Who’s Bob Dylan?


So, Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for literature is, for me, a complete and utterly surreal event. To make an analogy, it’s like walking into a roomful of 60’s babyboom stoners waxing rhapsodic over the curvilinear genius of a spoon. It doesn’t seem to occur to them, as they move from the spoon to the butter knife, that maybe it’s not the silverware, but the marijuana that’s extraordinary. And Dylan’s music, what little I’ve heard (and judging by his fans), is marijuana at its finest.

  • “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars. This is almost as silly as Winston Churchill.” Rabih Alameddine ~ Twitter

I’ve never listened, from beginning to end, to a single song by Bob Dylan. And if I’ve heard other Dylan songs, the only one I vaguely recall has something to do with a Chevy and a levy. But wait, that’s not Dylan. Catchy tune though.

Here’s the thing:  I regularly cycle through Monteverdi’s Madrigals and the Bach Cantatas. The interesting thing about the Cantatas is just how god-awful many (if not most) of the “lyrics” are (they called them librettos in those days). Fortunately, my German is far enough removed that all I hear is the music. Being curious though, I look up the lyrics from time to time and am floored by how Bach could turn the most banal poetry into musical masterpieces. Music, like marijuana, can do that. Does anyone even give half a rat’s butt about Dylan’s prose poetry?

  • “Yes, Mr. Dylan is a brilliant lyricist. Yes, he has written a book of prose poetry and an autobiography. Yes, it is possible to analyze his lyrics as poetry. But Mr. Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician” NYT ~ Anna North

The various writers and editors at The Guardian have all but turned into gushing and starry-eyed fanboys & fangirls. They giddily praise the Nobel Prize committee’s citation as ‘admirably delicate’ (literary dilettantes who each year choose their jock of the week with the cliquish discretion of cheerleaders) .  The euphuistic prose is thick enough to cut with a chainsaw. Richard Williams (linked above) writes: “Essentially, in the work of Bob Dylan, the words and the music cannot be separated.” Exactly.

And besides that, yes they can be, and are—by yours truly; but am I the only one? When I read Dylan’s lyrics all I see are the words on a page—and none of the music. And what I see reads like a watered down Bukowski with a few effete rhymes—the poetry of an ambitious but mawkish high school sophomore:

“Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.”

The lyric stripped of music is an emperor stripped of clothes. As far as literature goes, they’re mediocre and amateurish. Which is to say, by the standards of the last 100 years, they really do deserve to be ranked with contemporary poems.

  • “Ah the patron saint of the 60s, gets a Nobel Prize. I guess this means in 20 years, we can expect Kurt Cobain to be added to this group when his generation takes over the voting. Joined by Beyonce, 20 years after that.” Comment at Rolling Stone Magazine

The lyric above is excerpted from another guardian post in which the author, or “we” (presumably all the Guardian fanboys and fangirls), present “Bob Dylan’s greatest lyrics” with no comment (as if their greatness were self-evidently obvious). For example:

Positively Fourth Street

I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
To see you.

All I can say is that you have to be stoned out of your gourd to think this is great literature. I’ve read better stuff from teary-eyed 13 year olds. But there’s also the New York Times.  The narrator of a video at the Times, Jon Pareles, reverently states at the outset that “we’ve known for half a century that Bob Dylan was a great writer”. Who this “we” is, he doesn’t say. And no, “we” have not known this for half a century. We have known that he was a great pop star. If it weren’t for his music, as the Guardian unwittingly asserted, everyone would be asking the same question: Who the hell is Bob Dylan? What about that collection of prose poetry Mr. Pareles? I notice he didn’t mention that. But still climbing Mount Hyperbole, Pareles goes on:  “He can sling words together and make them explode in your mind.” Pareles’s example? “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”. And its this, apparently, that merits a Nobel Prize. Pareles, who apparently doesn’t know Jack about literature, closes the video with the embarrassingly facile assertion that “he got the prize because he’s a wordslinger.”  Just think, sling words and you too will win a Nobel Prize.

Vermont’s poet laureate, Chard DeNiord, recently asked: “So what to make of the marginal status of poetry in America, where so many crave poetry for its essential, memorable expression[?]”. The answer? It only takes Dylan’s music. Put your mawkish and mediocre verse to Dylan’s music and you too will win the Nobel Prize for literature.

If nothing else, Dylan’s Nobel Prize is a beacon of hope to an entire generation (or two) of mediocre poets.

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:


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

On Vermont’s Poet Laureate & Reputable Publishers


A new anthology of Vermont Poets will be published in 2017. The anthology will be curated by Chard DeNiord and Vermont’s previous Poet Laureate, Sydney Lea.  The anthology, by Green Writers Press, will be a wonderful opportunity for the poets included and I wish them all success and a wonderful reception. And that would be that—if not for the Poet Laureate’s utterly baffling qualification:

“After seven months gathering poems from round the state by poets who have published at least one book of poetry by a reputable publisher.”


To be clear, Vermont’s current and previous Poet Laureates are within their rights to apply whatever criteria they want. They could have written: We will only publish poets with fuscia book covers. That’s their business. They could have written: The self-published need not apply; or bloggers; or they could have used the slightly more dismissive 90’s sobriquet, “Vanity Press”.

Okay, too bad for me and others like me. The mystery is why Vermont’s Poet Laureate felt compelled, in the Close-Up section of the Valley News, to use the term “reputable publishers”—implying that all the rest are disreputable. It’s an entirely gratuitous comment. Are their disreputable publishers in Vermont? Who cares? And since when have readers ever demanded poems that were reputably published? Don’t readers read for quality, or am I mistaken? And it’s dismissively insulting, besides. Based on DeNiord’s prior defense of Academia  (and Sydney Lea’s revelatory dismissal of me as a self-published poet) I think I know what he has in mind.

Sydney Lea’s pedigree (Vermont’s prior Poet Laureate) includes professorships at Dartmouth College, Yale University, Wesleyan University, Vermont College, Middlebury College, Franklin University Switzerland, and the National Hungarian University. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. The current Vermont Poet Laureate’s pedigree includes Master’s Degrees from Yale and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He’s currently, according to Wikipedia, a professor at Providence College and has been a Poetry Fellow at Sewanee Writer’s Conference (The University of the South) and an Allan Collins Scholar in Poetry at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference (Middlebury College). Is it any wonder Vermont’s Poet Laureate glowingly praised the previous Poet Laureate’s “New England Review”?  We can assume the latter is a reputable publisher.

For all aspiring poets and bloggers in Vermont, your current and prior Poet Laureates’ attitudes are clear. You’re not welcome if you’re not reputably published. Forget it. Let’s not forget that Vermont’s current Poet Laureate compared the Internet to weeds. And if you expect to be a Poet Laureate, or just want a little back-scratching, it’s pretty clear in what circles you’d better start circling. Don’t think you can get anywhere by publishing your own works.

For instance, we can speculate that both Poet Laureates would have turned their noses up at William Shakespeare’s first book of poetry, Venus and Adonis, published in 1593. The wildly popular book was discouraged at Oxford University (students reportedly hid it under their beds) because Oxford academes considered it distracting and pornography. In a word? — disreputable. And both Vermont’s Poet Laureates might have felt quite at home with the aristocrats (and Puritans) who considered the whole playgoing  business disreputable. Certainly, neither poet laureate would have touched Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Though scholarly debate continues, the publisher of the sonnets, Thomas Thorpe, is thought to have disreputably acquired the poems. If true, thank God for disreputable publishers.

Neither of Vermont’s Poet Laureates would have given New England’s Emily Dickinson a second look. Not only did she not publish a first book, but when her poems were finally published, and posthumously, the whole affair was anything but reputable.  Ironic that Mr. DeNiord should opine, in a previous Valley News article, that there might be other Dickinson’s out there. I can’t fathom how either poet laureate would ever discover her.

And Robert Frost? DeNiord discusses Robert Frost’s Mowing, but doesn’t mention that the poem was written in 1900. The poem wouldn’t appear in print for another 15 years. In fact, a first book by Robert Frost wasn’t “professionally” published until 1915, when he was 41 years old (nearly half his life behind him); and only because he had left New England (which had ignored him) for England. If DeNiord and Lea had been around in 1910, they wouldn’t have given Frost or Mowing a second look.

Frost’s first book was a self-published collection of poems called —Twilight. The book contained the poems: My Butterfly, An  Unhistoric Spot, Summering, The Falls, and Twilight, and was a gift to Eleanor Frost. Thank goodness he only printed two copies, neither of Vermont’s Poet Laureates would have given him the time of day for that unsavory little book. And then there’s Walt Whitman— self-published and who disreputably reviewed Leaves of Grass under pseudonyms. And then there’s EE Cummings, another self-published poet and, incidentally, no great friend of academia. But I sound like a broken record.

What a shame that Vermont has somehow chosen two Poet Laureates so utterly tone deaf and hostile to an otherwise thriving community; and who intentionally or otherwise confirm every cliché of a literature curated by an elite, ivory tower cabal. (I’d be surprised if DeNiord ever advocated for a return to poetry in Newspapers.) Vermont’s poets deserve better.

DeNiord closes his Valley News article noting that Frost, in Mowing, combines “two opposites, dream and fact”, and then admiringly goes on to comment:

“While contradictory  on the surface this line [The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows] captures the ecstatic yet empirical nature of work, exemplifying what F. Scott Fitzgerald — perhaps American’s most poetic prose writers — called ‘the test of a first-rate intelligence.. the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

I’d have to say that Mr. DeNiord ought to try that test. Or if he has, he hasn’t been doing so well. He might, for a little while, consider the possibility that great poetry has, can, and will continue to happen in the most disreputable of places. He only has to look.

upinVermont | September 11th 2016

“Stranger Things” & the Duffer Bro’s Epic Mistake

Just taking a brief time out to express my admiration for Stranger Things, but also my great disappointment. Imagine if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had killed off Watson in the third story, or if JRR Tolkein had bumped off Samwise.

We still, probably, would have two great works of literature, and no one would think of them in terms of what could have been. But the same hasn’t worked out so well for the Duffer Bro’s Stranger Things. The difference is that everyone from mural artists, to Jimmy Fallon, to essayists and countless viewers know exactly who went missing. She left a hole in the plot and heart of the series the size of Indiana.


Someday the decision to serve up Barb as “monster fodder” may well be viewed as one of the single most epic screen writing mistakes of all time. I say that based on the seemingly universal reaction to the character’s death and the near complete obliviousness to her absence among the town’s police, the high school students (who can’t even remember who she is), and the bizarre indifference and nonchalance of the character’s mother. Even Nancy, ostensibly her best friend, seemingly has to remind herself that Barb is also missing.

The miscalculation is so egregious that Jimmy Fallon can make a joke out of it.

We may laugh, but there’s truth behind every joke. And the truth is that the Duffer Brothers screwed up, epically; and their reaction has been of the deer-in-the-headlights variety. They had no idea Barb would be so popular. They tell us that there will be “justice for Barb” in season 2, but that’s like footnoting a flawed novel. The damage is done. And they weakly rationalize their decision to kill the character by explaining that Nancy needed a motive to involve herself in the “search”, but they could have accomplished the same by sending Steve into the upside down.

Then we would have had Barb and Nancy searching for Steve—my heart breaks at the lost opportunity. Instead of a story about a girl clinging to her venal  boyfriend (and, yes, the show has taken some deserved heat from feminists), the writers and the Duffer brothers could have and should have recognized in Shannon Purser, the actress who portrayed Barb, a far more compelling narrative and star. When they killed the character of Barb they killed the show’s heart. Instead, we have a brilliant and incredible 80’s themed, horror movie, theme-park ride, but it’s a ride without heart. Steve is never very compelling and Nancy’s continued fawning over him is both unconvincing and conventional. The relationship between the boys is cute and endearing, but it lacks the counter-balancing depth that a relationship between Nancy and Barb might have had.

I know there will be disagreement but one only has to Google Barb and Stranger Things to understand that such voices are a minority—and that tells you something. You don’t even have to be a writer to recognize when other writers screw up. They did, and royally.

They sent the town off looking for a boy with whom viewers had few reasons to connect (at an emotional level) and perplexingly killed off the one character they so beautifully captured with just a few light and deft touches—the one character with whom we emotionally bonded and with whom we identified. Indeed, the one descriptor that appears barb2.jpegagain and again is real. Why did she feel real? Because the other characters, to a greater and lesser degree, all align with  their predictable and conventional tropes—the predictable friendship of the outcast boys, the boy-crazy Nancy, the haggard and divorced chief of police with the (wait for it) deceased child, the  over-the-top and clichéd bullies.

Barb stood out because her character didn’t belong in this coterie of the popular, the obsessed, the naive or the damaged. She was just—Barb. We recognized that instinctively. We knew immediately that she was loyal, caring and smart. What a story it could have been if she had joined Nancy in a search for Steve.

Feeding her to the monsters will always be the Duffers brothers epic mistake.

Just ask Jimmy Fallon. While the Duffer brothers obsessed over Will, the rest  of us obsessed over Barb. That tells you something went very, very wrong—both in the character’s demise, in the story telling, and in the way the script treated the character afterward. Praise Stranger Things for everything it does right, but it’s also irreparably flawed. A great series could have been incomparably better.

When Barb was lost to the demogorgan, so was my heart.

upinVermont | September 6th 2016

My ongoing feud with Vermont’s Poet Laureate

Chard Deniord’s latest submission to the Valley News.

And my opinion as submitted to the Valley News:

After his last essay in which Chard Deniord blamed readers for poetry’s neglect, his most recent essay “Swimming in the drowned river” opts to specifically address the dazed and confused—whom he calls the “lost and intimidated” (because, you know, poetry’s 6.7% favorability rating says more about the reader.)

But okay.

He forthwith veers into a defense of academia. He tells us that “the so-called ‘professional poetry bubble’ resonates more as a ‘facile shibboleth” and then, without the faintest hint of irony, demolishes his own assertion with a list of largely academic publications (that have “cornered the market”) and a number of poets who, I suspect, made it on the list because Mr. Deniord networked with them in an academic setting—[cough] Dartmouth?

But not content to defend academia (which is all well and fine) he once more lays into that ugly little step-child: the self-published (and that wretched hive of scum and villainy—the Internet). He writes: “Desktop publishing and the Internet have now made it possible for anyone who wishes to publish their poems to do just that.” And in the very next sentence equates the whole unseemly business with weeds in a garden (presumably a superbly coiffed Harvard Yard).

Deniord can’t think of a single Vermont poet besides those in academia or those published by “professional” editors (as opposed to, his words, “amateur editors”). Nope. Not one. No, Sir. Not a single, solitary Vermont poet. All Mr. Deniord can do is to hope that the work of “those geniuses who are writing beautifully but secretly, like Emily Dickinson… comes to light in time” (presumably published by a “professional” editor in a glossy first edition). Then maybe Deniord will notice. (Never mind that it was a professional editor who was oblivious to Dickinson’s genius.)

But here’s a thought: My favorite discovery, when renovating a house, is an old newspaper. If I’m very, very lucky, I’ll find a poem. If our Vermont Poet Laureate really wants more readers, why not use his position to get poetry back in the Valley News? Why not? Don’t send readers off looking for semi-demi-annual poetry anthologies. Give them something with the news.

upinVermont | August 15 2016
Limited to 360 words by request of the Valley News.

Make It Memorable

  • Well, now I find myself debating both the current and former Vermont Poet Laureates.

In today’s Valley News Vermont’s former poet laureate, Sydney Lea, has come to the defense of Vermont’s current Poet Laureate, Chard deNiord. The latter half of Lea’s letter is of the Straw Man variety (which includes taking my high school opinion of contemporary poets out of context). He rhetorically asks, “if [Gillespie] means to stress current authors’ neglect of meter and rhyme…”, then proceeds to dismantle said rhetorical question. In fairness to Lea, the Upper Valley News stipulates that a letter to the editor be 350 words or less and its much easier, in such a short space, to dismantle ones own rhetorical question. To be clear: One can write memorable poetry without meter and rhyme and Mary Oliver, popular enough to support herself through her poetry, would be an example of that.

But far more interesting was Lea’s opening gambit, describing me as a Strafford Poet and “full disclosure”, he writes, “self-published”. To be honest, I’m not sure how to take that. Why does it matter? Evidently, the heat of Lea’s disclosure couldn’t so much as wait for the letter’s first verb. I too am left with rhetorical questions. Does he mean to imply that a person shouldn’t be taken seriously unless he has been approved by peers, academia, and select editors?

Was Lea’s observation a little ad hominem ice-breaker to warm up the conversation? I mean, why else mention it?

Interestingly, as of May 7th, 2016, there were 76.5 million WordPress blogs. 26% of all websites, globally, use WordPress. Further, there have been 2.5 billion posts. Of those 2.5 billion posts, fully 2.5 billion were self-published. And of that 2.5 billion some percentage is poetry. Even 1 percent is significant. My own blog, PoemShape, is a WordPress blog. I personally follow several dozen sites with “self-published” poetry, opinion and editorials. There’s some fabulous poetry out there that’s never seen the light of an editor’s desk.

But weren’t we just talking about contemporary poetry’s “neglect”, or was it “irrelevance”? Has Lea noticed that the Dartmouth Bookstore’s poetry selection, serving a college town no less, has shrunk to one little stand? The Norwich bookstore, last I checked, devoted maybe one shelf to poetry. The track record of published contemporary poetry (as opposed to self-published poetry) is hardly stellar. This, after all, is what started the whole conversation. (As an aside, the reading public might be interested to know that there are two genres literary agents will not consider and one of them, emphatically, is poetry.)

All this is to say: Yes, I’m self-published. 618 readers are followers and the blog continues to be read worldwide. Just today I’ve been visited by readers from the United Arab Emirates Turkey, Qatar, New Zealand, Trinidad & Tobago, India and the Phillippines. And this isn’t just me. There are countless writers self-publishing on the Internet, including a number of authors and poets among my readers.

If Mr. Lea’s “disclosure” was meant to be dismissive, then so be it; but he dismisses more than just me. He dismisses the entirety of the online literary project. I make the deliberate choice not to seek publication through a third party. I see no reason for it. My poetry is readily accessible, is read every day and more widely, probably, because of it. Not to get personal, but by way of comparison, where exactly does the reader go to stumble on Mr. Lea’s poems? Last I checked, and “full disclosure”, neither the Dartmouth Bookstore nor the Norwich Bookstore keeps his poetry in stock. Lea does, tellingly, have a blog on which he’s self-published a handful of poems.

Self-publishing isn’t only a 21rst century phenomena. While Mr. Lea singled out Walt Whitman for his “free verse”, he failed to observe that he was self-published. Not only was he self-published but Whitman used pseudonyms to write favorable reviews of his own poetry. T.S. Eliot self-published The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land. Shelley and E.E. Cummings were self-published. I count myself in good company. And as for John Milton? Lea includes Paradise Lost in his list of poems that “neglect” meter and rhyme. In fact, the entirety of Paradise Lost is metrical—Iambic Pentameter through and through. Lea’s mentioning the Psalms is also ironic given that, according to Biblical scholars, many of the Psalms (if not all) were characterized by meter and refrain. Whitman’s poetry? Some of the most rhetorically patterned verse since the King James Bible.

Mr. Lea writes that he agrees with me on some points, “not least that the obscurity of much contemporary verse is to blame for much of its neglect.” There’s plenty of verse that’s obscure, but that’s never been my argument. My argument is found in our current Poet Laureate’s rhetorical question: “So what to make of the marginal status of poetry in America, where so many crave poetry for its essential, memorable expression[?]” Indeed, where are the memorable expressions? By in large, the problem with contemporary poetry is not in its obscurity but in its generic blandness. Despite my favoring it, I ultimately don’t care if verse uses meter or rhyme, just make it memorable.

upinVermont | June 28th 2016

Why I tossed all my Rumi


RumiApparently, Leonardo DiCaprio is being tapped to play Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the widely read Persian mystic poet. The choice of DiCaprio is being met with accusations of Hollywood “white-washing”, never mind that most Persians and Iranians are pale-skinned, that Rumi is historically portrayed as a fair-skinned middle eastern man and that contemporaries reportedly described him as pale skinned. That said, I’ve never been a fan of Hollywood and even if Rumi was “pale-skinned”, that doesn’t mean he looked like an Irishman. It would be refreshing if the producers or directors had actually tried to find an actor from that part of the world.

But, setting that aside, I tossed all my Rumi.

In general, I’d rather read haiku. Why do I mention haiku? Because their brevity strangles a poet’s temptation to turn poems into homiletic tracts. In the case of Zen poems, for example, brevity would otherwise prevent the usual inscrutable allusions (Buddhist tracts) that drive barn nails through the delicate butterfly that is poetry.

But even the most spiritually pedantic verse can be ameliorated, if not made transcendent, by the skill of the poet. It’s the difference, even if illusory, between verse written for the sake of its content versus content devoted to the making of poetry. Compare just about any free verse written in the last century to Keats’s odes. Modern verse is generally as utilitarian as prose and, sans lineation, indistinguishable. That’s because free verse, like prose, is a medium for communicating content and little else.

And that brings me to Rumi. Rumi’s poetry was emphatically not free verse.

“The Mathnawi is in Persian. Mathnawi (Arabic), or Masnavi (Persian), means ‘rhyming couplets’. The title is a reference to its poetic form – each line of verse rhyming with one preceding or following it. All the couplets share the same meter and there are 25,618 of them in six books.” Rumi’s Works

Also quoted at this site:

“When Rumi explains a subject, he begins by telling a story in order to clarify his point. Then in the middle of the story, he relates certain wisdom and truths. He produces such peerless couplets that the reader is astonished. These couplets that he recited in a state of ecstasy remind him of another story. So he begins a new story and then finally returns to complete the first story. This way, stories within stories follow each other.” [Italics and underlining are my own.]

[Fundamentals of Rumi’s Thought, Şefik Can]

And pertaining to the meter:

“The rhythmical patterns of his lyrics have not yet been analysed in detail, but even at first glance they reveal a predilection for comparatively simple patterns. The meters often chosen have a strong hiatus so that the two hemistiches are divided into four parts, sometimes with internal rhyme, thus resulting in something very similar to Turkish folk songs. In many cases one has the feeling that his poems need to be read according to word stress rather than quantitative meter. Whether they are written in short, light meters or in long, heavy lines, one often feels that they should be sung.”

[Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Annemarie Schimmel]

And pertaining to the many forms Rumi used, the author writes that “almost all the poems are in Persian. There are 3229 ghazals, 1983 quatrains and 44 tarji-bands”

It’s for the aforementioned “astonishment” that I read traditional poetry. Put simply, I read poetry to be astonished: astonished by the conjugation of meaning, form, rhyme, and meter into a seemingly inevitable whole. I read poetry, not just for what a given poet is trying to communicate, but how the poet does it.  It’s for that reason that reading a translation in free verse by Coleman Barks, among others, turns Rumi (for me) into pablum fit for greeting cards and fortune cookies.

With Passion

passion pray. With
passion work. With passion make love.
With passion eat and drink and dance and play.
Why look like a dead fish
in this ocean

The above was translated by Daniel Ladinsky and what follows by Coleman Barks.


Don’t let your throat tighten
with fear. Take sips of breath
all day and night. Before death
closes your mouth.

There’s no love in me without your being,
no breath without that. I once thought
I could give up this longing, then though again,
But I couldn’t continue being human.

Barks seems to think it’s all about the message. I’ve read that Barks accompanies readings with beating drums, dimmed lights and other theatrics meant to induce profundity and enlightenment. Those in attendance reportedly swoon. My own take is that if you put enough sugar on corn starch, any child will eat it.

And as far as these translations go, they land on the percussion-less page like sacks of flour. The verse is indistinguishable from the prose of any modern day new age hokum and I’ve read lots of new age hokum. I eventually grew out of it, preferring the mysterious and suggestive to the prescriptive; imagery that asks the reader to inquire; and, at the very least, the mundane elevated by the transcendent deceit of great poetry.

I blame translators like Barks and Ladinsky, and all the translators who think that conveying the spirit of the original only refers to the content—the message. I’ve written this before, but if modern translators can’t be bothered (and I know its hard) to capture in some measure the traditional forms in which the poems were written, they’re only translating half (if that) of the original. Consider the quote above: It wasn’t the message that reportedly astonished Rumi’s contemporaries, but the ‘peerless couplets’. Then as now readers had probably already heard much of what Rumi had to say; it’s just that, like Shakespeare, he said it so well—so beautifully.

For me, and until Rumi is translated by a poet worthy of him, his poems sound like nothing more than glib and facile greeting card homilies. There’s long been a successful market for this kind of new age fatuousness, but I don’t think it does Rumi’s poetry any justice. A translator like Barks may be credited with popularizing Rumi’s message, but he’s done nothing and worse for Rumi’s poetry. He’s turned it into the literary equivalent of elevator music, taking readers just a few flights above street level—and nowhere near heaven.

I’ll return to Rumi when he finds a poet and translator worthy of him.

On Poetic Neglect

  • This article was written in response to an article by Vermont’s poet laureate.  I submitted my response to the Valley News this evening but who knows whether they’ll publish it. It willfully and disdainfully exceeds their 350 word limit (as regards letters to the editor). If link rot sets in, let me know.

On Poetic Neglect

Having just read Chard de Niord I can’t help remarking that this is yet another “it’s not me, it’s you” article by a contemporary poet. He establishes his thesis from the get-go writing that it’s not anything “toxic that’s overcoming them: It’s neglect.” Who’s neglect? Well, obviously, the problem is the reading public. Who else is going to “neglect” poets? He then writes that 99 percent of his incoming freshmen couldn’t name a single contemporary poet.

Mr. de Niord’s comments could have been taken straight from my own article at Poemshape, called Let Poetry Die; written for the Wall Street Journal several years ago. What Mr. de Niord left out is that 99 percent of his students could probably name a poet who wasn’t a contemporary. How about Mother Goose? Shakespeare? Keats? Frost? Eliot? Or even William Carlos Williams? If they didn’t know the names, they could probably recognize their poems. They can in my experience.

Mr. de Niord goes further, noting that “very few Americans outside the minuscule poetry community… read and write poetry as a secret discipline.” This is self-exculpatory and circular. In other words, the implication is that if Americans were reading and writing more poetry, then contemporary poems would be more popular. On the contrary, it’s possible that many more Americans are reading poetry than Mr. de Niord’s reasoning would suggest—they’re just not that into contemporary poetry. Mother Goose and Shel Silverstein continue to sell quite well, as do the Modernists, the Romantics and Shakespeare.

Mr. de Niord then writes: “I often see fright, shame, and even disdain on people’s faces when I tell them I’m a poet” Speaking for myself (being a poet too), when I tell others I’m a poet I’m usually met with warmth and interest and sometimes, in the interest of full disclosure, pity—but never shame or fright. Is it my debonair good looks, my wit, my insouciant flair?

But Mr. de Niord isn’t done blaming the victim. He writes that “schoolchildren, as well as high school students, often feel stupid during their first, second, and third encounters with poetry.”

For the record, my own experience (and that of my peers) was generally the opposite. By our third encounter we had all but confirmed our suspicion: contemporary poets were fools. If we let the instructor conclude that he was the smart one in the room, it was because we knew who buttered our parsnips.

The most telling rhetorical question in Mr. de Niords’ article though, is the following: “So what to make of the marginal status of poetry in America, where so many crave poetry for its essential, memorable expression[?]” The question is its own answer. It’s precisely the “memorable expression” that is missing from contemporary poetry. To combatively paraphrase another obscure poet: The fault, dear Brutus is not in our audience, but in ourselves, that we are neglected.

It’s not the readership who has neglected contemporary poetry, but the poet who has neglected the reader. Who knew, after a stultifying generation of Victorian metrical poetry, the 20th century would inaugurate a stultifying century of naval-gazing free verse? Is it possible that contemporary poets aren’t read because they’re just not that good?

I recently exchanged email with a freshly minted graduate student who told me that his instructor wouldn’t allow him to write poems with rhyme (or presumably meter). Is it any wonder the contemporary audience doesn’t look to contemporary poets for memorable language or the memorable expression? When is the last time readers turned to a contemporary poet knowing they could find a passage like this?

By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)–

At least in some academic quarters, the poetics of the last hundred years has apparently turned into an orthodoxy rivaling a religious creed. It’s high time contemporary poets stopped blaming their audience and maybe it’s high time aspiring poets stopped thinking they need to go to school to write poetry. Was William Carlos Williams sitting in a workshop when he wrote The Red Wheelbarrow? As Mr. de Niord pointed out, he was too busy being a doctor.

There’s plenty of poetry being read. It’s just not “contemporary” poetry. My own blog, which primarily examines traditional poetry, has had almost two and half million visits from readers around the world. Readers are fascinated by the memorably expressed poems of the Elizabethans, Romantics and Modernists.

And it’s long past time poets blamed a “utilitarian, capitalist culture” (among other excuses). Mr de Niord might be interested to know that I engage, every day, in wonderful conversations about The Red Wheelbarrow, Hamlet, and the meaning of Ozymandias. I’ve even done so on an airplane. The first is by a modernist, the second an Elizabethan and the third a Romantic. Maybe contemporary poets simply lack the talent to write memorable verse?—or are too ossified by orthodoxy? At the very least, they might evince a little interest in the kind of poetry Americans are reading instead of equating a disinterest in contemporary verse with a general neglect of poetry.

upinVermont • June 3rd 2016

my little wildflowers

Death RattlesI’ve noticed spell checkers have a problem with my English. It’s this: They don’t like my irregular verbs.

This post will be short.

First of all, to the powers who decide what words are acceptable: Screw You.

I am not going to use dreamed instead of dreamt. I will not write lighted instead of lit. I will not write leaped instead of leapt, kneeled instead of knelt, sneaked instead of snuck, or shined instead of shone. Underline that little word if you like, but my words are spelt correctly. I grew up with them and I like them.

I won’t let these little beauties, clinging to the field’s fringe, be mown down.

I, the poet, love them.

They’re my little wildflowers and I’ll sprinkle them in prose and poetry wherever I like.


Vermont Poet (Color Corrected)

Katy Waldman’s irresistibly inept putdown of Yi-Fen Chou

And who is Yi-Fen Chou? Yi-Fen Chou is the opportunistically chosen pen name of  Michael Derrick Hudson.  And who is Michael Derrick Hudson? Hudson is a poet whose poem was chosen for inclusion in the Best American Poetry anthology for 2015—an anthology which will itself be anthologized as among the most inconsequential anthologies ever published. Only it wasn’t Hudson’s poem that was chosen, but Chou’s. Here is Hudson explaining how this came about:

After a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it and send it out again. As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful for me. The poem in question … was rejected under my real name forty (40) times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine (9) times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.

Working in the Genealogy Center of the Allen County Public Library, I can believe that he keeps—minutely—detailed records of his rejections. Lo and behold, Hudson decided to reveal his inner Chou, and his poem was picked as one of America’s Best Poems. And I guess that says something for those other 40 editors—and what, exactly, depends on your opinion of the poem.

But what makes this kerfuffle so irresistible is what a circular firing squad it turned into. Take Katy Waldman’s first quoted tweet:

When I need the benefits of white male privilege, I send work out with the nom de plume Michael Derrick Hudson. #writingtips #writingadvice

— Emily Paige Wilson

Right, because white male privilege means getting rejected 40 times. Irony anyone? And as far as I know, Emily Paige Wilson has never availed herself of “white male privilege”. With critics like Emily Wilson, who needs friends?

Timothy Yu, English professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (who should therefore know better), made much the same quip. “Like every poet, from time to time I write poems of which I am somewhat embarrassed. Once these poems have been rejected a multitude of times, I send them out again under the name of Michael Derrick Hudson of Fort Wayne, Indiana.”

Right, and how did that go? Did Yu’s poem make it into America’s Best?

But it only gets better, Katy Waldman, like Wilson and Yu, doesn’t waste any time shooting herself in the foot. She writes: “Hudson’s attempt to game the poetry submissions system is, of course, unethical.” The very assertion that Hudson’s Chou is unethical, naturally (and with a sweeping irony she seems blissfully unaware of) implies that the whole system is unethical.  Why? Because you can’t game a system that isn’t gamed. If the poetry were selected on the basis of merit, then it wouldn’t matter who wrote it. Secondly, it wasn’t a so-called “attempt”.  He succeeded. Hudson’s poem is now one of America’s Best Poems.

But Waldman isn’t done. In the very next sentence she essentially tells us that poetry is a commodity or currency:

“He lied to reap the benefits of affirmative action, a set of practices designed to ease the effects of ingrained injustice. “

First of all, there’s no question but that racism continues to effect all of us adversely—and I do mean all of us. However, here’s the thing, David Lehman’s anthology is called the Best American Poetry anthology, not the Best American Affirmative Action Anthology.  But here’s how Sherman Alexie, the anthology’s guest editor for 2015 put it:

“If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet’s Chinese pseudonym. If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.”

In other words, he clearly states that he chose the poem based on the author’s assumed race and/or ethnicity. So, its more than fair to ask who is really being unethical, dishonest and misleading. Clearly, the name of the anthology doest not represent what the anthology is trying to achieve.

But the second aspect to Waldman’s assertion concerns poetry as a sort of commodity. In other words, is poetry valued for its intrinsic merit or is its value based on some external property—is poetry a kind of currency modern poets trade-in and among themselves for career placement and advancement? I’d say it’s the latter. This is the sad state of modern poetry. What the public gets to read is not the poetry of merit but the currency of  the self-selected. The modern anthology is poetry’s Dow Jones Industrial Average and the included poems are nothing more than a tally of who’s up and who’s down—who’s in and who’s out.

Before the final paragraph, Waldman seems to realize she can’t continue to dodge the question. She asks:

On the other hand, has Hudson’s immoral gambit exposed a flaw in the literary ecosystem? Why should a poem be rejected under one name and accepted under another?

Hudson’s “immoral gambit”? Never mind that, by Waldman’s standards, the anthology’s own misrepresentation is an “immoral gambit”. But how is Waldman going to glide over this little wrench? Well, with one of the glibbest rationalizations of  2015:

The world is awash in great poems. Any selection of the best ones will necessarily rely on extra-literary factors.

That’s right. There are so many best American poems that the anthology “Best American Poetry” would simply have too many choices if it didn’t apply exogenous criteria. And that must be why contemporary poetry is so popular in America. That must be why poetry sections in nearly all book stores are shrinking, wilting and even disappearing. There are just too many great American poets out there. Americans can’t decide which book to buy first—and so they don’t buy any of them.

Clearly, all Americans need to learn how to “rely on extra-literary factors”, to quote Waldman.

But Ms. Waldman isn’t satisfied with only shooting one foot. She closes her article with the rhetorical question:

Perhaps what Hudson’s feat demonstrates is that, without some kind of extradiegetic edge, his poems don’t quite cut it. Is that really the statement he wants to make?

Which implies, of course, that only poems with “extradiegetic edges” cut it. Is that really the statement that Waldman wants to make?