Rough Drafts | Sidewalk Poems

The history behind these two poems is interesting. Middlebury, Vermont invited local poets to send in poems for a sidewalk project in which the poems would be imprinted in the sidewalk’s concrete—part of a poetry project. The poems came with strict line length and word limits. I don’t remember them now. But why not? Middlebury is one of my favorite Vermont towns and Brookway, the fictional town of my novels, is loosely based on it. I submitted the poems and—never heard anything again. Story of my literary life. Since they were written for a very particular location—a sidewalk—I was never sure what to do with them. Now I know. If they can’t be in Middlebury’s sidewalks, then they’ll be in Brookway’s sidewalks—a sidewalk of the imagination. They have a home again.

If despite your hurry
You pause just long enough
To momentarily query
The verses here and there,
You next may ask yourself
If poems aren’t everywhere?—
If maybe all along
(And even by a sidewalk)
There wasn’t always song?
And though that may be true,
It’s true because all poetry
Is truthfully in you.
You mostly needn’t guess
(Or second guess) the season,
You know it more or less:
You know it by the spider
Fattened on the addled flies.
They crowd September’s cider.
And if the weather’s terse
And fitful then it’s likely
April; yet suppose this verse
Is buried under snow?
Your guess is good as mine.
Vermont. You never know.
Every year it’s touch and go.

upinVermont | March 6th 2022

The Wages of Art

I’ve been in a strange sort of fall and winter. I started my blog twelve years ago and have written—quite a bit. The blog continues to be well read, I can’t complain, but it’s an odd sort of success that butters no parsnips. I just received another rejection from another agent: Sorry for the form letter; but form letter; at this time; volume of submissions; “project described”; list; doesn’t fit; good luck. Meanwhile, authors are encouraged to tenderly and exquisitely tailor their queries to each individual agent—please enclose perfumed rose petals. Also, if you need help writing your queries, I notice now that agents and editors are offering courses (VISA and MASTERCARD accepted).

I also find myself in the odd position of being treated like the rich uncle. There are many writers, poets and websites who, suddenly my best friends, write me glowing comments, telling me they’ve always loved my website, only to end with a request that I review their poem/book/website. Can you spare a dime brother? This happens a lot. I remember one poet—published, successful and nicely ensconced in academia—who, after I reviewed their book, asked if there were local venues where they could read their poetry, as if I might be their pro bono outreach coördinator. Not long after that they sent me another book to review. Did they ever mention me or my poetry? Did they acknowledge my writing? That other poets and authors ask for reviews or to be mentioned on my blog is okay. That’s called self-promotion. I get it. What rubs me the wrong way is when none of these individuals offer to return the favor—and that doesn’t take much. They don’t mention my blog on their own sites and never comment on my poetry because, of course, they’ve never read it and apparently have no interest in doing so.

As far as blogging goes, I’m struggling to feel motivated. For three straight years I wrote a post a day. That’s a lot. Writing this post is maybe an effort to motivate myself.

If any of you wish that I’d discuss this or that, let me know. I haven’t been posting much if only to avoid being repetitive. Presently, I’m working on more poems and still developing ideas around my next novel. I’ve written the opening pages but am already thinking of all the many ways I can make it unsalable—including poetry, stories within stories, the blurring of genres upmarket/YA/women’s/erotic/magical realism/literary etc… It’s what I do. I write meter and rhyme when the rest of the world writes prose. I write, apparently, what (so far) nobody wants to read or publish. This may simply be a reality I need to accept.

There’s also the possibility that I’m a poor judge of my own art. History is littered with mediocre talent unable to recognize its own limitations. I don’t think that’s the case, but of course I would say that. It’s possible that my writing is universally rejected because I’m just too mediocre and daft to recognize it. I see it in other poets, writers and artists every day. There’s no reason why the same shouldn’t afflict me.

What do we do in life when nothing works out the way we expected? Don’t ask me. I’ll just write a poem or story about it. Once one has decided to paddle across the ocean, quitting mid way probably isn’t going to end well.

    mid-
        field in February's snow—the inexplicable
            crow

            February 8th 2022

Wolves

  • From the Short Story Montana. To find out more click on the Short Stories page above.
        When just a girl her mother said
        You have a hundred acre heart.
        Someday, I know, you’ll meet a boy
        And you and he will never part.

        He’ll love your heart’s untrammeled wilds,
        The seasons of your vagrant sky;
        He’ll build a house for both of you
        And sow your rapturous fields with rye.

        But let some paths go undiscovered
        And heed your woodland pools; the moon
        Will visit unregarded where
        The bones—the feasts of wolves—are strewn.

        Hide from him the baleful owl
        And if he hears the midnight’s howl,
        There’s savagery in what you are—
        Never let him go too far.

Beatified

There is a severed skull
And vertebrae close by
They showed up in the fall
(Where winter bleached them dry).

Yet now that spring has come
The flesh returns. New shoots
Grow through and insects thrum
Where the heart once watered roots.

The skull lays on its side,
Crowned with rue and nettle
As though beatified
With ichor, thorn and petal.

All this as if to say
No more is given Earth
To know than just today
This death and this rebirth.

Beatified

by Me, Patrick Gillespie, May 15th 2021

Great Minds

I was just reading an article in Quanta Magazine and lo and behold there’s an evolutionary biologist, Arik Kershenbaum, who speculates, as I do (and did in my poem Bicycles) that alien life is probably going to look a lot like life on earth. You can read the article here. Not only that, but Kershenbaum has written a book on the subject, the Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I guess Bicycles was too late to make it into the forward.

I’m going to be buying this book for both my twin daughters, both of whom are majoring in earth sciences with an interest in exobiology.

Crabs rule the universe. I tell you that now. Don’t be shocked in the years to come. You heard it here.

Die Erlkönigin | Voiced by Harriet Whitbread

An actress’s reading of Die Erlkönigin is always something I’ve wished for. Then, just over a month ago Harriet Whitbread, the head of Voice & Learning Support at the Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company, emailed to ask if I’d enjoy her own reading of the poem.

I confess that when I read this poem publicly, I sometimes can’t make it to the end. Goethe’s original poem, Erlkönig, was and is profoundly meaningful to me in a way that I could only translate by writing Die Erlkönigin. Ms. Whitbread shared that she also had trouble reading to the end and that is, in a sense, as much as I ask from the poem.

Please enjoy Whitbread’s beautiful performance.

Harriet Whitbread is Head of Voice & Learning Support at the Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company located at the The Monkey House, 97-101 Seven Sisters Road, London, N7 7QP. You can visit the Fourth Monkey website here.

The Devil Knows

Devises Herioques

The devil knows how to tell a lie.
He’ll con the foolish through and through
Impeccably dressed in a coat and tie.

Nobody hears the poor man’s cry
And anyhow what can you do?—
The devil knows how to tell a lie.

He’ll tell you (if you ask him why):
‘I’d not be here, if it weren’t true,
Impeccably dressed in a coat and tie.’

And though each day a thousand die
Success is for the chosen few.
The devil knows how to tell a lie.

I bet you think you’d never try
But he knows well you’d like it too—
Impeccably dressed in a coat and tie.

The world is burning by and by
But what he does is done for you.
The devil knows how to tell a lie
Impeccably dressed in a coat and tie.

by me
June 2 2020

jester map

The Racist Trope of Stephanie Burt

So I wonder what readers would think if they began reading a review that opened like this:

Jazz is for everyone, but it can’t be the same thing, or do the same thing, for everyone. Jazz  can console or upset, soothe or baffle, set the table for a fancy dinner or kick the table over and demand that we start again. It depends how you hear jazz, and it depends on what piece. To quote a young performer, “the most dangerous thing about how we treat jazz is how we let only old black people have it.” What’s true for jazz in general is no less true for particular kinds of techniques and forms. And if that’s true for modern music and for music in new forms, it’s no less true for music in earlier forms—blues most of all.

They might start looking for the exit. And yet this is exactly the rhetoric with which the Harvard professor, poet and critic Stephanie Burt begins her Slate review of Terrance Hayes. She writes:

“Poetry is for everyone, but it can’t be the same thing, or do the same thing, for everyone. Poems can console or upset, soothe or baffle, set the table for a fancy dinner or kick the table over and demand that we start again. It depends how you read them, and it depends what poem. As America’s youth poet laureate, Kara Jackson, has recently written, “the most dangerous thing about how we treat poetry is how we let only old white men have it.” What’s true for poetry in general is no less true for particular kinds of poems, techniques, and forms. And if that’s true for modern poems and for poems in new forms (say, those that resemble text messages), it’s no less true for poems in very traditional forms—the sonnet most of all.”

In quoting Kara Jackson, Burt dispenses with Jackson’s intent, and uses her quote as a springboard for an entirely different argument. The point Jackson was making was that in growing up, she wasn’t just exposed to the poetry of “old white men”, but to poetry written by poets like her—and speaking to her own experience. But Burt has an agenda. She uses Jackson’s quote as a stepping stone with which to overlay another layer of identity politics that is as old and trite as mid twentieth century politics: the association of artistic expression with skin color and political affiliation. It’s venal and insidious.

But first to Jackson’s comment. I get it. In a country that is struggling with racism to the degree that the United States is, where a black couple picnicking at a public park has a gun drawn on them, where racial profiling by police remains endemic, where the leaders of our institutions and government continue to fan racism for political gain, I do get it and I don’t doubt I would have written the same in her position. On the other hand, I hope she someday feels that Shakespeare doesn’t belong to old white men any more than Duke Ellington’s piano or Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet (simply because white men invented the instruments). But maybe she already does. Burt, on the other hand, is a Harvard professor and should know better.

Burt begins innocently enough, almost with something like a disclaimer, applying Jackson’s comment to “poetry in general”, then to techniques and forms, then to “modern poems” and “poems in new forms”.  All this begs the question: How exactly does Burt square “modern poems” and “poems in new forms” with “old white men”? Forgive me for thinking so, but Burt’s rhetoric is either poorly considered or disingenuous. Everybody knows who’s being referred to by “old white men” and it’s not Eminem, and it’s not “modern poets” writing in “new forms”. But Burt makes clear what she really means by old white men (and what we all already know), writing: “very traditional forms—the sonnet most of all”. Yes, all those sonnet writing, old, white men like Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Keats, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Anna Maria Smallpiece, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Christina Rosetti— Wait…what?

But anyway, during the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, one of the rationalizations used to defend free verse was that traditional poetry was the work of the oppressor: white, European, imperialist, bourgeoisie males. Never mind all those women writing traditional poetry. Never mind that America’s first published poet was a woman. Never mind that the world’s first novel was written by a woman. Never mind that the earliest poet recorded by name was a woman. Never mind any of that. Traditional forms and techniques are the oppressive artifacts of old white men. And it’s not enough for woke critics like Burt to specify gender, but it’s also important to include age and skin color. And in case there was any room for doubt, Burt spends the next paragraph enumerating the sins of old white men: rhyming, couplets, the volta. Just to emphasize how old those white men and their “techniques” are,  Burt writes: “you probably also know that they’re centuries old.” So much for modern poets and techniques.

According to Burt, anyone who writes a modern sonnet is, by definition, ‘talking back to the past’ because, you know, you can’t write a traditional sonnet without being oppressed by the past. And having established the oppressive, old, white identity of a sonnet, Burt can then laud Terrance Hayes, a black poet, for having written “a primer on how to reshape an old form”.

To be clear, what bothers me is not that Terrance Hayes chooses to write free verse sonnets, but that Stephanie Burt chooses to laud Hayes’ poems as a rejection and reshaping of “old white” poetry. This is just as venal and insidious now as it was in the mid-20th century, and that’s because it associates artistic expression and medium with class, race and political ideology. There’s no question but that the content of a sonnet can be used for political ends, but the traditional medium of poetry—meter, rhyme and form—has nothing whatsoever to do with race, class or political affiliation. Traditional forms are a tool, no different from a piano or a trumpet.

And why is it venal and insidious? Because Burt’s comments perpetuate the very ideologies, like racism, that she’d surely claim to disown. She arbitrarily inserts identity politics into otherwise neutral modes of artistic expression and medium; such that choosing a mode of expression, no matter the artist’s race, is to affiliate oneself with a given political ideology. It is, among other things, a racist trope (why else mention skin color?) intended to exert control over the terms by which art is discussed and created. By negatively associating one kind of sonnet with old whites, her intent is to elevate the poetry of Terrance Hayes (insofar as he rejects the sonnet’s more traditional “white” medium). Frankly, Hayes’s poetry isn’t well-served if this is the only way Burt can find to compliment it.

Why associate a given mode of artistic medium and expression with gender and skin color? There’s simply no justification for it. Let artists, and young artists especially, decide for themselves how to use the artistic mediums available to them. Writing a Shakespearean Sonnet verses a Hayesian Sonnet is not a political/ideological statement. It’s a matter of artistic expression.

Leave the ideological tropes of the mid-twentieth century in the mid-twentieth century.

    The Search for Meaning in a New Generation of Poets & Readers

    So this post began with a number of titles, none of which I could decide on. The essence of my post is this: Why is Instapoetry so popular? But I didn’t want to limit this to instapoetry. I think there’s a fundamental shift in what readers are looking for in the 21st century. I was tempted to set off the youngest generation against establishment poets, but I don’t necessarily believe there’s a formal establishment so much as an established and shared set of aesthetics that have been taught, practiced and accepted by poets going back several generations now. And I think it was summed up, to a degree, by Vermont’s poet laureate, Chard deNiord. I asked him, in a public setting, to consider the success of instapoets like Rupi Kauer. Mr. deNiord has, in the past, taken a dim view of self-published poets, let alone poetry on the world wide web. So how to explain the success of a poet like Rupi Kauer, whose books sell in the millions?

    Mr. deNiord’s response was what one would expect (and he’s hardly alone in his criticism). He answered that while Kauer’s poetry, and by extension Instapoetry, is popular, it lacks subtlety, imagery, metaphor, narrative capacity and irony. The durability of Instapoetry, he argued, will be short-lived.

    For the most part, what Mr. deNoird said is true. Instapoetry does lack the figurative language, metaphor and irony of established poetry if only because of its brevity. In the case of Kauer, even when she writes longer poems, her efforts are lackluster at best. So what is it about her poetry that has earned her, and continues to earn her, a success that’s the envy of her critics?

    The answer, as I wrote in my earlier post Of Instapoets & Instapoetry, is that she and other instapoets aren’t so much writing poems, but proverbs.

    “My observation is that the best instapoets are not writing poems. They’re writing proverbs. Poets who criticize and satirize them, I think, misunderstand the nature of what writers like Kaur do and the reasons they’re so beloved. It’s not clear that Kaur herself understands but she clearly has a genius for proverbs. (Poetry and proverbs are kissing cousins.)”

    And what do proverbs do? Proverbs are meant to instruct. They are pithy pieces of didacticism. The online Collaborative International Dictionary of English defines a proverb as follows:

    “1. An old and common saying; a phrase which is often repeated; especially, a sentence which briefly and forcibly expresses some practical truth, or the result of experience and observation; a maxim; a saw; an adage. -Chaucer. Bacon. [1913 Webster]”

    Now the interesting thing is that this, across cultures, can be applied to the best and most memorable poetry produced by those cultures. When you think of Elizabethan Poetry, the Sonnets of Sidney, Spencer and Shakespeare are nothing if not proverbial. The Shakespearean Sonnet’s final couplets, as perfected by Shakespeare, offer us one proverb after another. Consider Sonnet 129:

     The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
    Is lust in action; and till action, lust
    Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
    Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
    Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
    Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
    Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
    On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
    Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
    Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
    A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
    Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
    All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
    To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

    The final couplet could easily be made a proverb or instapoem. Elizabethan poets liked to make arguments. Donne’s poems are full of argument, debate and point making. When the later metaphysical poets weren’t busy making sly arguments in shorter poems, they’re longer poems were bestowing instructive narratives upon the reader. The Sonnet itself, is essentially a poem of argument, and that tradition was carried through, for the most part, to the end of the 19th century. That said, it was the early 19th century, with the Romantics, that one begins to discern a less didactic, instructive, or proverbial intent in poetry. Poets like Keats begin to put greater emphasis, in effect, on projecting the poet’s subjective experience. For example, there’s no argument being made in Keats’s Ode to Autumn. There’s no debate or didactic intent. Though the period in which he lived helped to create Keats, Keats innate genius allowed him to translate his subjective experience into great poetry. I think one could argue that Keat’s last poems created the template for the poetry of the next two centuries. Helen Vendler wrote a whole book on Keats’s Odes, and Ode to Autumn, and still couldn’t explain why it’s a great poem. We innately recognize and feel the genius behind the poem, but ask any reader what point or argument Keats was making, and the whole poem begins to feel like a zen koan. Can a poem be great without making any point whatsoever? Keats’s poem speaks to our experience of the world—and our experience of the world exists happily without the need of explanation or justification. One could even go so far as to argue that Keats’s aesthetic removed God from poetry. That is, rather than find truth in God, as with so many poets before him, Keats found truth in beauty—that is, our subjective experience and enjoyment of the world.

    Without turning this post into a book length thesis, I would argue that the poetry of subjective experience, Romanticism, became the dominant mode of expression in the 20th century. (The Victorian era, meanwhile, was the last gasp of a didactic aesthetic that had lasted hundreds of years—a didactic bent that was, perhaps, closely allied with the by then rigid formalities of meter and rhyme.)

    The problem is that by the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, what Victorian Poetry was to the didactic impulse, contemporary free verse was to subjective experience. We have seen a hundred years of poetry that has been reduced to, in many ways, the equivalent of mood music. I recall attending writing classes in which students, upon being asked why they wrote a given poem, couldn’t answer the question. They might defiantly answer that their poems didn’t need a reason. And these students are now in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and they’re still writing poems, I would argue, that are little more than naval gazing travelogues of their own emotional terrain. I recently looked at a copy of Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet. His massive book, and it is massive, struck me as nothing more than an aimless reliquary of a poet’s meandering inner life. Like anybody cares. (And apparently not that many do.) It’s no secret that poetry since the modernists has been a slow fade into irrelevance and obscurity. Could it be that nobody cares how poets feel about their feelings? Is it no longer enough for poets to share their inner (at the risk of redundancy) emotional landscapes? Is it possible that poets, by in large, just aren’t that interesting?

    And this finally brings me back to instapoetry and Vermont’s Poet Laureate Chard deNiord (and other critics of instapoetry) who, to a degree, rightfully point out that instapoetry is artless. Or as Rebecca Watts put it: “The short answer is that artless poetry sells.” So, again, why is that? Why is this “artless” poetry selling in the millions? The answer is that Instapoetry, for all its deserved criticism, is doing the one thing that poetry over the last hundred years hasn’t been doing: making an argument, offering pithy insights, and giving the reader a nugget of truth to walk away with. I’d say that Rebecca Watts misconstrues (self-servingly) the reason that poetry like Kauer’s sells. It’s not because its artless, which it is, but because Kauer’s poetry has a message. The handful of poems by Watt’s, those that I’ve read, don’t. They’re more like abstracted expressions of “interiority”. Likewise, when I read Chard deNiord’s poem Confession of a Bird Watcher, I find it to be a perfectly charming poem, artful in every way, metaphorically capturing the poet’s feelings about his feelings. To that extent, deNiord’s poem (confession is in the very title) is in many ways the pinnacle of 20th century poetic sentiment—the distillation of the poet writing about his own subjective experience. But if instapoetry’s success is any indication, the tide has turned. The poetry of the last few decades is already like the Victorian poetry written in 1919—a caricature of itself. Like mood music, the poetry is evocative but also all but meaningless. (To be provocative, I would argue that Keats transcended the relative “meaninglessness” of a poem like Ode to Autumn through the genius of his aesthetic vision; and few poets since Keats have possessed that kind of genius.) If instapoetry’s success is any indication, readers are looking for poetry that makes an argument, has a message and that communicates a meaning and significance beyond the poet’s own experience. They’re no longer willing to search for a poem’s meaning if that means divining what the poem meant to the poet writing it. The days of the self-absorbed poet are over.

    I suspect that as the 20th century recedes from memory, just as the 19th faded in the early 20th, we’ll see a resurgence of this new/old way of writing poetry. If they want to stand out though, instapoets are going to have to write more than three line proverbs (and some are). They’re going to have to turn their proverbs into artful poems. As it is, artless poetry with a message sells, but eventually that’s not going to be enough. There’s probably only room for a handful of poets like that, and I suspect those slots are already taken. Newer poets are going to have to write artful poetry with messages. Lucky for them, they have a millennia of poets (prior to the 20th century) to learn from.

    All in all, I’d say we’re finally seeing the beginning of the end of 20th century poetry (and I couldn’t be happier to see it go). Time for something new and different. I look forward to poetry that, to paraphrase Frost, stakes out its lover’s quarrel with the world.

    upinVermont | March 13th 2019