On Representational Poetry

The painting at right, if you can call it that, is quite famous, but only in the right circles.

If you’re not already familiar with Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. then you may wonder why these are considered worthy of a museum wall. And if that’s the case, then you’re going to have to accept the critical construct from which their value is obtained.  That is, the artwork’s importance exists entirely within the critical framework from which it arose. Another way to think of it is that the artwork gives value to the critical construct, making the critical construct the work of art rather then the other way around and, in truth, much art of the 20th century probably falls under this rubric. “Modern” art never stopped being representative, but rather than immortalizing lovers, wealthy merchants or aristocrats, 20th century “abstract” artists immortalized ideas, values, schools of criticism and conceptualizations. The long and short of it is that without an appreciation of their historical and artistic context, Rauscheberg’s artwork is little more than nice canvasses on which to actually paint something. Or, to put it another way, without the accompanying essays explaining White Paintings, Rauschenberg’s work is meaningless. The same can’t be said for the Mona Lisa. No one disputes that the painting is of someone and it’s valuation can proceed from that alone (without a knowledge of DaVinci or the painting’s historical context).

The problem for poets is that poetry is about ideas and has been from the get go. But nothing kills a poem like turning it into a lineated five paragraph essay. 20th Century poets got around that (whether successfully is up for debate) by turning their poems into (to coin a phrase) Representational Poetry. I would prefer to call it Conceptual Poetry, but that parking place is already taken.  So, thinking big: One might divide poetry from the 20th century onward into Notional and Representational Poetry. By far the vast majority is the former.

Notional, among it’s other definitions, is defined as:

Consisting of, or conveying, notions or ideas; expressing abstract conceptions.

In, On a Definition of Poetry, I defined poetry as being more than it’s notional or semantic content. Poetry also emphasizes linguistic form, like rhyme or meter (as found in any Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme). Both traditional and free verse poems are notional but only traditional poetry emphasizes linguistic form. Representational Poetry, as I use the term, diminishes or entirely dispenses with the notional intent of language. You could think of Representational Poems as paintings painted with words. If Representational Poetry can be considered a continuum that starts where Notional Poetry breaks down, then I would argue that the most successful Representational Poet of the 20th century is John Ashbery.

He still uses recognizable words and one may understand individual phrasal units, but Ashbery disrupts any notional content with a kind of notional incongruence that defies the communication of a larger, consistent idea or notion. It’s probably not a coincidence that Ashbery’s most famous poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, is the best known because (if we accept close readings) it’s one of the few Ashbery poems that can be explained as a Notional rather than Representational poemwhich is to say, I have read analyses of Convex Mirror that explain the poem in terms of a congruent whole—as having a unified meaning. Another example of this sort of “weak” Representational Poetry, might be Chronic Meanings by Bob Perelman (under the rubric Language Poetry):

The phone is for someone.
The next second it seemed.
But did that really mean.
Yet Los Angeles is full.

Naturally enough I turn to.
Some things are reversible, some.
You don’t have that choice.
I’m going to Jo’s for. []

An example of “strong” Representational Poetry” might be what’s called Typographic Poetry (and I’m guessing that Concrete Poetry falls into this spectrum):

bauhaus-kurt-schwitters-typography

Wherein even the minimally notional content of syntactic units, such as we find in Ashbery, is dispensed with. A similar example of concrete poetry from here:

O Pulsar

O Pulsar (The Pulsar), 1975, Augusto de Campos

In keeping with the definition of Representational Poetry as poetry that discards the notional intent of language (or verbal significance), consider Wikipedia’s definition of Concrete Poetry: “an arrangement of linguistic elements in which the typographical effect is more important in conveying meaning than verbal significance.”

So:

  • Representatoinal Poetry isn’t to be confused with Visual Poetry, Shape Poetry, Pattern Poetry or Picture Poetry (all being notional) which, if you’re the Poetry Foundation, is nevertheless precisely what you do. If you’re the Poetry Foundation, you call George Herbert’s “Easter Wings”, written in the 17th century, an example of 20th century “Concrete Poetry”.
  • The Princeton Encyclopedia defines Visual Poetry as follows: “In Visual Poetry, in the strict sense, the visual form of the text becomes an object for apprehension in its own terms…. Among devices for creating visual form that written language furnishes the poet [not available to oral poetry] are lineation, line length, line-grouping, indentation, intra- and inerlinear white space, punctuation, capitalization, and size and style of type. ¶ In general, the visual form of a poem may be figurative or non-figurative; if figurative, it may be mimetic or abstract.”
  • Free Verse is Visual Poetry in that free verse relies on its typographic appearance, unlike traditional poetry, to define it. Traditional poetry (arising from oral traditions rather than typographic traditions) relies on the audible effects of meter and rhyme to define it.
  • Representational Poetry is Visual Poetry that dispenses with the notional intent of langauge.

Representational poetry has far more in common with a Rauschenberg than Shakespeare. Appreciating the representational poetry means having a knowledge of the critical school and/or concepts which gave rise to it and which the poetry is “representing”. If you haven’t read up on Concrete Poetry, for example, then an example of the same is probably going to look like somebody’s bored doodling. That said, some representational poems can be appreciated as aesthetic works of art in and of themselves, as with “O Pulsar” (above) though, as a work of art, it may or may not be to your taste.

So, one reasons for this post is as a way to hang your hat on the efforts of an artist like Ashbery or de Campos. If you’re trying to read Ashbery as a notional poet, then it’s little wonder that your efforts will end in frustration if not exasperation. One commonly reads something to the effect that Ashbery’s lines should be allowed to wash over the reader like evocative abstractions. In other words, like art. We view art, we don’t try to read it.  That said, the purpose of language is to communicate. Full stop.

If one treats words,  phrases and language as a sort of painter’s pallet with which to turn pages into canvasses (divorcing words and phrases from any sort of notional congruence) then it’s a legitimate question as to whether such “poems” can be considered successful. But then that brings us back to the standards by which we judge such poems—as Notional or Representational? And if the latter, then that requires knowing something about the history behind the poetry. Like the blank canvass of a Rauschenberg, is the accompanying essay enough? To quote the critic William Logan:

“If we took poets at their own valuation and judged them by their own methods, every scribbler would be a genius.”

Do Representational Poems, like the blank canvasses of Rauschenberg, have any  legitimate value if judged by standards other than their own?—if judged by standards other than those that gave rise to and define them?

Only time will tell.

upinVermont | April 19th 2019

  •  

November

·

There’s nothing left but overall
Remnants of what had once been fall;
Even where a week before
A leaf or two blew through the door
The dwindling days have turned to soot
The little traveling underfoot.
·
Snow will follow soon enough
Careening through the unmown scruff
Of jimson weed and bush clover,
Nothing apt to be covered over
With just a midday’s squall—but soon
Winter will stay the afternoon.
·
Then who will afterward remember
The few days readied since September?—
The ghostly sighs of thimbleweed,
The bony knuckles of the reed,
Whole fields of startled hair turned white
Before the year end’s stricken flight.
·
I wouldn’t ask but that I know
It’s not just seasons come and go.
When ice gives way to watercress
And all of April’s loveliness,
Remember, though the days are few,
November has its flowers too.
·

·
·
Pussy Willow Branch (Reduced)·
·
·
·
·
·
·
·
·
·
·
·
·
·
·

·
by me | January 8 2018

·
·


·
·

    This is my first audio recording using my new YETI microphone. My reading of the poem is just okay, but then I’m never satisfied that way. Best that I never hear myself. The poem itself is one I started not in November of last year but the year before, with a haiku. I finally devoted the time to finishing it.

The Poetry of Janice Potter

A Review of Meanwell

MeanwellBack in June I reviewed an Anthology of Vermont poets. Here’s one of the reasons I liked the anthology:

“[It is replete with]…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.”

I followed that up with a sampling of poetry by Janice Potter. About two weeks ago, Potter, a Vermont poet, sent me her recently published book “Meanwell” and asked if I would review it. In exchange, I asked if she would write up one of Anne Bradstreet’s poems. So you’re in for a treat. After the review, you can read what Potter wrote about Bradstreet’s poem, In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Anne Bradstreet Who Deceased June 20, 1669, Being Three Years and Seven Months Old.

Potter’s book, published in 2012, is called Meanwell and it’s like no other contemporary poetry I’ve read, though it’s not the first of its kind. The poems offer us a first-person narrative in the voice of Anne Bradstreet’s servant, Meanwell. Anne Bradstreet was the first woman to have her poetry published in (what was to become) the United States.

There are other contemporary books of poetry written as first-person narratives. The two that immediately come to mind are by our present Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard and Bellocq’s Ophelia. The former is written in the voice of a slave and the latter a New Orleans prostitute. They first came to my attention via a review by William Logan in roles in puritan societyhis book Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue. I couldn’t be any less impressed by Trethewey unless I were William Logan. My problem with Trethewey is the prosaic dullness of her language,  imagery and technique – utterly predictable stuff. Logan reads for content and pillories Tretheway on that count too. I mention it because Trethewey’s failings provide an instructive contrast to Potter’s successes. Here are two pertinent passages from Logan’s review of Native Guard:

There were literate slaves, all too few, and perhaps none among the lowly soldiers serving at the sandy, fly-ridden prison near Fort Massachusetts. (The major of the regiment, however, a slave-owning Creole, spoke five languages and was the highest-ranking officer in the Union Army.) To create a voice rendered mute by history, Trethewey has sometimes borrowed from a white colonel’s memoir to make do. Putting the words of an educated white into the mouth of a freed slave isn’t so bad; but, when Trethewey is forced to choose between the pretty and the profane, the pretty wins every time. She’s an aesthete in wolf’s clothing. (pp. 193-194)

A paragraph later Logan will write of Trethewey’s other book Bellocq’s Ophelia:

Trethewey wears her past like a diamond brooch. She writes of her parents with no fury or sympathy or even regret, just the blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks. You read the tales of prostitution and slavery without feeling a thing — the slaves might as well be dressed by Edith Head, with a score by Max Steiner swelling gloriously over a Technicolor sunset.

Potter’s Meanwell is not the obsequious narrator one might expect. Potter’s narrator doesn’t pay anne-hutchinsontribute to Bradstreet. The poet, rather, is just another blurry shadow moving through the icy dogma of American puritanism and the leanness of its cruel and unforgiving winters. The Puritans were an intolerant and narrow-minded bunch (who would soon, and venally, shut down the greatest theatrical flowering since classical Greece). The English were all too happy to send the savages to the New World (and we still haven’t recovered). Meanwell’s attachment to Bradstreet is portrayed as a fact of her station (and nothing more). Meanwell never really expresses any affection for Bradstreet and is jealous of the poet’s privilege (inasmuch as a Puritan woman could be privileged) and her protective familial bonds.

…but whether my mother was a book or not
I have no knowledge
other than that I was always without parent…

and then, in the close of the same poem:

…and I did marvel on this well-beloved child
whose dear mother Dorothy
wrapped her with her cherished book in arms

while my vexed eyes one blue and one brown
did cloud with desire
to seize her soft nest once sickness was done

Meanwell’s narrative will not be like the “blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks”. In fact, by the end of the book, one really wonders whether there’s any affection at all.

…odd cloaked as a muse she tends her wilderness
mansion filled with English chests and tables
and ancestral portraits and eight-hundred books
all of an Englishness I am meant to polish well
and preserve for those whose kind benevolence
allows me to grow old in service to this house

and I do polish and scrub here for twenty years
as she grows to love her nest feathered with things
that make her heart glad her husband her children
her writings on stashes of paper her vast hearth
her great baskets of carded sheep’s wool that catch
the house afire when a servant drops a lit candle.

To this reader, at least, it’s hard not to read Meanwell’s commentary on Bradstreet, her Englishness, her “things”, and her “kind benevolence”, as dripping with bitterness and contempt. Which servant was it, I wonder, who (accidentally?) dripped the lit candle in the basket of carded wool? Was it Meanwell? Whether or not that was Potter’s intention, I’m left wondering whether this poem, A Servant Drops a Lit Candle, was Meanwell’s Iago-like confession. She will later say:

[I am] bound to serve it
this dread-hell she [Bradstreet] suffered when on earthy

am I bound to serve what I hate

While only just before, in the same poem, saying:

weary weary that a man must look upon
servants doing what once was
the work of his wife in her constancy
and afterwards sleep alone

who will serve him and obey him
down to the smallest kiss of his most
unspeakable manly part…

How are we to read this? Is it pity, compassion, contempt, gloating? And how are we to read the sexual content of Meanwell’s observation. Earlier in the book, Meanwell acknowledges the memory and pleasure of a former lover’s body “covering mine”. She can “watch a seaman’s firm buttocks rise on the mizzen” and doesn’t miss it when a seaman catches a skimpy maid “coarse-handed by the arse”. The way I read these lines is that she imagines taking Anne Bradstreet’s place. She imagines kissing “his most unspeakable manly part”, that is, symbolically submitting to the master of the life-style she has and continues to covet (or thinks she does). Perhaps the notion is fleeting, but I think it’s revealing. To deny the desire for a thing is to admit the thing’s desirability. We don’t talk about things that we don’t notice.

And this is the curious and most enjoyable facet of this book. None of the characters are likable and, in truth, (and from a twenty-first century perspective) none of them probably were likable. Even Anne Hutchinson, who was tried for loudly condemning a vindictive Puritan patriarchy, comes off as gratuitously combative when she states in Potter’s words: “it came to me by direct revelation”. Here is what Hutchinson, according to sources at the time, actually said:

“You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm—for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah, my Saviour, I am at his appointment, the bounds of my habitation are cast in heaven, no further do I esteem of any mortal man than creatures in his hand, I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of our hands. Therefore take heed how you proceed against me—for I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state”

This sounds like a woman in the throes of a self-destructive delirium (and Hutchinson had good reason to be delirious given the hell she was put through). Meanwell idolizes Hutchinson (rather than Bradstreet) but is too cowed and has too much to lose to cheer Hutchinson on.

Hutchinson and her family, a number of her children included, were to be brutally murdered by the Siwanoy of New Netherland (in and around present day Bronx and New York City). Her children, including the youngest, were scalped and beheaded, then incinerated in their own house. The Siwanoy chief, Wampage, had forewarned the settlers. Whether because she felt a false sense of security or because of the same courage (or stubbornness) that characterized her dealings with the Puritan ministers, she foolishly stayed behind. To commemorate his courage and bravery in slaughtering an exhausted middle-aged woman and her children, the Siwanoy chief adopted Anne’s name, becoming known as Ann Hoeck alias Wampage.

Hutchinson.massacre

The various ministers, who had excommunicated Hutchinson, also “celebrated” Hutchinson’s murder by treating it as a sign that God agreed with them and had undoubtedly lent a divine hand to the gruesome and just slaughter of Hutchinson and her children.

Not Faithful But True

Bradstreet was born, 1612, when Elizabethan poetry and theater were at the pinnacle of their glory. At the hands of Shakespeare, Jonson, and the deceased Marlowe, blank verse had matched and exceeded the accomplishments of the classical Greek and Roman poets. John Donne was inspiring a whole generation of metaphysical poets. Though somewhat more constrained in subject matter, women were also among the poets being celebrated, admired and published — Mary Sidney being the foremost example, though there were others (see the comment section in my post on Bradstreet). For all that, Bradstreet’s verse doesn’t inherit the brilliance of the times. Her Iambic Pentameter is as conservative as her religion, stuck in the 1590’s, and she never tries the sonnet or imitates the brilliant lyrics of Donne.

Bradstreet’s only mention of a near English contemporary is in her poem: An Elegy Upon That Honorable and Renowned Knight Sir Philip Sidney, Who Was Untimely Slain at the Siege of Zutphen, Anno 1586. She references Arcadia, a prose work, but also describes him as “the brave refiner of our British tongue…” This makes me think that Bradstreet must have been familiar with Sidney’s poetry (and some of it very erotic). Bradstreet writes that “[Sidney in his] wiser days condemned his [own] witty works”; but that many “infatuate fools” were caught in the “gin” [the snare] of “his rhetoric”. In the most revealing moment of all, she writes that, nevertheless, “a world of wealth within that rubbish [lies]”: “learning, valour and morality,/Justice, friendship, and kind hospitality, /Yea, and divinity within his book…”

Bradstreet reveals that she was exposed to the erotic wit of the Elizabethan era, but also reveals her own tastes and what she values. She was a Puritan, first and foremost, by choice.  How much was Bradstreet exposed to during the early 1600’s? Donne was circulating his poetry privately and among his peers. It’s possible but unlikely that Bradstreet’s father (let alone Anne) would have been in that circle of readers. Most of his poetry, on top of that, was considered erotic. Donne would die in 1631, a year after Bradstreet arrived in America. Neither Shakespeare nor Jonson’s plays were published in Folio form. It’s highly unlikely that Bradstreet’s Puritan family would have attended the theaters (which the Puritans would later shut down in a fit of self-righteous probity). It’s also very unlikely that her family would have read any of Shakespeare’s published works, like Venus & Adonis or the sonnets, which were considered erotica by just about everyone. Marlowe, likewise, translated Ovid’s erotica. The theater was considered the den of iniquity. What did that leave? Pious and dull verses by pinch-lipped religious men and, especially, women. Women were encouraged to translate or write pious verse. As Christina Rosetti would demonstrate a couple hundred years later, some women need no encouragement to dip their quills in the venomous ink of self-righteous rectitude. It wasn’t all men making them do this. There was also Du Bartas, who Bradstreet read and eulogized, the French poet and Hugeonot famed for his religious epic poetry (which had been translated into English).

The older verse of the 80’s and 90’s along with translated religious verse (always more conservative) is probably what Bradstreet read and used as a model. It’s a miracle that she later wrote the kinds of poems she did. They start out bland and pious, but at some point she seems to have drained that cup. She begins to write about her life, her husband and her children.

So, with all that as a background, I was interested to see how Potter would “write” Meanwell. What would she imitate? Would she imitate the language, the verse forms of the era, Bradstreet? The questions are fraught with pitfalls. Should a modern poet avoid anachronistic verse and language, or dive into it, producing not only the voice of the period, but its literature? If so, to what degree? Should an illiterate servant be reciting her narrative in brilliant metaphysical rhymes and Shakespearean sonnets?  Logan’s issue with Trethewey, after all, isn’t that she put the words of a white slave owner into a slave, but that she did so with a bias for the pretty (rather than profane). Potter, I think, avoids that pitfall. Meanwell describes the facts of life, sickness and death with a brutal factuality map-picture-claes-van-visscherthat I found believable and true. In an era that had seen the plague, saw executed prisoners hang until they rotted from the rope, and the amputated hands and legs of traitors nailed to the walls of the Thames.

We, today, would have been horrified. In Meanwell’s world, that’s just the way it is. Get used to it. Get over it.

Heaving and setting with such force that the ocean might spill
from off God’s earth makes it a great wonder
to behold our sister ship the painted Jewel
for we need her midwife most urgently to disencumber
a good-wife retching under her bloody cloak on the shit-slick boards
where fearful ladies huddle under the hatches from the storm

though I mean well I cannot bear to look on her
small head where a twist of hen-scrapings might be her face
for she appears not a creature of a human nature
rather then entrails of an animal gouged alive from its earthly form
the shrieks swelling over its foul-smelling mire…

~ The Death of the Lewd Seaman Attends a Sea-Born Child

The quality of Potter’s poetry that impressed me in Birchsong, it’s concreteness of imagery — tangy, evocative and fresh — continues in Meanwell, and is the quality that saves her free verse from the generic dullness of her peers. I tried to discern whether any of her poems were in any sense formal — if there was any accentual,  syllabic or accentual-syllabic verse. If there was, I have missed it. There was no rhyme but for the occasional off-rhyme (so unpredictable and occasional as to feel accidental rather than deliberate). I confess a little disappointment in this regard, but only a little. It probably wouldn’t have been appropriate. Her poems do resemble, in their shape and rhetorical compactness, the flavor of 17th century verse.

As it is, Potter does dress her verse with the kind of extended metaphors and poetic personifications we’d fully expect from poets of the era:

Ruined as I am the sea makes no mind
as it leaps and licks higher by the moment
with the icy winds that hound us
like dogs baring long teeth at our bellies
and where is our God I wonder
who would seem to punish the revolt
of dour Puritan men against the prelates
with slanderous blows of the great water…

…as if a servant might possess a low power
to save souls from the monstrous jaws
of the watery beast that wing-spread doth
rise and bend over our whole company…

As the rough sea licks out bitten skin with salt tongue…

…and a great whale drifted along our side spouting water
as if it were God’s leviathan sleepily smoking his pipe at twilight…

Potter really seems to let her hair down when describing the animalistic gyrations of the ocean. I can’t help thinking she revels in the excuse to use the extended metaphors, auxiliary do forms, grammatical inversions, and personifications that contemporary poets, otherwise, wouldn’t dare use lest they sully their unassailable reputation for the boring. It’s in Potter’s use of language and imagery, rather than meter or rhyme, that she reminds us we’re in the 1600’s. That’s okay. I think it works and I think she manages the effect beautifully, not too much and not too little. Admittedly, it’s highly unlikely that a Jacobean servant would have narrated her life with such trenchant imagery or in such a poetic voice, but at some point one must grant that art’s job isn’t to be faithful but to be true.

Other than that, the reader will notice that poems aren’t punctuated. I’m not sure why Potter chose this affect, but I can theorize. One reason may be that she wanted to suggest Meanwell’s lack of education, that she’s not “booked”. Meanwell’s monologues plow from one thought to the next the way, perhaps, such an uneducated woman would speak. Another reason might be that Potter wants to make the reading a little more difficult, as if to suggest a different period of time and way of talking. Another is that Potter simply prefers to write that way. Some readers will be put off by this. I wasn’t.

When Meanwell is finally free to live her own life, the verse follows suite. The lines no longer imitate, in appearance, the blank verse or stanzas of the 1600’s, but the open and unstructured free verse of contemporary poetry.

Westward

In the back matter of the book, we’re told the following:

“Through Meanwell, the feelings of women, silecned during the midwife Anne Hutchinson’s fiery trial before the Puritan ministers, are finally acknowledged. In effect, the poems are about the making of an American rebel. Through her conflicted conscience, we witness Meanwell’s transformation from a powerless English waif to a mythic American who ultimately chooses wilderness over the civilization she has experienced.”

My own reading of Meanwell isn’t quite so pat, and that’s a good thing. There are no heroes in the book, least of all Meanwell, and that reminds me a little of Robert Frost and the characters in North of Boston. There’s a meanness and pettiness to Meanwell that makes her appealing and human. How could she be otherwise? In the poem Two Annes Have I served Half-Faithfully, Meanwell tells us something that Bradstreet Hutchinson has said.

once I heard her proclaim
that to be a woman was to be
blessed

that to be a woman was to possess mastery
of one’s own
body········one’s own
········mind

Jan, 25 2013 ~ Note: When I originally wrote the review, I incorrectly remembered that the above lines were spoken by Bradstreet. Potter sent me an E-Mail to correct me. She wrote:

“But I should point out one minor but intriguing misreading. I confess that I like your misreading because it opens a fascinating view down the road not taken. It is actually Anne Hutchinson who says (and did say in real life) that to be a woman is to be blessed. It’s part of her feminism, of course, and another reason why she so enraged the ministers. But–what if Bradstreet had said it? What a delicious irony!”

And that led me on a very interesting diversion. Did Bradstreet never once refer to her identity as a woman? So I got out my copy of Bradstreet’s writings and searched through them. The closest Bradstreet comes to referencing her own identity as any thing other than a Christian, first and foremost, or “soul”, is in her short prose autobiography To My Dear Children. She writes:

It pleased God to keep me a long time without a child, which was a great grief to me and cost me many prayers and tears before I obtained one, and after him gave me many more of whom I now take the care, that as I have brought you into the world. and with great pains, weakness, cares, and fears brought you to this, I now travail in birth again of you till Christ be formed in you. [The Works of Anne Bradstreet: Edited by Jaennine Hensley p. 241]

But for these brief words — “I now travail in birth again” — we might imagine a father writing this. That Bradstreet has so subsumed and suppressed (if that’s the right word) her own identity as anything other than a Christian whose identity exists only in reference to her husband and patriarchal faith, makes her contrast with Hutchinson all the more striking. It’s tempting to say that Bradstreet’s sensibility would be utterly foreign to a modern and secular woman. I’m not so sure. Meanwell, from this perspective, not only straddles two different paradigms of womanhood in her own day (with an ear to both and drawn to both worlds) but also, perhaps, speaks to modern women who, though now firmly in Hutchinson’s world, are nevertheless compelled, in some small way, by the perceived safety and certitude of a “traditional” woman’s role. Does a woman seek the solace and approval of children, family and faith, or does she risk independence, potential isolation and disapproval (excommunication). Anne Hutchinson’s isolation led to her murder and was understood by men( and probably women too) as a just warning to any woman desiring to reject the patriarchal roles assigned to her.

All that being said, I still wonder that Hutchinson’s words didn’t put it in Meanwell’s mind to burn a house down — she who had never possessed mastery of her own body — her fate.

Jan 27, 2013 Potter, via E-Mail, brought to my attention another passage in which Bradstreet briefly describes her position as a woman writing poetry:

“I like her poem, “Prologue,” for her musings on what she faces as a woman-writer.  I feel her taking a deep breath, and then diving into the wreck.  Especially pointed is part 5:

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits,
A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits:
If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.

Nevertheless, by the end of the poem, she bows once more to male superiority.   (I think she was politically astute.)  The only public acknowledgement of herself as poet that she claims to seek is a modest wreath of thyme or parsley, rather than the bay wreath, or laurels of famous men.  But she clearly wants some credit, and she wants it as a woman.”

The only observation I would add is that Bradstreet reveals some ambition, in addition to wanting credit. My own feeling is that she shows some awareness and pride in her own talent and is excited to write poetry. The passage also reveals the kind of thing she must have heard from men and women. Mainly, they didn’t believe women were capable of accomplished poetry, dismissed their efforts or accused them of plagiary or dumb luck. Elizabeth Cary, another female poet and contemporary of Anne Bradstreet, was most forcefully discouraged from poetry by her own mother (who didn’t approve of Elizabeth’s “devotion to books”. We can’t necessarily conclude that the “carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits” was solely the tongue of men. Nevertheless, what the passage does tell us is the difficulties and discouragements Bradstreet must have confronted and how lucky she was to have had (what must have been) a supportive husband and children – something Meanwell sorely envied.

puritans

Meanwell desired the outward privileges, as she saw it, of Bradstreet’s world, but did she ever fully comprehend it? I think it’s only when Meanwell is finally freed from servitude, in my reading, that she reveals something like admiration and compassion for Bradstreet and only then begins her search for her own identity and meaning.

…what a fool I was
to believe········to believe
rhymes with Eve so what if those
ministers may be right

no I believe········with two Annes
it is blessed to be
woman

My feeling is that this book is a keeper and well worth reading. The poetry is some of the best around and Potter’s trenchant, concrete imagery is perfectly suited to evoking the hard and cruel landscape of the old world in the new. There are other moments and nice details I haven’t mentioned, but you will have to read the book. My advice is to buy this book and buy Bradstreet’s poetry with it. The two go together beautifully.

Donne: His Sonnet V · Spank me, ô Lord

My New Favorite ‘Complete’

This post was requested by Melissa. She asked me to provide a scansion, but I can’t just scan a poem and not talk about.

I’m sure a few upper lips in academe will be horrified by the title of my post but, let’s not kid ourselves, when we boil down Donne’s fifth Shawcross DonneHoly Sonnet, we get the anguished guilt-trip of a penitent. Such is the power of a great poet, and such was the power of King James English, that Donne could turn an ostensibly confessional poem into, if not a masterpiece, a compelling work of literature.

Anyway, I think this post was meant to be. While I was noodling around on Christmas Eve’s Eve at a Montpelier used book store, I discovered another complete collection of Donne’s poetry. Now I have three. This one comes from The Anchor Seventeenth-Century Series and is edited by John T. Shawcross. This particular edition, printed in 1967 (and in a becoming shade of pink) is now my favorite. It may be out of print. The reason it’s my favorite is because Shawcross  ‘gets’ the importance of spelling and punctuation in Elizabethan poetics.  H.J.C. Grierson, the editor of the two volume gold-gilt Oxford edition glosses over the punctuation in crucial places. Even my former favorite, the Everyman edition edited by C.A. Partrides, doesn’t quite get it right. The Norton “Critical” Edition (air quotes), is useless. Don’t get me started. Donne’s metrical practice isn’t all that difficult if we preserve the spelling and punctuation. Donne did not intend his poetry to be difficult. He gave us all sorts of clues. Here’s how Shawcross sums up his editorial practices in relation to the crucial question of Donne’s orthography.

[T]he danger of a plethora of so-called scholarly texts is present, but a revision of Grierson’s, eschewing certain misreadings which often seem to have arisen from delicacy and certain modernizations which obscure subtleties, has long been needed. (…) ¶ The practice of inserting an apostrophe to indicate elision has generally been followed. It is consistently followed in preterits and participles where “e” would create another syllable. 9e.g. “deliver’d,” (…) , in combinations of “the” and “to” where the vowel is not pronounced (e.g. “the’seaven,” (…), and to’advance,” (…), and in the coalescing of two contiguous vowels from two different words (e.g. “Vertue’attired,” (…), which is given three metrical beats.) In the latter case the vowels are really pronounced but within one beat, as in Italian. Where syncope is necessary for meter (e.g. in “discoverers,” (…) no elision is inidicated unless an apostrophe appears in the copy text. (The Complete Poetry of John Donne: Edited with an Introduction, Notes and Variants by John T. Shawcross p. xxii)

If Donne’s orthographic intentions matter to you, look no further. Without further ado, here is Donne’s Sonnet V as edited by Shawcross:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,
And burn me ô Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

the Scansion (& my high horse)

Back on my post discussing Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14, I covered the same issues that are relevant to this poem. So I’ll try not to repeat too much. As with Sonnet 14, Donne spells ‘er’ words, ‘re’, when he wants you to treat them monosyllabically. He spells power as powre, for example. When he doesn’t want you to pronounce the ‘e’ in ‘ed’ words, he apostrophizes them, e.g. drown’d. Most importantly, when Elizabethan poets wanted you to elide vowels, they used the apostrophe to show you which ones:

enviehave
theeand

These days, by contrast, we write you’ve instead of ‘youhave’ and Ive instead of ‘Ihave’. It’s the same thing. Contractions weren’t normalized and besides that, Donne (like other poets) was willing to take liberties where necessary. In every on-line posting of this sonnet (admittedly not by professional editors) these little niceties are left out. A little more unforgivably, the circumflex above the o (ô) is also left out. If reading the poem the way Donne wrote it matters then, well, it matters. As for sonnets in print (and edited by the experts) all but one leave out the apostrophes between the words above. Goes to show that professionals are just amateurs with degrees.

None of this is really a problem until your instructor gives you this poem as a homework assignment. They probably recommended a book like the Norton “Critical” Edition (air-quotes) or provided a photocopy that entirely omits the original cues that would make scanning the work so much easier. If you had the edition by Shawcross, then you might come up with something like this:

Scansion of Sonnet V

So, the first thing to be said is that once historical concerns are out of the way, scansion isn’t an exact science. Where one person might read a pyrrhic foot, another might read an iamb, spondaic or trochaic foot (depending on the words and phrase). My own practice is not to scan it the way we would read it in the 21rst century, but how Donne might have imagined it or read it himself. With that in mind, I find Donne to be the most metrically inventive and resourceful poet in the English Language (and including Shakespeare) and the most enjoyable to scan. The way Donne plays meter against phrase and line is beautifully flexible and allows for a wide variety of shade and inflection. My own scansion reflects that. I made some choices that others are welcome to disagree with (offer your own). We’ll go by quatrains just to illustrate how important meter can be to a poem’s meaning.

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black |sinne hath| betraid to endlesse night
4. My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.

Line 1. I love this first line.
Line 2.
Angelike is read is angelic.
Line 3. Most modern readers would probably read the second foot as strictly trochaic. The meter, however, makes a spondaic reading possible. I decided to go for it because (according to my rule of thumb) if a foot can be read as an iamb (or more simply if we can emphasize the second syllable) then we probably should (at least to see what effect it has on the line). In this case, emphasizing hath emphasizes the betrayal, sort of like: “Oh no! What have you done?” or “O no! What hast thou wrought?” Remember, Donne was living in the midst of dramatists like Jonson, Shakespeare and Marlowe. One Sir Richard Baker said of Donne that he was “not dissolute, but very neat; a great visiter of Ladies, a great frequenter of Playes, a great writer of conceited Verse.” The playgoing rubbed off on him. The Elizabethan era was dramatic and Donne’s poems are like little speeches — little dramatic set pieces.

You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new | seas in mine eyes, that so I might
8. Drowne my | world with my weeping earnestly,

Line 5. Heaven was pronounced as a two syllable or one syllable word by various poets. The reasons seem to have involved dialect or bald poetic expediency. Shakespeare, for instance, seems to have pronounced it disyllabically. Donne, to judge by his poems, may have pronounced it quickly and as a monosyllabic word, heav’n (or at least that’s how he treated the word in his poems).
Line 7.  Once again, I opted to emphasize the second syllable. A trochaic first foot would hardly be unheard of in Donne’s day (though used conservatively). I think he would have expected his readers to keep the meter where such a thing is possible. In this case, it makes sense. In Life 6 both instances of “new” are in an unstressed position. In line seven, it makes dramatic sense that Donne would be asking God to make new seas.
Line 8. For the same reasons, I emphasized ‘my’ in the first foot of the eighth line. Donne, in the first line, calls himself a little world. It makes sense, to me, that Donne is emphasizing his world as opposed to God’s e.g. You have your world, and I have my world. Also, this pattern of emphasizing normally unstressed words  is a technique that one finds throughout Donne’s poetry. The trick is what makes Donne’s poetry so speech-like and declamatory (he was, after all, famed for his oratories at the pulpit).

Or wash |it if| it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
12. And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,

Line 9. Again, rather than read the second foot of this line as pyrrhic, I made it iambic. If one reads Donne the way I do, one can’t help detect a sense of humor. “Alright already,” he seems to say, “if you can’t drown the word again, then wash it. Fine.”

And burn |me ô| Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

Line 13. If there was any doubt as to Donne’s predilection for shifting stress in ways a modern reader might miss and dismiss, the second foot of this clearly puts that to rest. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the circumflex above ‘o’.

The circumflex has its origins in the polytonic orthography of Ancient Greek, where it marked long vowels that were pronounced with high and then falling pitch. In a similar vein, the circumflex is today used to mark tone contour in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

All educated Elizabethans were schooled in classical Greek and Latin (even if they didn’t remember it all). Donne, with the circumflex John Donneabove the expostulation ‘ô’, makes clear that ‘ô’ receives the stress, not ‘Lord’. One can read that ‘ô’ in a variety of ways. I personally read the ‘ô’ with, perhaps, grim humor instead of exhausted despair. Some scholars seem to think Donne lost his sense of humor with his later divine poems. I’m not so sure. A quirky sense of humor runs through almost all of Donne’s poetry. I’m not convinced his old age was as sour or strict as some scholars might have us think.

Here’s how I read (and hear) it — the humor. It took me about 20 times to get the tone roughly where I wanted it. See what you think. (I’ve had a bad cough, from whooping cough, for about three months now. Can you tell?):

As I’ve written before, a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. To me, the meter suggests a touch of wry humor that knocks the academic dust right out of it.

Spank me, ô Lord, for I’have been bad.

Unlike some of Donne’s other sonnets, the meaning, I think, is fairly straightforward. The point of the sonnet, in my opinion, is not to display metaphysical cunning (as in many of his other poems), but to create a mood, much like a small soliloquy. In my reading, I’ve chosen to interpret that mood as wry humor.

So, once again, let’s go quatrain by quatrain:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
4. My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.

1. Donne sets the stage by dividing himself into his corporeal body and his incorporeal soul. C.A. Partrides observes that “man was habitually said to be the microcosm or ‘abridgement’ of the universe’. (John Donne The Complete English Poems p. 437)2. The elements (the body) and an angelic sprite (the soul).
3. The overstatement (even for Donne I think) of this line and next partly invite me to read the sonnet with some humor.
4. The assertion that the soul “must die” was unorthodox (C.A. Partrides calls it “a potentially dangerous notion”) and, at the wrong place and time, flirted with heresy. If the sonnet was interpreted as an exercise in wry humor, the assertion probably felt less heretical if it was even an issue.

You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
8. Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly,

5. You refers to Christ. 7. Powre can be read in the sense of create.
7-8. Donne asks Christ to create oceans out of Donne’s tears so that he may drown himself in his “earnest weeping”.

Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
12. And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,

9. “be drown’d no more” This refers to God’s promise after Noah’s flood, symbolized by the rainbow, to never flood the world again. “neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.” Genesis 9.11
11. heretofore – hitherto
12. “let  their flames retire,” That is, let the fires of lust and envy retreat. Lust presumably refers to his youth and envy to Donne’s involvement on Church and Court politics. Lust and envy are among the seven deadly sins.

And burn me ô Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

14. The last line is a reference to Psalm 69.9.For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up… When I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting, that was to my reproach.” Shawcross, in his notes to this sonnet, also sees a reference to the Eucharist. The blood and body of Christ constitutes his house and the eating of the wafer, Christ’s body, removes the sin of partaker. The final image is a compelling one. The image is that of God burning away (consuming), in a fiery conflagration, at least one part of Donne’s world — the part composed of the “Elements”. What will remain, presumably, is the Angelike spright.  However, this interpretation threatens to contradict Donne’s earlier assertion that both parts of his house must die. The question then pertains to what, exactly, will remain once God is done ‘consuming’ Donne with his purifying conflagration. What, exactly, will be “healed”? It’s a riddle unless we treat Donne’s first utterance as wry overstatement, and Donne’s conclusion as an implied admission that his soul is eternal and cannot be destroyed, only purified or healed.

And that’s that. I hope you enjoyed the post. Let me know. (Guess I’m making up for lost time.)

“Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”

  • The title is the search term that brought a visitor to my blog.

It’s Not Me, It’s You

In the teacup that is poetry, the question stirs up tempests. Many rationalizations for the rejection of rhyme have been given, some are genuine but just as many, I think, have been disingenuous. Some of the most absurd rationalizations have been sociopolitical. Formal poetry, and by extension rhyme and meter, has been saddled with accusations of being unpatriotic (Diane Wakoski ~ American Book Review May/June 1986), patriarchal (Adrienne Rich, Deinse Levertov, Diane Wakoski), nationalist (starting with Whitman wanting to break with the poetic tradition of the “Old World”), and whatever other -ism suits whatever chip a poet or critic carries on their shoulder.

“As long as the States continue to absorb and be dominated by the poetry of the Old World, and remain unsupplied with autochthonous song… so long will they stop short of first-class Nationality and remain defective.”

The quote above comes from Walt Whitman’s 1888 version of A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads. Whitman’s reference to the “Old World” was code for what Whitman considered the “European” tradition of meter, rhyme and form. The chip on Whitman’s shoulder? — his poetry wasn’t as widely read as he thought it should be (compared to the rhyming and metrical Longfellow). The following is from Ezra Pound’s preface to Some Imagist Poets 1915.

To create new rhythms — as the expression of new moods — and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist upon “free-verse” as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry a new cadence means a new idea.

That last line, “In poetry a new cadence means a new idea“, is pure Romanticism. The 19th century created and enshrined the artistic paradigms of genius, creativity and originality, concepts that were less clearly defined in earlier centuries. At the beginning of the 19th century, Kant wrote that “genius does not follow rules”.  Pound is essentially saying the same thing. A “new cadence”, by definition, breaks from the past and presumably from any rules – such as rhyme or meter. The ideal of creativity is restated as the “new idea”.

Pound’s contemporaries absorbed his argument and transformed its tenets into the free verse of Modernism.

For a time though, two competing visions of poetry were at war. Pound, from the outset, framed the debate when he referred to the “old moods” of traditional poetry, echoing Whitman’s nationalistic “Old World”, along with his insistence that free verse is a fight for the “principle of liberty”. Pound’s rhetoric takes on unmistakably political undertones. Disagree with me, he seems to warn, and the fight will be political; and that, as time passed, is how many poets justified their rejection of techniques like rhyme – through the politics of race, gender, and class. Any new artistic movement must validate itself; and, it seems, the best validation is political.

So, my first answer to the question, “Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”, is to answer that the disappearance of rhyme resulted from the desire to reject what had become the stifling tradition of Victorian rhyme and meter (which is what Pound was chaffing against). And because no artistic revolution goes unchallenged, the rise of free verse had to be defended (forcefully in some quarters) by portraying advocates of traditional poetry (and by extension the techniques of meter and rhyme) as reactionary, conservative, patriarchal, etc… In other words, it’s not the poet, it’s the poetry at fault; it’s not me, it’s you.

I don’t find any of these rationalizations against traditional poetry convincing or compelling; however, it can be equally stated that the political arguments against free verse were just as absurd. To some, free verse came to represent anarchy and moral degradation. I don’t buy those arguments either.

It’s the Poet, not the Poetry

It used to be that a poet’s meter and rhyme were what weeded the poet from the poetaster. Walt Whitman changed that. Whitman was not a talented writer of meter or rhyme, but he proved that being a great poet and a talented formalist were two different things.

With that in mind, there is an implicit confession in Pound’s revolution that many poets don’t care to admit or discuss. Implicit in Pound’s manifesto is an admission that the vast majority of poets just are not good at rhyme or meter — the problem with Victorian poetry was only partly it’s subject matter. The worst of it was the sing-song, amateurish quality of its lines.

Though it is better to cast free verse as a triumphant “new idea” rather than an admission of defeat, Pound’s manifesto nevertheless implicitly confesses that rhyme and meter are hard, that even the Victorians don’t do it well, and that most poets would be better off if they just didn’t try (or, as he more favorably put it, that they be “liberated” from the expectation). Of course, Pound didn’t put it that way publicly. He did so privately with T.S. Eliot:

Pound’s criticism of The Waste Land was not of its meaning; he liked its despair and was indulgent of its neo-Christian hope. He dealt instead with its stylistic adequacy and freshness. For example, there was an extended, unsuccessful imitation of The Rape of the Lock at the beginning of “The Fire Sermon.” It described the lady Fresca (imported to the waste land from “Gerontion” and one day to be exported to the States for the soft drink trade). Instead of making her toilet like Pope’s Belinda, Fresca is going to it, like Joyce’s Bloom. Pound warned Eliot that since Pope had done the couplets better, and Joyce the defacation, there was no point in another round. To this shrewd advice we are indebted for the disappearance of such lines as:

The white-armed Fresca blinks, and yawns, and gapes,
Aroused from dreams of love and pleasant rapes.
Electric summons of the busy bell
Brings brisk Amanda to destroy the spell
Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool,
Fresca slips softly to the needful stool,
Where the pathetic tale of Richardson
Eases her labour till the deed is done . . .
This ended, to the steaming bath she moves,
Her tresses fanned by little flutt’ring Loves;
Odours, confected by the cunning French,
Disguise the good old hearty female stench.

From On The Composition of The Waste Land by Richard Ellman

Says Pound, Pope did it better. The problem, Pound tells Eliot, is not that he is using rhyme and meter, but that he isn’t that good at it.

The truth is, the vast majority of free verse poets are not good at rhyme or meter (possibly none of them). And to be fair, the majority of formalist poets are also not that good at it. The majority of readers don’t know that, yes, the  majority of contemporary poets aren’t good at rhyme or meter because those poets are sensible enough not to try it. (Rue the day that a poet like Ron Silliman tries to write meter or rhyme.) And it is a far more pleasant thing that rhyme be rejected for trumped up reasons than that the poet admit he or she isn’t good at it.

There are exceptions. John Ashbery, for one, has gracefully stated that, if he could, he would write traditional poetry, that he likes traditional poetry, but that his talent lies elsewhere. I have had many free verse poets tell me, in private, that they have tried to write rhyme or meter, that they admire it, but that they lack the talent for it.

So, my more fully honest answer to the question, “Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”, is that poets aren’t good at it.

It’s not that poets “don’t write rhyme” because they reject it, but because they’re not, and never were, good at it. If you are writing poetry that rhymes and uses meter, be good at it. (Just as poets recognize their own limitations, they’re especially good at recognizing the limitations of others.) If you don’t “write rhyme” well, criticism will come where criticism is due. The best poets recognize good rhyme and meter when they see it. At worst, traditional poetic techniques are slighted for ideological reasons, and even envy.  Until you can tell the difference, ignore everyone and write what’s in your heart.

If your interest is in reading modern traditional poets, a few of us are around.

I’m always ready to recommend a few. Every heard of Duncan MacLaurin? He’s a poet about the same age as myself. Take a look and see what you think. Click on August/September 2011 Snakeskin 179, and look for MacLaurin at the top left. A pdf of MacLaurin’s poetry is available, along with a selection of eight at The Hyper Texts.

❧ Another god-damn Villanelle

Audio:

Guess what! This was translated into French (unbenownst to me). How apropos. Now this vile poem can afflict the selfsame nation that afflicted us with the Villanelle. You can see the original here. Or click below:

Continue reading

Plutonic Sonnets by Robert Bates Graber

A Sense of Humor

How refreshing to read a book by a poet with a sense of humor. I used to have a subscription to Poets & Writer’s Magazine and for twelve issues, for one full year, there was not one smile on the cover of its magazine. Plutonic SonnetsEvery featured poet gazed from its covers with the heart-broken burden of their own genius – a gaze that only poets are capable of – a gaze of  über-narcissism that would embarrass Narcissus himself.

I let the subscription expire.

For all the usefulness in the publication, I just could not handle one more angst-ridden cover.

You won’t find [G]reat poetry in Graber’s Plutonic Sonnets, but you will find poetry that is great fun to read and endlessly inventive. Don’t pick up Graber’s book if you’re in the mood for a Keatsian sonnet. Stick it in you backpack or oversized coat pocket. Wait until that moment when the thumb twiddling begins, then dig out Graber’s book and read one sonnet.

You might open the book to sonnet CXIII (Roman numerals are de rigueur):

Why do these eyes see anything save you,
And why is not your voice all I can hear?
Is touching you not all these hands should do,
This nose but draw your scents when you are near?
These lips of mine, that yet need common fare:
Can thus they use most of their pow’r to taste,
When they have savored lips beyond compare?
Why go these senses to such senseless waste?
Did I commit some heinous sin or crime
In this life, or in some life long before,
For which my senses now are serving time
To even up some hidden cosmic score?
Then comes redemption most magnificent:
Those sweet sensations for which they are meant!

The heinous sins and crimes of this sonnet are almost too numerous to detail. First, all but two of the lines are end-stopped (though this is surprisingly superior to many more serious and modern sonnets). Second,  what modern poet would dare apostrophize a word like pow’r, especially for the sake of meter? – how quaint and 19th Century. Third, what modern poet would ever indulge in such archaic diction as: Why go these senses to such senseless waste? Fourth, what modern poet would succumb to such a grandiose (almost Miltonic) inversion as Then comes redemption most magnificent.

Robert Bates Graber would.

Graber makes no effort to hide his influences. From the opening sonnet, we know exactly what he’s been reading:

Bright Gem of the Aegean! Who will dare
To ope’ the treasure thou hast giv’n our kind,
To take its measure, so beyond compare,,
And tell what thou hast meant for human mind?

Graber never wholly leaves behind these 19th Century (and earlier) roots. And he’s not embarrassed by it.

And yet, despite his flagrant disregard for contemporary sensibilities (let alone Ezra Pound), there’s something engaging about his flagrancy. If I were the betting kind, I would bet that Graber is perfectly aware of his poetry’s obsolescences. He revels in it. And that carefree sensibility, to me, makes his poetry refreshingly engaging. Sonnet CXIII is a perfect Shakespearean Sonnet. But not content to simply imitate Shakespeare’s rhyme scheme, he imitates Shakespeare’s sensibility and wordplay – scents (with its pun on cents and common fare), senses and senseless – very Shakespearean. Is it a Masterpiece? No. Is it fun to read? Yes. A poet without pretension and with a sense of humor, I love it.

hydraDONE TO DEATH

Can we please have just one more poem about Greek myths?

There are some modern poets who continue to draw “inspiration” from the Greek Myths, as though the 19th, 18th, 17th, 16th and 15th centuries never happened. They do, honestly, think they have something new and original to add, but Greek Mythology is truly the Hydra of modern poetry. All the pathos and vigor has long since been drained out of them. Allusions, let alone whole poems devoted to the myths,  are as appealing, to me, as stale lettuce.

With that in mind, what a pleasure to read Graber’s Greek Mythology.  He treats it with a tongue in cheek irreverence I can respect.

But now I fear some readers there must be
Whose criticism I cannot avoid;
For, knowing something of mythology,
They have been growing more and more annoyed.

Not me. In Sonnet CVIII, he ruins a perfectly good rape of Proserpina, turning it into a sweet consummation:

The couple were transported to a room,
A quiet chamber very near the top;
And there their love did sweetly consummate,
And afterward, a pomegranate ate.

Why would Graber sully Pluto’s reputation with the imputation of love? He answers that in CIX.

I know old masters model it their way:
A grabbing god, a goddess terrified…
To all of which I have but this to say:
All are agreed that Cupid’s aim was true;
And rape’s a thing true love could never do.

And so Graber goes on his merry, end-stopped way – a narrative poem in linked sonnets! Over a course of several, he shamelessly rewrites the myth of Proserpina and Pluto.  He’s not a poet for elaborate imagery or, really, imagery of any kind. Don’t come to his poetry expecting to be swept away by imagery, rhetorical complexity, or a melodiousness of line. If he does need to stretch a little, he unapologetically borrows or paraphrases (in this case from Shakespeare): “I love you,” Pluto murmured, “and my love/Is past all reason, and is past all rhyme;/’Tis such as dreams and myths are fashioned of…” But that’s not what Graber’s poetry is about. If anything, Graber’s poems could be characterized as little essays that just happen to be in Sonnet form – meter and all.  Each one, like the Shakespearean Sonnets on which they’re based, are little arguments, sometimes conflicting, sometime with a twist, that find resolution in swift epigrammatic coupleta – a neat, rhetorical summing up.

Read Graber’s poetry for the almost Elizabethan joy he takes in the working out of ideas and narratives. That said, at times, Graber’s casual (but usually controlled) tongue-in-cheek tone veers dangerously close to self-parody and outright mediocrity.

“…And though my heart no longer lies below,
There’s this to think of, should we elsewhere roam:
Up here I don’t amount to anything;
Down there we’d share a throne, for I am King!”

The last two lines have none of the ring or pithiness of Milton’s: “It is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.” They sound altogether too quickly written. Even a little reflection and editing might have tightened them up. As it is, they typify a devil-may-care casualness that is sometimes carried too far by Graber. Even in humor, there’s a balance to be struck. And, to be fair, Graber does make fewer mistakes, like these, as the book progresses.

The Science

Robert Bates Graber

This, in my opinion, is the most enjoyable aspect of the book and the facet that most distinguishes and recommends it. Any reader who is a lover of science (and I am one of them) will enjoy Graber’s scientific sonneteering.  My wife, who has taught the whole gamut of mathematics in high school, couldn’t help but crack a smile at some of Graber’s antics.

(To Isaac Newton)

A pebble: it is difficult to name
An object more conveniently discrete;
Yet “calculus” (or ‘pebble’) somehow came
To name the branch of math with which we treat
All nature’s deepest continuities…

Or if you favor cosmology:

If a mere golf ball represents the Sun
At Yankee Stadium’s home plate, we know
A trip to Neptune would take a home run;
And the next star would be in Chicago!
Such is the size and emptiness of space.
In search of something solid, shall we turn
To matter? Well, supposing we replace
Our Sun with golf-ball nucleus, we learn
That centered, its electrons, far afield,
Would haunt the stadium’s remote recesses….

Or if you favor Astronomy, Graber dedicates several sonnets to the Herschels and one sonnet-sized biography of John Flamsteed (Sonnet XLII):

They say your brewer father could not see
Just what on Earth your hobby could be for;
Yet in your youth your king called you to be
His Astronomical Observator.
And Tycho, whom you called “the noble Dane,”
Inspired you to chart the stars that clad
The night…

You can actually learn interesting facts and anecdotes about the various sciences and scientists you never knew. Addressing Dmitri Mendeleev (Sonnet LX), he informs us:

You wowed the world when you predicted three
New elements with your “periodic table.”
And though it sounds like something of a spoof,
You are the reason vodka’s 80 proof.

It’s too hard not to forgive a poet for his numerous excesses and stylistic frivolity when he is so engagingly self-effacing and humorous. The audience for this book of poetry will be the one who enjoys Graber’s playful references to Greek Mythology, his irreverent odes to the foibles of great scientists, and an ability to sum up scientific grandiosity within the space of a sonnet. Each sonnet is a teaspoon of sugar for the knowledgeable grown-up.

About Robert Graber

Because nothing is private on the Internet, I stumbled on this little piece of autobiography.

“I was born in 1950 in Lansing, Michigan, and grew up in northern Indiana. My father was a physician (obstetrics/gynecology), my mother a schoolteacher. We were Mennonites. Though we were not among the highly culturally-conservative ones, I was impressed by the church’s claims to ultimate significance and by the church/”world” dichotomy. Within months after leaving home at age 19, however, I became a devout agnostic. I was attracted to anthropology by the popular books by Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey. I got my bachelor’s at Indiana University in 1973, my masters (’76) and doctorate (’79) at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Victor Barnouw, who had been a student of Ruth Benedict, was my adviser. My dissertation was a comparative study of the schisms that have made Mennonites such a culturally variable group of sects. I published several papers in psychoanalytic anthropology, but have grown more and more preoccupied with quantitative theorizing about cultural evolution. My book in press is *A Scientific Model of Social and Cultural Evolution* (Thomas Jefferson University Press 1994) and I am writing an introduction to general anthropology for Harcourt Brace. I have a wonderful wife and two great daughters 13 and 11. I play classical guitar, golf, and chess (in order of declining proficiency), and drive a red ’72 Mustang (fastback) which still looks good if you don’t look too closely. I taught for two years at Millsaps College in Jackson, MS, before coming to Northeast Missouri State. I enjoy teaching anthropology as an integrative, “eye-opening” experience for students.”

In the meantime, Graber is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Truman State University, lives with his wife, Rose, in Kirksville, Missouri. He has published four other books besides Plutonic Sonnets (the book for which, he tells me, he is most passionate). Though the back matter of Plutonic Sonnets doesn’t name them, here are links to his other books, for those who might be interseted.

Valuing Useless Knowledge

  • “Robert Graber explores the historical, philosophical, and sociological origins and nature of liberal arts and sciences education and draws on anthropology to show us how much to value such ‘useless knowledge’.” • His book recieved 3 Five Star reviews at Amazon.

Plunging to Leviathan

  • “Making it fun (and even exciting), Robert Graber pursues here a very serious issue the coming of a world state and gives opposing sides of this debate fair and frequent airings. With his accustomed mathematical skill and ingenuity, he makes a case for the future unification of the world without the necessity of global war. Even the skeptics, and I’m one, hope he s right.” Robert Carneiro, American Museum of Natural History

A Scientific Model of Social and Cultural Evolution

  • This book, for which I couldn’t find a cover, is reviewed at Dannyreviews.com.

Meeting Anthropology Phase to Phase

  • “In Meeting Anthropology, the major phases through which our species has passed provide the structure for a truly coherent encounter with general anthropology — biological, archaeological, cultural, and linguistic.”