetry Die

So that it can be reborn, make poets work for their bread and butter by being poets. As it is, the state of poetry is dispiriting. The public is right to ignore it.

Some quotes from the web:

  • I asked the newsroom to name a living American poet. A room full of people who write for a living could only come up with Maya Angelou. The Book Club ~ The News Herald
  • …the reason why you cannot recite poems from the last fifty years with ease is not because there haven’t been any good ones but because of the system of education: it has both ceased to renew the curricular literary canon and at the same time devalued the teaching of english… a comment at Melville House Publishing


Poetry, Politics & Position Papers

The saga concerning what is, apparently, a continuing scandal in Holland was updated with a poem from Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, the author who had originally been nominated by Gorman to translate her inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb. Rijneveld, if you don’t already know, was firmly disinvited from climbing said hill by Janice Deul, a critic at de Volkskrant (because Rijneveld wasn’t born with the right skin color and body parts). Rijniveld claimed to be shocked by the criticism, writing, ““I am shocked by the uproar surrounding my involvement in the spread of Amanda Gorman’s message… However, I realise that I am in a position to think and feel that way, where many are not.”

One can well imagine that Rijniveld was shocked—just shocked. Rijniveld is nonbinary and surely never considered themselves a member of the previleged class. And so it must have been a definitive shock for Rijniveld to discover that in the great spreadsheet of race, gender and privilege, said author discovered themselves firmly moved from the opressed minority column to the privileged, old, white European column who had no business translating the poetry of a dynamic young, black woman or, as Deul put it: a “spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black”. Skin color trumps all.

And so, Rijniveld, now an apologetically white, gender-asterisked European, wrote a poem called Everything inhabitable. And it’s this, really, that got my attention more than the identity politics. (And forgive my mordant sense of humor. I do have sympathy for Rijniveld—who asked for none of this.) Rijniveld’s poem caught my attention because while news outlets generally aren’t in the habit of publishing poetry, The Guardian not only published the poem but drew attention to it in a subsequent article. Why? And what’s weird about the subsequent article is just how apropos it is. The Guardian treats/analyzes the poem not as a work of literature but as a kind of press release and position paper. Here’s an example:

“In the poem, Rijneveld sets out in the second person how they are ‘against all of humankind’s boxing in’, and how they have ‘never been too lazy to stand up, to face / up to all the bullies and fight pigeonholing with your fists / raised’.

The Guardian continues its analysis of Rijniveld’s poetry with all the panache of a bored freshman high school student and journalist who otherwise dreamed of being a war correspondent. It’s a political poem; and if you look up political poetry, you’ll find this interesting paragraph at Wikipedia:

Some critics argue that political poetry can not exist, stating that politics do not belong with and can not be incorporated with traditional definitions of poetry. One of the most vivid examples of this comes from a 1968 essay, “Studies in English Literature: Restoration and Eighteenth Century”, written by A.L. French.[2] In this work, French provides criticism of the influential 17th century poet John Dryden’s work, claiming that the majority of praise Dryden receives is due to his political messages rather than the quality of his poetry, which French believes is mediocre. For example, French believes Dryden relies too heavily on excessive allusion to get his messages and themes across; French describes Dryden’s work and “his treatment of the body politic in the epic simile”.[2] French’s argument reveals the inherent difficulty of political poetry: the attempt to incorporate the literal (politics), can destroys the fanciful and imaginary qualities that make poetry what it is. ~ Wikipedia: Can Poetry be Political

I tend to agree, though mine, like A.L. French’s, is probably not a popular opinion. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that politics and poetry are mutually exclusive, only that it is exceptionally difficult to pull off (if the poet wants to write poetry for “all time” (or universal) rather than “of an age” (or local, as it were). Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb is nothing if not a political poem. I suspect it won’t outlast Gorman’s celebrity. The poem’s euphuistic sparkle won’t be enough to buoy its generalized sloganeering. But getting back to Rijnivelt’s poem. It does sound more like a position paper than a poem. Although, to be fair, I suppose a position paper can also be a poem (a new genre?). Rijniveck wants to make it clear that although they have been re-columned in the great spreadsheet of identity politics as an old, privileged, white European, they still would like to be a member of the club:

...the point is to be able to put yourself

in another’s shoes, to see the sea of sorrow behind another
person’s eyes, the rampant wrath of all wraths, you
want to say that maybe you don’t understand everything,
that of course you don’t always hit the right chord, but that
you do feel it, yes, you feel it, even if the difference is a gap.

The poem is written in the second-person singular, which I’ve never been a fan of (understatement). It’s hard to know who Rijniveld is addressing. The risk with second-person singular, of course, is that Rijniveld comes off sounding precisely like the entitled white European they don’t want to be. The white European who assumes and presumes the privilege of speaking for the reader and listener: You feel this and You want to say that and I, Rijnivelt, will say it for You because I am a Poet and have the right to tell You what You think.

It’s not a good look.

More generously, one could read the poem as Rijnivelt addressing Rijnivelt in the second person, which is also odd but at least, even if it now sounds self-absorbed in a weird and disturbing way, doesn’t sound patronizing and presumptuous in all the wrong ways. I feel for Rijnivelt but I’m not sure that poetry as position paper, let alone written in the second-person singular, accomplishes what Rijnivelt thinks it will. But I don’t know. I do enjoy these moments when poetry matters even if, like a Nascar race, half the reward is in watching the cars crash and burn.

upinVermont | March 6 2021

The Life in Mary Oliver’s Poetry

mary oliver

Angel Valentin for The New York Times

I started this post with a different title, but death is an illusory thing. What’s important about Mary Oliver is the life in her poetry. She put the earth in her lines more so than any poet since John Clare (or the Japanese poet Issa). Both poets, and there are surely poets in other languages, were careful and loving observers of the natural world, and found within it our humanity.

She was also, as far as I know, the only English language poet of the last 50 years able to make a living as a poet. That is, she wasn’t a glorified “court poet” under the protective patronage of a college or university press. She actually sold the poetry she wrote. The reasons for that are many, and none of them foremost, but all parts whose sum exceeded the whole. She was comprehensible, nearly always created a time and locale in her poetry, and possessed a gift for the furtive and original metaphor. Her best book, in my opinion is What Do We Know, and so I’ll take most of my examples from there. The book has always struck me as feeling like a unified whole, an encapsulation of her art, more than just the latest collection.

But for an example of the kind of furtive metaphor of which she was a master, here is the opening to Walking to Oak-Head Pond, and Thinking of the Ponds I Will Visit in the Next Days and Weeks:

What is so utterly invisible
as tomorrow?
Not love,
not the wind,

not the inside of a stone.
Not anything.
And yet, how often I’m fooled—
I’m wading along

in the sunlight—
and I’m sure I can only see the fields and the ponds shining
days ahead….

The first two verses are fairly ordinary, but we already get a feel for where we are—wind, a stone, and her musing on the inside of a stone. She already plants our feet on earth. But then there’s that furtive metaphor, “wading along in the sunlight”, a line that would never occur to the vast swathe of contemporary poets, and the reader breaths the clear waters of Oliver’s poetry.  She will talk about ponds, and her poet’s imagination infuses her lines with the metaphors of water. She continues:

I can see the light spilling/like a shower of meteors

And later her legs are “splashing over the edge of darkness”. It’s figurative language like this that enriches her poetry and is the lifeblood of poetry. The magnificence of earth, and life on earth, makes itself felt not just in description but in the very lineaments of her figurative language. This was a trick of Shakespeare, Keats and T.S. Eliot. And you will find it in all of her poetry (all italics are mine):

the palavering wind/is walking/through the pines [p. 48

The death went into her
like lightning
in slow motion,
it mashed her knees,
it ruined the red glove of her heart [p. 49]

The latter prepositional construction is a kind metaphor for which Oliver possessed a genius. Even when her imagery skirts the clichéd, she finds ways to breathe unexpected life into the commonplace:

the snowy tissue of clouds pass over [p. 5]

Or describing rainfall:

…I fall to my knees and then the flowers cry out, and then the wind breaks open its silver countries of rain

Or when describing the sea:

oh bed of silk,/lie back now on your prairies of blackness your fields of sunlight

In any other context “fields of sunlight” would be clichéd, but as a description of the ocean Oliver breathes new life into the collocation. If she had simply written  “snowy clouds”, one might rightly call it clichéd, but the collocation “snowy tissue of clouds” breathes just enough life into the commonplace that the reader pauses. And when describing a hummingbird she writes:

He is a gatherer of the fine honey of promise… [p. 14]

Most other poets would have written “promise of honey”, but how easy to give new lungs to the trite and clichéd with a little turn of phrase. There’s much that her generation could have learned from her, but didn’t.

The gentleness of her poetry can belie her clear-eyed and unflinching assessment of decay and death—and that dying can be cruel. Describing an owl:

…this beast of a bird
with her thick breast
and her shimmering wings—
whose nest, in the dark trees,

is trimmed with screams and bones—
whose beak
is the most terrible cup
I will ever enter.  [Beauty, p. 13]

She could as easily be describing Baba Yaga. And None of this describes the owl but describes what was in Oliver, and in us, who see the owl.

Those who treat her poetry as little more than tittles for the gardening column of Ladies Home Journal fail to recognize the inner life of her poems. They’re not just about the natural world, but a kind of metaphorical landscape of her (and our) inner life. They do so humbly. They don’t invent a new grammar or syntax. The don’t contort themselves with typographic hand waving. She makes no grand claims for her poetry. Her poems are like prayers. And in the poem Praying, she all but describes the artistic principle guiding her poetry:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

[Devotions, p. 131]

That she made a living as a poet speaks to her appeal among readers who also avoid elaboration, who draw no contest between poets, and who enter poems as doorways into gratitude—and joy. There can be a plainly adolescent joy even in Oliver’s last poems. What amazes is that where a lesser poet’s effort inevitably unravels in flights of mawkish sentimentality, Oliver grounds her exuberance in our senses. She never lets the earth further than she can touch, or smell or inhale:

Last night
the rain
spoke to me
slowly, saying,

what joy
to come falling
out of the brisk cloud,
to be happy again

in a new way
on the earth!
That’s what it said
as it dropped,

smelling of iron,
and vanished
like a dream of the ocean
into the branches…

[Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me, p. 36]

And if there are lines by which I’d choose to remember her I would pick the closing lines of the same poem:

…my right hand
was holding my left hand
which was holding the tree
which was filled with stars

and the soft rain—
imagine! imagine!
the long and wondrous journeys
still to be ours.

Mary Oliver died January 17th, 2019.

upinVermont | January 21st 2019

Of Instapoets & Instapoetry

So, last night I was contacted by a publicist hoping that I would interview an instragram poet by the name of Nicholas Denmon. I’m not familiar with Denmon’s efforts but am familiar with instapoetry and even bought Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. In case you’re not familiar with the term Instapoetry, it refers (if contemptuously in some circles) to free verse poems that are as little as two lines or as epic as twelve.

Kaur

They have nothing to do with haiku and at worst are little more than declarative sentences. At right is one of Kaur’s better known examples and typifies the ‘form’, if it can be said to have one.

But what a kerfuffle I’ve missed these last six months. Turns out there are a number of poets and critics who have written some scathing reviews of Kaur’s poetry—and Instapoetry in general.  Foremost among them, as far as I can gather, is Rebecca Watts, who wrote a fairly damning review in PN Review.

Momentarily setting aside Watts’s diatribe, I didn’t read Kaur’s book for its mastery of the arts of language and poetry. On that count, I think, a two or three line instaresumé would suffice. But she does have one skill set shared by other “masters”, and I use that term loosely, of the instapoem. Take the instapoem above. What’s clever about it is what makes it memorable. It’s a species of rhetoric, what’s called a figure of repetition. It’s an example of isocolon. Possibly also scesis onomaton and some other less pronouncable rhetorical figures I’m too rusty to recall. Isocolon is defined as “a rhetorical device that involves a succession of sentences, phrases, and clauses of grammatically equal length.” Strictly speaking, the two phrases aren’t of equal length, but close enough.

The most memorable lines in poetry, let alone Shakespeare, are commonly pristine examples of various rhetorical figures. Here’s Shakespeare’s use of isocolon from Sister Miram Joseph’s compendium Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language:

“Your reasons at dinner have been sharp and sententious; pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectation, audacious without impudency, learned without opinion, and strange without heresy.” [p. 60]

You might also observe that Kaur’s verse is an example of grammatic parallelism, something which virtually defines Walt Whitman’s poetry. The point I’m making is that part of what makes Kaur’s verse memorable (along with good inspirational quotes and add copy) is her knack for rhetoric. This isn’t something to be lightly dismissed. While her Kaur-2Instapoetry will never be confused with great literature, it’s worth trying to understand some of the elements that make it work and make it appealing. At left is another example.

This instapoem pirouettes nicely, and meaningfully, on the pun of ‘spine’ (a pun is a rhetorical figure). While I’m in no way comparing Kaur to Shakespeare, this is the sort of game Shakespeare often played, and it works. Hence the appeal of Kaur’s poetry.

Instapoetry can be, to a degree, a rhetorician’s playground. The best examples, and the most memorable, I’m willing to bet, are those that skillfully, if unwittingly, make use of rhetorical figures, puns, figures of repetition, amplification, balance, antitheses, etc… Although I’m not going to exhaustively review Kaur’s poetry to prove or disprove my point, my hunch is that her own instapoetry, as compared to her peers, is the most skillful in that regard, and is amplified by subject matter that is, in fact, meaningful to a great many readers: immigration, domestic violence, sexual gratification along with sexual assault. Out of curiosity, I googled Tyler Knott Gregson’s favorite poems and landed here. Many of these poems contain examples of rhetorical figures found throughout poetry, though not as condensed as Kaur’s. All this is to say that when I read Rebecca Watts’s criticism of Instapoetry, I think her criticism of the verse form is rather shallow. I’m tempted to write more on that but a sufficiently thorough and effective response to Watts can be found here.

Among other criticisms, the most curious is the following:

“From literature we have hitherto expected better – not least because endurance, rather than fleetingness, is one marker of its quality. As Pound put it, literature is ‘news which stays news’. Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords”

This assertion deserves some skepticism. Above all, correlation does not equal causation. Just because these short verse forms coincide with social media’s ‘short-form communication’ doesn’t mean the former is a result of the latter. Are we to blame the entirety of Japanese literary tradition on the invention of the Internet?—the five line Tanka and the three line Haiku? But setting aside Japan, what about Martial’s epigrams? These are nothing if not instapoems.

The bee enclosed and through the amber shown
Seems buried in the juice which was his own.

Compare the following by Martial:

You never wrote a poem,
yet criticize mine?
Stop abusing me or write something fine
of your own!

To the much wordier Tyler Knott Gregson:

Gregson-2

And Ben Jonson also took up Epigrams. Was this turn to short-form communication also a result of social media?

XXXIV Of Death

He that fears death, or mournes it, in the just,
Shewes of the resurrection little trust.

[The Complete Poetry of Ben Jonson, p. 16]

Compared to Rupi Kaur:

“when death
takes my hand
i will hold you with the other
and promise to find you
in every lifetime”

Rupi Kaur, The Sun and Her Flowers

So, apart from its name, I’d argue that instapoetry isn’t anything literature hasn’t seen before. Despite Watts’s criticism of instapoetry as “artless” — “The short answer is that artless poetry sells.”— Kaur’s verse is firmly within the century-long aesthetic manifesto of free verse. The instapoem by Ben Jonson is metrical and rhymes. The instapoem by Kaur is free verse. If artlessness is a lack of metaphor, figurative language, meter (let’s say), rhyme, or any of the “Arts of Language” associated with poetry prior to Ezra Pound, then artlessness equally applies to the entirety of the free verse project. There’s really little difference, at all, between a poem by Tyler Gregson and one by W.S. Merwin. Merwin, of all poets, anticipates the “artlessness” of instapoetry (if it’s to be labeled “artless”). To be blunt, there’s not a single criticism that Watts levels at instapoetry that can’t also be leveled at Watts’s own poetry (let alone the poems in the same publication, in the selfsame issue, that printed her critique). Not one. To whit: A poem of hers, Turning, published at The Guardian begins:

Now it’s autumn
and another year in which I could leave you
is a slowly sinking ship.

The first stanza is a declarative statement ending with a clichéd metaphor. In isolation, its virtually indistinguishable from any number of Kaur’s instapoems. That said, here’s a poem by Kaur:

i know i
should crumble
for better reasons
but have you seen
that boy
he brings
the sun to
its knees
every night

Kaur’s passage, “brings the sun to its knees”, is a much more original and powerful metaphor than Watts’s trite “sinking ship”. Watts does better, though, as her poem goes on. She makes an effort: “The air has developed edges”;  “…the brazen meadow no longer/ presumes to press its face to the window/ like an inquisitor.”; “even the river will evince a thicker skin”; “…my breath each morning will flower white…”; “all of summer’s schemes will fly like cuckoos”; “Bonfire smoke/ between us like a promise lingers.”

How do instapoets compare? Watts personifies the “brazen” meadow (as an inquisitor via a simile) that presses its face to the window—an example of prosopopoeia. This isn’t bad, as far as things go, but the simile “like an inquisitor” gilds the lily. Compare this to an instapoem by K. Towne Junior:

sometimes a heart must be
broken to slip through the bars of
its cage

K. Towne Jr’s prosopopoeia is nearly identical to Watts. The only difference is that K. Towne Jr possessed the wisdom not to add the extenuating simile, like a prisoner.  Watts writes that “even the river will evince a thicker skin”. This and the metaphorical “the air has developed edges” and “my breath…will flower white” are, I think (again, being a little rusty), examples of catachresis. A good definition of catachresis comes from here:

Catachresis is a figure of speech in which writers use mixed metaphors in an inappropriate way, to create rhetorical effect. Often, it is used intentionally to create a unique expression. Catachresis is also known as an exaggerated comparison between two ideas or objects.

Do instapoets use mixed metaphors like catechresis? Here’s Tyler Gregson, even using the same imagery, combining catachresis and prosopopoeia:

Gregson-3

The parallels aren’t exact but close enough to say that Watts doesn’t do anything, as far as the “art” of poetry goes, that instapoets like Gregson and Kaur don’t. So either their verse is as artful as hers, or hers is as artless as theirs. And that begs the question, if artless poetry sells, why is contemporary poetry in such a miserable state? As it happens, a number of observers ascribe the criticism to nothing more than envy and resentment. How is it that an MFA graduate, having spent thousands to obtain a degree in the “art of poetry”, molders in the obscurity of barely read poetry journals while an artless versifier like Rupi Kaur, never published in an important journal and lacking the grateful connections afforded by academia, amasses a following of tens of thousands and sells over a million copies of her book? She hasn’t even been published <gasp> in the American Poetry Review! How is it that that once living synechdoche of everything the late 20th century poetry establishment stood for, the inscrutable John Ashbery, is already fading <understatement> into the obscurity of two (2) reviews at Amazon while rupi kaur’s Milk and Honey has already garnered five thousand eight hundred and eighty (5,880)? The establishment poets of the last 50 years are left like Anthony whistling i’th’marketplace, while the crowds run off to gawk at rupi’s riggish Cleopatra. And rather than give them pause, they have drawn the only possible conclusion: It must be because their poetry is so artful whilst the poems of the instapoets are so artless.

Ask me and I would say that the free verse manifesto of the last hundred years has become the serpent biting its own tale. Poets can’t declare, as England’s Poetry Society did, that:

“There is poetry in everything we say or do, and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem.”

Then point a trembling finger at instapoets proclaiming that their verses are not poems and their authors are not poets. But, to the embarrassment of pots and kettles everywhere, they do.

My own opinion of instapoetry is that of amusement. It does take a certain kind of talent to write them—though maybe not poetic talent. I have a collection of books that I love, all of them collected proverbs. In Vermont, for example, we might say of some: He’s so crooked, he could hide behind a corkscrew. If we’re impatient: He’s slow as a hog on ice with its tail froze in. In my dictionary of American proverbs: A Wolf may change his mind but never his fur. Another proverb (worthy of Kaur): A friend by your side can keep you warmer than the richest fur. If you’re feeling put upon: The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine. Two other books I have: Shakespeare’s proverb lore, because Shakespeare loved proverbs and sprinkled hundreds throughout his plays (many of Shakespeare’s most famous lines are actually inspired by proverbs), and another is of English proverbs prior to 1500: Leave not an old friend for new. Prior to 1500 we might say: The habit does not make the monk. Nowadays we say: He’s all hat and no cattle.

My observation is that the best instapoets are not writing poems. They’re writing proverbs. Poets who criticize and satirize them, I think, misunderstand the nature of what writers like Kaur do and the reasons they’re so beloved. It’s not clear that Kaur herself understands but she clearly has a genius for proverbs. (Poetry and proverbs are kissing cousins.) And you can trace that genius in other poets and writers. Kahlil Gibran, who Kaur reminds me of, was beloved by readers, considered a poet, and was a wellspring of proverbs:

“You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore but let there be spaces in your togetherness. And let the winds of heaven dance between you.”

Visiting a Pinterest site I came across this instapoem which, again, is really a proverb (and worth waking up to every morning):

We are all bad in someone’s story.

But if all this isn’t enough to mollify the critics of instapoetry, then the best I can do is to paraphrase one of Rupi Kaur’s poems:

the world
gives her
so much pain
but here she is
making gold out of it

La!

John Ashbery Dies

AshberyMost of the news outlets I frequent have commented on the death, yesterday, of John Ashbery. The Guardian quoted Harold Bloom’s declaration from the mid 1970’s:

“No one now writing poems in the English language is likelier than Ashbery to survive the severe judgments of time.”

And now we get to find out. The Library of America, back in 2008 , impatiently decided to declare his canonical status while the canonball was still warm in the canon. (They’ll have to re-issue the second book to include whatever poems he’s written since.)  But it’s never been for the poet’s own generation to immortalize a poet. They nearly always get it wrong.

History is replete with dozens and dozens of Ashbery’s crowned in their day and forgotten the next. For example: William Cowper. Cowper was one of the most popular poets of his time. Coleridge called him “the best modern poet”. Who reads Cowper these days? What about Robert Southey? He was widely read, more popular than Keats, Shelley and, arguably, Byron, and was poet laureate for 30 years, from 1813 until his death in 1843. There’s no doubt that Library of America would have published a two volume collection of his poetry in 1835. He would have been awarded a Pulitzer (though the Nobel would have gone to some singer). Who knows? My point is that contemporary fame is no guarantee. In fact, it’s very often a sure sign that the poet is a minor poet—anthologized at best and forgotten at worst. Why? Because any given generation tends to lionize the poets who speak most directly to their immediate concerns and aesthetic principles (almost always devalued and superseded by the next generation). They’re “of an age”. Jonson (who, in his day, was more highly regarded than Shakespeare) nevertheless recognized Shakespeare’s genius. He put it this way:

He was not of an age, but for all time!

Is Ashbery for all time? While every other eulogy rightfully notes his lists of awards, his reputation among contemporaries, and his influence (like Cowper’s), I remain skeptical. I don’t doubt that Ashbery, like Cowper and Southey, will always have his readers and fierce partisans, but I suspect his legacy will be that of a once highly regarded but minor poet. Being esteemed by professional colleagues simply isn’t enough once they follow the poet into the light.

I do think Ashbery deserves to be anthologized and it’s fair to call his poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror a masterpiece. I admire it too. Would that he had written more like it. Similarly, it’s fair to call Thomas Gray’s poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, his masterpiece. Minor poets do write masterpieces which deserve to be read and remembered.

Nearly all the friends and acquaintances with whom I’ve discussed Asbery read him for his reputation rather than the lure of his poetry. Few have read any more than a handful of his poems or more than a single book. And less can remember any. The problem is typified by the reviews, at Amazon, of Library of America’s first Ashbery. The problem isn’t that they’re mixed, the problem is that there are only six. Library of America’s second Asbery book has none. By way of comparison, Library of America’s Wallace Stevens has 29 reviews; their Robert Frost has 36 reviews; their Walt Whitman has 623.

The critic and poet Meghan O’Rourke once suggested it was better “not to try to understand [Ashbery’s] poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music”. And that’s because the semantic content of Ashbery’s poems is indecipherable. But for the rare exception, there simply isn’t any. But the comparison to music is a poor one. Music has its own recognizable syntax and grammar—chord progressions—no matter the era. When the music ignores those expectations, listeners generally ignore the music. A rough equivalent to Ashbery, for the music listener, might be Karlheinz Stockhausen or Edgard Varèse. Try their musique concrète. There’s also the Beatles’ Revolution 9 on the White Album. No one does covers of Revolution 9. Right?

Well. Long live John Ashbery. May he inspire many a future poet.

Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman

This is a book that was brought to my attention and sent to me by James Geary, who has written an introduction to Feinman’s Complete Poems. Being a poet in Vermont, Geary corruptedthought I might be interested. Having been a summer student at Bennington College, and learning that Feinman taught there, also piqued my interest.

Feinman seems to have been reluctantly public. As Geary writes, “Alvin was reticent about his own work.” It’s tempting to write of him, and myself, that poetry was our first and only love; and to write a good poem, and only that, was reward enough. Our argument was with ourselves—all the work we needed. But I don’t know. In his waning years, Feinman was asked “if he ever thought of starting a family or being a more traditional breadwinner”. “No,” he said, “I thought of nothing but poetry.” He shared his love of poetry with students at Bennington College. I do the same at PoemShape.

In their introduction to Feinman’s Unpublished Poems, Geary writes:

Early on in the process, I asked Deborah what Alvin would have thought of what we were doing. After all, he chose not to publish those poems while he was alive. Why should we? ¶ Deborah felt strongly, as I do, that Alvin’s work deserves a much wider audience than it has so far achieved.

So if you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of Alvin Feinman, this is partly the reason.

Feinman’s poems remind me of the poetry I was reading at The Mountain School (Vershire, Vermont) when it was a full time high shool—poetry of the seventies and early eighties. Feinman was very much a poet of that era. The difference? His poetry’s clarity of language—a language that allows for a complexity of thought and argument when, all too often, poets bed a paucity of thought and argument beneath a veneer of complexity.

Feinman’s poems are short, compressed, and the collected book amounts to what many modern poets would consider, merely, a substantial first book. Geary, for example, notes that Feinman could spend several classroom sessions on the simplest of poems, this one being by an anonymous 16th century poet:

Western wind, when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ! If my lover were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

Geary writes that “Alvin slowed things down. He wasn’t finished with a poem until every line, every word was scrutinized, every punctuation mark felt.” I too can find more beauty and sympathy in this little poem than in pages and pages of exposition. It seems to me that this love of the briefly and exquisitely spoken informs all of Feinman’s poetry. That is, it’s no coincidence that he could spend days on such a short poem. He probably labored over his own with equal devotion. He was a poet of beautifully crafted brevities.

But here’s what I like most about Feinman, it’s that though he writes free verse, he writes like a poet. You won’t find the flavorless discourse of a W.S. Merwin—the apotheosis of 2oth century generic poetry.

This Face of Love

Nor prospect, promise   solely such
Breathed honey    as in breathing
Clamps the lung    and lowers life
Into this death    the very dying
Meaning of that breath    that beats
To black and beating honey   in an air
Thrown knowledgeless    imageless
Or only the wet hair    across her eyes.

How do I read the poem?—sublimely erotic and as fearless as any of EE Cummings erotic poems. Feinman’s meaning resists analysis, preferring to be understood intuitively like an elusive and allusive chain of haiku.

Or consider one of his unpublished poems:

Snow. Tree tranced. O silent
It would be outside. Dark it would be
And caged in moonlight. Half afraid,
To go, and needing to, to know, not
Knowing what to know, to stand
And need the words, and need to not
Need words for white and cold, and far
And lone, and lovely sighing dark
Like nothing, like a leg,
A cheek pleased in the cold,
A furred eye flaking into light.

As with This Face of Love, Feinman’s poem resists summarization. The  pointillist of poets, look too close and Feinman’s poem vanishes. In poems like these, few because of his modest output, Feinman is at his best and unique among 20th century poets. If Debussy had written poetry, they might sound like Feinman’s—impressionist interludes without opening declarations or concluding summaries.

I remember wanting to write like this, and did, in my way

But there are more reasons to recommend Feinman’s poetry. He was never satisfied with the easy adjective or adverb. He seems always looking for new ways to express sense, thought and emotion. In the poem Snow:

The light snow holds and what
Its bodyable shape
Subdues, the gutter of all things
A virgin unison….

Bodyable. That’s the kind coinage Shakespeare reveled in, called anthimeria, and one of the most linguistically inventive figures available to poets. The vast majority of contemporary poets never or rarely use it, including Ashbery, but it’s a sure sign that you’re dealing with something other than the run-of-the-mill, generic poet. When Mark Edmundson, in his Harpers Essay “Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Poetry” described being taken by Robert Lowell’s lines in “Waking Early Sunday Morning”—by “the artistry of the lines, by their subtlety and their melancholy grace”—he could have been describing any number of passages from Feinman’s poems.

For the sun hangs
····like a leaden crust
········weary of color
cold and skeletal as desire in an idiot’s palm.

Neither speech, nor vision…

For the day crumbles
····into ciphers
words litter the streets like dirty snow…

~ For Lucina

Feinman, despite being sparsely published, was an ambitious poet and yet, that said, he mostly stuck to the conventions of free verse. Criticizing him for that, I suppose, is a bit like criticizing a stone mason for not being a wood worker, but I can’t help wonder what the range of his abilities might have produced. Though Harold Bloom, self-effacing as always, laments there is nothing in the unpublished collection of poems equal to the book “he [Mr. Harold Bloom] helped to foster”, I’m not so sure.  You see some effort on Feinman’s part to fit his pointillist, discursive style into something other than free verse:

Song

Water buds in the water-tap
Words bubble up within the mind
The highways curve across the map
The light crawls down the blind

A diamond splinters in the sink
The nouns digest their verb
Collision closes like the rose
Two moons are kissing at the curb.

This, in its way, reminds me of the little anonymous 16th century poem Feinman so lovingly scrutinized. Feinman must have prized the poem for its contrasting simplicity and power; and I wonder if that’s not the way he would have liked to go, and if an inability to do so curtailed his output? How to reconcile a rich and discursive style with the simplicity of a song? In Feinman’s poem Song, each line is end-stopped. They follow each other the way the refrains of a song might, as if each were its own performance. Though the effect might be deliberate, the poem is a bit child-like and rudimentary. If the imagery remains original, reminding me of Pablo Neruda’s surrealism, the imagistic language seems uneasy with the kind of clarity that made the 16th century poem so powerful.

Feinman demonstrates a more flexible use of form in other “unpublished” poems:

…the mocked brain consecrates
your art—though eyes go blind
within this woman-will your blaze creates

as scadent shadows cleave
the evening all to probe
cold stone, in vain to re-enact, believe…

~ Natura Naturans

According to a brief internet search, scadent is Romanian, meaning “due to expire”. I love that Feinman used the word. Nothing so typifies the Elizabethan writer and poet as the eagerness to colonize languages, to take the best words and import them, to mix them into their vocabulary the way new spices might be sprinkled in old recipes.

I hope Feinman’s book finds a broader readership. When so many contemporary poets are writing nothing more than lineated prose, Feinman is the poet for lovers of language and imagery. But he’s also, and strikingly so, our modern Coleridge, a brilliant and formidable mind outstripped by the poetry he imagined writing—a tragic figure, perhaps, whose first works were his last, and whose final unpublished poems were riddles without solutions.

Alvin Feinman’s collected poems were released August 3rd, 2016.

upinVermont | September 19th 2016

Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • Three Books Added

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

  • Erotiku by Lisa Marie Darlington
  • The Poetry of Sex edited by Sophie Hannah
  • The Literary Companion to Sex edited by Fiona Pitt-Kethley

You will find it below and appended to the larger review linked above.

Erotiku: erotic haiku for the sensual soul
by Lisa Marie Darlington

erotikuThis is a book I really looked forward to getting my hands on. Anyone who’s been following my blog knows I love haiku and erotic poetry in general. Erotiku has only been fitfully available at Amazon, mostly OP or of Limited Availability. When I saw it available at list price with a used book dealer, I snagged it.

The cover is great; unfortunately, the poetry not so much. Like so many western authors, Darlington seems to have walked out of the haiku tutorial at ‘three lines‘. The author herself doesn’t go much beyond this description in the book’s brief introduction. She writes:

 

“Haiku is known to follow the metrical 5-7-5 syllable structure, yet I have revised it to take on a more contemporary form. It’s composition does not follow any kind of syllable rule, yet it still holds true to the three line pattern.”

As if that were all that made a haiku (or senryu for that matter). At the close of the introduction she’ll write that “western haiku tries to imitate old Japanese Haiku with little understanding”. The criticism, unfortunately, is applicable to the entirety of her collection.

The book is thick with one haiku per page. You’re essentially buying blank paper. Having said that, Darlington’s presentation isn’t all that different from other haiku collections. She hints at aesthetic reasons for doing so, maybe to savor each poem individually. The problem is that there’s really not that much to savor. The best senryu and haiku are rich with allusion and suggestiveness. They invite the reader to conjure what the poet leaves out. The reward is traditionally a realization of nature’s interconnectedness (haiku) or the humorous foibles of our humanity (senryu). There’s a broad spectrum between these two, but all the best haiku and senryu serve as an imaginative starting point, not end point. And that’s the problem with Darlington’s erotiku. They’re too often an end point.

Kama Sutra Art

Selected positions
Kama sutra art
Of intense connection

A “poem” like this (presented the way she centers them in her book) has nothing whatsoever to do with haiku or senryu. It’s little more than a statement in three lines. There’s nothing remotely erotic other than by association. The reader is likely to respond: Yes, and? This is Darlington at her least successful and unfortunately typifies, to a greater or lesser degree, too many of her haiku (which I think number around two hundred?—I’m guessing since there are no page numbers).

Arched Out in Pleasure

Her slender body
Curved to the couch
Back arched out in pleasure.

This is more typical of Darlington’s erotiku.  They are descriptive prose passages in three lines. The reader will find lots and lots of these. I suppose it’s erotic/pornographic, but that’s as far as it goes—an end point rather than a starting point. There’s no sense of narrative or realization. By way of comparison, a rare (and possibly) erotic haiku by Basho:

to get wet passing by
a man is interesting
bush clover in rain

This was translated by Jane Reichhold who comments: “The euphemism ‘to get wet’ was often used in tanka where the reader could decide how this happened, from rain, dew on flowers, tears, or sexual activity.” And this, in my view, is profoundly more erotic than Darlington’s essentially three line descriptions of pornography. The reader is invited to finish Basho’s haiku. Is it really erotic? If so, what happened? Did they have a quickie? Is she wet because she was turned on or because he fucked her? Is she the bush clover? Is he the rain? Or is it simply a coincidental spring rain the makes her wet as she passes by a man?

Other issues I have with Darlington’s erotiku are her tendency toward “pigeon English”:

Thighs asphyxiating

Thighs asphyxiating
Around neck and shoulders
Squeezing like a heart attack.

Erotic clichés:

Hot Fire

Hot fire
Kindling, the passion
That burns like Hell.

Descriptive redundancy, verbosity and too many adjectives:

Your tongue walks

Your tongue walks
Heavily, up against
The surface of my naked skin.

She doesn’t need up, surface (as this is implied) or naked (also implied). It’s her skin his tongue walks on, after all, not her clothes. (Too great a use of adjectives and overstatement are probably Darlington’s most consistent failings.)  Or consider the following where only needlessly appears twice:

Sexy Thong Panties

She buys sexy thong panties
To only please
Herself only.

And does the reader need to know they’re sexy? It’s overstatement that repeatedly mars Darlington’s poetry.

Also, whether the decision was deliberate or simply not a part of their tradition (or language), Japanese poets never made use of like or as. The idea of the simile was there, but was handled far more subtly and to greater effect. Unfortunately, the simile is all too frequent in Darlington’s poems. [Note to western poets: Haiku aren’t glorified similes. Don’t write simileku]:

His Raising Blade

His raising blade
Cutting through; like shears –
Through her wilted flower.

(There again, through needlessly appears twice.)

A bit like a broken clock though, Darlington gets it right every now and then:

Stirred by Moonlight

Stirred by moonlight
The afterglow of sex
Glistens

This is actually quite good. There’s a play on the notion of afterglow that works nicely with moonlight. If only she had written more like this.

However, in fairness to Darlington and having written all this, I think it’s worth pointing out that the book is a record of her sexual awakening. As she points out in the first sentence of her Forward: “Not to [sic] long ago, I shunned myself from erotic pleasure. ¶ Not only did I find it dirty, filthy, downright skanky and vulgar – but degrading as well… ¶ Then, through my greatest despair, came the union of my lover. He showed me that through lovemaking and experiencing of such erotic explosions, that sex wasn’t something to be ashamed of, yet something to be celebrated and explored.” My heart goes out to her. Anyone brave enough to publish a book like this and to share their erotic life with other readers deserves some praise.

If you’re willing to set aside literary expectations and willing to read the book as a kind of awakening and erotic autobiography (in a series of three line poems) then I highly recommend it.

  • The Book About 8 by 5. Good paper. Readable. No page numbers. No index. Sans serif font.
  • Comparisons This book compares to Seduction in the 1st Degree: A Collection of Erotic Poetry, by Lisa Marie Candield. The poetry may be amateurish in both, but if one’s willing to trade that for exuberance, then both books beautifully compliment each other.
  • You and your Lover Maybe you’ll be inspired?
  • Embarrassment Be prepared to explain yourself if you happen to leave this on the coffee table, but then maybe that’s a good thing.

Sex ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Art N/A
Romance ♥♥
Look & Feel ♥♥♥♥
Poetry ♥♥
Index N/A

The Poetry of Sex
Edited by Sophie Hannah

The Poetry of SexFinally, a title that says it and means it. In case you were wondering, this is indeed a book of poetry about sex. And to keep things short and sweet: I consider this to be one of the best anthologies available. Without hesitation, I rank it among my other favorites: intimate kisses; Passionate Hearts; The Erotic Spirit; The Best American Erotic Poems.

The editor, Sophie Hannah, is delightfully playful in her introduction, fully aware that her selection is weighted toward the actor Daniel Craig (you’ll just have to read it). Compare Hannah’s playfulness to the starched-underwear snootiness of Peter Washington’s Everyman collection: Erotic Poems (if you want to ‘compare and contrast’). Hannah has no problem with the pornography that is, much to the apparent shock of many a literary editor, the defining attribute of sex and erotica.

The book is divided into sections with the headings:

  • ‘So ask the body’
  • ‘Also those desires glowing openly’
  • ‘A night plucked from a hundred and one’
  • ‘All our states united’
  • ‘But your wife said she’
  • ‘What’s in it for me?’
  • ‘Oh right. You people don’t remove that bit’
  • ‘God, to be wanted once more’

Each section has about 19 or 20 poems, and that adds up. Not an inconsiderable collection. The poems range from Catallus, though Shakespeare, and to contemporaries like Hannah herself, Rubbish at Adultery, and Sharon Olds (who, though I don’t much care for her mainstream poetry, easily writes some of the best erotic poetry around). I suppose what differentiates Hannah’s collection from the other anthologies is her sense of humor. Though there’s only so much scope for that preference in pre-20th century poetry, she nevertheless finds some choice nuggets. In her contemporary choices her nose for the humor in erotic literature really shines:

Their Sex Life
A.R. Ammons

One failure on
Top of another

Or this poem by Irving Layton:

Bicycle Pump

The idle gods for laughs gave man his rump;
In sport, so made his kind that when he sighs
In ecstasy between a woman’s thighs
He goes up and down, a bicycle pump;
And his beloved once his seed is sown
Swells like a faulty tube on one side blown.

But I also don’t want to give the impression this anthology is just for laughs. It’s not. The difference is in allowing that sex isn’t always about overheated stares, cataclysmic orgasms or the ecstasy of “spiritual”, quote-unquote, unions. Sometimes sex is just sex—fun, funny, and as dirty as you want it to be. It’s books like this that persuade me that all the best writing of the latter 20th and early 21st century is in erotica. The rest, in my opinion, is largely a morass of mediocrity.

  • The Book About 7 by 5. Good paper. Readable. One poem per page. Nice font. The best of index of any erotic anthology to date: Index of Poets, First Lines and Titles. I mean, to all the others: How hard is that to do?
  • Comparisons This book belongs on your bookshelf alongside intimate kisses; Passionate Hearts; The Erotic Spirit; The Best American Erotic Poems.
  • In Translation One or two from the antiquities.
  • You and your Lover Got a poem you want her to read? All you have to do is remember the poet, the title or the  first line.
  • Embarrassment Only keep this on the coffee around toddlers who can’t read titles.

Sex ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Art N/A
Romance ♥♥
Look & Feel ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Poetry ♥♥
Index

The Literary Companion to Sex
by Fiona Pitt-Kethley

Literary Companion to SexThis is a book published in 1992 and I’m not sure why I haven’t gotten round to reviewing it until now. It’s easily one of the most comprehensive anthologies of not just poetry but of sex and erotica in literature of any kind. In other words, you’ll find not just passages of poetry but passages from the Bible, Drama, Elizabethan pamphlets, short stories and novels. At 415 pages, there’s a wealth of material grouped, as the introduction puts it, into “five wide periods”:

  • The Ancient World
  • The Middle Ages and the Renaissance
  • The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century
  • The Nineteenth Century
  • The Twentieth Century

Among other luminaries, you will find the earily 20th century’s great egotist, Frank Harris. Going back to the ancient world you will read passages from Aristophanes, Ovid, Terence, and Apuleius. Selections from the Middle Ages include a literary passage from the Chinese author Wang Shih-Chen but are mostly limited to examples from the English. The author, in the forward,  suggests a reason for this. She writes:

“The manual type of book can be seriously boring. Even at fourteen, I can remember all those ‘yonis’ and ‘lingams’ of The Kama Sutra turning me off, not on, as I perused it under my desk during scripture lessons. It was hard for me to find a likeable passage in either that or The Perfumed Garden. ¶ In the end I decided that my criteria for choosing would be these: realism, humour, or the unusual—preferably all three. It was important to find realistic writing, simply because there’s so little of it.”

Fair enough. I’m inclined to agree with her, though one might fairly ask if her selections don’t reflect her own cultural biases. I’m not asserting they do, but the question arises. Are readers in India turned on, rather than off, by yonis and lingams? — or do they also prefer cunts and cocks in their literature?

Some other observations she makes are, I think, worth mentioning.

On the ancient world:

“The writers of the ancient world, in the main, proved to be the most open and unashamed about sex, although a slightly prurient, shocked tone crept into their news reportage (the sensationalist historians, Suetonius and Procopius). But are journalists of today any different?”

On the Middle Ages:

“The Middle Ages and the Rennaisance, although bawdy, were overshadowed by religion and doom. Conversely, their religious writing often had sexual overtones. The fate in hell of the aduleress in Gesta Romanorum provides a memorably kinky image of tortured womankind that must have provided good masturbation material for pious monks everywhere.”

On the 17th century:

“By the time we reach the seventeenth century, dildoes, and jokes about them, are big news, as are venereal diseases. The Restoration and the eighteenth century provide a period of frankness similar to that of the ancient world. It’s probably the easiest period in which to find good sex writing.”

On the 19th century:

“I knew from the start that the nineteenth century would give me the biggest problems. Apart from some good French literature and Byron, what was I to include? Literature became schizophrenic during Victoria’s reign. Sex didn’t happen in official literature, but it happened nonstop – to an unrealistic extent – in The Pearl and other underground writing. Kinkiness was in. ¶ Apart from mainstream writing and underground pornography, there’s a third tradition in the nineteenth century — one that’s often ignored. Isolated individuals had begun to collect folklore. Writing for ‘the learned reder’, these writers could be a little franker than those who wrote for the mass market, like Dickens. And mercifully, their style is usually of  far higher quality than that of the average nineteenth-century pornographer. These folk tales hark back to older traditions, keeping alive the bawdy spirit of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.”

On the 20th century:

“By the twentieth century we are into mixed territory. I sensed curious affinities across the eras — Apollinaire’s erotic novel with Rochester’s Sodom; one of e.e. cummings’s poems with an anonymous seventeenth-century one; Eskimo Nell and Procopius’s Empress Theodora — another fucker of cosmic proportions. There is also, alas, a great deal of bad writing. Authors frequently make great claims for their own honesty, only to get bogged down in prurience and their own embarrassment. I avoided all passages that talked about waves beating on shores. (That sort of writing’s only permissible if the couple are doing it on a beach.) Still, on the plus side, there is a tremendous range of ideas and experience in the writing of the twentieth  century — everything from bestiality to vibrators.”

And that ought to give you a flavor for the kind of erotic writing Pitt-Kethley has anthologized. If you’re looking for a collection offering literature besides poetry, you can’t do better than this (as far as I know). Consider this the best anthology of erotic literature currently available.

 

  • The Book About 8 by 5. Acid paper. Will yellow over time. Readable. Nice font. An index of authors only.
  • Comparisons For the erotic connoisseur, this book belongs on your bookshelf alongside the poetry of sex, intimate kisses; Passionate Hearts; The Erotic Spirit; The Best American Erotic Poems.
  • In Translation Mainly antiquities, Chinese and some French.
  • You and your Lover Not the kind of tome to snuggle between yourself and your lover, but if you’re wondering whether your great (to the tenth power) grandparents liked it the way like you like it, this is the book.
  • Embarrassment A high brow addition to your accidentally discovered coffee table collection. Your guests may want to borrow it. Your only embarrassment will be in having to ask for its return — please?

Sex ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Art N/A
Romance ♥♥
Look & Feel ♥♥♥♥♥
Poetry ♥♥
Index

Poetry and Politics in New Hampshire

How about this for an exciting new kerfuffle: A New Hampshire politician, “someone on the legislature”, has decided the state needs an official “State Poem”. The choice is potentially going to be made this Thursday — apparently. How did I get wind of it? Another local poet, Dave Celone, forwarded the following:

Dear NH Poets and Readers,

There is a proposal that there be a state poem, being considered this week, on Thursday.

I am writing to you to ask if you would read this and get in touch with your representative (see info below) about it. My feeling is that this poem is inappropriate for a number of reasons. One is that, in a state where Jews (such as myself), Muslims, Buddhists, and people of other faiths, as well as agnostics and atheists, live, a poem that speaks of “Christ our Lord” is not a good choice. Even our Governor speaks passionately of inclusion. Other reasons not to choose this particular poem include the fact that it simply is an amateur work, and we live in a state that has fostered, and continues to foster, serious, skilled poets.

Yes, one could argue that there is much that is lovely, heart-felt and NH-based in this poem; but, for a number of reasons, I, along with other poets I’ve spoken to, including the president of the NH Poetry Society, Don Kimball, would like to see a different approach to this interesting idea of a state poem.

My proposal is that it would be wiser, and more exciting, to put out a state-wide call for entries. These could be poems already written, that poets and readers in our state would like to submit for consideration, or ones that we NH poets write. A committee made up of a team of knowledgeable readers and writers would choose from among the “candidates” submitted, looking for a worthwhile poem, with language that would inspire more inclusion as well as reflect the best in NH, to represent poetry in our state, and make a recommendation to the legislature.

Please read the proposed poem and contact your state representative. If you agree with me, let him or her know that this is not the poem for NH today or for the future, and that you would like to see implemented a process such as what I’ve outlined above, in order for us to make an informed, valid choice for this consideration of a state poem. Remember, the vote happens this Thursday morning! Thank you. And please spread the word!

The email goes on to cite the bill: “HB 152, the one proposing establishing a state poem, is scheduled for discussion in the House Executive Departments and Administration Committee on Thursday 1/22 at 11:00 AM in the Legislative Office Building, Room 306.I was skeptical at first — my chain-mail alarms were going off — but, no, the bill’s for real. Here are the details, taken from the New Hampshire’s legislative website.

HB152
Session Year 2015
Bill Docket
Bill Status
Text [HTML] [PDF]
Title: establishing a state poem.

G-Status: HOUSE
House Status: IN COMMITTEE
Senate Status:
Next/Last Comm: HOUSE EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND ADMINISTRATION
Next/Last Hearing: 01/22/2015 at 11:00 AM    LOB 306

Just back in July, and down south, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory nominated — by executive/royal fiat it seems — Valerie Macon. For an artistic form that nobody cares about, all hell broke loose. The typical complaint leveled against Macon was the following:

“Valerie Macon is a beginner in her poetry career. Laureate is for people with national and statewide reputations. If you don’t honor that basic criteria of literary excellence and laureates being poets at the top of their game, than what’s the purpose of the laureate position?” [Melville House]

The counter-example was North Carolina’s prior poet laureate Joseph Bathanti, six books of poetry in tow and a recipient of awards and fellowships. Personally, I’m not the least impressed by Bathanti’s poetry. A count of books published is next to meaningless; and awards and fellowships are a dime a dozen. If poetic quality were ever a requirement for Poet Laureate-ness, then we’d have few, if any Poet Laureates. So, I personally wasn’t buying the she’s-not-a-good-enough-poet objection. Neither was Bathanti (and neither is our current Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey). They’re competent.

The real complaint (and not without some legitimacy) can be summed up as follows:

“Pat McCrory made his selection with no input from the North Carolina Arts Council – which oversaw nominating and vetting in previous years – North Carolina’s poetry community reacted to her appointment with swift vehemence.” [&newsobserver.com]

In short, McCrory passed over the self-appointed guardians of literary-choosing — they who sit on the North Carolina Arts Council. How dare he. It does need stating, however, that there is no law requiring a governor to vet his choice with the Arts Council. That said, neither side, in my opinion, handled themselves well. Those offended by McCrory’s decision saw it as a partisan Republican snub, presumably, of liberals’ self-appointed, artistic pretensions:

“…this particular maverick political act doesn’t rank with McCrory’s legislative disdain for women, children, the middle and lower classes or the environment, but his cultural disdain for the people of North Carolina is almost as insidious. …could McCrory be sacrificing the hapless Macon in an effort to eliminate the laureate program altogether? You can anticipate his smug 2016 statement: “We’ve evaluated the effectiveness of the poet laureate over the last two years and have decided the position no longer merits taxpayer funding.” The budget line item is, however, tiny—the News and Observer reported the laureate’s stipend as between $5,000 and $15,000. That’s around 5 percent of the taxpayer funds McCrory had planned to spend to renovate his Executive Mansion bathrooms until public furor flushed his boondoggle last year.” [Chris Vitiello: IndyWeek]

While accusing McCrory of boorish manners, the same crowd eviscerated the hapless poet Valerie Macon — and that’s what nettles me. The North Carolina Arts Council (and individuals like Chris Vitiello) had a chance to step up. They could have accepted Macon, encouraged her, and shown some real class and humanity. Instead, they decided the whole affair was about them,  and effectively eviscerated Valerie Macon. Sure, she may have self-published her books — so what? — and she may not have been the recipient of awards or fellowships — so what? — but she might have been a great Poet Laureate. It doesn’t take much to be a good Poet Laureate — writing decent poetry is not a prerequisite. In the meantime, Macon appears to have closed her website and withdrawn from public view. That’s a shame.

The best post I’ve found on the subject has this to say:

“North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory is a Republican and most definitely not a fan of the liberal arts. He’s also anti-gay, hates the Affordable Care Act, cut unemployment benefits, has been accused of voter suppression and believes the “educational elite” (that’s GOP code for pinko, homo, commie, hippie liberals) have taken over the schools and universities. So, his selection of Valerie Macon as the new state poet laureate should come as no surprise.

McCrory bypassed the North Carolina Arts Council and selected Macon on his own. Some believe that McCrory picked Macon because she’s a fellow Republican who speaks and writes in a voice far removed from the “elitists” he disparages on a regular basis. Of course, by selecting the hapless Macon, the governor has made her both a political and artistic football. Despite her political leanings, I have no doubt that Macon is mortified and hurt by the vitriol unleashed upon her by fellow poets, the press  and on social media. By all accounts, Macon was just as surprised as anyone else by her appointment and was not seeking the job.”

And getting right to the point:

“The North Carolina Arts Council has seen its budget slashed, which is a typical move in Republican controlled states. Reading accounts of last year’s political maneuverings, it’s obvious that if the GOP had its way the arts council would cease to exist. So, it also comes as no surprise that McCrory would not seek the advice of a council that he would like to abolish. When pressed by the media about appointing Macon, the governor made some remarks about opening up opportunities for people who aren’t part of an “elite group” (note the use of “elite” again) and that he believed it was a good idea to “welcome new voices and new ideas.” [Collin Kelly: Modern Confessional]

But getting back to Governor Pat McCrory, the bruhaha demonstrates just how thoroughly anything and everything can become partisan. And that brings us back to New Hampshire. What kind of poem might the New Hampshire legislature adopt? Here it is:

 My Homeland Sea

Sitting alone on a coral beach,
I looked far out to sea,
And memories cherished reflected then,
Of days that used to be.

The wintry blasts, the summer calm,
The quiet woodlands, the New England farm,
The sleeping pines, the springtime thaw,
Are only a few of the visions I saw.

Thanksgiving day and Christmas morn,
The day that Christ, Our Lord, was born,
New Years – birthdays – weddings – and births,
Burning embers in hand hewn hearths.

Will I see them again, I then asked of myself,
These things man can’t buy with material wealth?
Will I again see those mountains and the valleys below,
All covered in winter with a blanket of snow?

Will the church by the roadside with its white steeple high,
Still be sheltered by willows beneath the blue sky?
Will the robins in springtime still play on the lawn,
And the sleeping flowers blossom at each waking of the dawn?

The air of pines, the morning fog,
The singing loon on the cranberry bog,
The rockbound coast, my homeland sea,
Will they still be there awaiting me?

And the lovely lass I left behind,
Those memories, too, are on my mind.
Will she still be there when war is done,
And proudly sailing home we come?
And clouds once dark turn fleecy white,
And men no more for freedoms fight.

When human hearts rejoice in peace,
And America ours for life to lease,
When guns are silenced and lands are free,
The answers then will come to me.

Richard T. Hartnett
Navy Patrol Bombing Squadron 16
Saipan, Marianas Campaign
November 1944

It’s a wonderfully heartfelt poem written by a poetaster.  To the extent that it’s a private poem, I have no quarrel with it. But as a poem thrust before us as the poem of the state of New Hampshire? I reluctantly critique. It’s a well-meaning poem rife with all the expected flaws of an amateur poet – mawkish, sentimental, precious. What’s not to love if you’re a politician?

And memories cherished reflected then,
Of days that used to be.

newhampshire1895As always, there’s a difference between writing poetically, and writing poetry. Hartnett’s poem is a prime example of the former. The archly poetic phrasing of “memories cherished reflected then” is so precious and syntactically contorted as to be almost incomprehensible. Nobody talks like this. Experienced poets don’t write like this. This is the kind of stuff that made Ezra Pound cringe. It’s a throwback to the aesthetics of the Victorian era.

Thanksgiving day and Christmas morn,
The day that Christ, Our Lord, was born…

The poem obviously presumes a Christian readership — and that surely appeals to a certain brand of politician. If the poem is to be the representative poem of New Hampshire, then the message is clear: We are a Christian state and Christ is “Our Lord” — and your Lord too (by the way). But setting that aside, more of the author’s amateurishness is on display. What else is Christmas morn but the day that Christ was born? It’s more than a little redundant. The two lines come off as mawkish with a touch of Sunday-school pedagogy. The truth of the matter is that born rhymed with morn. Hartnett, like any amateur poet, sacrifices quality for the easy rhyme.

Will I again see those mountains and the valleys below,
All covered in winter with a blanket of snow?

Hartnet wants to rhyme with snow, so he writes the completely gratuitous below. Ask yourself, when has a valley ever been anything other than below? Mountains below? Valleys above? The next line descends further into rank amateurishness. All covered as opposed to covered? A thing is either covered or it isn’t.  Hartnett is simply padding the line. So, the valleys are all covered, but even that’s not enough. Hartnett then adds the superfluous blanket. There’s not much going on in these lines.

Will the church by the roadside with its white steeple high

A grammatical inversion for the sake of rhyme. The hallmark of the amateur formalist.

Still be sheltered by willows beneath the blue sky?

When has a steeple been anything other than beneath the sky? More gratuitous redundancy.

…waking of the dawn…

Pure cliché.

The air of pines, the morning fog,
The singing loon on the cranberry bog,

Possibly the best lines in the poem. No redundancies. No syntactic pirouettes for the sake of rhyme.

 Those memories, too, are on my mind.

As opposed to where? Where else would those memories be but ‘on his mind’? More gratuitous padding.

And clouds once dark turn fleecy white…

Yes, the cliché of clichés — ‘fleecy white’. It doesn’t get better than this if you’re a connoisseur of clichés.

When human hearts rejoice in peace,
And America ours for life to lease…

The second of the two lines is a syntactic disaster, utterly distorted and almost incomprehensible — all for the sake of a bad rhyme.

My advice? This is a wonderful, personal poem written by a young soldier yearning for an end to war. Leave it at that. It was never meant to be New Hampshire’s state poem. There are much better poems, better written and more inclusive. What about Robert Frost’s New Hampshire, written in Vermont?

In the meantime, I notice that another poem has been forwarded as an alternative, one by Andre Papillon.

New Hampshire Impressions

This bridge of land has been unlocked
From careful hand to masts of rock
That loom and stretch the ribboned road
Has quarried most, that green she coats
Then inks to black where eyes of doe
Flit swift and cold near boulder’s throne

By cutting gullies, frothing white
The heads of moss poke holes through night
And burdened there with cat-like eyes
Are sparkler brights on country heights
Whose patient rovers crossing lanes
Drop tracks of rolls and coffee stains

& Etc…

My apologies to Andre Papillon, but this isn’t any better. The use of meter and rhyme does not excuse poor grammar and incomprehensible syntax. If we take the first stanzas and turn them into prose, this is what we get:

This bridge of land has been unlocked from careful hand to masts of rock that loom and stretch the ribboned road has quarried most, that green she coats then inks to black where eyes of doe flit swift and cold near boulder’s throne by cutting gullies, frothing white the heads of moss poke holes through night and burdened there with cat-like eyes are sparkler brights on country heights whose patient rovers crossing lanes drop tracks of rolls and coffee stains (period?) …

This is doggerel. My advice to poets writing traditional poetry is this: If it’s not readable prose, then it’s not going to be readable poetry. A passage that utilizes rhyme and meter should withstand a turn to prose. That is, the rules that govern prose govern poetry. E.E. Cummings, you object! Yes, but E.E. Cummings choices were a careful and deliberate departure. It’s not easy, and there’s only been one E.E. Cummings. Emily Dickinson? Sometimes she’s successful. Sometimes not. Despite her genius, her poetry can be incomprehensible without annotation.

Beyond that, Papillon’s poem suffers from the same flaws as Hartnett’s, in one instance indulging in precisely the same gratuitous excess (for the sake of rhyme):

A cloud of crow, a wash of dove
Round heights that ice has gripped above

Just as with with Hartnett’s “valley’s below”, Papillon gives us ice that has “gripped above”. As opposed to where? Below? This kind of gratuitousness is the hallmark of the inexperienced rhymer — the sort of thing that makes free verse practitioners groan.

My advice to the New Hampshire legislature: Make it an inclusive poem, yes; but make it a good poem. If you’re not a carpenter, you might want to think long and hard before you build your own house. Likewise, don’t be embarrassed to ask for advice from those with some experience in the poetic trade. It’s not about elitism. It’s about choosing a poem that represents the best in poetic craftsmanship — and New Hampshire.

Written from up in Vermont: January 19th 2015

Or as Robert Frost once put it:

It’s restful to arrive at a decision,
And restful just to think about New Hampshire.
At present I am living in Vermont.

Poet-Robert-Frost-in-Affable-Portrait-Axe-Slung-over-Shoulder