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).

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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.
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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

Dana Gioia published Interrogations at Noon in 2001.

interrogations

He’s primarily known as an essayist and critic and especially 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; which is to say: whereas the syllables per line vary, one could read each line as having 5 stressed syllables. I’m guessing that most readers will feel and read the poem as free verse. (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…

In any poet’s favor, accentual verse isn’t remotely as demanding as accentual/syllabic. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the line between accentual, free verse and prose is thin to naught. The poem succeeds or fails in its use of imagery, phrase and content.

Beyond that, the first poem greets us with many of the traits typifying the poems that follow. Gioia doesn’t 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; and 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’s the abstraction of “articulates itself/ in the sunlight”, while phrases like “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’s no color, sense of touch, motion, sound or even sensation. 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. He favors the straightforwardly visual, 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.)

In Gioia one hears the voice of a skillful essayist writing poetry. What do I mean by that? Read Robert Frost’s essays and you’ll hear a poet writing essays—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 favors the direct, intellectual and explanatory in both his poetry and prose. (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.”)

In a nutshell, Gioia frequently writes poetically, but doesn’t write poetry.

 

Blank verse is what I’m most passionate about and Gioia offers us a sampling of his skills in the poem Juno Plots her Revenge.  The poems first lines:

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 conservative. For instance, most of his lines are end-stopped, 16 out of these first 19, (meaning that the end of the lines are either marked by punctuation or reflect a normal pause in speech patterns or phrase). And it’s a representative pattern. Not even pre-Shakespearean writers were as conservative with enjambment. Generally, it marks the poet as inexperienced, very conservative, or having been born in the mid 16th century. It marks a poet who isn’t at ease with the form and whose thoughts don’t move freely through the lines. The poem marches line by line instead, each thought fitted to the line (the Restoration deliberately wrote their Heroic Couplets this way). Since Gioia’s neither an Elizabethan nor a Restoration poet, I’d have to say that his skills aren’t equal to the verse form.

In the first seven lines there’s 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  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, like the first seven, posses only one line that varies the iambic beat. All in all, the effect produced is stodgy and wooden. The natural rhythms of the language, which skillful poets use to counterpoint the iambic rhythm, are missing. Too much efficiency.

Lastly, one meets with the same sort of imagery as in the book’s first poem. There’s an over-reliance on adjectives and, inasmuch as he uses adjectives, they’re 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. They all serve their purpose, but they’re stale and overused. They evoke nothing and end up feeling 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 is found in Descent to the Underworld. There’s greater flexibility as thoughts 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 lines are still relatively conservative (perhaps too much so) but by Gioia’s standards, even here, there’s 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…

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

Gioia’s rhyming gives a similar impression—a poet who writes line by line. In the two poems considered, The End of the World and The End of Time, both poems are end-stopped.

“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 reader will probably pause with each line as though each were its own independent accomplishment. Here again, the natural ebb and flow of the language is overruled 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 more so in that indistinct syllabic poetry or accentual poetry that exists somewhere between free and formal verse (when he doesn’t have to hew to meter or rhyme. 

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.

~ Pentecost

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 line to line. Written on the death of his son, the poem is poignant in its directness. And other poems like this: After a Line by Cavafy, Accomplice, (and my favorite) Homage to Valerio Magrelli—a series of short, direct and well-turned free verse poems. While his imagery remains mostly pedestrian, he does occasionally manage to startle:

…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.

In truth, he’s 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. Writing formal poems is a tricky businesses, requiring the poet to both follow and lead a form’s constraints. Gioia’s best poems lie just a little outside those constraints.

Edited August 1st, 2021 | up in Vermont

Basho: The Complete Haiku

[If you came to this post looking for information on Haiku – scansion, kigos, form and technique – take a look at my Guide to Haiku. Then take a look around and if you find more that you like, let me know and let others know.]

I generally don’t read translations of poetry.

No matter what language or country the poets come from, the poet’s original voice, stylistically, always seems indistinguishable from the general tenor of the times. While most readers, it seems, read poetry for its content and are satisfied with that, the beauty of the language matters to me – the style. Frost’s tone and sound must be impossible to translate into another language. Capturing Shakespeare’s genius for manipulating Elizabethan English must be devilishly difficult in most languages and impossible in most. How does one translate Shakespeare’s coinages?

Haiku surely present their own challenges. The rich cultural associations with which Japanese Haiku are laden must be impossible to translate. The forms very brevity constrains the translator’s ability to alter, for example, word order and the progression of thought for the sake of the adopted language. And yet the Haiku’s self-same brevity is, to me, what makes it the most translatable. Whereas the translator of Ovid can’t dote over the meaning of each and every line, (without quadrupling the size of the book & commensurately diminishing its readability) the translator of Haiku, because of the form’s brevity, has much greater latitude for dotage. The Japanese themselves developed a rich tradition of Haiku (and poetic) commentary – colophons – which deepen the original poems — sometimes amounting to pages and pages of insight and conversation & all for the sake of a single line of poetry (Haiku, in Japanese, are written as a single line). Read “Basho and his Interpreters”, by Makoto Ueda for a taste of this tradition.

That said, there are bad, good and transcendent translations of Haiku. Reichhold’s translations are some of the best I have ever read. I can’t read Japanese but here’s why I think so. The most famous Haiku by Basho is about the old pond and the frog. As many translations as I have read, I have never understood why this poem was so famous. As it turns out, very few translators understood the poem! To give an idea of just how few, visit the following website, a collection of thirty translations of the same Haiku. By my count, only four of the translators actually understood the poem. Most interestingly, Robert Aitken, whose commentary is featured at the end of this site, also gets it wrong!

Here is the poem as translated by Reichhold.

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water.

Get it?

It’s not that the frog is jumping into the pond.

The frog is jumping into “the sound of water”. And it is with this understanding that the profundity of this poem finally makes sense. The Zen oneness that is so frequently mentioned (but apparently seldom understood even by those who describe it) becomes comprehensible & profound. The real genius of this Haiku can finally be appreciated.

Reichhold calls this technique “sense switching”. She writes: “Here, the frog not only jumps into the water, but also into the sound of water. The mind-puzzle that this haiku creates is how to seperate the frog from the water, the sound of water from the water, the frog from the sound it will make entering water, and the sound from the old pond. It cannot be done because all these factors are one…”

This explanation is found in the breif but informative and useful appendix 1 – a list of Haiku techniques practiced by the various Japanese Hakuists.

This is a beautiful translation of all of Basho’s known Haiku. For each Haiku, the original Japanese is provided along with a romanized reading and brief notes explaining what is untranslatable but relevent to an understanding of the poem. If you like Basho’s Haiku, get this book. Hopefully, the translator will move on to Buson and, my favorite, Issa.

Paul Muldoon: Poems 1968-1998

[Like the review below, this also was originally written on Amazon.]

muldoon-collected-poemsIf glibness can be elevated to greatness, then (as critics like to say), Muldoon has no peer. But that’s a big “if”. I picked up this volume based on a recent New York Times article where I read that (just in case you haven’t heard yet) he is a Professor of Poetry at both Oxford and Princeton, having been inducted into the former at the tender age of 20. Surely, dear reader, you must know by now the unparalleled list of professorial poets produced by Oxford & Princeton? Need I name names?

I nevertheless like Pual Muldoon’s poetry. I recommend it and it’s fun to read, but his book of poems from 1968-1998 could hardly be considered a string of pearls.

What you will and won’t get.

His is like snapshot poetry. Don’t expect extended metaphor, conceits, or any overall development in the way of imagery or narrative. His is a quick wit and quick eye. Reading his poem is like setting fire to a box of matches. There’s no smoldering pathos hear. His fire leaps from matchtip to matchtip, word to word, until the whole of it goes up in an exciting little burst of flames.

His poetry has been compared to Donne, but similarities are thin. For example, Donne was singularly known for the difficulty of his metrical writing. Expect no metrical daring from Muldoon. He doesn’t write by numbers. Muldoon’s difficulty can be summed up, I think, by this tidy comparison. Reading Muldoon is like listening to someone else’s phone conversation. You will only ever hear half the conversation.

The earlier books in this collected poems are the most accessible and, in certain ways, the more enjoyable. You’ll find those matchtip lines like: “Once you swallowed a radar-blip/of peyote/you were out of your tree…” This makes for fun reading.

The book “Madoc: A Mystery”, however, dating from 1990 indulges in a stellar example of poetic onanism. Clearly, the writing of Madoc brought great pleasure to the author, but I personally doubt this book will mean much to anyone not having a fetish for erudite cleverness. Clearly, the Princetion professor Muldoon is having a long distance conversation with his Oxford counterpart. You will have to wiretap if you really want to get this stuff. For example:

“[Galen]
“It transpires that Bucephalus is even now
“pumping jet
“of spunk into the rowdy-dow-dow
“of some hoity-toity little skewbald jade.”

Get it? If you do, this bud is for you.

The final book “Hay”, is the best of them. Even if a portion of the poems strike one as little more than deliciously worded doggerel, the fun of Muldoon’s wit evens the whole of it out. “I’ve upset the pail/in which my daughter had kept/her five-`No, six’-snails.” Substitute “reader” for “daughter” and you get the idea.

By the way, did you know he was professor of poetry at Princeton AND Oxford???