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!

Book Review: Shattered Fragments of my Soul

Shattered FragmentsBack in August  I got a comment from the Val Jupe, under Let Poetry Die. She wrote:

“I also just published my first (short) book of poetry… And while I’m glad I did, it feels strange to do so in a climate where no one cares for poetry (aside for ‘slam poetry’) and where no one reads it.”

That reminded me of the cold silence my first and only book of poetry received. In retrospect I probably should have sent out the first 200 books, like EA Robinson, to 200 reviewers. I did send out my books to a number of poets whom I admired and was, to a poet, met with the response that they were just too busy and ‘Good luck’.

So, setting the example they should have set, my review.

Val Jupe’s first book is modest in every sense. I like that. It’s 29 pages long, slim and unpretentious. The poetry is printed with a sans serif font. It’s know it’s subjective but I’ve never liked sans serif mixed with literature—makes a book look as if it were printed on a budget. Why be obvious? In the bio she tells us she’s worked as a video editor for over 12 years, is fond of Paris and Prague (me too by the way—especially Prague), loves food and wine and “considers herself something of a poet”. And as any poet will tell you, a high opinion of oneself is essential to survival.  (It’s the stragglers who are picked off first.)

What are Jupe’s poems like?

She has a good sense of rhythm and rhyme, bringing a modern sensibility to traditional poetry. Though there’s some meter the poems  are more often syllabic. It’s the rhyming where Jupe’s playfulness stands out, and it’s playfulness that characterizes Jupe’s best poems. That, and perhaps, a bit of sentimentality and mawkishness. But first to the poetry.

What you won’t find in Jupe’s poetry is much in the way of imagery or metaphor. Her poems are largely declarative. She begins the poem Kelly, simply and declaratively:

Its’ winter now
And you should be here.
We should be bundled up
Walking ridiculous lengths to free events
Or in search of the perfecd bagel.

Much like something we would expect on the back of a postcard. It ends: “And I miss you”. Just another way of saying: ‘Wish you were here’. Not one of Jupe’s more successful poems. We’ve all wished a friend of ours were close by, but that sort of precious sentimentality is best left to the mailbox. But then in the very next poem she seems to find her footing:

Some Mother-in-Law’s Sentiment

Ever since you’ve taken my only
daughter’s hand in marriage
I have found that “wedded bliss” is one
thing to disparage
Oh – some things you cannot change
and oh – some things you can
and oh how I wish my daughter had
better taste in men.

In my opinion, and if Jupe is to have a future in poetry, that’s where she will find it. Notice the sly rhyming of marriage and disparage. Reminds me of Dorothy Parker:

Social Note

Lady, lady, should you meet
One whose ways are all discreet,
One who murmurs that his wife
Is the lodestar of his life,
One who keeps assuring you
That he never was untrue,
Never loved another one…
Lady, lady, better run!

~ Dorothy Parker

If you like or are familiar with Dorothy Parker, then you’ll like Jupe. Wikipedia writes of Parker: “an American poet, short story writer, critic and satirist, best known for her wit, wisecracks, and eye for 20th-century urban foibles.” And that could just as aptly describe Jupe at her best (remember this is her first book of poems so let’s go easy). Consider this little gem from On Wildness:

Its not so much “I left them all”
– more, it’s like they let me go
– well, less like let and… more like told
(or pushed and kicked) but even so

That’s beautiful. That’s iambic tetrameter and some playful  rhyming to boot. The tug and pull of the speaker’s self-qualifying corrections run cross-currents  to the meter with a tour-de-force of playfulness. I’m guessing Jupe’s a natural at this sort of thing. The whole poem is like this: witty, self-deprecating, the kind that makes you laugh with her and not at her. Yes, the poem goes a bit over the top toward the end, might overplay its hand, but the exuberance of the beginner can be forgiven. She’s at her best when she slyly examines the roles and expectations of a daughter, friend, woman and lover.

The title of the book suggests the flip-side of Jupe’s more humorous poetry—a somewhat maudlin sentimentality. Expressing and evoking sorrow in poetry, let alone literature in general, isn’t easy. The inexperienced poet often descends into cliché and mawkishness. Words Hurt, for example, might be beautifully illustrated by a pity puppy or pity kitty. The trick to evoking sorrow is to be indirect. Declarative poems—simply stating that one is sad or has been hurt—rarely come off as anything other than cloying and self-pitying. The quicker Jupe can put a poem like Words Hurt behind her, the better.

The memorial poem 9/11 poem 1, is also one of the less successful poems. The sentiments are sincere but somewhat mawkish, ending with: “(we are a nation mourning safety, now,/shaking weary fists toward the sky.)”.  I don’t recall seeing anyone shake their fists “toward the sky”, but it is a somewhat clichéd and conventional image.  Again, there’s always that danger in trying to provoke (rather than evoke) an emotional response from the reader.

So, as one might expect, Val Jupe’s first book of poetry is a mix of error and success. She should be pleased though. There have certainly been many first books without a shred of promise.  Hopefully she’ll learn how to avoid the trap of excess and hone her wonderfully sardonic wit. She possesses the technical skills, only lacking the maturity that teaches us to trim. She writes that she fancies herself “a restaurant critic to be reckoned with”. My advice would be: Think of your poems as entrées.  Too much of any one ingredient cloys. Sentimentality is as deadly to a poem as sugar to the main course. Just a little butter, garlic, and a touch of the caramelized leaf is all the Brussels sprouts need.

And lastly, knowing she’s someone who enjoys good food and wine, let her share with the reader her sensual experience of the world. A good poem appeals to all our senses: sound, sight, touch, smell, and taste. In short, I hope some of her poetry becomes a little less declarative and little more sensual and suggestive.

If you’re interested in reading the book, click on the image above.

The kindle edition is available for free; and you can also visit her blog, and watch her make grilled cheese sandwiches, at KumoCafe.

“Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship” : Review

byron and shelleyJust last night I finished may latest biography on the romantics, by John Buxton. This biography chronologically picks up where Ian Gilmour’s Byron & Shelley: The Making of the Poets, leaves off, though Buxton’s is written a few decades before Gilmour’s (1968). The difference between the two biographies is drastic. Where Gilmour digs in and gives the reader a real and eye-opening sense of Byron and Shelley’s milieu, Buxton’s tone comes from a completely different era — decorous with a hint of the Victorian sensibility that slips, every now and then, into an almost starry-eyed and exculpatory praise for his subjects.

I almost didn’t make it through the book.

The biggest problem I had with Buxton as that he wrote the book without offering a sense of personality — of his subjects, the places where they lived, friends, acquaintances, etc. The book feels like a checklist of events. They did this, at this time, at this place, wrote this, discussed this, and then this happened, & etc. I never got the feeling that I was in the story. (Gilmour is still the best I’ve read so far).  No discussion of culture or politics, which is especially relevant to Shelley.

I read Amy Lowell’s biography of Keats, many years ago, and the most salient aspect I remember is her fine-grained analysis of Keats’s growth as a poet (which apparently takes another poet to accomplish). That’s something that none of the biographies (I’ve read so far) come close to accomplishing. They write about the poets’ lives — what they did, where they were, who they met — but are bizarrely silent on the one subject which, after all, is the only reason we read about them — their poetry. Lowell is the only biographer, I’ve read so far, that pulls it off (though I’ll soon be reading more). Vendler, as far as I know, doesn’t write biographies (though I’m not a big fan of her ‘Vendlerization’ of poets and their poetry).

Buxton tells us repeatedly that Shelley and Byron were friends and deeply influenced each others poetry, but never once demonstrates how.  In fact, Buxton waits until the death of Byron, within 10 pages of the end of his book, to suddenly take us on a whirlwind summation of their poems. We end up with paragraphs like this:

Manfred, therefore begun while Shelley was with him, and continued after Monk Lewis had translated Goethe’s Faust to him, denotes the state in his poetic development which Byron had then reached: he had been made aware by Shelley of new possibilities of human experience, but his own self-knowledge had brought him to realize, however regretfully, that they were not for him. In form also the play is Shelleyan, rather than Aeschylean, lyrical drama, and owes nothing to Byron’s practical experience of the theatre. It is a precursor of Prometheus Unbound, where, in turn, Shelley is often indebted to Byron; but the relation between the two works is too complex for brief discussion. [p. 263]

Too complex? Yeah, I guess so, especially if the author waits until the last ten pages of a 268 pages book to do it. But that brings up another tone that annoyed me. There’s too much of the hoity-toity in Buxton’s writing; it smacks of arrogance. One gets the sense that his intended readers are already Byron & Shelley cognoscenti. He drops individuals into the narrative without the least effort (or minimal) to explain who they are or their relationship to the poets. He presumes we know who these personalities are. I mean, come on, does he really have to explain who Scrope Davies is? Seriously? He may briefly explain them once, only to reintroduce them a hundred pages later without a shred of reminding: Does he really have to explain who they are again? Buxton also doesn’t bother translating anything. Obviously, his Oxford educated readership spoke Latin, Greek, Italian, German and French; and if you or I can’t read classical Greek, then he can’t be bothered to condescend. So, for instance, he’ll write:

Byron was very kind, she told Maria Gisborne in writing to tell her that they would soon meet in England. ‘He promises that I shall make my journey at ease, which on Percy’s account I am glad of.’ But she could not leave until after Marianne Hunt’s confinement, which Dr. Vacca had predicted might be fatal to her. After eleven months in the country this stupid and commonplace woman could not speak a word of Italian, and need Mary’s help. [p. 249]

Never mind that Hunt’s wife probably didn’t want to be there, had four children to take care of (while the men were off riding, shooting, sailing, and being altogether lost in their self-absorbed literary vanities); and seemingly suffered the confinement of a near fatal illness. Buxton has no sympathy (and can’t be bothered with that kind of insight). Didn’t she know she was in the presence of geniuses? The stupid and commonplace woman should have learned Italian by now — and the same goes for the readers of his biography (one guesses). Worse yet, Buxton relates that Hunt’s children marred Lord Byron’s furniture and walls with dirty fingers.

The horror.

Any of the historical personalities that dared criticize Shelley or Byron are summarily dispatched by Buxton, while the author breezes over (if mentioning them at all) any of the poets’ more controversial behaviors. (We barely get a hint of Byron’s sexual proclivities.) On the other hand, those who appeared to treat Byron and Shelley with due deference, loyalty and respect, like Edward Trelawny, are treated with a tolerable sufferance by Buxton. The author  repeatedly praises Shelley’s gentlemanly, aristocratic and generous behavior, and encourages us to bask in the glow of Byron’s good humor, brilliance and masculine appeal.

So, would I recommend the book? Probably not. It’s either a victim of its author or its time. (I think the former.)  The lives of Byron and Shelley, their influence on one another and the era’s obsession with the two poets, await a better biographer.

Scott Donaldson’s biography of Edwin Arlington Robinson is next.

up in Vermont : February 1 2015

Richard Wright and Haiku: A Review

richard wright and haikuThe worst “scholarly” book I’ve ever read.

The title might lead you to think this book is about Richard Wright and Hiaku; but I guess only fools judge a book by its title. The book is actually a loose collection of essays of which the first four, 76 out of 150 pages, (or just over half the book) has nothing whatsoever to do with Richard Wright.

My mistake, I suppose, was in not taking the book jacket’s back matter at face value:

Richard Writing and Haiku  is presented in two parts. In the first, Hakutani traces the genesis and decelopment of haiku in Japan, discusses the role of earlier poets — including Yone Noguchi and Ezra Pound — in the verse’s development in Japan and in the West, and deals with both haiku and haiku criticism written in English.

Given that the title showcases Richard Wright’s name as the centerpiece of the cover jacket, I mistakenly thought that these first “chapters” — really distinct essays with embarrassingly facile edits meant to draw them together — might somehow relate to Richard Wright. They don’t. So, keep that in mind if you decide to consider this book. The first half of the book isn’t about Richard Wright.

Getting on to what really irritates me: the poor writing and the banal, facile “scholarship”.  The writing is so poor that I first thought the author, Yoshinobu Hakutani, must be Japanese. Were that the case, much could  be forgiven (and more blame to the publishers for poor editing); but the opposite appears to be true. According to the inside cover, Hakutani is Professor of English and University Distinguished Scholar at Kent State University in Ohio.

Good God.

The first thing the reader will notice is the bizarre repetitiveness of the book. In the Introduction, the third paragraph will start:

By 1680, when Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) wrote the first version of his celebrated haiku on a frog jumping into the water…  [p. 1]

The fourth paragraph of the first chapter will start:

By the time Basho wrote his famous poem on the frog jumping into the cold pond… [p. 20]

Later, Hakutani will repeat an entire two sentences within the space of a page. To whit, Page 80:

In 1953, Wright traveled to Africa and published Black Power the following year. In 1955 he attended the Bandung Conference of the Third World; two years later he was a member of the First Congress of Negro Artists and Writers, which met in Paris in September. During the same period he liked to work in his garden on his Normandy farm, an activity that supplied many themes for his haiku.

And Page 81-82

Back in 1953, Wright attended the Bandung Conference of the Third World; two years later he was a member of the First Congress of Negro Artists and Writers, which met in Paris in September. During the same period he liked to work in his garden on his Normandy farm, an activity that supplied many themes for his haiku. Of his experience in this period, Wright’s travel to the newly independent Ghana… & etc.

But maybe that’s an honest editorial ctrl+cctrl+v-mistake? As he hurriedly moved paragraphs around he forgot to delete the source paragraph (try ctrl+x next time?). Distinguished Scholars and Professor’s of English do this sort of thing all the time. Less obviously, but still needlessly repetitive, are Hakutani’s repeated assertions that Wright was influenced by  R.H. Blythe’s four volume study on haiku:

Harold G. Henderson, in An Introduction to Haiku, gives thanks to R.H. Blythe, with whom he had personal contact, and refers to Blythe’s “monumental four-volume work on haiku.” And William J. Higginson, the Haiku Handbook, refers to the American writer Richard Wright and says that he had studied R.H. Blythe’s books and “wrote several hundred [it was actually more than four thousand] haiku during the last year and a half of his life.” [p. 80]

In the late 1950s Wright borrowed R.H. Blythe’s four volume book of haiku from Sinclair Beiles, a South African Beat poet. [p. 108]

When Wright studied R.H. Blythe’s four volumes on the art and history of haiku…  [p. 135]

Just as tragedy is considered a higher genre of literature than comedy, haiku is classed higher than senryu. R.H. Blythe, from whom Wright learned how to write haiku and senryu… [p. 142]

In studying R.H. Blythe’s volumes of Japanese haiku, Wright was deeply impressed with the Buddhist theory of trimigration… [p. 150]

How many times do we need to know that Blythe’s works were “four volume”, or that they were “volumes”, or that he studied them (as if he hadn’t already told us)? This kind of repetitiveness is probably a result of each coming from a separate essay — or “chapter’ —  but avoidable if Hakutani had taken the time to re-arrange the essays into a cohesive book. Am I nitpicking? But the larger problem is the astonishingly poor, hardly undergraduate-worthy, “scholarship”. Let’s go chapter by chapter (skipping the introduction).

Chapter 1, The Genesis and Development of Haiku in Japan, is vaporously uninformative.  No one without a prior familiarity with haiku is going to learn anything whatsoever about their genesis or development. Consider that it takes Hakutani all of two paragraphs (of the opening three) to move from “The genesis of haiku can be seen in the waka…” to  “By the time Basho wrote his famous poem on the frog…” There’s zero discussion of Waka, other than to mention that it’s a 5-7-5-7-7 verse form. Renga, from which Haiku really got started, aren’t even mentioned.  So much for the “genesis” or “development” of haiku. But Hakutani apparently decides he’s covered it. The next seven pages are essentially a checklist with examples: “human life in association with nature”, “unity of sentiment”, yugen, sabi, Shiki’s “modernist challenge”, wabi. Hakutani’s habit is to print a haiku, then breifly analyze it — but his analyses are embarrassingly obvious – barely worthy of a high school student. In discussing Sabi,  Hakutani offers the following haiku:

In the hospital room
I have built a nest box but
Swallows appear not.

Then writes:

Not only do the first and third lines express facts of loneliness, but also the patient’s will to live, suggested by the second line, evokes a poignant sensibility. 

And that’s that. This is what a distinguished scholar gives you. Nothing of a haiku’s uniqueness is conveyed. By the time we’re done with the first chapter, the uninitiated reader will have learned only that haiku can be like the thinly explained yugen, sabi, and wabi, and will have learned nothing about their genesis, development or what distinguishes them from western poetic practice. Hakutani writes: “Haiku traditionally avoided such subjects as earthquakes, floods, illnesses, and eroticism — ugly aspects of nature or humanity. Instead haiku poets were drawn to such objects as flowers, nests, birds, sunset, the moon, and genuine love.” Which, when you think about it, makes the entirety of the Japanese poetic tradition seem like nothing more than a meeting of the Victorian Ladies Poetry Society.  La!  Most importantly, Hakutani is flatly wrong. Some of Japan’s most striking haiku touch on the ugliness of nature. For example:

A flying squirrel
munches a small bird’s bones
in a bare winter field 

~ Buson

Chapter 2 is called Basho and Haiku Poetics. The essay doesn’t so much as mention Wright. It examines Basho’s Haku for their “affinity with nature” 28-30, Confucianism 30-33, Buddhism 33-36, Zen 36-39, “juxtaposition of imagery” 39-41, and “unity of sentiments” 41-43. That’s all well and fine, but there’s a checklist feel to the essay’s progression and any explanation of Confucianism or Buddhism, for example, is of the most generic kind.  For instance:

A Zen point of view enables one to see things in humanity and nature more objectively. Zen teaches us to gain freedom from our ideas and desires. Basho expresses this notion in his haiku:

To be rained upon, in winter,
And not even an umbrella-hat, —
Well, well! 

From a human point of view, being rained on when you do not have an umbrella is uncomfortable. From nature’s perspective, however, rain provides water for all objects in nature; water, nourishing plants and animals, creates more life on earth. [p. 39]

First of all, it’s not even clear that this was Basho’s intention. Rain “in winter”?  What plants need a nourishing rain in winter, but then again perhaps Basho wrote this in a more tropical clime? We don’t know because Hakutani doesn’t do any of the work that might inform us. Out of curiosity, I checked the weather forecast for Atsuta, Japan (it’s presently the middle of January) and came up with the following:

atsuta forecast

So, it’s a safe bet that since Basho was walking to Atsuta (he wasn’t flying in from a northern clime) the rain was a comparatively warm one (compared to New England).

Another translation from here, reads:

[143]

no rain hat in the winter showers? well, well!

kasa mo naki / ware o shigururu ka / ko wa nan to

A later footnote adds the following literal translation and explanatory information: 

hat even is-not / me ! winter-shower ? / this as-for what

• Winter: winter showers (shigure*). 1684–85. In another version, the last line is literally “what what” (nan to nan to).

shigure (verb:shiguru): early winter showers. Brief, intermittent, cold showers or drizzle of early winter and sometimes late autumn. WINTER.

Matsuobasho-wkd offers the following translation:

笠もなきわれを時雨るるかこは何と 
kasa mo naki ware o shigururu ka ko wa nantono

rain hat
in the winter showers?
well, well!

~ Tr. Barnhill Written in 貞亨元年, Nozarashi Kiko, on the way to Atsuta. Winter of 1684/85

He was surprised by a sleet shower on the road.

shigure 時雨 is not simply a kigo for winter, it also expresses the important “fuuryuu 風流” furyu – “poetic elegance” in Japanese poetry. ko wa nan to – short for nan to nan to shows his great way with choosing words.

 Of the word fuuryuu, the site Jaanus has this to say:

Lit. refined taste. An aesthetic ideal implying traditional elegance, chic stylishness, creative ingenuity, and sometimes, eroticism . The term is derived from the equally broad Chinese, fengliuu 風流, which originally meant good etiquette, but eventually came to signify the opposite, and later referred to various types of beauty. In 8c Japan, fuuryuu was used to mean urbane manners but soon came to refer to things elegant, tasteful, or artistic. By the Heian period, fuuryuu could indicate either an elegant object or a cultivated person. In later centuries fuuryuuevolved several quite distinct meanings and usages. The word was used frequently in the poetry of the Zen priest *Ikkyuu 一休 (1394-1481) who, drawing upon the range of Chinese implications, used it to mean alternately the rarified beauty of monastic life, the essence of an eremitic existence, and the charm of sexual relations. The sensual side of fuuryuu emerged in the Momoyama period fad for the fuuryuu dance found in *Houkokusai 豊国祭 screens. More broadly, the concept of fuuryuu can be seen as the operative aesthetic in 17c genre painting *fuuzokuga 風俗画. The term fuuryuu was also used to distinguish popular styles of arts such as garden design, flower arrangement, and *chanoyu 茶湯. For example, the style of *wabi わび tea was often refered to as wabifuuryuu わび風流. In the Edo period literature of the floating world *ukiyo zoushi 浮世草子, also called fuuryuubon 風流本, fuuryuu implied an up-to-date stylishness, often with erotic implications. It is related to the aesthetic ideals of *sui 粋 and *iki いき. fuuryuu often appears in titles of *ukiyo-e 浮世絵 prints, particularly parody pieces *mitate-e 見立絵.fuuryuu was also applied to haiku 俳句 and to southern paintings *nanga 南画 where it implied a work based upon a past style. 

So, perhaps this shows some small measure of the cultural knowledge a Japanese reader can bring to a single haiku. Hakutani communicates none of it. And I’m also not convinced by Hakutani’s reading or translation  — is it Hakutani’s? But my overall argument with Hakutani is that he conveys none of the subtlety or complexity  of haiku. He prints a given haiku, then gives facile summaries that usually amount to no more than two or three sentences. He’ll write that a given haiku portrays Basho’s loneliness, and “that a living being is connected to another”, and that therefore the haiku reminds him of the loneliness in a Langston Hughes poem — the kind of thing I’d expect from a grade-school book report. But why stop there? Surely it also reminds him of every other poem, in just about every other language, that’s ever been about “loneliness” and ‘connected beings’.

His next two essays — Yone Noguchi and Japanese Poetics and Ezra Pound, Imagism, and Haiku — examine the poetry of Noguchi, then make the circumstantial argument that it was Noguchi who was responsible for Pound’s  theories of imagism — “Direct treatment of the thing … (or object)”.

  • Noguchi was born in Japan and learned English as a second language. He eventually emigrated to California and being a deep admirer of western poetry, began writing it. (While Noguchi’s poetry isn’t all that good, one does have to admire anyone who can write passable poetry in foreign language).

But to the first of the two essays. Hakutani’s weakness as a reader of poetry comes to the fore when he attempts to trace the influence of Japanese poetic aesthetic in Noguchi’s poetry.

…more importantly [Noguchi] is suggesting that Japanese poets always go to nature to make human life mmeaningful to make “humanity more intensive”. They share artistic susceptibility where,as Noguchi writes, “the sunlight falls on the laughter of woods and waters, where the birds sing my the flowers.” This mystical affinity between humanity and nature, between the beauty of love and the beauty of natural phenomena, is best stated in this verse by Noguchi:

It’s accident to exist as a flower or a poet;
A mere twist of evolution but from the same force;
I see no form in them but only beauty in evidence;
It’s the single touch of their imagination to get the embodiment of a poet or a flower:
To be a poet is to be a flower,
To be the dancer is to make the singer sing.

The fusion of humanity and nature, and the intensity of love and beauty with which it occurs, can be amply seen in haiku… [p. 54]

Yes, the fusion of humanity and nature can be amply seen in haiku, but it can also be amply seen in poetry straight back to Chaucer (let alone Blake or Whitman). Noguchi is writing firmly in the Western tradition — no need to reference haiku. And there’s nothing uniquely Zen in a poet’s desiring union with nature, though Hakutani seems to think so (as if that’s all that Zen were about). A page later, Hakutani will claim that personification and anthropomorphism is somehow a unique indication of haiku’s influence:

An empty cup whence the light of passion is drunk! —
To-day a sad rumour passes through the tree
A chill wind borne by the stream,
The waves shiver in pain;
Where now the cicada’s song long and hot?

Such images as chilly wind and the shivering waves are not used to signal the passing of summer. Rather the chilly wind and the shivering waves themselves constitute the passing of summer. Similarly, such phrases as “the light of passion” and “the cicada’s song long and hot” are not metonymies of summer, thereby expressing nostalgia or some sort of sentiment about summer; instead they are the summer itself. In Noguchi’s poetry, then, as in classic haiku, poetry and sensation are spontaneously joined in one and the same, so that there is scarcely any room left for rationalism or moralism. [p. 56]

  • Personification n. A figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstractions are endowed with human qualities or are represented as possessing human form, as in Hunger sat shivering on the road or Flowers danced about the lawn. Also called prosopopeia.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare:

“When well-appareled April on the heel
Of limping winter treads.”

Was Shakespeare also influenced by classic haiku?  

Hakutani then goes on to assert that Pound was influenced by Noguchi. Pound was strongly influenced by Chinese and Japanese aesthetics (as far as he understood them); and Pound’s famous haiku “In a Station of the Metro” put into practice what he learned — a “Direct treatment of the thing”. (Stevens and Williams, respectively, would later write:”Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself” and “No ideas but in things”.) So, if Noguchi was a  primary influence on Pound’s poetics then by extension Noguchi is partly responsible for Imagism and western poetry’s modernist movement (hence Hakutani’s interest in the subject and his effort to trace the influence back to haiku). He highlights some of the apparent affinities between Pound and Noguchi’s poetics (which may or may not indicate familiarity between the poets), but only waits until the end, with a single closing paragraph, to make his central argument:

Noguchi’s English poems had been widely circulated in London well before September 1914, when Pound’s vorticism essay appeared, and Noguchi’s essay on hokku in Rhythm and his book The Spirit of Japanese Poetry were published in January 1913 and March 1914, respectively. The material in the essay and the book was delivered in a series of lectures during his stay in English from December 1913 to April 1914. In these circumstances it is hardly conceivable that the imagists did not acquaint themselves with Noguchi’s ideas. Even though Pound’s modernist theory might partly have derived from other sources, one can scarcely overlook the direct link between haiku and Pound’s imagism through Noguchi.

Yes, I suppose anything is possible. We go from “hardly conceivable” to “might partly have” to “one can scarcely overlook the direct link”. Unfortunately, the only evidence to support Hakutani’s assertions is circumstantial (it’s typical academic legerdemain to skip so lightly from the vacuous “hardly conceivable” to a therefore “direct link”). Hakutani overplays his hand, and it’s unnecessary. But what does any of this have to do with Richard Wright?

Chapter 5 finally begins a discussion of Wright, a ten page essay called Haiku and Haiku Criticism in English. This essay efficiently enumerates the haiku books Wright and others might have read. Hakutani’s version of examining criticism of Haiku in English literally amounts to nothing more than quoting, verbatim, two pages of Higginson (which are actually some of the more insightful passages on Wright).

The next five essays are essentially “the book” you thought you were buying: Wright’s Haiku as English Poems, Wright’s Haiku and Classic Haiku Poetics, Wright’s Haiku and Modernist Poetics, Wright’s Haiku and Africa, Wright’s Haiku as Senryu. What’s absent in these chapters is any sense of Wright’s personality or of his place, as a living breathing poet, among other poets of the day. There’s no human interest. As is Hakutani’s habit, each essay is a checklist of observations — in this haiku we see X, in this haiku we see Y, etc… The comments tend toward the utterly banal:

The path in the woods
Is barred by spider webs
Beaded with spring rain.
(Haiku 76)

On which Hakutani writes:

“The Path in the Woods” portraying a scene of spring where insects live in their natural environment, creates an image of beauty. [p. 92]

And that’s that. That’s the flavor of all the comments from this distinguished scholar. The banal summaries add nothing to our understanding of Wright and they often miss the deeper sublimity of the poems:

In a drizzling rain
In a flower shop’s doorway,
A girl sells herself.
(Haiku 415)

The dreary scene of a drizzling rain is brightened by a flower shop, but the unhappy vision of a prostitute would make the viewer disillusioned. [p. 148]

He seems to completely miss the comparison between the girls and flowers, both for sale. And what is being compared to what? And when Hakutani’s not telling us what’s already obvious he seems at a loss, making observations that aren’t so much obvious as just plain sophomoric:

Wright also learned how to express loneliness from Issa, who wrote haiku such as this:

For you fleas too,
The night must be long,
It must be lonely.
(Issa)

Wright composed the following:

For you, O gulls,
I order slaty waters
And this leaden sky!
(Haiku 2)

While Issa employs the image of a flea to express human loneliness, Wright describes gulls, slaty waters, and leaden sky to create a visual effect of loneliness. [p. 111]

The notion that Wright learned how to express loneliness from Issa is just aggravatingly absurd — but Hakutani has to write something and at first glance — maybe — the assertion looks substantive. A page later Hakutani will claim that “Wright substituted English punctuation marks for cutting words. For example” Hakutani writes “the exclamation point at the end of the first line is a substitute for the cutting word, ya, a sigh of admiration:

Look, look, look!
These are all the violets
Left by last night’s rain!
(Haiku 435)

The assertion is beyond silly. As if every poet who ever wrote a haiku in English decided: “Hey! Why don’t I substitute punctuation marks for kireji! I wasn’t even going to use punctuation marks!” But it’s this sort of assertion (which I can only assign to his being at a loss for anything better) that repeatedly mars Hakutani’s essays. Again and again he’ll link this or that word, image or sentiment to the influence of Japanese poetics, sensibility and culture when there’s simply no need to. It’s forced, concocted, and distorts Wright’s poetic practice. For instance, how much did Wright really know about or understand Zen? Hakutani never discusses the matter and yet, in a footnote, he can confidently assert the following:

As my anger ebbs,
The spring stars grow bright again
And the wind returns.

In this haiku, Wright tries to attain the state of mu, nothingness, by controlling his emotion. This state of nothingness, however, is not synonymous with a state of void, but leads to what Wright calls in Black Power “a total attitude toward life.” “So violent and fuckle,” he writes, “was nature that [the African] could not delude himself into feeling that he, a mere man, was at the center of the universe.” In this haiku, Wright relieves himself of anger, he begins to see the stars “grow bright again” and the wind return. Only when he attains a state of nothingness and achieves a “total attitude toward life” can he perceive nature with his enlightened senses. [p. 197]

Zen in English LiteratureWithout any background or biographical support, the explanation could just as easily be cut from whole cloth. There’s no compelling reason to think that Wright’s haiku drew on such an intimate knowledge of Zen. Here’s what I mean: Among the many books R.H. Blythe wrote on Oriental poetics was Zen In English Literature and Oriental Classics in which he extracted haiku/zen-like passages from poets and writers of the western canon. Does this mean that Keats or Blake studied Zen or that Zen influenced their poetry? No. It means that poets and writers have realized the same insights without the Zen.  Zen systematized a certain kind of philosophy, but much (if not most) of Zen’s sentiments are not unique.

tao and the bardOr consider a little book I recently picked up on a lark: The Tao and the Bard: A Conversation. It’s a great little book. And what’s eerie (and amazing) is how Shakespeare’s phrasing and thought so closely parallels Lao Tsu’s.

Lao Tsu:

Out of tao comes the One,
out of one come two,
out of two, three.
From three all things come.

Shakespeare:

Why railest thou on thy birth? the heaven and earth?
Since birth, and heaven, and earth, all three do meet
In thee at once. [p. 68]

If a distinguished scholar like Hakutani got hold of the book, one wonders whether he’d soon be adumbrating Shakespeare’s indebtedness to Lao Tsu and the philosophy of Toaists (as if poets weren’t capable of sublime insight without Zen or Taoism). It’s nonsense; and a book like The Tao and the Bard demonstrates why. The difference of course is that Wright read Blythe and was exposed to the philosophy of Zen — but to what degree? Japanese scholars, even among themselves, debate the degree to which Basho’s haiku are really indebted to Zen.

The bottom line is that Hakutani makes assertions that are, for all we know, entirely baseless. That makes his insights into Wright’s poetry questionable (a more responsible author might simply draw attention to the parallels between Wright’s poetry and Zen). To ascribe Wright’s insights to “Zen” risks distorting and even diminishing Wright’s poetic accomplishment.

I can’t recommend the book, let alone for the $50.00 dollar asking price. The quality of the scholarship doesn’t merit it. If you can pick up the book for five dollars or less, then maybe. In the meantime, I’ve ordered the following from Amazon:

The Other World

 My hope is that this will be the book that Hakutani’s book should have been.

The Art of Haiku by Stephen Addiss

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

Art of Haiku

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

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

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

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

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

Translated: Takafumi Sato and William R. Nelson

Snow melting —
the village is full
of children

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

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children

Translated: Robert Hass

snow melts
and the village is flooded
by children

Translated: PDF

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

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

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

Birchsong ❧ A Review

A Review of Birchsong

And the excuse it gives me to digress on anthimeria, the difficulty of accentual-syllabic verse, Animism, Mary Oliver, etc…

Here’s the book that’s been burning a hole in my conscience. This was forwarded to me in April. I promised to review the book and right about that time I was swamped with work. The book is Birchsong Poetry Centered in Vermont, edited by Alice Wolf Gilborn, Rob Hunter, Carol Cone, Brenda Nicholson, Monica Stillman. If you’re wondering whether there are more editors than authors, there are not. The book is an anthology of fifty-six contemporary poets “intimately acquainted with Vermont”. I’m not one of them. I don’t normally like anthologies, but this is a book to which I would have submitted poetry.

Whether because of the editors’ tastes or because poets in Vermont are more predisposed to draw on the natural world, readers familiar with New England (and the world evoked by Robert Frost) will recognize the landscape and certainly be reminded of the poet. A sense of season and place is strongly evoked in nearly all the poems. Maybe it reflects my own predilection, but I prefer the earthbound imagery of these poets to the more discursive abstractions typical of many (if not most) contemporary poems.

The very first poem, Ah, Spring, by Pamela Ahlen, lets the reader know what they’re in for. They’ll be muddy knee’d, caught in the rain, and end up with a thorn in the thumb. These poems are all about a state where the total population isn’t even half the nearest city.

sweet meadow pranked with green
the red-winged blackbird
yessing a sweet potato sky.

But Mama Nature’s playing
two-stick tricks, paradiddle
pandemonium all shake, rattle

and rain, all flash-frozen roof.
Sweet Mama’s come undone,
her arctic face unsheathed…

What do I like about this poem? What can you learn from it? First off, she uses my favorite poetic technique, anthimeria, to turn ‘yes’, normally a noun, into a verb: “the red-winged blackbird yessing a sweet potato sky.” Historically, especially during the Elizabethan era, the poem was a chance for the poet to show off his ingenuity with language. The coinage of new words and phrases was a point of pride. That original burst of linguistic ingenuity flavored poems for the next 300 years. If new words or phrases weren’t being coined, the poem was nevertheless understood as intrinsically different from prose precisely because its brevity and concentration all but demanded linguistic and metaphoric ingenuity. If not that, then how was the poem justified? So, even though Keats (and later Frost) were no longer coining new phrases and latinisms, they both took great pride in the linguistic ingenuity of their meter and rhyme.

That’s something utterly missing in the vast majority of contemporary poems (which really do little, in terms of language, to justify their existence as anything other than a minor species of prose). So, when I see the kind of linguistic play and inventiveness demonstrated by Ahlen, I enjoy and admire it. I hold it up to the light like a new-stamped coin, all shiny and golden. It’s for poems like these that I write and read poetry.

I also like wildflowers; and Ahlen, in her other two poems, revels in them. I would write more but there are fifty-six poets in this book and 50 of them are liable to wonder why I didn’t mention them. I honestly think there’s something in all their poems worth recommending.

Another enjoyable technique you will find in these poems is an inventive use of imagery. Neil Shepard closes his poem, The Source, with a nice example:

Down at the bottom of the pasture
Where birches bend under all this
White weight, the swamp begins.
And nothing but willows grow
In the boggy hummocks, iced up now,
Their roots lifted up
As if trying to take a first, slow step
Out of the rime and ooze.

To me, it’s those last three lines that ring with the magic of poetry. The poet transforms the land, not just by telling us what he sees, but by going just a little further than Pound’s call for the “direct treatment of the ‘thing’.” Animism is probably the oldest religion in the world – the doctrine that all natural objects and the universe itself have souls. It’s my opinion that the best and greatest poets are all animists. Everyone to an extent, I think, imbues the landscape with their inner emotional lives. When we’re in a bleak mood, the fields look desolate and the woods look dark. When we’re upbeat, the grass is green and forest is light.

Poets go a little further, the best being able to capture our inner lives in the natural world:

From Robert Frost’s Bereft:

“Leaves got up in a coil and hissed
Blindly struck at my knee and missed”

From EA Robinson’s Sonnet The Sheaves:

“A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.”

TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky|
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Neil Shepard’s poem and imagery is written in that tradition. He possesses the poet’s ability to transform what he sees, to imbue it with his own inner emotional landscape, and write it. And although I think Dianalee Velie’s poem, Maple, could stand to be a little subtler, I still appreciate the lovely metaphor at the heart of the poem.

…now the big maple is down
The six sap buckets, once
clinging to her like children,

brimming with her collected
nectar, lay orphaned
in the sugar-lot…

This is a kind of extended metaphor that I see all too little in modern poetry – it doesn’t always work and may seemed forced, but I admire the poet (the poet-animist) who tries. After all, the extended metaphor is at the heart of nearly every great poem prior and into the 20th century.

Although I didn’t pointedly scour each and every poem, all but two of them appear to be free verse. I find that to be a disappointment, but the quality of the verse holds up in other ways. There are some poems that appear to be syllabic, meaning that each line keeps to the same number of syllables, but I’ve never been persuaded by that kind of “formalism”. Syllabics is to accentual-syllabics what staying off the sidewalk’s cracks is to tight-rope walking. It’s a whole different game. When the poet misses a step, the fall goes further and the landing is harder.

Jean L. Kreiling gives the reader a Shakespearean Sonnet and does it with the skill of a poet who knows what she’s doing.

Wishing for Snow

If only winter’s knife-edged cold would bend
and break and finally disintegrate
in tiny crystal fragments, we’d defend
our driveways, and our walks, and celebrate
our strength. If only this unyielding sky
would soften and dissolve into a mist
of icy flakes, we’d raise an awestruck eye
to watch their fall. But winter likes to twist
the knife, to maximize its penetration
and coolly signal its supremacy…

I have my complaints. For instance, the adjective unyielding is metrical padding and unnecessary given that the same idea is implied by the poet’s plea that the sky “soften and dissolve”. The phrase “we’d raise an awestruck eye” also feels contrived, in a 19th century sort of way – something for the sake of the meter and rhyme. These are the challenges that make rhyming accentual-syllabic verse a walk on a tight-rope; they’re obstacles that free verse poets just don’t confront.

However, there’s praise for Kreiling too. This is a poet who thinks beyond the line. The majority of the lines are enjambed and that gives the poem flexibility and momentum. There’s nothing wooden about this verse. Some close readers might even suggest that the shifting and moving lines are trying to invoke the wind-blown weather that the poem pleas for. I would hesitate to make that interpretation without reading more of Kreiling’s poems.

Kreiling’s next poem, To a Hummingbird, also written in Iambic Pentameter, is near perfect:

…Please teach me how to hover weightlessly,
exquisitely escaping gravity,
and how to reach the speed of shimmering
and shapelessness, so that my movements sing…

My only complaint are the short lines that begin and end the poem: the first line: Oh, blur of bird!; and the last: with pleasures blurred. The exclamation, Oh, strikes me as a bit precious and quaint these days, while the grammatical inversion of the last line (as though solely for the sake of rhyme) feels old fashioned. They feel out of place, to me, given how Kreiling otherwise so beautifully unites a modern vernacular with meter and rhyme – no easy task.

Anyway, these are some the things I think about when I read poetry.

Not all the poems are specifically about Vermont. I assume that some poets are represented because they live in Vermont. Regina Murray Brault gives us a nice little poem that could have been written anywhere. It begins:

In the trailer park
where diapers snap on clotheslines
like flags in semaphore
the child cradled in my arms
lies swaddled in
the rhythms of her world.

She hears a thrust song
from the thicket
and searches with her eyes.
Bird I tell her
and wish her wings…

The tone veers uncomfortably close to mawkishness, but I like the little touches of imagery – the diapers snapping like “flags in semaphore”. And this gives me an opportunity to fire off a shot at William Logan (who’s acumen I worship near idolatry). God knows what Logan would say about some, if not many, of the passages in this anthology. His critique might echo his criticism of Mary Oliver – a “bland, consolatory poetry [that] is a favorite of people who don’t like poetry”. But what Logan criticizes in a poet like Oliver is analogous to what critics have said of Vivaldi. (You readers who listen to Jazz or modern music will have to substitute your own analogy.) Stravinsky once quipped that Vivaldi was the only composer to have written the same concerto over a thousand times. And, in a sense, if you’ve listened to one concerto by Vivaldi, you’ve heard them all. The emotional range from one to the next is as varied as the yellow in dandelions. It was said that Vivaldi could write an entire concerto faster than his copyists could copy them. His trademark was the sequence (or sequencing). This is when a musical phrase is repeated again and again (essentially) up the scale and down the scale.

But, know what? – no composer, before or after, could do sequencing the way Vivaldi could. As another critic once wrote (paraphrasing): It’s true that Vivaldi’s music might be one sequence after another, but they’re good sequences. Similarly, it’s true that a Mary Oliver poem might be the same one written a thousand times, but what’s good in one is good in another. Here’s what I mean: all of Oliver’s poems, I’ve noticed, are really composed of two very simple types of metaphor – the simile and the prepositional metaphor. (As with the sequence in music, the prepositional metaphor “is the quickest and easiest kind of metaphor to construct” [The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms, p. 181].

Here is the simile (from Their Wings) [italics are mine]:

In summer the bats
fly like dots and dashes

Here is the prepositional metaphor (from the same poem):

I carried it off into the woods and laid it

in a mossy place, in an old stump, where it died
heart-thumping and hissing
in the slump of its wings

What the sequence was to Vivaldi, the prepositional metaphor is to Mary Oliver. I think that Logan misses this when he is befuddled by Oliver’s popularity. Yes, Oliver has written the same poem a thousand times and, yes, they are full of the formulaic structure that defines the simile and the propositional metaphor, but they are good similes and they are good prepositional metaphors. They are the stuff of poetry; and if readers don’t read Oliver for her intellectual rigor or depth, reading her for her poetry is every bit as good a reason (and something Logan could stand to learn from in his own poetry). Contrary to Logan’s snarky dismissal, the readers who read Oliver are precisely those who like poetry. There’s something to enjoy in her lines that is missing from, as far as I know, almost every other modern poet. There’s a reason why she can make a living writing poetry and Logan can’t, except by criticizing it. Basta,

If you read Birchsong, you will find some of this same poetry:

Jack Gundy, Spring Harvest:

Their voices marry
with the thin blood of trees
boiling down
to sweet liquid amber.

Arlene Distler, The Case Against Mums:

I prefer autumn’s tawdry mix
of unkempt rows
,
sunflower’s swollen prose,
stripped-down lily’s
arcs of green

turned shadowy wisps…

Partridge Boswell, Just I Remember I Knew You When:

…Could he hear his own
lightly dredged laughter at parties, cynical
lemon twist of luck he wished a recent graduate

brace enough to admit she was trying her uncalloused
hand at short fiction? Could he taste the gelignite
of early fame
rising in the back of his throat…

Ivy Schweitzer, Snow Day, February 14,

They come, then, smoldering
orange petals with blazing yellow
throats, pitch black at the center,
erect three lobbed stigma
ringed by six slender stamen,
their anthers dusty with pollen and curved daintily outward,
splayed cups of exultation
penned in for their own protection.

Naturally, readers will find some examples better or worse than others, but this all stuff of which poetry is made.

However, having written this much, here is what I like most about the poetry in this anthology – and the kinds of poems I like best: the poetry of the concrete, tactile, and sensual, poems joyfully aware (as I wrote at the outset) of season and place. Here is the close to Janice Miller Potter’s poem Potato Paradise:

One evening, then, when burnt yellow vines
had fallen in tangles upon the ground,
you pulled the fork from where it stood
like a scarecrow among the corn,
and called me to come and to share –
you could not harvest this work alone.
Mapping a circle around a stem,
you plunged sharp tines into the earth
and gently parted its fragrant threads.
Where one potato eye had lain,
now lay a multitude of dusky forms.
So on we fared – with fork and with hands,
exclaiming at our row of new potatoes.
From slivers, I sang the miracle of girth.
But you, with your tenderness for lesser gods,
bade me to gather in the small ones, too.

If this kind of poetry is to your liking as well, then you will find more like it in Birchsong. As the subtitle states, these poems are Poetry Centered in Vermont. If you live in Vermont, then reading this anthology will be like an afternoon talk with your neighbors about familiar things; and if you used to live in Vermont, then the poems will feel like a visit to a familiar place with its cold winters, short summers and the ever present presence of nature:

Harvest Time by Kimberly Ward

Red moon this morning.
I am walking barefoot
in puddles and find
the hogs have been killed
uphill.

In terms of the book itself, the poems are beautifully presented, a poem to a page, readable and accompanied by the occasional artwork of Betsy B. Hubner. The height and width of the book is generous, meaning that the poems don’t feel cramped. There are a 112 pages and brief biographies of all the contributing poets is included in the final pages. Enjoy.

Published by:

P.O. Box 175
Danby, VT 05739

Riches for One • Poverty for Two

That’s the title of a new collection of poetry by Jenny Rossi. She wrote me, maybe three weeks ago, asking if I’d review her poetry. I tried to persuade her that I’m a nobody, that I don’t review free verse, but she played the Vermont card (and I’m a sucker for Vermont poets) and she promised to write a poem for the blog that wasn’t free verse. We all have our price. I feel conflicted about reprinting entire poems, but with poems so short it feels silly to extract two or three sentences (half the poem).

·
If the poet is writing traditional poetry, then I enjoy gauging how well he or she has used rhyme, end-stopping, enjambment, meter and the overall form. These are hard to pull off while still writing a poem that feels natural and inevitable. The free verse poet, on the other hand, only has to consider content. The words and lines can fall wherever she wants them to. Free verse is free.
·

But the better free verse poets distinguish their poetry through imagery, metaphor, figurative language, clarity and originality of thought, internal rhyme and even flirtation with meter. So it’s on that basis that I read Rossi’s poems. Here’s the first poem in her book:

The first thing that strikes me is that we have a poet with a unique way of looking at the world, she has a light touch, is deft and has a sense of humor. I already like her. I always know I’m in trouble if the first poem in a book starts with a “deep thoughts” quote from another poet, writer or philosopher, launches into a poem as weighted with meaningfulness as a five gallon pale of joint compound, and ends with a self-important footnote. We have, thankfully, none of that here. The poem is even shaped like a set of stairs.

I like how Rossi describes “your steps”. They’re the sound of someone wading through a sea of socks. That kind of simile shows a gifted poet at work. It’s original and humorous. The other thing I like is that she’s the first poet I’ve reviewed who plays on our sense of sound. The imagery of every other poet I’ve reviewed is nearly exclusively visual. She dives into another aural image when she compares the “soft thuds” to “shaking hands with the wall very gently”. This is fun stuff and the similes are original. The poem ends with a dash of wry humor and that sets the tone for the rest of the book.

There used to be a poet I had a huge crush on when I was a teenager. As with all my very best crushes, she was unobtainable. Her name was Nika Turbina. She was a Russian poet (of the Soviet Union) and was a child prodigy. I still have clippings from newspaper articles about her in my old poetry sketchbooks. Yes, this was a serious crush. I wish I could have met her. She died in 2002, just 28 years old. Here’s a poem she wrote when she was 8 years old (I copied it into my sketchbook all those years ago) and, in fact, I still have her first book:

Heavy are my verses—
Stones uphill.
I will carry them up to the crag,
The resting place.
I will fall face down in the weeds,
Tears will not do.
I will rend my strophe—
The verse will burst out crying.
Pain cuts into my palm—
Nettles!
The day’s bitter taste turns
All to words.

That’s hard, that’s rough and that’s Russian, even from an eight year old girl. But there was something about Rossi’s poem, College debt that reminded me of it.

It was like reading Nika Turbina with a sense of humor. Rossi displays that same gift for conceit (poetic definition) that Turbina had. The poetic conceit is defined as “an elaborate poetic image or a far-fetched comparison of very dissimilar things“. This, in fact, is a very old and traditional technique that was very common among Elizabethan poets, especially Donne, Herbert and Herrick and it’s a technique and talent that makes poetry really fun to read and distinguishes it, in many ways, from prose. John Donne’s poem, The Flea, is probably the most famous poetic conceit in all of English poetry. And it’s this talent for the poetic conceit that separates Rossi from the usual run-of-the-mill poets publishing in the dreary thousands. How she transforms the eating of paper off the floor into a metaphor for naïve poetic ambitions is a pleasure to behold. She sustains the metaphor from beginning to end and that too takes some genuine talent and poetic imagination. What’s not to love as her conceit careens through false pregnancy and her giving birth to bright, appreciative faces?

There are so many poems, little gems, I want to quote and show off. This is the way you do this, and this the way to do that. Sometimes Rossi writes a poem for no other reason than to revel in her gift for metaphor and conceit:

Who hasn’t tasted the same butter in the girlfriend or boyfriend we can’t live without but are better off forgetting. The taste! But as in so many of Rossi’s poem, it’s the light and deft touch, humorous and wry, that gives the poems personality and memorability. She’s not the kind of poet who speaks from the lectern, her poems a panorama of wide screen ego. She’s not one fainting wrist away from the psychiatrist’s couch. Reading many of her poems is like visiting with a charming narcissist over a latté in a Vermont café.

But, to be fair, all is not lightness and humor. When Rossi writes to cut, her poems change.

I sympathize with this poem. When I read it I say to myself, hell yes! However, and though the plain-spoken poem contrasts well with the others, it would be forgettable if not for the final lines. The image of the “quiet child/with loud bruises cracking/underneath the pain of thin cotton” is masterful. The synesthesia of cracking bruises and “the pain of thin cotton” communicates the child’s suffering with a compression that marks the poet apart from mere writers. I can’t tell you how many “award winning” poets I’ve read, including Pulitzer Prize winning poets, who should consider retiring in triumph the day they ever write lines like these. One also senses that Rossi is a fan of Dickinson. There’s more than a whiff of the older poet in Rossi’s.

The dark side to Rossi’s humor makes itself felt in a prose poem like Lessons from the Middle Class:

To me, the poem falls flat. There’s nothing in a poetic sense that recommends it (to me), and the humor, such as it is, feels snide and sarcastic. One wonders what feelings compelled her to write the poem and then what pleased her so much that she decided to include it. In the better poems, one can guess such things, but in this poem/paragraph I’m left scratching my head. This isn’t the only prose poem in the collection. Another called Just don’t tell your mother you’re in love, ends with the memorable lines “your mother will shake my hand…when you come to my place, heavy scent of pine and linen burring to your sweaters, her words like safety pins clinging tight, very nice but a bit strange” — memorable because of the imaginative simile her words like safety pins. However, reading her prose poems reminds me that, in truth, every one of her poems could be a prose poem. There is nothing in the way of internal rhyme or rhythm that distinguishes her lineated poems from her prose poems. And if I were to fault her for something she doesn’t attempt (which isn’t exactly fair) it’s that there is really no music in her lines.

She doesn’t use language to elevate the poem. I never get that transcendent feeling when reading a modern poet like Furlinghetti or a poet like Dickinson, when the sum of their poems exceed their parts: their imagery, language and structure. The sum of Rossi’s poems never seem to exceed their parts. They sometimes feel more like displays of cleverness without emotional content. They lack gravitas; and I hate myself for writing that, but they do. Her poems, as I wrote from the beginning, are refreshing because they don’t posture as testaments to heartbreaking genius. On the other hand, one wonders if there’s anything that would cause her to sit with a poem for more than a few sentences and to shape her words into something more than prose — some grief, joy or moment of awe that might break through her insouciant humor and cleverness — traits that seem to defend and protect a deeper vulnerability – perhaps a poet like the eight year old Nika Turbina who, in one poem, expressed a more vulnerable self than in the entirety of Rossi’s poems.

But this is no way to end a review.

This is a first book of poetry by a new poet and no poet should be judged by her first effort. If this were her last book, then what it lacks would exceed its successes. As a first book, her successes outweigh the limitations. Read her for her sense of humor. Read her to be captivated by lines where imagery and figurative language promise real talent and poetry. Read her over a latté and you might feel like you’re engaging in a lunch-break tête-à-tête with an engaging friend.

Jenny Rossi is a poet living in Burlington, Vermont and her new book can be read at Deadly Chaps.

Horsegod: Collected Poems by Robert Bagg

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  • In exchange for a complimentary copy, I expressed interest in reviewing poetry by poets “in exile” – the self-published. Specifically, I was looking for poets who trade in meter or rhyme, the disciplines of traditional poetry. This book, Horsegod, by Robert Bragg, was the first book I received. What a great way to start.

Me? A reviewer?

And in addition to this book, I have two more books to review. I ask myself: What if it were my own poetry? No poet wants a comment that discourages readers from reading their work.

I favor criticism that analyzes poetry on its own terms rather than according to the tastes of the reviewer. For an idea of what I mean, check out my post on Marjorie Perloff’s criticism. (What poet wants to read that his or her rhymes are too simplistic when that is precisely the kind of rhymes they are pursuing.) Poets make aesthetic choices, and my own philosophy is not to criticize them for that – but to observe.

Let’s see how I do.

About Robert Bagg

Just a couple words, because there’s a perfectly good biography of Bagg at his own website. The thing worth noting (and to my profound envy) is that he met and studied with Robert Frost.

At Amherst he had the good fortune to study with Walker Gibson and James Merrill and to alarm Robert Frost, who chided him for writing about sex, noting that Yeats waited until old age to broach that aspect of experience.

I don’t know to what extent he studied with Frost or the others, but just to have met the great poet sends me into a tailspin of jealousy. Also worth noting is the experience Bagg brings to his poetry.

After a semester at Harvard he earned a Ph.D. in English at the University of Connecticut, taught briefly at the University of Washington (1963-65), and then for the rest of his career at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst where he served as Department Chair from 1986 to 1992. His teaching specialties were English Romantic Poetry, Modern Poetry, and Great Books from Homer to Hemingway.

A Limber Lope

Horsegod by Robert BaggTo give you an idea of the kind of poetry you can expect to find, here are the final lines of a Sonnet called Caption for a Wire Photo:

(…)machine gun slugs
seek out his jacket and rip up her dress;

exposed while sprinting for a house safe
from this blood-starved cancerous regime—
enraged by a remission all too brief—
their drab lives shed like debris from a dream

they click a neutral camera and point-blank rifle,
feel a shrill heaviness, and are forever still.

The rhyme scheme is that of a Shakespearean Sonnet but Bagg dispenses with an accentual/syllabic meter – normally Iambic Pentameter. He opts for a syllabic line (counting the number of syllables per line). His rhymes combine true rhymes, slant rhymes and wrenched rhymes – reminding one of Emily Dickinson’s approach.

For this reason, his verse will read as rough, muscular, and knotted. But there is maturity in his choices – he’s  an experienced poet whose stylistic choices are controlled and deliberate. He avoids an overly end-stopped verse, doubtlessly made easier by the use of a syllabic line and a variety of half-rhymes. The overall effect is of a poet who blends free verse and traditional poetry. A visit Bagg’s homepage confirms as much:

Bagg also often takes advantage of the freer practice of the twentieth-century, since the “freedom” it encourages allows for plunging ahead when necessary with little heed for decorum.

It does grant the poet greater latitude, but also surrenders some of the effects unique to meter (accentual syllabic) and true rhyme. Nevertheless, Bagg is a model for the younger poet. There is a middle ground between the traditional and free verse aesthetic.

I suspect Bagg is commenting on his own poetics in this seemingly whimsical poem Girl with Her Pigtails Crooked.

Her left leg lagged behind the right,
a firm step followed by a limp.
Her pigtails haggled down her neck
like lines of tangled hemp.

I watched the shameless way she lamed,
She needn’t limp so lumpily,
I thought, so I called down to her,
“Hey, you don’t need to limp!”

She let her hair have its head —
it went its separate ways—like rope
let out to trim a coming storm
She stepped into a limber lope.

Think of the pigtailed girl as this little poem and Bagg as the boy who calls down to her: “Hey, you don’t need to limp!”  He lets his rhyme and meter, like the girl’s hair, go its separate ways, like “rope let out to trim a coming storm”. His little poem steps into a limber lope, a characterization that could apply to all of his poems.

Some Brief Narration

One of the showpieces in Bagg’s book is a narrative poem called The Tandem Ride. You can read the poem in its entirety by visiting Bagg’s webpage: Robert Bagg: Poems, Greek Plays, Essays, Novels, Memoir. The narrative poem is a genre almost altogether forgotten and, though I may be wrong, I suspect that poetry journals are largely to blame. While the great variety of journals provide a venue to an equally great variety of poets, their interest in poetry is a very limited kind: short; something that will fit politely fit the page.

Some journals limit poems to as little as 25 lines, at most, two pages, but reluctantly. Many of my own poems are eliminated simply by virtue of their length.

The results are obvious. The birth of the poetry journal, of which there are hundreds, coincides with the POETRY Anthologyubiquity of the short lyric. The long, sturdy narratives of the romantics and Victorians gave way to short lyrics and confessionals that neatly fit the pages of the poetry journal. Poetry Magazine recently issued a collection of poems been published in their pages since their founding in the early 20th Century – The POETRY Anthology, 1912-2002. All but a handful of the poems fit neatly on the page.

Nearly all the poems hum along in the first person or first person plural.

Reading POETRY’s anthology reminds me of the dusty old anthologies from the Victorian Era, proudly full of competent period pieces and timely poets – all of which and all of whom are forgotten by the next generation. They’re easy to find. Just look in any used bookstore. You can almost smell them.

Although I haven’t searched exhaustively, I’ve only found one or two stories in nearly five hundred pages of poetry (all among the very first poems published by the periodical) and they are also among the few not written in the first person. These are the better known poems. One is by Robert Frost – his The Code – Heroics. The other is by T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. As the 20th Century progressed, poetic ambition seems to have grown smaller and ever more forgettable.

Bagg’s effort is a welcome departure. His Keatsian or Spencerian stanzas (depending on how they’re appraised) nicely carry the narration forward. They’re enjambment, made easier through the use of off-rhymes, helps the poem succeed where others fail.

She pushes a glass door open a crack,
emerges from a tropical greenhouse,
shoes squishing, then pauses – almost goes back-
aware her sweat-drenched translucent blouse
would amuse us, or might even arouse
us more than her breasts did normally.
She’d never say, Come on to me, guys, now’s
the right time!
— but I sensed viscerally
she wasn’t the same girl we had chased up that tree.

This is  a stanza of almost perfect rhyme (greenhouse and blouse is a wrenched rhyme), but the content and language are thoroughly modern. So many modern poets who write with meter and rhyme seem unable to combine the disciplines with a modern vernacular. Once again, the lack of meter (I don’t normally consider syllabics a meter) and off-rhymes give the poem an almost free verse feel. In some cases, the combined effects buries the rhymes. It’s a deliberate effect. Robert Bagg Some will like it, some won’t. Don’t come to his poetry looking for soaring melody. His voice is modern and rigorous.

In this book, at least, it’s not until the very last pages that this narrative impulse reappears and then on a much smaller scale. That’s somewhat of a disappointment to me, but may not be to other readers. Another disappointment is that the subsequent poems are primarily first person. Some address a “you”, but they all have the feel of a poet discussing himself. I wouldn’t call them confessional, though that term can be broad. There’s an element of confessionalism in all of his poems – but never self-pity.

The Heart of Bagg’s Poetry: His Imagery

And now we really get into the meat of Bagg’s poetry.

Bagg’s imagery is  full of physicality and motion, is full of the body. As in his imagery, so too in his poems. He his not a poet, like Keats, at ease with ease, contemplation or sensuality (all qualities that later poets during the Victorian era considered effeminate). Bagg’s physicality won’t be restrained.

In Be Good, the child “hugs the intolerable boulder/has muscled uphill since birth”.

The world he prefers to observe is also full of kinetic energy.

My iron is wide; you use your blessed driver
and hit it with your fullest strength,
skimming the club heads so close to the earth
I hardly hear your shot, but see it fly
over everything toward the green… (My Father Plays The 17th)

In describing a couple’s decision to marriage, his analogy is full of athleticism:

Ashley and Melissa, you have circled
marriage like a distant challenge–
a mountain ripe for climbing–plotting,
perhaps, a night approach across
a secret valley… (A Toast for Ashley and Melissa)

Bagg’s eye is drawn to sport and action (as in this translation from Sophocles Elektra):

Reacting quickly, the skittish
Athenian pulled his horses off
to one side and slowed, allowing
the surge of chariots tot pass him.

Orestes too had laid off the pace,
in last place, trusting his stretch run.
But when he saw the Athenian,
his only rival, still upright, he whistled
shrilly in the ears of his quick fillies
to give chase. The teams drew even,
first one man’s head edging in front,
then the others, as they raced on. (Chariot Race at Delphi)

In the powerful and substantial lines of his poem An Ancient Quarrel, Bagg turns an appraisal of Yeats into a titanic wrestling match:

You might be stirring forces hard to quell–
that thrill exploding in your abdomen
when a trapped quarry turns his fear on you.
You go in flailing hand to hand, frenzied

because your own survival’s now at risk.
His barbarous thrusting voice impales you
deep in the place from which your war-cry soars.
Now its the pure joy of battle driving…

Notice words like exploding, trapped, flailing, thrusting, impaling. One might object that words like these are only to be expected given the subject matter. I don’t argue the point, except to say that Bagg is also in control of the subject matter, and gravitates toward the physical, the muscular, the strain of motion. He has an eye for it.

It’s no wonder, as with the very first poem cited in this review, that Bagg, more than once, is drawn to the topic of war. He doesn’t valorize or glorify war (very much the opposite) but his sensibility is drawn to the physicality of war, and its horrors.

And it’s also no wonder that Bagg shocked Frost with the sheer physicality of his poetry’s sexual content. The poem Cello Suite , the closest Bagg comes to pure lyricism, is nothing if not a celebration of the sensual physicality of sex and procreation:

Cheek to her cello’s gnarled scroll,
impulsive
irretrievable love,
once wildly made, crests,
then calmly overflows
the cello rosewood curves.

As she lifts her bow to the skies
her lover’s hand slides
under her shoulder,
her breasts lift
to his passing forearm.

(Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t allow me to reproduce the layout of the poem.)

In the lovely lines of his poem Twelfth Night:

If music be love’s food, disguise
must be love’s speech, each wanton thrust
engendering a gentle parry–
a playfulness that implicates
interested parties wearing tights.

At the start of this poem Bagg praises Viola’s masculine pluck, and one gets the feeling that this is no idle praise – that this is precisely the thing that has drawn the poet’s eye to this character – her masculinity, her insinuated physicality. There is nothing Keatsian or feminine about her (though there is and he knows it). In this poem, at least, there is an unmistakable homeroticism that Bagg clearly enjoys and with which he is beguiled.

But Bagg’s eye for physicality carries a price. In the entirety of Twelfth Night and Cello Suite, for example, the reader never once smells. There’s no taste and, oddly enough, there’s no sensation (touch).  Bagg prefers motion, sometimes repetitively, where he might have evoked a different sense:

“her sliding tears/reflect her mother’s”
“her lover’s hand slides/under her shoulder”

This isn’t to say that Bagg never evokes the more effeminate senses (as Victorians called them) but never with the same eye for the physicality of the body and the world.

Now he’ll go.
His body hardens with still-clenching muscle.
I edge my right heel back along his side,
tuck my head to his neck, feel his ears poke
out straight, and out of rotting earth we churn-
reanimated halves of the one beast
both off us want mightily to be: the Horegod.

We pound through reeking sludge and angry bush
that claws at our face, snags our thrusting legs.
We are joy pulsing through a line of verse!

Even in these lines, the word reeking has more the feel of a physical assault than an appeal to our sense of smell. In what way does it  reek? What does it reek of? Bagg doesn’t tell us.

As with Bagg’s revelry in sexuality, it should come as no surprise that the physical decline of age is an experience that Bagg feels keenly – it’s slowing and diminishing vigor.

…age so
intensifies what’s left
of our skills and passions,
we linger over them
with apprehensive
appreciation–
as over a single malt’s
evanescent bouquet.

We fear the softening
of our golf swing
will put even the easy
carries beyond our reach;
that lovemaking’s
strife will become
affectionate peace… (Bittersweetness)

Bagg is not at ease with an affectionate peace, her fears it. Lovemaking, to Bagg, is strife, of both body and mind. His poetry, a lovemaking of its own order, is full of strife and motion. These are qualities the reader can expect in Bagg’s work. There is more than a touch of Hemingway in Bagg’s vigorous verse and he draws out the comparison himself:

Now that your honed survival skills assert
themselves, ask fellow Hemingwayfarers
this: When the powers in your loins and mind

wane, should you punish both with a twelve gauge?
Or keep on brining dark bulletins back
from our last war zone–as Phillip Roth does
(who holds the title Hemingway renounced),
determined to die ringside to himself
matched with an unbeaten serial killer. (Heavyweights)

Younger poets and readers looking for a model – for a poet who makes vigorous and muscular use of rhyme and sometimes meter – couldn’t do better than read Bagg’s verse. His language and poetry is modern, forceful, and uncompromising.

Bagg on the Internet

Robert Bagg Homepage

  • Visit Bagg’s Homepage for links to other books, opinions and more poems.

Gently Read Literature

  • Bagg takes exception to David Orr’s opinions on Political Poetry.

Bagg at Brockton

  • Three of Bagg’s Poems brought to you by the Brockton Public Library

Oedipus Plays

  • The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Kolonos, and Antigone – Translated by Robert Bagg

The Poetry of Dana Gioia

interrogationsDana Gioia published Interrogations at Noon in 2001.

He is primarily known as an essayist and critic and is especially known for his defense of Formal Poetry. In his Notes on the New Formalism, he wrote: “the real issues presented by American poetry in the Eighties will become clearer: the debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode; the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative and the denial of a musical texture in the contemporary poem. The revival of traditional forms will be seen then as only one response to this troubling situation.”

He was a contributing poet to the anthology “Rebel Angels”, which I hope to review at some later date.

Selections of his poetry can be found at his web site.

With Interrogations at Noon, Gioia is true to his preference for meter and rhyme and offers a variety of verse forms and rhyme schemes. The first poem, Words, appears to be an accentual poem. Whereas the number of syllables per line vary, one could read each line as having 5 stressed syllables. I think, to most readers, the poem would feel and read like a free verse poem. (Accentual verse is frequent in nursery rhymes, where the accentual rhythm is more easily discerned in the shorter line lengths.)

The world does not need words. It art-ic-ulates it-self
in sun-light, leaves, and sha-dows. The stones on the path
are no less real for ly-ing un-cat-alogued and un-count-ed…

The artfulness of writing accentual verse is not so demanding as accentual/syllabic, accentual verse being closer to free verse. So the poem succeeds or fails in its use of imagery, phrase and content.

And in this first poem we are greeted by many of the traits that typify the poems that follow. Gioia does not possess the same gift for imagery & language as his contemporary, A.E. Stallings. His imagery, such as it is, is generally abstracted and literary, lacking sensuality, texture, smell, feeling. One very seldom wants to linger over a given image or combination of words. His imagery and language tends to be on average, pedestrian, sometimes verging on cliche.

Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
glancing the skin or gripping the shoulder, the slow
arching of the neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.

There is the abstraction of “articulates itself/ in the sunlight”.

Such phrases as “glancing the skin”, “gripping the shoulder”, “slow/arching of the neck or knee” are the stuff of every day prose. The phrase “silent touching of tongues” flirts with cliché. The poem concludes:

The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds
painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always —
greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.

The sun “piercing” anything is a stock image. We have some poetic language in “painting the rocks… then dissolving each lucent droplet..” but there is no color, sense of touch, motion, sound or even sensation in any of it. Neither does one see the world in new ways as when Frost writes: “But I had the cottages in a row/ Up to their shining eyes in snow.”  Such moments of transcendent imagery are a pale rarity in Gioia’s palette. Gioia’s imagery is straightforwardly visual and the language conceptual and intellectual: as in: “The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always…” which has an elevated, antique ring to it, though not so archly archaic as A.E. Stallings’ excesses. Gioia generally avoids the archaisms favored by Stallings.

Reading Gioia, one hears the voice of a skillful essayist writing poetry. What do I mean by that? Read Robert Frost’s essays and you will hear the voice of a poet writing essays. Frost’s essays are like his poems – indirect, playful, coy. He would write lines like the following: “”Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Gioia’s poetry is like his essays – direct, intellectual and explanatory. (When I was dating, I once played the piano for a girl I was trying to impress. Her friend sniffed: “He plays the piano like a typewriter.”)

Gioia, in a nutshell, frequently writes poetically, but does not write poetry.

~

The verse form I am most passionate about is blank verse. Gioia offers us a sampling of his skills in the poem Juno Plots her Revenge.  The poems first lines are as follows:

Call me sister of the thunder god.
That is the only title I have left.
Once I was wife and queen to Jupiter,
But now, abandoned by his love and shamed
By his perpetual adultery,
I leave my palace to this mistresses.
Why not choose earth when heaven is a whorehouse?

Even the Zodiac has now become
A pantheon of prostitutes and bastards.
Look at Callisto shining in the north,
That glittering slut now guides the Grecian fleet.
Or see how Taurus rises in the south,
Not only messenger of spring’s warm nights
But the gross trophy of Europe’s rape!
Or count the stormy Pleiades — those nymphs
Who terrorize the waves, once warmed Jove’s bed.
Watch young Orion swaggering with his sword,
A vulgar upstart challenging the gods,
While gaudy Perseus flaunts his golden star.

My first reaction is to find Gioia’s blank verse very conservative. For instance, most of his lines are end-stopped, 16 out of these first 19 lines, (meaning that the end of the lines are either marked by punctuation or reflect a normal pause in speech patterns or phrase). And this is a pattern which is representative. Not even pre-Shakespearean writers of blank verse were as conservative with enjambment. The attribute marks a poet who is either an inexperienced writer of blank verse or one who is simply very conservative. It marks a poet who isn’t at ease with the form. His thoughts don’t move freely through the lines, but instead march line by line, each thought fitted therein. His skills have not transcended the verse form.

In the first seven lines there is only one line, the first line, that disrupts the iambic rhythm, the first two feet being trochaic. Some might read the first foot of the seventh line as being trochaic, but it could as comfortably be iambic. The line ends with a feminine ending – one of the few variations. The next twelve lines, like the first seven, posses only one line which varies the iambic beat. All in all, when one also considers the end-stopped lines, the effect produced is stodgy and wooden. The natural rhythms of the language which skillful poets use to counterpoint the iambic rhythm, are missing in Gioia’s conception of the form. Too much efficiency.

Lastly, one meets with the same sort of imagery as in the first poem of the book. There is an over-reliance on adjectives and, inasmuch as he uses adjectives, they are repetitive (as in the 4 line proximity of “warm nights” and “warmed Jove’s bed” and they are unimaginative – gross trophy, stormy Pleiades, young Orion, vulgar upstart, gaudy Perseus, golden star. These adjectives all serve their purpose, but they are stale and overused. They evoke nothing. One feels, after a point, that they are more for metrical padding (making sure there are enough syllables in a given line). One hopes that if Gioia writes more blank verse, he eschews such adjectives. The effect might be to add more flexibility to his line, favoring enjambment.

A more successfully attempt at blank verse can be found in Descent to the Underworld. The Iambic Pentameter shows greater flexibility in its flow of thought – which more freely overlaps from one line to the next.

At first the way is not
Entirely dark. Some daylight filters down
And gives the cave that same bleak iridescence
The sun shows in eclipse. But gradually
The path descends into undending twilight.

The iambic pentameter is till relatively conservative (perhaps too much so) but by Gioia’s standards, even here, there is some loosening.

There are no grassy meadows bright with flowers,
No fields of tassled corn swaying in the wind,
No soft green vistas for the eye…

Goya probably means to elide the word swaying so that it is read as one syllable, but a trochaic fourth foot is a daring departure for Gioia.

~

Gioia’s rhyming poems give a similar impression – of the poet who writes line by line. In the two poems considered, The End of the World and The End of Time, all the lines in both poems are end-stopped.The former poem begins:

“We’re going,” they said, “to the end of the world.”
So they stopped the car where the river curled,
And we scrambled down beneath the bridge
On the gravel track of a narrow ridge.

This first poem is written in heroic couplets – though some prefer to reserve that term for longer, narrative poems. (It is written in rhyming couplets.) The latter poem follows an ABAB rhyming pattern. Because each phrase and grammatical unit ends neatly with the end of each line, the flow of the poems wants to pause with each line, as though each line were its own independent accomplishment. The natural ebb and flow of the language is overrulled by the demands of the form – the very sort of writing that prompts scorn from poets who prefer free verse.

Gioia is at his best in shorter, pithier poems. And he is at his best when writing in that indistinct syllabic poetry or accentual poetry that exists somewhere between free verse and formal verse. He is at his best when he doesn’t have to hew to a meter or rhyme scheme. Pentecost is just such a poem.

Neither the sorrows of afternoon, waiting in the silent house,
Nor the night no sleep relieves, when memory
Repeats its prosecution.

Nor the morning’s ache for dream’s illusion, nor any prayers
Improvised to an unknowable god
Can extinguish the flame.

We are not as we were. Death has been our pentecost,
And our innocence consumed by these implacable
Tongues of fire.

Comfort me with stones. Quench my thirst with sand,
I offer you this scarred and guilty hand
Until others mix our ashes.

This is the poetry of a direct and unpretentious voice. Freed from the constraints he imposes on himself in other poems, he speaks directly and simply. His thoughts move freely from one line to the next. The poem, written on the death of his son, is poignant in its directness. This is Gioia at his best. Other poems like this: After a Line by Cavafy, Accomplice, (and my favorite) Homage to Valerio Magrelli – a series of verses, each short, written in free verse, unpretentious, direct and well-turned. While his imagery is not transcendent, while there’s nothing that makes one want to pause with admiration, he can nevertheless be sensitive to just the right description:

…stranded in thought,
on the lonely delta of the spirit
as entangled as a woman’s sex.

Or

..in the equilibrium of their design
untouched and overlaid like the wooden pieces
in a game of pick-up sticks.

Gioia’s ability to hew phrase and thought to any given structure is skillful but not surpassing.

He is a poet able to shape his thoughts to the demands of whatever form he undertakes, but he fails to create the illusion that the form has grown organically from the unforced working-out of ideas. Writing formal poems successfully requires a flexible and creative mind able to both follow and lead the demands of the chosen form.

Gioia is at his best when writing just a little outside the constraints of formal verse.