eYe by Howard Fine

Howard Fine, a reader of my blog, sent me one of his books of poetry to review and I have to say, aesthetically, it’s one of the most beautiful I’ve gotten. Each page is a handwritten facsimile. I myself wouldn’t possibly have the patience for this sort of effort. My mind wanders. I would absent-mindedly misspell a word and have to start all over again. I would probably end up writing the book ten times over just to get one printable version. So I admire Fine’s effort, his handwriting, and the neatness and readability of it. This book is a labor of love.

But what are the poems like?

Fine gives meter and rhyme a go and for that I’m grateful, but the end-result is a superficial resemblance to Emily Dickinson. Similar to Dickinson’s manner of writing, Fine dispenses with grammatical connectives, omitting definite articles, pronouns and propositions in the name of meter. Fine’s poetry often feels like its made from the limbs and shoots of a grammar tree, held together only by a poem’s thematic material. So you get stanzas like this:

was poor chronicler's lament
is our mere finite sphere
shall far sparkling firmament
may be forever near

labor least to reinvent
worn world as it wanes here
but by conjure and consent
drown known orb in own globed tear
coax Other to appear

What makes me guess this isn’t a peculiarity of Fine’s voice but a concession made to rhyme and meter is that in those poems where there’s neither rhyme nor meter, his grammar and syntax are perfectly normal (less the omission of punctuation):

we brought a box of chocolates
we would have brought flowers
but all the florists were closed

oh what good are flowers?
they only fade

flowers are good
because they fade

Much to my enjoyment, he also wrote a couple poems in German:

aus dem trauern flog ein r
und wohnt der wunde bei
ein ich fragt    was es sei?
sagt ein engel  es war Er!

I was wondering if it should read ein(e)r? or if this was a kind of visual pun (the small ‘r’ corrected to the divine and capitalized ‘Er’)? — but anyways, what’s interesting is that Fine writes the same way in German as in English, the same sort of piecemeal grammar. I’m guessing most readers will simply accept this as a facet of his style. Since it’s something that I pay (possibly too much) attention to, I’m also probably going to be more critical than others. Even so, the downside is that it risks making the poetry feel altogether rhyme-driven and line-driven (the poem as a collection of lines rather than a whole). It risks trading the musicality of idiomatic English for something that sometimes sounds less playful than juvenile.

now west heeds east
by eremite's beach
here sweet tears teach
why best needs least

come share my tent
in neither nor
on this spare shore
from came to went

Or later, he will write a line like “and wonder what this life be worth”. I’m not sure what Fine gains by using “be” instead of “is”. Is it a feint at poetic depth? Is this meant to make us treat the narrator as a pretentious poseur? As it was, I was suddenly finishing the poem in the voice of Hector Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean.

and wonder what this life be worth

the dog returning brought for me
a stag's domed skull    laid at my heel
she knows     thought i    memento mori
though risen now     there yet i kneel

It’s a trade off and a conscious one. Either the reader accepts the stilted syntax or one wishes he had simply written free verse. I personally find myself sometimes, it has to be said, spending more time trying to piece together his grammatical jigsaw puzzles than enjoying the poetry.

why try? could court worse failures
draw blood? no more touch knife
assailed by fear's familiars
jailed   in   contracted life

grow bold! quit taboo's ambit
breathe freely  having fled
cold cell of concrete habit
enforced by bar of dread

Compare this to one of Dickinson’s many inscrutable poems:

Reverse cannot befall
That find Prosperity
Whose Sources are interior
As soon — Adversity

A Diamond — overtake
In far — Bolivian Ground —
Misfortune hath no implement
Could mar it — if it found —

Emily Dickinson's Poems: As She Preserved Them p. 287

If one is going to be influenced by Dickinson (not just in grammar but hymn meter too) then I’m not sure poems like these represent Dickinson at her best. When Dickinson is read and remembered, and appreciated for her genius, it’s for the poetry that speaks to us in familiar ways and of a world that is not so synechdochic as to be indecipherable.

But enough of that. What about the content of Fine’s poetry? Once you get past the (probably too) seriousness with which I read poetry, one can also read his poems as playful, inventive and enthusiastic—in short, as light verse. The reader seeking traditional poetry that aims for any sort of sublimity won’t find it here. There’s lots of winking, nudging, coy question marks and exclamation points. And not all his poems have that expediently truncated feel to them. You get a little charmer like this:

a natural cat knows how to purr
how to groom her winter fur
how to choose the cutest mice
and skate soft-shoe across new ice

how to scratch      how to sleep
wholeheartedly     but not too deep
and when she meows her ninth goodbye
a natural cat     knows   how to die.

But then at other times his humor can feel a little smug, like someone who laughs at his own joke a little too much and too long:

i knelt by a jamb
that hung no door
felt swung   i am   ajar

got sung till i crossed
through thought and ought
at last   past sense   commence

It’s a mixed bag. Not only is Fine writing to entertain but also, it has to be said, show off. One does get the sense that he wishes to impress with cleverness—a cleverness that sometimes implodes in it’s own too much:

lose ego   lose me    lose smartphone
what's dark   what's whole   what's hominid's?
re-inspire spark     runic sorcery
impish futhork    lyrical surge

sanity enjoyed   small's great while hearts turn
be peace vaporize into outto blackwhite lighght

Writing humor isn’t easy. It’s a curious thing, for example, that Steve Martin, one of the greatest physical comedians of all time, has little talent for writing humor. Comedic timing means something completely different on the page than on the stage and I’m not sure that Fine altogether succeeds as a humorist or writer of light verse, but his poems do communicate a good-natured and engaging enthusiasm. Fine himself closes the book by writing:

my script now nears its end
i'd love to ad-lib more

And that’s probably the spirit in which to read these poems—as ad-libbing. They’re high-spirited, and never longer than a page. There’s a touch of love and spirituality among them, but Fine doesn’t let either break the overall mood—a sort of pranksterish extroversion. In the end, I think he’d like to leave the reader as light-hearted as his poetry. That’s a wonderful thing, but there’s a serious art that underlies the art of light-heartedness. I think the reader is going to have to be a little indulgent with Fine to fully enjoy him, but I would discourage no one from giving his collection a try.

up in Vermont | March 31 2021

The Fetishizing of Difficulty

Two books that I ordered just came in the mail and they couldn’t be more diametrically opposed: Broken Hierarchies by Geoffrey Hill, a massive and über-serious Oxford edition of his collected poetry, and what is this thing called love by Kim Addonizio, an erotically slim, semi-serious, wry and sometimes sex-filled collection of poems. The covers couldn’t be more different. The cover image on Hill’s book is Kokoschka’s “Lorelay”, a painting that manages to combine drowning men with something like deliberate kitsch (a strikingly and unwittingly apropos cover for Hill’s poetry):

And then there’s the cover to Kim Addonizio’s book.

Needless to say, I was immediately attracted to Addonizio’s book. Accuse me of having a fetish, but here’s the thing, which book really attracts the fetishists? I’m going to say Geoffrey Hill’s compendium. Hands down. Nearly every review I’ve read of Hill brings up the subject of his poetry’s “difficulty”. Here you will find a series of quotes from reviews of Hill, and they all, in one way or another, broach the subject. Thomas L. Jeffers for example, writes that “as a philosophical poet, Hill may not be at the level of Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens (not to mention Goethe or Dante), and not just because he lacks their degree of systematic clarity” where “lacks their systematic clarity” is a wordy euphemism for difficult.

Now when I read poetry, there’s only one question I ask myself: How does the poet use language? The notional and semantic content of the poetry is crucial but not so crucial, to me, as the aesthetics of the poet’s language. Not just aesthetics but I want to sense the poet’s metaphorical genius through their figurative language. A critic is going to read this some day and call me a philistine, but so be it. I read poetry for the poetry, as it were. It’s one of the reasons I don’t enjoy works in translation. The inherent aesthetic beauty of any given language, such as a great poet realizes it, is untranslatable. In the end, as Cervantes said, reading a work in translation is like looking at the backside of a Persian carpet.

There are different kinds of difficulty. There’s the difficulty of Shakespeare who writes the every day but whose figurative thought is so rich in metaphor, whose imagery is so inventive, that one needs footnotes and annotations to fully appreciate it. That’s the “difficulty” of genius and that’s hard work—for the poet. Then there’s the “difficulty” of 20th century poets like Geoffrey Hill (if not a sizable portion of latter-half 20th century poets) whose difficulty is not in the richness of the known but in the obscurity of the unknown. That’s a third rate sort of difficulty that doesn’t rely on intellectual rigor but on trivia—a chough’s memory that builds its nest collecting whatever shiny scrap catches its eye.

XXXII

Composure's fragile citadel betrayed
Common agitations have served us well,
Write-offs as they prevail,
Love-ins destroyed
The Triumph of the Will
Unwilled recall
Kurfürst Leviathan,
Weak celluloid sucked from the can
Go for portraits as if caricatures,
Let us have selfmade greatness plucked by wires.
Must I confess that I'm
Partial to fame,
The grand puff and clatter
Of noble Herr Reuter...

~ Liber Illustrium Virorum p. 716

It’s a tedious difficulty. But it’s the sort of difficulty lauded by poets, critics and reviewers who, having once thought in middle school that all great poetry was difficult (and all great poetry is difficult for a middle schooler) concludes that all difficulty is therefore great poetry; and never matures beyond that adolescent supposition.

I’ve been reading Hill’s book, or skimming (as my reading adjusts to the spirit of his writing). I find him, as one Amazon reviewer put it (referring to his poetry after the early 80s), to be a garrulous bore. His verse is full of trivial sentiments, banalities and rhetorical posturing. It’s no surprise, though, that Oxford is attempting to sell him as the great poet of our generation (and lifetime). Those in the know have been telling us who the great poets were throughout history and have been repeatedly wrong. (Give readers 50 years and they’ll decide.) Prior to 1982, before he started psychotropic drugs apparently, he writes like a poet who understands the difficult art of poetry:

The chestnut trees begin to thresh and cast
huge canisters of blossom at each gust.
Coup de tonnerre! Bismarck is in the room!

Bad memories, seignors? Such wraiths appear
on summer evenings when the gnat-swarm spins
a dying moment on the tremulous air.
The curtains billow and the rain begins

its night-long vigil. Sombre heartwoods gleam,
the clocks replenish the small hours' advance
and not a soul has faltered from its trance.

That is the kind of poetry that greatness is built on (and I’m not referring to the rhymes). If that’s the Hill you want to read, then buy Geoffrey Hill: Collected Poems, published in the 80s. The Hill of the 90s and 00s is a different poet. In the later poems there are moments (to call them passages would be a stretch) of true poetic difficulty, the kind that is difficult for the poet to write and deceptively easy for the reader to read. They are so beautiful (along with the poet’s earlier poems) that they doubtless convince Hill’s editors and reviewers that his bad poetry must be the deliberate kind. How else does one explain such bad poetry? And so we must take his banality seriously.

This is not Duino. I have found no sign
that you are visited by any angel
of suffering creation. Violent
sensitivity is not vision, nor is vision
itself order. (...)
Indecent in turn, let me here interpose
the body of a parenthesis (do we indeed
not know ourselves?). (...)

XCV The Triumph of Love p. 266

And on he goes with such clichés and banalities—”suffering creation”; the banal musings on vision; the feigning depths of his adolescent rhetorical questions. The poem is full of automatic-writing like this—blather. I’ve been reading a lot of William Logan’s criticism lately (because I’m working up a review of his latest book of poetry) and think that Logan gets it right. There’s Logan’s review of The Triumph of Love, which reads like a 20 page apologia and the thing is: Logan really, really, really wants to like Hill. He knows Hill could be a better poet than he became. He recognizes the flashes of brilliance (if not genius); but unlike other reviewers, Logan indirectly states that he won’t be joining the poet’s cult following. Once Logan has served his 20 page tour of duty (having demonstrated his respect for the poet Hill should have been) he dismisses the long poem with one word in a later review—caterwauling.

To get to the difficulty that is the art of writing great poetry, you will, for example, have to read the entirety of Scenes from Comus, all 79 onanistic verses (like little Rorschach tests in your borrowed Playboy) to get to this:

80

While the height-challenged sun fades, clouds become
as black-barren as lava, wholly motionless,
not an ashen wisp out of places, while the sun fades.
While the sun fades its fields glow with dark poppies.
Some plenary hand spreads out, to flaunt an end,
old gold imperial colours. Look back a shade,
Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, over your
left shoulder or mine, absolute night comes
high-stalking after us.

Are the other 79 verses (and the high price tag of the Oxford edition) worth it?—with their little glimpses of that last verse? Ultimately, my own judgement is that Hill was neither a great thinker nor a great poet. He was a competent practitioner of his times possessing too few tools to elevate his competence to greatness. And that brings me back to Addonozio’s collection of poems—as opposite to Hill as road tar to chocolate. I confess, it was Logan’s review of her book that made me buy it. His opening paragraph immediately sold me:

Kim Addonizio is that New Formalist dream girl, a hot babe who can bang out a sonnet on demand. If your vice runs to forms a little more obscure, how can you resist? Her come-on seems to be, “Wouldn’t you like to peek at my sexy little sonnezhino?” ~ The New Criterion

Yes, please.

But don’t be fooled by Logan’s opening paragraph or mine. Addonizio possesses all the gifts that Geoffrey Hill lacks and lacks the one gift that should have made him great. She possesses the story telling gift and gritty realism of a Bukowski, the ease with form of a Richard Wilbur, and Dorothy Parker’s wry and cutting sense of humor. She’s all those things with a tender heart, and that’s probably what differentiates her from all those other poets. What she lacks is that difficulty that makes you want to linger over her lines the way you might linger over Hill’s best lines. There is little figurative language—imagery and metaphor. They are written plainly like a Bukowski if he’d ever bothered to write meter and rhyme. In Missing Boy Blues she describes the murder of a boy, sexually assaulted, and begins with the boy hoping he’ll be discovered before he’s “a few old bones”, then closes with these lines:

Once I asked my mother if God was all over.
I asked if He saw us. I had a high fever—
She said she didn't know, and straightened my covers.

Then she kissed my face, then she kissed my hair.
(Then he tore my pajamas and my legs were bare.)
If you're still looking for me, you won't find me anywhere. 

There’s something disconcerting with Addonizio’s lightness of touch, the rhymes that are as half-hearted as elevator music, and yet it works. There’s a Mother Hubbard nursery-rhyme feel to this verse that tricks the reader into complacency but also, perhaps, speaks to the ease with which these murders happen—how easy it is to not even bother looking for the bones. In the poem Knowledge, written in the second person singular, she seems to address herself in this regard:

even now you're sometimes stunned to hear
of some terrible act that sends you reeling off, too overwhelmed
even to weep, and then you realize that your innocence,
which you thought no longer existed,
did, in fact, exist 

And that describes a poem like Dead Girl, where she nonchalantly describes the benefits of being the dead girl “who show up often in the movies” but always gets to be the “center of attention, the special/desirable, dead, dead girl.” And that’s the way with Addonizio. She likes you to think it’s all fun and games. She could be the woman who’s learned to talk that way to men, to abusers, to other women, to survive, to not give offense when she speaks the truth. I can imagine how she might read those last lines— “the dead, dead girl”— dead repeated twice to make sure she’s been heard. Many of Addonizio’s poems are like that, wanting to please, wanting to put the reader at ease, wanting to make you smile the way her verse smiles—it’s okay—all while she tells you the desperate and unbearable truth before she leaves the room.

She writes about death, love, sex; but not all her poems speak with that innocent wariness. She also turns her wit for narrative and straightforward candor to less morbid use:

There are people who will tell you
that using the word fuck in a poem
indicates a serious lapse
of taste, or imagination,

or both. It's vulgar,
indecorous, an obscenity
that crashes down like an anvil
falling through a skylight

to land on a restaurant table,
on the white linen, the cut-glass vase of lilacs.
But if you were sitting
over coffee when the metal

hit your saucer like a missile,
wouldn't that be the first thing
you'd say? Wouldn't you leap back
shouting, or at least thinking it,

over and over, bell-note riotously clanging
in the church of your brain...

It’s that phrase, “church of your brain” that is snarky perfection, that reminds me of Dorothy Parker and Lord Byron, and that made me laugh out loud. I didn’t laugh once skimming through the whole of Hill’s 936 page book. Not once. What she lacks in “difficulty”, she makes up for with all her other gifts.

It’s a frowned upon game to compare poets and composers: how would you rank them?—who was the greatest?—is Addonizio a better or greater poet than Hill? Immediately your game will be suffocated by the nearest pedant who will remind you (with all the charm and intellectual curiosity of a cloistered nun) that there’s no such thing as better, best or greatness, only taste. But let me put it this way, if the late Hill and Addonizio were to read on the same night at Oxford, would you be standing in line with a gaggle of old Oxford Dons? — or with the students? What’s your fetish?

Review: Seth Steinzor’s In Dante’s Wake

This review is a request and a tough one for me. Steinzor sent me three full length books written as a modern parallel to Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Steinzor’s respective books are called, To Join the Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 1, Among the Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 2, and (as yet unavailable on Amazon) Once was Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 3. I’m at a disadvantage because it’s been years since I’ve read Dante and am forced to admit that I intensely disliked Christianity as a child and rejected the religion in my early teens. I saw it as having no relevance to me or my life as a child. The worship of the bible struck me as a bizarre obsession among adults. Why this book as opposed to any other? Why believe these nonsensical fantasies as opposed to any other? When I was assigned Dante’s Trilogy in high school and college it felt (and still does) feel like the work of an alien worldview with which I have no connection. I wish that I could read it in the original. I’ve read that Dante’s poetry has a beauty that’s similar to Shakespeare’s but unfortunately (to my knowledge) no translation has ever approached the genius of the original. All that said, Steinzor’s take has led me to order the Ciardi translation from Abebooks and have another go because it is, after all, a masterpiece of world literature.

But back to Steinzor and Dante. Here is how Ciardi’s Dante began the Inferno:

Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
   from the straight road and woke to find myself
   alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
 
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
    so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
    Its very memory gives a shape to fear

Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
    Bust since it came to good, I will recount
    all that I found revealed there by God's grace.
 
How I came to it I cannot rightly say,
    so drugged and loose with sleep had I become
    when I first wandered there from the True Way.

 But at the far end of that valley of evil
    whose maze had sapped many very heart with fear!
    I found myself before a little hill

 and lifted up my eyes. Its shoulders glowed
    already with the sweet rays of that planet
    whose virtue leads men straight on every road,

 and the shining strengthened me against the fright
    whose agony had wracked the lake of my heart
    through all the terrors of that piteous night.

Translated John Ciardi 


And here is Seth Steinzor:

Midway through my life’s journey, I found myself
 lost in a dark place, a tangle of hanging
 vines or cables or branches – so dark! – festooning
 larger solid looming walls or
 trunks or rocks or rubble, and strange shapes
 moving through the mist, silent or
 howling, scuffling through the uneven dirt or
 dropping from the blotchy sky like
 thicker clouds, so close sometimes I ducked in
 fright so that they never quite touched me.
 
Someone I had trusted had led me there.
 Perhaps it was persons, I could not remember,
 only how their words and gestures, once so
 sensible and clear, gradually grew
 obscure, how their features, once so individual
 and expressive – this lifted tuft of
 eyebrow, that kindly smile, that belly laugh –
 smoothed to nothing in the murk,
 and how at last they turned away, gibbering,
 gone. Without them was no path
 
that I could see. A bit ahead to the right the
 curtain seemed lighter, its patterns more
 distinct and loosely entwined and permeable,
 so I stepped over that way, stumbling
 on the occasional root or protuberance,
 until I splashed ankle deep
 into a pool of sucking mud that spread
 among the blackened boles and mounds its
 unforgiving mirror far as could be
 seen, and I could go no farther.

That might give you some flavor of Steinzor’s modern rendition: somewhat of a retelling, borrowing imagery (and some of the same Angels and demons) along with landscapes, tone and some of his punishments (all updated with more contemporary sinners and Saints). Steinzor also, like Dante, names names, some well known and some less so. Dante didn’t hesitate to exact revenge, even condemning (as far as I know) still living contemporaries with whom he was enemies. Filippo Argenti being an example. A contemporary with whom Dante clashed politically and in personal matters. Argenti reportedly even slapped Dante at one point. Dante, in revenge, had Argenti dismembered and torn to pieces in the river Styx. Steinzor, mentions Reagan indirectly twice while in Hell, but Reagan himself appears in Book 2 (Steinzor’s Purgatorio) in the “memorial cube” where Reagan, along with other Presidents, suffer disfigurements (amputated body parts) befitting their sins as leaders.

To give the reader some sense of how Steinzor continues to “retell” Dante’s original, consider one of Dante’s most famous passages from the inferno, the punishment of Francesca de Rimini (for which, frankly, I wouldn’t mind knowing which circle of hell the priggish Dante suffers in).

I came to place stripped bare of every light
     and roaring on the naked dark like seas
     wracked by a war of winds. Their hellish flight 

of storm and counterstorm through time forgone,
     sweeps the souls of the damned before its charge.
     Whirling and battering it drives them on,

 and when they pass the ruined gap of Hell 
     through which we had come, their shrieks begin new.
     There they blaspheme the power of God eternal.

 And this, I learn, was the never-ending flight
     of those who sinned in the flesh, the carnal and lusty
     who betrayed reason to their appetite.

And here is Steinzor:

We followed,
 barely able to pick our way through the
 
deepening dusk, uncertain always of seeing
 what our eyes were looking at.
 At last, ahead in a band of almost blackness,
 I thought I saw red lights like coals
 scattered from an upset barbecue.
 Then they seemed to gutter, and a
 sound of gusty winds – but no: they twinkled,
 as if birds or was that moths,
 huge moths fluttered at them. The lights were moving.
 Rags of breeze brought the odor of
 
 unwashed crotches. Then I saw what they were:
 a horde of naked men and women
 whose genitals glowed so you might read by them.
 They shuffled uneasily around
 each other, avoiding contact. Despite the blazing
 wands and clefts and globes they carried,
 their bodies – that is, their limbs and torsos and heads –
 were strangely unilluminated,
 merging chameleon-like with the rubbish and rocks
 of their crepuscular habitat.

These two are, ostensibly, the same Canto and circle of Hell—both detailing the punishment of those who gave way to lust and their carnal appetite. Steinzor makes reference to the “gusty winds”, acknowledging Dante’s inspiration, then entirely alters the scene presumably because the carnal sin being punished is entirely different than that of Dante’s Francesca de Rimini (with whom I sympathize). The condemned sinner in Steinzor’s retelling is the man who molested Steinzor’s narrator when the narrator was a youth. Steinzor’s punishment, compared to Dante’s, is positively sedate. Whereas Francesca and her lover are battered with the rage of opposing gales that violently smash the erstwhile lovers against each other like knots of bone and flesh, touching but never able to embrace, comfort or express their love, Steinzor’s carnal sinners walk in the dark with genitals seared to a glowing and untouchable coal. There’s some poetic justice in that, for sure, but nothing like the violent rage of Dante’s indignation—nothing that would inspire Tchaikovsky musical vision of the hellish wins bruising and brutalizing the former lovers.

In fact, Steinzor’s Hell does, to me, lack the sheer physical cruelty, suffering and limb-rending torment of Dante’s Hell (Steinzor’s slicing and dicing demons read like something out of fantasy novels) . Dante’s imagined Hell no doubt arises from what was generally the short, and sometimes brutal, lives of 13th and 14th century Europeans. Violence was everywhere and on display. There was no squeamishness about crime and punishment for example. Criminals were strung up, left to die, and left to rot in full view of the public’s comings and goings — children and all. While it’s easy to overstate the suffering in Dante’s day, people did have fun after all, and ate and made merry, I’m certain that many of the punishments—the howls of agony, the torture and dismemberment—were either witnessed first hand or familiar to Dante. In Elizabethan times, the dismembered arms and legs of traitors to the crown were nailed, for all to see, along the shore of the Thames. Some of Shakespeare’s descriptions, of wounds, blood and their effects on the wounded, are so accurate that scholars speculate he must have either seen the worst first hand or through first hand report. I don’t get the same sense from Steinzor. The relatively civilized 20th/21st century has put him at somewhat of a disadvantage in that respect. I don’t get the same feel for human pain and suffering, reading his Hell, as I do when reading Dante. Steinzor feels a bit more secondhand and idealized (if that’s the right word).

And that brings me to Steinzor’s poetry. I agreed to review the books on the basis of their verse form:

This is metrical poetry, in a form I invented for the project. As described at my web site, the work “consists of 100 cantos, spread over three books, written in polyrhythmic, unrhymed, ten line stanzas. Each stanza consists of alternating lines of five and four stresses: 5-4-5-4-5-4-5-4-5-4. In the third book, Once Was Lost, each line begins with a stressed syllable, an added regularity that somehow seemed appropriate to that book’s more elevated status.”

In other words, Steinzor has written an accentual meter (as opposed to a syllabic or accentual-syllabic meter like iambic pentameter). I was interested to see if it worked. At first I tried to read the lines while being conscious of the accented syllables and their count. That didn’t go very well:

Midway through my life’s journey, I found myself
 lost in a dark place, a tangle of hanging
 vines or cables or branches – so dark! – festooning

I counted 6 accented syllables in the first, 5 in the second and, 6 in the third. Two things: First, counting stress in a line isn’t a science, and so I’m not going to assert that my count is right and Steinzor’s is wrong; second, I generally write accentual-syllabic verse and so what I read as accented might be flavored by that. The problem, though, is that unlike accentual-syllabic verse, which provides a regular pattern which the poet can exploit, accentual meter doesn’t. There is a “pattern”, quote-unquote, but it’s not regular. It’s “polyrhythmic”. We know that there are supposed to be five accented syllables in the line but, in my case, I have to go back and sort out which syllables Steinzor isn’t hearing as accented. In the first line that’s probably “life’s“, in the next “dark” and in the third “so“.

But reading three books worth of stanzas like this is exhausting.

So I quit trying. A reader will no doubt assert that the effect works at a subconscious level. Possibly. Being subconscious though, I’m not remotely aware of it—nothing like when reading accentual syllabic verse. (Also, there’s little to no evidence that the subconscious mind actually exists but we won’t go there.) As a guiding principle for Steinzor, accentual verse does provide a kind of structure to work within, but if the average reader is anything like me, they will soon stop trying to read his stanzas as verse but as prose and, functionally, that’s what it is and what I did. To illustrate, Steinzor quotes Wendell Berry at the start of his third book:

Sometimes too I could see that love 
is a great room with a lot
 of doors, where we are invited 
to knock and come in. Though 
it contains all the world, the sun, 
moon, and stars, it is so small
 as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts 
of those who choose to come in. 
Some do not come in. Some may stay out 
forever. Some come in together 

and leave separately. Some come in 
and stay, until they die, and after. 
I was in it a long time with Nathan.
I am still in it with him. 
And what about Virgil? Once, we too 
went in and were together in 
that room. And now in my tenderness of remembering 
it all again, I think I am 
still there with him too. I am there
with all the others, most of them gone 

but some who are still here, who gave me love 
and called forth love from me. When 
I number them over, I am surprised by how many 
there are.

The quote, as written by Berry and quoted by Steinzor, is actually prose. To show just how easily any prose can be lineated as syllabic or accentual verse, I lineated Wendell’s prose using Steinzor’s 5,4 pattern; and as with Steinzor’s verse, some may disagree with the number of accented syllables in each line, but that’s the nature of the “meter”. Does this lineation turn Wendell’s prose into poetry? In truth, some metrists don’t consider syllabic or accentual meters as true “meters”. And as with arguments over the dividing line between free verse and prose: Here there be Rabbit Holes. (The debate can be both informative and frustrating.) Things get a little more interesting in Steinzor’s third book, his retelling of Paradiso, in which he begins each line with a stressed syllable, but the effect is more nominal than structural. It’s easy to alter Berry’s prose, without changing a word (and given the normal latitude as to what is and isn’t accented) so that it fits the new constraint:

Sometimes too I could see that love 
is a great room with a lot of
 doors, where we are invited to
knock and come in. Though 
it contains all the world, the sun, 
moon, and stars, it is so small as to be
 also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of
those who choose to come in. 
Some do not come in. Some may stay
out forever. Some come in (etc.)

All this is to say that I never got the sense, reading passages from Steinzor’s books, that I was actually reading “verse” or “poetry”. There was never a moment when I felt as though “language [was being] used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content”. This, for me, is the dividing line between poetry and prose. Other readers disagree and, as the expression has it, your mileage may vary. And as a stylistic matter, I did find Steinzor’s style to be a little too curated at times—a little precious. The purpose, I suspect, was to introduce a certain formal and elevated grandeur to the narrator’s voice, but it too often comes off as mannered and self-conscious.

On a more positive note, I found his writing to be evocative. I especially enjoyed the synesthesia in some of his imagery and appreciated his attentiveness to the five senses—touch, taste, smell, sound and sight—a necessary skill set if one is going to be describing Hell and Heaven.

Do Steinzor’s books make compelling reading? The downside to retelling a masterpiece is that, well, you’re always going to be compared to the masterpiece. Like Dante’s Comedy, there’s really no overarching narrative or dramatic arc beyond the journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. As Steinzor himself comments, the progress is episodic. We move from one tableau to the next and what happens in one canto is mostly forgotten in the next. Unlike Dante’s original, whose sheer force of originality, insight into the human condition and linguistic beauty create a sum in excess of its parts, Steinzor’s effort, by definition, is derivative and his verse falls well short of Dante’s linguistic genius. That leaves Steinzor’s insight into the human condition as the primary reason to read him (insofar as he offers something Dante doesn’t).

In that regard, Steinzor’s Comedy could be read as semi-autobiographical or as a kind of memoir; and, like Dante’s Comedy, as a critique of 20th/21st century figures, culture and politics through the lens of a medieval theology (that has been more or less relegated to history books). As to be expected, given my opening paragraph, I had a mixed reaction. I often felt as though the far greater moral and ethical complexities humanity has realized since the 14th century were being shoehorned into the moral edifice of a rigid and absolutist medieval one. Steinzor’s narrative felt, to me, more like a contrivance, a vehicle into which he could stamp his autobiography and/or life experiences (akin to the vehicle of his accentual verse) rather than as a unique and organic vision of the Comedy.

Is that an unfair standard? Would it be possible to write another Comedy without its feeling derivative? Is being derivative a bad thing; and isn’t its being derivative the point? Is Steinzor’s Comedy also a commentary on Dante’s vision of the universe? It isn’t; and that may be the real missed opportunity. Steinzor doesn’t question Dante’s theology but accepts its strictures and applies it to our own culture and dilemmas. That makes it a retread of medieval Catholic theology in modern dress.

All that said, the writing remains strong enough, honest enough, vivid and humorous enough to recommend to those interested in a modern writer’s tour of a medieval poet’s Hell.

And that’s that for today.

upinVermont | February 18th 2021

Review | Erotic Haiku: Of Skin On Skin

Erotic HaikuSo this book, Erotic Haiku: Of Skin On Skin, deserved to be reviewed a couple months ago, but it seems I’m undergoing another change of life (also available directly from Black Moss Press). I feel as though I’ve accomplished little to nothing since the new year, and I take that as a sign that something’s in need of change. My first life change, in my twenties, got me out of academia and into the building trade. I suppose I’m a Master Carpenter now, and that has helped me earn a living, but I’m ready for another change. Among other things, I’ve taken up the ethos of Minimalism. I just recently donated a couple hundred pounds of books to the library. I’ve been moving furniture out of the house and in general trying to declutter my life and mind, along with my goals. I’m increasingly considering an eventual move back to Europe, maybe the Netherlands or Berlin. I’m done with owning things or rather—being owned by them. And part of that is living in a country where we don’t need a car.

So, if you’re a follower of my blog you may remember that last year and the year before I wrote a haiku a day—two years worth. There’s nothing as minimalist as the Japanese haiku—a beautiful form of poetry and ethos. I think that next year I’ll be ready to write another year’s worth—if only to declutter the mind. The poet learns to perceive what is essential and ineffable with the minimal intrusion of the self—and of words. And so, what to make of erotic haiku? The erotic, in a sense, is nothing if not absorption in the self.

Japanese poets prior to the 20th century only rarely wrote the patently sexual or erotic haiku. One was far more likely to find the erotic in Tanka, a form which, though men were among its great practitioners, was considered a feminine form and the domain of female poets. The most beautiful Tanka are generally considered the love poems of female poets like Ono No Komachi (834[?]-?), serving the Heian court in present-day Kyoto, and Izumi Shikibu (974-1034), “who wrote poetry ranging from the religious to the erotic, at the zenith of the Heian court. (At the same time, Murasaki Shikibu wrote and presented the world’s first psychological novel, The Tale of Genji.)” Baymoon.com.

That said, and before Basho, haiku were home to a more coarse kind of sexuality, unsuited to Tanka and, perhaps, mostly comparable to the modern limerick. Once haiku were established as an art form (and but for the few female poets who mastered the form) such coarseness all but disappeared. Though Basho counted women among his favorite disciples, the form was generally considered masculine and unsuited to ‘feminine’ preoccupations (which apparently included the erotic). R.H. Blythe, who did more to introduce haiku to Western culture than any other westerner, bluntly considered women incapable of writing haiku (and his attitude probably reflected that of his Japanese hosts). He made no effort to conceal his contempt for women [italics mine]:

“The dead child,
Who tore the paper-screens—
How cold it is!

Chiyo’s authorship of this verse is doubtful, but so is whether women can write haiku.” (A History of Haiku: Volume One, R.H. Blythe p. 223)

By my informed speculation, Blythe would have had nothing remotely favorable to say about erotic haiku.  In fact, he would have considered the form and subject matter an insult and an impossibility. The erotic was unfit for haiku—only suitable for Senryu. And Blythe generally dismissed Senryu as beneath serious consideration. Senryu are three line poems, formally identical to haiku, but distinguished by their subject matter (usually confined to people, humor and human foibles). Only once or twice did Basho write anything that could be construed an erotic haiku. By in large, Basho treated sexuality as a subject fit for coarse, adolescent humor. (Strikingly like Robert Frost, by the way.)

It wasn’t until the 20th century that women were truly accepted as equals and, perhaps not coincidentally, that the erotic increasingly appeared in haiku and were accepted as such. To my knowledge, no male poet would have written the following:

beyond the dark
where I disrobe
an iris in bloom

on the skin of a woman
who has never conceived
hot autumn sun

Katsura Nobuko (1914-2004)

None of this is to say that the erotic belongs to the feminine domain, only that this is how it was historically perceived in Japan.

So. Erotic haiku are new and have no tradition to speak of. And that’s cool. If you’re reading erotic haiku, then you’re essentially reading the creation of a new form, genre and tradition. So, I was very excited to receive a new anthology of erotic haiku by the editors George Swede and Terry Ann Carter, the former having urged Rod Wilmot to compile an earlier and outstanding anthology of erotic haiku called Erotic Haiku (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Let’s start off by saying that the book itself is beautiful, about 8×5 inches or so.  The collection opens to the book’s signature haiku:

dry spell
the spark of skin
on skin

Dan Curtis

And that’s not bad. The poem plays on the undying cliché of lust as something hot without falling victim to the cliché. Following that is an introduction explaining the genesis of the book. In an unwittingly humorous moment, the editors discuss “how the haiku is taught in schools, in particular, how to get teachers to see haiku as poetry”. Well, isn’t the answer obvious? Sex. Mr. Swede goes on to remark: “The idea was met with loud approval.” To which Mr. Swede offered: “I was reluctant”.

Erotic haiku in schools? What could possibly go wrong?

Anyway, Swede’s new anthology expands on Wilmot’s anthology by including more than just the heterosexual experience. Swede elaborates:

The content of Of Skin On Skin is more varied than that of its predecessor. The first includes only heterosexual eroticism while this one adds masturbation, threesomes, and LGBT sensuality. Both anthologies are a product of their times. The first mirrored the beginnings  of the sexual revolution in North America. The second reflects the expanding views of what soceity deems appropriate after the passage of more than three decades. [p. 8-9]

Swede’s introduction is followed by Terry Ann Carter’s. She begins by quoting an obscure New England poet, author of an equally obscure blog called PoemShape, who published a review of Jeffrey Winke’s coquette:Sensual Haiku:

“Eroticism and haiku are a perfect fit. Just as the haiku is the art of indirection, so too erotica. Whereas the explicit is an imaginative endpoint, the best haiku are a suggestive starting point for the imagination.  Suggestiveness is all – allusion, inference, and association.  And when haiku fail because they were made too explicit, eroticism fails for the same reason: eroticism becomes pornographic.”

And I still believe that. She adds:

The earlier conception of a 5/7/5 structure has given way to a freer form; most haiku poets today agree that a haiku should consist of seventeen syllables (if there is no artificiality) or fewer. It is the movement, not the syllables, that matter. [p. 10]

From there, the anthology proceeds. Thankfully, we’re given more than one haiku per page which, artsy though that is, inevitably makes me feel like I’ve paid for paper rather than poetry. The contributing authors are offered in alphabetical order and the haiku are truly of a high quality. Any poet who is thinking of writing erotic haiku should buy this anthology and study it.

How to preserve the haiku’s tradition of seasonal reference alongside the erotic:

solstice··············the thin white line around her suntanned hips

first kiss
··············the taste of apple
··············on her tongue

~ nick avis

path of sperm
from breast to navel
winter light

~ Micheline Beaudry

The erotic Senryu (humor and human foible):

quickie
the pasta
boils over

~ Micheal Dudley

The humor is not just that the pasta boils over, but the suggestion that this “quickie” lasted longer than the recommended 8 to 12 minutes. And then there’s the playful comparison of orgasm and “pasta boiling over”. This kind of haiku/senryu uses a favorite technique of mine: suggesting a little story beyond the three lines of its form.

his cock
hard again
the phone rings

~ Jennifer Footman

There are a delightful number of ways one could read the haiku above: Has she or he had to work hard at reviving his cock? Only to have the phone ring? Maybe it’s his wife calling? There’s any number of ways the imaginative reader could read Footman’s haiku.

Or another favorite of mine:

halloween
putting on our masks
to make love

~ Marco Fraticelli

The haiku seems straightforward, but one could just as easily speculate that the lovers are strangers, and that it’s the masks that make them familiar to each other. Some readers dislike the ambiguity of haiku, but ambiguity can be the life blood of both haiku and eroticism.

And here’s another nicely ambiguous haiku by Daniel G. Scott:

dawn
summer’s heat
still on her back

And how does one read that?

dawn—summer’s heat. still on her back

or

dawn. summer’s heat still on her back.

I prefer the former. Having been made love to, perhaps the night before, she still lies on her back—surprised perhaps, his and her orgasm still wetly between her thighs, now in the haze of summer’s humidity.

i’d like to straighten
your bra strap
on my coat hook

~ Brendan Hewitt

I have no idea, but I love Hewitt’s haiku. Has to be among the best and most inscrutably suggestive I’ve ever read. Others wanting to write erotic haiku should memorize Hewitt’s haiku (and not just as a come-on line). Where are the lovers? Are they in a hotel? And what does that even mean—straighten your bra strap? I have an idea. It’s the combination of entirely novel imagery suggesting a mood and desire in an entirely novel way. Remember this haiku if you’re ever tempted to resort to the usual erotic platitudes.

And then there’s the supremely suggestive haiku by Lynne Jambor:

silk kimono
in a puddle
at her feet

There’s the nice metaphor of her kimono as a puddle at her feet, but it’s the suggestion of her arousal also puddling between her feet that elevates this haiku above the mundane. To see both makes this haiku not only lovely, but erotic.

  • There’s a good post over at Brief Poems called Nipples—50 Ways to Write an Erotic Haiku. The author writes that it’s “difficult to see how an erotic charge can be maintained without the benefits of verbal foreplay.” I would counter that the poems above suggest just how to do that. The erotic charge relies on the reader’s imagination and ability to elaborate on a haiku’s suggestiveness. A haiku, after all, is nothing if not foreplay, the best haiku suggest and intimate without asserting. They’re starting points, not endpoints. They aren’t three line descriptions of sex (as is so often the case with poets who lack an understanding of haiku).  Curiously, the author adds: “When it comes to the more salacious aspects of the form, what may be called hard-core haiku, questions of propriety, taste and value arise.” I disagree. Questions of taste and propriety are unrelated to value. The question isn’t whether a given work of literature is tasteful or shows propriety—leave that entirely moralistic question to prudes—but whether the work has artistic integrity. Well-written erotica, even hard-core erotica, isn’t as easy as it looks. As I wrote above, it’s the difference between the erotic and the pornographic.

There’s also the tender and touching:

widowed
she sleeps on his side
of the bed

~ Joanne Morcom

And then there’s Beth A. Skala. I loved every one of her haiku and can only hope to read more by her. They’re gently humorous, erotically suggestive, and novel. Here’s one of three:

pushing a snowball
down her skirt—
nipples perk up

Not only a seasonal reference, but a nice haiku-like association between something playful and something erotic. Do her nipples perk up simply because the snowball is cold, or is there something more erotic at play? — the way play, among adolescents and the young, can turn into a realization of the erotic. The haiku suggests a kind of awakening that’s both harmless and subversive.

hot summer night
she takes off
her crucifix

~ George Swede

And one wonders what came off first? The clothes or the crucifix? I somehow would like to think it’s the latter.

The 60 page book closes with short biographies of all the different contributors—something I appreciate and enjoy when reading poems I like. And as the back matter of the book states: “The meaning of “erotic” varies greatly… To many, it conjures actual intercourse—foreplay, climax and an array of emotions afterwards. For others, it is linked only tangentially to the sexual act: watching a bee enter a flower, recalling a glance from another or the smell of someone’s hair or skin smooth to the touch or a whisper in one’s ear or the taste of something sweet on a lover’s tongue.” Fortunately, neither understanding of the erotic excludes the other (as it so often does in other anthologies). Swede and Carter offer both.

Granted, the editors have quoted me in their book, and I might like that (just a little); but this really is a collection of erotic haiku that I would recommend. If you enjoy erotic poetry, get it while you can. I’ve seen too many anthologies like these go out of print and go up in price—and by up in price I mean in the $50 to $300 price range.

up in Vermont | May 7th 2018

Other reviews of Erotic Poetry:

Emily Wilson’s Odyssey

Wilson's OdysseyI picked up Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey. It’s quickly become my favorite translation, alongside Mandelbaum’s. For years, Mandelbaum’s translation was my favorite given his mastery of blank verse and his gift for language and imagery. There are many translators who can translate the original’s content, but rarely the original’s poetry. I can’t be bothered with free verse translations. To translate a poem without translating its formal structure is to do half the work. Homer’s dactylic hexameters are part of the original poem’s language.

Not only does Wilson translate the story but, like Mandelbaum, she translates Homer’s dactylic hexameter into the iambic pentameter of blank verse. Her poetic gifts are of a different order than Mandelbaum’s. Her imagery is limpid and her ductile blank verse makes the Odyssey read as though it happened yesterday.  In doing so she manages what relatively few modern metrists seem able to manage: She brings to blank verse a modern pace and vernacular that doesn’t dilute the integrity of its line. Too many modern poets, ears dulled by free verse, can’t seem to write blank verse without watering it down to a kind of accentual-syllabic prose. There’s more to blank verse than counting syllables. The best practitioners strike a balance between syntax, rhetoric and line ending.

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy.
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered on the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

So begins Wilson’s translation.  By comparison, Mandelbaum’s:

Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,
the man who wandered many paths of exile
after he sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
He saw the cities—mapped the minds—of many;
and on the sea, his spirit suffered every
adversity—to keep his life intact,
to bring his comrades back. In that last task,
his will was firm and fast, and yet he failed:
he could not save his comrades: Fools, they foiled
themselves; they ate the oxen of the Sun,
the herd of Hélios Hypérion;
the lord of light required their transgression—
he took away the day of their return.

Muse, tell us of these matters. Daughter of Zeus,
my starting point is any point you choose.

First to notice is that Wilson’s opening is 11 lines whereas Mandelbaum’s is 15. Wilson’s translation, the entirety of her book, has the same number of lines as Homer’s. Wilson writes that she “chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer’s nimble gallop.” Getting back Mandelbaum: While there may be a more classical beauty to Mandelbaum’s blank verse—poetic phrases like “man of many wiles” and “mapped their minds” lend poetic density to his translation—Wilson’s verse has a more pellucid pace possessed of its own poetic advantages. Next is Fitzgerald’s much looser blank verse:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all the ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.

······························He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home.
But not by will or valor could he save them
for their own recklessness destroyed them all—
children and fools, they killed and feasted on
the cattle of Lord Hêlios, the Sun,
and he who moves all day through heaven
took from their eyes the dawn of their return.

Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
tell us in our time, lift the great song again.

Seventeen lines for Fitzgerald. The line “took from their eyes the dawn of their return” is a truly beautiful line—real poetry. Fitzgerald’s tone, to me, is that of an epic recitation, mainly due to the heightening of syntactic inversions—something which Wilson avoids.  Next is Chapman’s Homer, the inspiration for Keats’s famous sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. Chapman was a contemporary of Shakespeare:

The man, O Muse, informe, that many a way
Wound with his wisedome to his wished stay;
That wanderd wondrous farre when He the towne
Of scared Troy had sackt and shiverd downe.
The cities of a world of nations
With all their manners, mindes and fashions,
He saw and knew; at Sea felt many woes,
Much care sustained, to save from overthrowes
Himselfe and friends in their retreate from home.
But so their fates he could not overcome
Though much he thirsted it. O men unwise,
They perished by their own impieties,
That in their hunger’s rapine would not shunne
The Oxen of the loftie-going Sunne,
Who therefore from their eyes the day bereft
Of safe returne. These acts, in some part left,
Tell us, as others, deified seed of Jove.

Chapman translated Homer’s verse into open heroic couplets (or riding couplets). Pope would later translate Homer’s Odyssey (or, scandalously, parts of it) into the preferred, and highly formal, closed heroic couplet of the Restoration.

I’ve never studied classical Greek or Latin, so I can’t speak to the literal fidelity of the translations, but reading other sources, one gathers that Homer’s text is, to quote another reviewer, “a hodgepodge of dialects and vocabulary”. Wilson comments on this, writing that Homer’s style is often:

“not ‘noble’: the language is not colloquial, and it avoids obscenity, but it is not bombastic or grandiloquent. The notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English has been with us since the time of Alexander Pope. It is past time, I believe, to reject this assumption. Homer’s language is markedly rhythmical, but it is not difficult or ostentatious.”

It’s not Wilson alone who makes this claim, and so one is tempted to think that Wilson’s translation is closer, in spirit, to the original than any translation like Pope’s, or a free verse translation like Fagels’s which, though said to be the most faithful, abrogates that claim by its failure to translate the original’s meter.

Perhaps the most notable fact of Wilson’s translation is that hers is the first by a woman into English.  You might, and as I did, question how that matters, but I’d recommend you read Wilson’s article in The New Yorker, A Translator’s Reckoning With the Women of the Odyssey, to grasp the subtle, and not so subtle, ways in which a translation can radically affect a reader’s perception. From the article:

After Odysseus slaughters her suitors, he tells Telemachus to kill the female slaves who have slept with them. Contemporary translators and commentators often present the massacre of these women as if it were quite ordinary, and entirely justified. The murdered slaves are routinely described in contemporary American English translations as “disobedient maids,” and are labeled as “sluts” or “whores”—a level of verbal abuse that finds absolutely no analogue in the Greek. The killing of these abused slaves (who are usually referred to, euphemistically, as “servants” or “maids”) is often described as if it were unquestionably ethical. The study guide SparkNotes describes these women as “disloyal women servants” who must be “executed,” while CliffsNotes calls them “maidservants” who were “disloyal,” and claims that their murder has a “macabre beauty.” In the poem’s original language, Telemachus refers to them only with hai, the feminine article—“those female people who . . . slept beside the suitors.” In my translation, I call them “these girls,” and hope to convey the scene in both its gruesome inhumanity and its pathos: “their heads all in a row, / were strung up with the noose around their necks / to make their death an agony. They gasped, / feet twitching for a while, but not for long.”

I’ve extensively quoted this paragraph for a reason. I was so moved by Wilson’s translation, and her reasons for it, that I took to writing some poetry of my own—a kind of response. I’ll append the poem in a post immediately following this one, but the affect of Wilson’s translation is worth reiterating. Odysseus is no longer elevated by the nobility of a language that makes him a sort of mythical being beyond the reach of sympathy or condemnation. And the girls with whom Odysseus interacts are not defined as “maids” or “servants”, somehow removed from sympathy by their appellation.  They are girls, no different in fears, hopes or desires than the girls reading about them thousands of years later. In a sense, Wilson removes the Odyssey from antiquities. Odysseus is less a hero than a man who could be heroic, loyal, and cruelly vengeful.

the book I didn’t buy

Readings in Contemporary PoetryI put snow tires on, better late than never, and stopped by the Dartmouth bookstore. There’s a book there that’s been tempting me, called Readings in Contemporary Poetry. The book is really lovely, nicely presented, spacious and with brief biographies and discussions of the poets and poems.

The book (I’m guessing by design) has more the layout of an art book than a poetry anthology. Biographies and background on the left page, paintings, prints, or in this case, poems carefully reproduced on the right page. The poems generally fit to a page and are thoughtfully typeset on glossy paper. And I like the book’s cover art. Appeals to my sense of the transgressive.

First to the presentation. I found it interesting because, intentionally or otherwise, the book would appear to be blurring artistic spheres in a mercantile sort of way. The presentation of the poems suggests, if unintentionally, that the value of these poems functions in the same theater as contemporary art (in the sense of “art valuation”). To understand why I find this intriguing (and without rewriting the wheel) take a look at the following article at Quartz (and you can find many other articles making the same argument): High-end art is one of the most manipulated markets in the world. It begins:

“You’d think the value of art would depend on its aesthetic value; a picture you enjoy looking at on your wall. How could a dismembered corpse artist be remotely successful? Yet these paintings were classified as desirable by the art market.

To understand why, you must first understand the economics of art galleries in America and Europe. Almost all primary art sales—art bought from the artist as opposed to another collector—occurs through art galleries. Galleries set taste and prices—sets is actually an understatement. Galleries manipulate prices to an extent that would be illegal in most industries.

Someone with a financial interest controlling the market is worrisome. In any market, price manipulation causes distortions, shortages, and inefficiency. But in its own peculiar way the primary art market functions; contemporary art generates tens of billions of dollars of revenue each year.”

So what do you do when no one is paying attention to your poetry but a small clique of groupies and devotees—each devoted to maybe half a dozen poets out of the thousands starved for attention in chapbooks, journals, colleges and universities? Perhaps you attempt to create the same kind of buzz contemporary art galleries drum up when they want to attract the “invite only” art investor. Is it coincidence that the book is published by the Dia Art Foundation? And this isn’t just any collection of poets. I notice a coterie of names that always seem to show up together, like well-connected vultures circling a feast.  If you’re a certain age, if you’re a bird of the feather, you’ll be invited to the kill.

I’m shocked that I wasn’t invited. Shocked.

The problem would seem to be that a poem isn’t like a painting. There is only one painting. Complete a painting and you have, in effect, a kind of death. The painting is unique. There will never be another like it.  Xerox a poem and you have two thousand—each just as worthless or invaluable as the next. It takes the death of the poet to really make a poem valuable. Alas. But wouldn’t poets love to be able to present their poems in an art gallery, poem as performance ‘piece’ and Objet d’art, and have them auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars? Apiece?

That’s not going to happen, but maybe if you can make the poet his or herself like that painting, then maybe some of that perceived value will brush off on the poetry? If contemporary poetry can’t sell itself as poetry, then maybe as modern art? This, I think, is the effect of the book, regardless of intent. Both the poem and the poet are the centerpieces. They are curated; and we’re clearly meant to admire both. I’ll be curious to see if this “art valuation” of poets and poetry amounts to anything. It’s a new, if somewhat pretentious, play for a new market.

But why didn’t I buy the book?

I sat with it at the bookstore, reading some parts, skimming others. The problem was that I found the editorial introductions to the poets and their poems more interesting than the poems themselves. The poems are discussed much like contemporary paintings; and I can’t think of a single poem that wasn’t discussed in terms of content. The summaries also briefly describe this or that poet’s characteristic style, development and personality (as if between friends); and I do like knowing the biographies of poets. But in the time allotted me (by the parking meter) I couldn’t find a single poem that wasn’t free verse. That puts all the weight on the poem’s subject matter and they’re simply not that compelling — generally vaguely clever observations expressed in mundane forms with all the usual stale stylistic tropes — missing syntactic connectives, typographical arrangements, short lines consisting of one or two words, and various “poems” that dispense with lineation altogether—prose poems. Ron Silliman, who you would fully expect to find in a curated (and obviously important) anthology like this, dispenses with the pretense altogether. His poem is three paragraphs with all the personality of three bricks.

I would say that the poems are most typically characterized by some element of cleverness, most generally in their subject matter rather than execution. This, at least, is what seems to appeal to the editor/curator Vicent Katz. At $30.00 for the book, this just wasn’t enough to compel me.

Acknowledging that I’m not the audience for these poems, I don’t find anything in them particularly fresh or exciting. The only real test of a poet’s linguistic skills remains rhyme and meter, and not one poet risks it. I am so bored with free verse. The form is as tired as a brokeback pack mule. Critics of rhyme like to say they can guess the rhyme before they’ve read it; and maybe half the time (or better) they can. Thing is, I can guess the line endings of free verse with near one hundred percent accuracy. Writing traditional poetry is a hard, risky and potentially fatal business. I doubt any one of the poets in the anthology could pull it off. Dedicated formalists, devoting a lifetime to the constraints of the English language, have a hard time doing so but at least take the risk.

Surely Katz could have found some poets willing to buck the last hundred years of prevailing aesthetics.

Lesley Lee Francis: A Journey with Lesley Frost

indexThis is a book I was very eager to read. However, and tempting though it is to judge a book by its title, Lesley Lee Francis’s book isn’t so much about her journey with Robert Frost (her grandfather) but her journey with her mother, Lesley Frost.

In fact, one gets the feeling that Robert Frost isn’t who Francis really wants to write about. Fully a third of the book, Pages 61-122, are a biography of Lesley Frost (her mother), while Robert Frost remains a distant correspondent. Her mother led a full, brave, adventurous and admirable life; and she did so when a woman’s independence was far from easy or encouraged. But why title the book My Life with Robert Frost? Maybe because, rightly and wrongly, there’d be less interest in it. When Francis does discuss Robert Frost, she often pivots to Lesley Frost within the same paragraph. One gets the sense that she never really knew Robert Frost. I had hoped for a more intimate portrait, the feeling of having been in the same room with him, of hearing him breathe, seeing him yawn or hearing a joke, but when Francis discusses Frost she does so with the academic distance of any other biographer.

Her exposure to her grandparent was apparently limited. She does dispute the claims of other biographers (which is the whole reason I picked up the book) but those nuggets of familial insight are rare and second-hand. For instance, she asserts that Frost’s great sonnet, She is as in a field a silken tent, was not for Kay Morrison but for Elinor. How does she know? Her mother told her and claimed to have copied out the poem before Elinor’s death. She also disputes Thompson’s (and Vendler’s) characterization of Frost as a monster, but does so, oddly, with less persuasiveness than other biographers. Most interestingly, she defuses that notion that Frost set out to mythologize his public image :

“I am puzzled every time a I hear academics interpret RF’s life a mythmaking, as a deliberate attempt to go to England and “infiltrate” the English scene of poetry, publish his books, and return to America a famous poet… ¶ In fact, before leaving the States, my grandfather was very close to submitting his poems for possible publication as collections rather than individual poems in scattered journals…” [p. 19]

Whereas all of the biographies I’ve read (and I confess I haven’t read them all) give Pound credit for “discovering” Frost and giving his early career the boost it needed, Francis argues that Pound’s friendship was brief and his contribution negligible.

I’m inclined to believe her portrait of Frost, as far as it goes, but she could have made a more persuasive case if she’d done so from the inside, as a family member. As it is, to use an adjective applied to her grandfather, Francis is cagey. Despite the intimate invitation implied by You Come Too, don’t expect her to invite you past the front door. You will remain seated on the front porch and a harmless glass of lemonade will be served. The stories she tells are, by in large, the same as those told by other biographers. When her grandfather does appear, he does so as a somewhat infrequent and avuncular visitor. Despite that, you will read blurbs from other writers like these:

“The journey that Lesley Lee Francis took with her grandfather (literally and figuratively) was deeply personal.” ~ Jay Parini (who wrote the Forward)

“As the poet’s granddaughter, Francis has special insight and access to the humanity of this great writer.” ~ Dana Gioia

“This is the nearest we can come to being in the same room as the Frost family at key moments, as well as in everyday living.” ~ Seán Street

“It is something altogether extraordinary, an insider’s view…” ~ Booklist

All true if you’re interested in being in the same room as Lesley Frost, but not Robert Frost. Ask Francis about the women in Frost’s life, for instance, and she’ll light up: Elinor Frost, Lesley Frost, Elinor Miriam White Frost, Kathleen Morrison, Susan Hayes Ward, Harriet Monroe, Amy Lowell, and others are given their due with a determination and attentiveness that all but excludes the men in Frost’s life, including Robert Frost. One might be forgiven for thinking that Francis writes with an agenda. The biography doesn’t suffer for it (in some ways its refreshing and welcome) but it’s not the biography most readers will expect.

All in all, I don’t regret buying or reading the book. Before reading the book, for instance, I wasn’t as aware of Robert Frost’s fascination with native American culture. I also didn’t appreciate his love of archeology, making his lines in Directive all the more poignant and meaningful:

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.

Surely a feeling shared by archaeologists who have held shards of a bowl precious to a vanished life.

Along those lines, Francis’s book could be said to remember not only Robert Frost’s life, and the shards of poetry left behind, but also a wife, daughters and the many women who shared his table.

☙ upinVermont | March 14 2017

March 18th 2017: Having just written a review of the book at Amazon, it occurs to me to add here what I mentioned there. The best biography written by someone who really knew Frost (and perhaps intimately), is by Kathleen Morrison, Robert Frost: A Pictorial Chronicle. Morrison’s observations are much more personal in tone than Francis’s and if you read Morrison’s book, you might be apt to wonder if Francis didn’t borrow from it. Some of Francis’s observations and descriptions are strikingly like Morrison’s.

Review: Variations in the Literary Iambic Pantemater

A window into the poet’s mind?

variations-in-the-literary-iambic-pentameterVariations in the Literary Iambic Pentameter: The Strict Metrical Tradition from Sydney and Spenser to Matthew Arnold by David Keppel-Jones

So, I was more than ready to dislike this book. There have been any number of attempts to reinvent traditional scansion and every one of them, despite the revelatory accolades of their inventors and partisans, soon end up in the dust-bin of literary baubles and curiosities. Why? Because they add little if anything to old fashioned scansion, are generally redundant, overly subjective, or solutions to invented problems. Keppel-Jones’s methodology isn’t one of those. He uses traditional scansion to build a more complex system of analysis capable of recognizing the distinctive metrical practices of any given author (in effect  an author’s fingerprint).

That said, while Keppel-Jones’s insights are valid and a very useful way to examine the individual fingerprints of poets who wrote iambic pentameter, knowing that one poet preferred the second epitrite while another favored the minor ionic (or that a poet’s favored stress patterns changed over the course of their career) will rarely, if ever, add anything to the comprehension of a poem. Nevertheless, if you read Keppel-Jones’s opening introduction, you might be forgiven for thinking so. Passages like the following are typical:

“At first Spenser fluctuates between a method resembling that of Sindey’ abrupt spondee and the method of the minor ionic. But all these cases are unsatisfactory in their use of weak or ambiguous stresses. [Then he] suddenly seems to realize that the solution to the problem lies in the minor ionic after all, when used with this kind of confidence. And so, at stanza 23, he begins to pour out minor ionics embodying the monosyllabic adjective group, in exuberant profusion… Meanwhile he uses the second epitrite as his alternative vehicle, boldly but not too frequently.” [p. 14-15]

To write that Spenser “seems to realize” is speculative. Spenser was not thinking in terms of minor ionics or second epitrites and whether he had a “realization” is pure speculation. The best one can say is that Spenser’s metrical strategy shows an observable change as he writes. How conscious was he of the change? Being a poet myself, I would guess that Spenser found certain formulations easier than others.

Keppel-Jones goes on to write:

“It all seems to present a clear picture. He started the canto with the problem of the monosyllabic adjective clearly before him, but nothing beyond hits as to what his solution would be. There was just one figure that he was already sure of, the second epitrite; but this ws the one that he was determined not to use as his prime vehicle. Several false starts led him to the solution he wanted, and then at last, finding it, he felt a surge of confidence. Meanwhile, the methods he had started out with, and in differing degrees rejected, are recognizable as those to be found in the poems of Sidney’s Countesse of Pembroke’s Arcadia.” [p.15]

And that all makes a very nice ‘just-so’ fairy tale. Keppel-Jones begins with the hedging “seems to present”, then summarily shelves that qualification as he narrates Spenser’s motives and thinking process. In short, he treats his scansions like windows into the minds of poets. And by this means makes his “strict metrical tradition” an outgrowth of conscious choices—but I’m not convinced. A poet may be influenced by other poets and the tenor of the times without a deliberative awareness of the influence.

And that brings me to the more general question: Who this book for?

I’m inclined to say that the book is for metrists and linguists (primarily interested in authorship studies). I greatly enjoy both subjects but they seldom offer any interpretive insight into this or that work of literature as literature. What does the number of minor ionics tell us about The Faerie Queen interpretively? Nothing.

That said, I have read some fascinating analysis that shows how characters within a single play by Shakespeare may meaningfully differ in their use of language. Russ McDonald’s book Shakespeare’s Late Style is a beautiful and formidable example. Might Keppel-Jones find consistent differences between characters in a given play? I would be interested to know. If so, this would imply a degree of intentionality otherwise missing in his analysis.

The Mono-Syllabic Adjective

Here’s the nub of the problem: For the poet who writes Iambic Pentameter, the English language presents some challenges. First and foremost is the monosyllabic adjective. Keppel-Jones writes:

“Let us be quite clear as to the nature of this problem. The problem was to accommodate, in the iambic pentamater line, wordgroups of the following very common type:

the strong enemy

her sad troubles

with false shows

and sure aid

In each case both the second and third syllables are stressed (the second being, of course, the monosyllabic adjective).” [p. 6]

In other words, how does the poet use any of the examples above without disturbing the iambic pentameter line? Using Keppel-Jones’s own example:

For greit sorrow his hart to brist was boun

The risk is that the line will be read as tetrameter with 4 beats instead of 5.

For greit so | rrow his hart |to brist |was boun

Instead of:

For greit | sorrow | his hart |to brist |was boun

Every four syllable, two foot metrical pattern cataloged by Keppel-Jones may be understood as a variation on that initial impulse to fit the monosyllabic adjective within the context of an iambic line. The basic patterns are as follows:

Choriamb: /⌣⌣/
Minor Ionic: ⌣⌣//
First Epitrite:
⌣///
Second Epitrite: /⌣//
Third Epitrite: //⌣/
Disponde: ////
Fourth Paeon: ⌣⌣⌣/

So, an example of the minor ionic, using traditional scansion, would be:

⌣⌣ | //

On the | rich Quilt | sinks with becoming Woe

So, what Keppel-Jones is creating is a layer of terminology on top of traditional scansion. Where traditional scansion concerns itself with individual feet, Keppel Jones’s scansion concerns itself with multiple-foot patterns. There are upsides and downsides to this. For the uninitiated, the downsides are considerable. Quite simply, there are far more variations in two foot patterns. In traditional scansion, there are only four basic patterns:

Iamb: ⌣/
Trochee: /
Pyrrhic: ⌣⌣
Spondee: //

Two foot combinations create, theoretically, eight different patterns. Keppel-Jones only finds seven. The eighth:

⌣⌣⌣⌣

Apparently doesn’t exist, though I can readily create an example:

⌣⌣⌣⌣|⌣/

Being an in|dispu|table |example
Of what |a met|rist calls |a te|trabrach

I used this word being specifically because Keppel-Jones himself treats it as Pyrrhic:

/⌣⌣/

And being still | unsatisfied with aught [p. 107]

But if you ask me, the line above could also be strictly iambic:

And be|ing still | unsat|istfied |with aught

And if you ask me my own lines begins with a trochee:

/⌣ | ⌣/

Being | an in|dispu|table | example

Is there an example prior to my own? How about a line from Middleton’s The Fyve Wittie Gallantes?

⌣⌣⌣⌣|/

E’en to the last | sop, gapéd while I fed’em (Act 1: 1 l. 158)

We would probably read E’en as trochaic, but Middleton abbreviated the word. The performer could, in fact, get away with a tetrabrach. Or:

E’en to the last | sop, gapéd while I fed’em

There’s considerable subjectivity in scansion. There’s no reason to think that any given poet actually read his or her own meter the way Keppel-Jones does, and if there’s one criticism to be leveled at Keppel-Jones’s scansions, it’s that he doesn’t appear to acknowledge this fact. I don’t dispute the general insights provided by his book, but I’d estimate that a third of his scansions are open to debate. For example, I randomly opened the book to page 107 and found this:

/⌣⌣/

Joined with me once, now miserly hath joynd

Keppel-Jones calls this a choriamb but I could just easily read it as iambic:

⌣/⌣/

Joined with me once

This involves, as metrists term it, demoting Joined and promoting with. But this is precisely what iambic pentameter allows us to do, and is a daily feature of spoken English (and is the sort of thing poets expected from readers). So, I would argue that many of Keppel-Jones’s scansions are anachronistic and ignore how meter can be deployed by the skillful poet. (In fact, many of the metrical conundrums that seem to keep metrists up at night can easily be solved if the reader is willing to read with the meter.) Doing so often changes the meaning of the line and also its emotional content, but that’s precisely meter’s advantage over prose. Ignoring this is to read meter like prose. Shakepeare’s Sonnet 116 is a beautiful example of this and so is Hamlet’s famous line:

To be or not to be: that is the question

Most if not all modern readers read ‘that is’ as trochaic, putting the emphasis on that, and I can’t tell you how many readers, critics and poets assume this to be the case. This dubiously identified trochee is, perhaps, the most famous in the English language, but there’s no reason to read it that way. Any actor can put the emphasis on is, nicely changing the meaning and delivery of the line. That’s reading with the meter; and there’s no reason to think that Shakespeare didn’t intend us to do so. I’m often of the mind that metrists create the problems they claim to solve.

Beyond the General Introduction

Most of my examples come from the General Introduction and this is because the entirety of Keppel-Jones’s argument occurs there. The latter 200 pages of the book are a catalog of multiple-foot combinations, how they are recognized, and all the various syntactic ticks and characteristics typifying them. Here’s the “topic sentence” from his General Introduction:

“A preliminary step in the present work will be to draw a bounding line around the body of verse fully observing this tradition. Then, on the basis of representative samples of iambic pentameter from that body of verse, the three aims of the work are: fist, to describe the variations in question; second, to account for these variations and the form they take, in the light of an appropriate general rationale; and, finally, to demonstrate the consistency with which this system was employed throughout the domain defined by the bounding line.” [p. 5]

Keppel-Jones’s “account for these variations” will exhaust the average reader. He applies a quasi-scientific rigor to his analyses based on what are, largely, subjective readings. One either accepts his scansions or doesn’t. But if one does, then anyone using his system of scansion will be expected to remember paragraphs like these:

“Meanwhile the predicament of syllable 1 (its subordinate status and yet the desirability of its asserting its opposition to the iambic base) is taken care of. Because the spondeee is relieved of the burden of immediate identification, syllable 1 can actually be lingered on, and its opposition to the iambic base felt to the full – as happens in the 11 cases with a major break at a, or at a and b. (I do not say that the boldness of syllable 1 is always displayed, just that it is free to be displaced. In fact, the third epitrite is less frequently placed at the opening of the line than the isolated spondee.)” [p. 115]

And so forth. This is taken out of context but characterizes the sort of fussy housekeeping the reader can expect. It turns out, not only are there seven two-foot combinations, but there are also “isolated” and “appended” feet (and rules of use associated with those) and multiple foot combinations:

Isolated Spondee //
Appended Pyrrhic/⌣⌣
Choriamb + Spondee /⌣⌣///
Spondee + Minor Ionic //⌣⌣//
Spondee + First Epitrite //⌣///
Fourth Paeon + Spondee ⌣⌣⌣///
Appended Pyrrhic + Spondee/⌣⌣//
spondee-paeon //⌣⌣⌣/

So, what Keppel-Jones is really doing is categorizing English syntax in a metrical context. None of this provides any interpretive insight whatsoever into poetry as literature and is very unlikely to provide any insight into a poet’s deliberative process when writing meter (despite Keppel-Jones’s just-so stories). He’s simply offering metrists an exhaustive methodology by which to catalog the various stress patterns that inevitably appear, whether the poet intends them or not, in the English language.

For those interested though, the detailed scansions will be different for each poet— informed by their era, locale and habits of speech—such that even if one doesn’t know the provenance of a given work, the stress patterns can help identify the author. In the latter third of the book, Kepple-Jones applies his technique to the poetry of the Renaissance and later.

Would I recommend this layer of scansion to the average student of poetry? No. It adds nothing in terms of meaning or interpretation beyond traditional scansion. Keppel-Jones also doesn’t write for the uninitiated. He assumes a general academic knowledge of meter , such as a familiarity with Attridge, that few if any general readers are going to have.  However, for those with an interest in the study of meter for meter’s sake, then Keppel-Jones’s book is insightful and indispensable.

The good news is that if you want to learn more about Keppel-Jones’s methodology and try it yourself, another blogger and frequent commenter at Poemshape offers a series of posts that will get you started. The blog’s name is Versemeter. Enjoy.

And Merry Christmas!

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