Tuesday, January 10, 2023


 I love cats as much as the next premature curmudgeon, and I can't help but think that Christopher Smart is half pulling our collective leg with his rock-slapping waves of adulation for his cat. Years ago I wrote a poem called "The Praying Mantis" that was a list of self-contained sentences, each beginning with the title phrase and then completing itself with a some qualitative drivel; the point was, of course, was to lampoon the baroque phrased claims you come across in self-penned biographies, press releases or eulogies that overshoot the commemorative mark. The challenge was to see how many fresh takes I could get starting from the same premise and at what point would I sense that I was done, winding up the sequence on a diminished, perhaps exasperated note?

The praying mantis returns no phone calls,
The praying mantis will not shake your hand,
The praying mantis does not pay sales tax,
The praying mantis had been to the moon and found it drab and without a bar,
The praying mantis ignores streetlights and no smoking signs,
The praying mantis does not hear what you have to say,
The praying mantis is the other side of the story,
The praying mantis loves a hammer with sturdy, curved claw,
The praying mantis will have lunch when he's done with you,
The praying mantis is a close, friend of Sammy Davis Jr.,
The praying mantis directs traffic until it's an atonal film score,
The praying mantis says nothing but means volumes,
The praying mantis cured cooties and shared it with no one…
The litany went on another sixty lines, until the absurdity grew tiresome, or my imagination failed, or both, but the point is that it was interesting to witness the momentum one could get attributing massive potential to things of seeming small consequence. I was interested in how the praying mantis could, by his lack of interaction with the larger human world, could seem, given the colliding box car cadence, seem a larger, more powerful force, one mere mortals should respect lest his restraint fall and said insect really show us what for. I had been thinking of every cliché portrayal of hip and badass cool I had come across, from junkie jazz geniuses, the Beats, white Negros and tortured renditions of existential cool; the sort of man who so agrees with himself-in-the-world that he is privy to great amounts of power, but that power is with held because there is no need for an ostentatious display. In other words, a state so slippery that attempts to describe it accurately result in growing amounts of absurdity, some of it baffling. Smart, it seems, wants the habits of his cuddly kitty to embody something purposeful with the divine, to reveal a connection with a heavenly agenda that our intellect prevents us from sensing much of the time but which a cat, with senses tuned like delicate instruments, can pick up on and be affected by.
For then, he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon
**his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing, he begins to consider himself.
For this, he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
There is a belief that there are absolutely no coincidences in God's Universe , that nothing, nothing at all happens my mistake, that what people and creatures do is , to greater or lesser degree, the result of a divine intervention against our baser natures. One can see why Smart was inspired by his cat, cats being a creature that, while domesticated, still seem independent, engaged with invisible forces, acting in accordance to stimulus humans have little or no capacity to discern.
Smart injects so much purposefulness and subtle intent in his cat's movements that assuming that he's using the creature to mirror his self-image is unavoidable. Or at least something to consider as one pursues alternative readings. He seems to be writing about his own lazing about, it seems, his own time eating, musing, writing, taking walks, talking , just being rather than doing something more active, productive and profitable. His cat is connected to a spiritual path, or at least he sees hints of it with each lick, purr, fur ball and odd reclining angle, and mounts an indirect argument that his very being, those times when he is thinking of the connections between stationary objects, the contemplative mode, is precisely how his God intended him to be in this life. Arguing that God didn't want me to work is something I've never had the nerve to try.
Some had commented elsewhere that these might be called "attention poems", something I like the sound of.I like "attention poem", as in a particular thing--creature, object--getting an unusual and , I think , unexpected focus. I'm one of those who thinks that citizens come to know the world through addressing it formally, "knowing", in this sense, being more than a formal recognition of origins, functions, and utility; imbuing a mantis, a cat, a building with qualities alien to them is a way of developing an intimate relationship with those things that might otherwise be problematic. We give them extraordinary qualities through a fanciful rhetoric, itself distorted and careening along the tracks so that they may become ordinary to us. It may be a shamanistic ritual transposed to the written word, an exercise of the will to imagine a realm of metaphysical propositions in an effort to assimilate a bit of the virtue and power the tropes would imply. It would seem a way of making that which is ultimately unknowable--the thing in itself--less of a concern and more an asset in our way through the day, the weeks, the months, the years.
Thinking again, the use of the word "ordinary" doesn't do justice to Smart's evocation. Nothing in the way Smart describes his cat seems an attempt to reduce something in size. A better phrase would have served the point better, which is my feeling that Smart, on some level, was trying to associate himself with the subtle and sublime qualities he attributes to his dear cat and, perhaps , have those same graces become a part of himself. You could also assert that the very act of sensing these things in his pet and having the language mastery to sufficiently align the motion with the spiritual nuance and attending effect comes from an innate quality, that these conditions already exist within Smart . He would be, then, be in the act of recognizing what he already knows , that part of the shared condition within his God's universe that is within himself and the living things around him. Not that the poem is meant to be the beginning of a campaign toward universal spiritual suffrage for all creatures great and small, but his close reading of Jeoffry's manner offers an enticing clue to his greater cosmological sense.

Saturday, January 7, 2023


 It's springtime, the temperatures rise, the flowers blossom and the nostrils swell with the scents of clean air, a sweetness that hearkens you to younger, hardier, randier days. At the drop of a hat, when the instincts overcame your better thinking in tandem with a like-minded partner--heads and genitalia swelled with the flush of urge and there was no argument to stop the rearrangement or removal of over and underclothes. Desire had its logic, but it was without language or syllogism, no conventional tools at all; it was an eroticism of things in your surroundings being focused, like perspectives that vanish to the same point, the same conclusion; you have to get your nut. This moment in the day, after the stolen looks, the limping banter and sly insinuation, has been dictated. You vanish, you get your rocks off. And for the rest of your life you relive those moments, as there is in the accumulated memory the incidents that have the psychic tabs sticking out. The days at work, the conversations you find yourself having, your appropriate discussion with someone half your age set you up for visions of old youth and the energy stream you hadn't dipped into for years. The current race reminds of you of every erotic thing you'd performed; for a moment you find yourself slipping between dimensions, the conversation you're actually having and the bedtime story you're presently reliving.


My student sends letters to me with the lights turned low.

They feature intricate vocabulary, like soporific and ennui.

Like intervening and kinetic and tumult. He strings words together

like he's following a difficult knitting pattern. He is both more

and less striking without a shirt on. I know this from the time

I ran into him at Wal-Mart buying tiki torches and margarita mix

and, flustered, I studied the white floor tiles, the blue plastic

shopping cart handle, while he told me something that turned

to white noise and I tried not to look at his beautiful terrible chest,

the V-shaped wings of his chiseled hip-bones. I write him back.

I tell him there are two horses outside my window and countless weeds.

I tell him that the train comes by every other hour and rattles the walls.

But how to explain my obsession with destruction? Not self-immolation

but more of a disintegration, slow, like Alka-Seltzer in water. Like sugar in water.

I dissolve. He writes enthralling. He writes epiphany and coffee machine.

He is working in an office, which might as well be outer space.

I am in the mountains. The last time I worked in an office, he was ten.

I was a typewriter girl. I was a maternity-leave replacement for a fancy secretary.

I helped sell ads at TV Guide. I was fucking a guy who lived in a curtain-free studio

above a neon BAR sign on Ludlow Street, and all night we were bathed in pot smoke

and flickering electric pink light. Here, the sun goes down in the flame

of an orange heat-wave moon. The train thrums and rattles the distance,

and I think of his chest with the rounded tattoo in one corner and my youth,

the hollows of his hip-bones holding hard, big-box fluorescent light.

—Erika Meitner

Meitner's poem gets that layered desire right, exquisitely so, especially as she tries to talk about her young male friend's seductive use of big words while trying to study his shirtless chest and bone structure. She dissolves, she says, and her memories are no longer ordered by date, but become, it seems, a series of membranes she passes through. The connection with the actual moment is tenuous as the euphoric recall gives way to biographical detail, wonderfully, enticingly offered up here in the guise of bars, tiki torches, Walmart stores.  The community she lives and works in, for a moment, seem cruelly banal as the light of previous glories of skin loom large. The authority of the senses rules out any other possibility; for a moment, a fleeting moment, the promises one has made and the commitments one has taken matter, not a wit. But one is anchored to the moment they are in--the mate, the job, the children all require your attention. All you can do is step from the time machine, brush off the dust, return to the world at hand.

Thursday, December 8, 2022



What did you discover about yourself while writing your poem?

Usually, I write to find out what comes after the sentence after the one I just wrote. I have a particular set of strategies, notions of musical phrase, cadence, rhythm, and structure I’ve developed over a good many years—and this isn’t implied that I’ve mastered this form of poetry, free, at all — and I’ve internalized these linguistic habits much as a jazz musician internalizes his training and notions of theory; I come up with a first line and consider what object, word, image, attitude it contains and try to imagine what sounds musical and rhythmic and a logical expansion on the details the first sentence contains. It’s theme and variation, improvisation of a sort in the moment of creation, seeing where the initial idea takes me, stanza to stanza, until I come to a place to a poem where it can end with a resolution (or irresolution) that satisfies me, and perhaps satisfies a reader. What I discover about myself is that there is another way to explore emotion, experience, spiritual and philosophical concepts without resorting to the mechanical language of the academy.

How can I take the line "my shadows hold the wisdom of a crow's mysterious intelligence" for a line in a poem and make it more poetic with the use of allusion and metaphor?

You can’t redeem this line, no matter how hard you might labor, not if you want to write a good poem. This is the kind of image someone new to writing poetry often writes when they’re trying to be/sound profound. Never try to sound smart, learned, philosophical in a poem: effective lines that resonate with readers on more profound concepts come from the best and most effective use of language to get across experiences and notions that are not easily conveyed through conventional prose. “No ideas but in things” is how master American poet William Carlos Williams put it. Let the object, that thing in the world that is in the situation being written about, be itself, without the flimsy abstraction. Read Williams, read TS Eliot, read H.D. and come to understand the way each is using language, and understand as well not just what they’re saying but also what they're leaving out. But trying to shoe horn a line you think is profound into a poem, a line that attempts to make a big statement, will only result in an awful poem. Be more direct, get rid of the “literary” language. And if a phrase comes too easily to you in the writing, get rid of it. Avoid the trite, the clichéd, the abstract. Have your poems come out as clear statements of experience, convincing recollections, not crowded with weak attempts at a higher language.

Does a knowledge of correct matter if you're writing poetry?

Of course, it does. There is the notion that poetry is an expressive free for wall where the rules of grammar don’t matter, and this is incorrect. Writing poetry, whether you’re a new formalist, a romantic, a practitioner of avant gard strategies, a fan of rhyming or someone ruthlessly in the camp of the free versers, is writing, a means of communicating to the reader. I'm a believer that one has to know the rules of the game before they discard them, too. A knowledge of correct grammar, of how to most cogently compose your thoughts and make them ready for the world, provides you with a working knowledge of forms, structures, gives you access to effective rhythmic devices, gives you a proper sense of how to use metaphor and simile. We all know, of course, that great jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane didn’t just get up on the band stand and start honking away ; their brilliant improvisations were based on profound knowledge of music theory and harmony, and based on relentless wood shedding, of practice in an effort to strengthen their skills as jazz improvisers. Their knowledge of music forms were internalized and gave them tools to compose their greatest sorties. The same goes for poetry. Every poet I’ve admired and studied—Eliot, Stevens, Shakespeare, Laux, Ginsberg, Baraka, HD—understood the fundamentals of writing and could work their way around the rules ; their writing was great, singular, and utterly fresh until now because their innovations acknowledged the traditions which had come before even as the poets broke away from them create their own work.

What's the difference between free form poetry and free verse poetry?

Free form poetry is a term used by terrible scribblers to hide the fact that they haven’t the faintest idea of what constitutes a good poem. Free form poetry will feature unrestrained expression, an excess of emotion, either show itself to be clogged up in clichés, sentimentality and bathos, or it can be utterly impenetrable in regard to any kind of readability or coherence. Many free form stanza writers will justify their cryptic, ungrammatical , spiteful, rigorously incomprehensible efforts as being “experimental” or “avant garde”: the gruel schleppers who use words like that are often eccentric, show an inability to accept advice for suggestions that might help them become better writers. Free form poetry is without craft, it is without art or any kind of creative integrity. It is the writing equivalent of puking, where all that awful, dreadful, disgusting stuff is just emptied onto the page without regard to revision.Free verse poets, the great free verse writers—Whitman, Dorianne Laux, TS Eliot, Ginsberg, WC Williams, Amiri Baraka, John Ashbery, many others—understand the fundamental techniques of writing poems, have been long time students of other great poets and have studied their methods in a variety of ways and have, in turn, mastered the techniques themselves. These are matters of rhythm, scansion, scale, the varying ways in which one uses metaphor, simile, allusion, and allegory among other facets. I could go on, but the free verse poets are real poets because though they don’t rhyme and there are shifting notions of pacing and rhythm that are obvious in their verse, there is also a clear understanding of techniques that they’ve made their own and have used to create their respective voices , the point of all that being is that its obvious there is skill , craft, and real inventive language being used to bring the reader into the poem, into the journey of ideas and feelings the well-written poem can evoke. Not every free verse poet is a great writer—as with any other art form, there are standards by which an artist is judged by reader and critics, and the simple fact of it all is that not everything is a work of genius. But it must also be said that the least of the free verse poets have at least an understanding of the craft and long history of poetry. Free formers do not, as a rule , and that’s a sad fact.

What did Charles Bukowski mean by "failure is freedom"?

It should be obvious if you’re familiar with Bukowski’s writings. As his recurring character Hank Chinasky wanted to do nothing more but play the ponies, drink, have drunk sex and sometimes write a poem, failing at something, a job, a marriage, a promise, some commitment to lead a responsible and principle life, frees you from the pressures of having to measure up and allows you to become something that isn’t scripted. Laziness, sloth, self-loathing, and inebriation were more honest things to be in this existence . You only had to be your smelly, repulsive self. If you and others have low or no expectations about you, the margin of disappointment is very low or nonexistent.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022


 Clumsy titles don't grab me at, but it's useful to see if the ill-phrases follows suit in the actual work. Fortunately, J. Allyn Rosser's poem After the Service, the Widow Considers the Etymology of the Word Salary , published in Slate in 2009,transcends the gabby quaintness. For starters, I would have junked the original title of this poem had I written and instead stared at the finished piece for a few moments, finally relying on the old trick of making the last full phrase of the poem the name of the piece. In this case, "Sighs for My Meat". Odd, strange, a communication from someone who can't find the words, this alternate title fits the Eliotesque tone of exhaustion, ennui, boredom that barely conceals the feeling that inevitable death is catching up with them. Too many poets consider the purposeless disguising of meaning to be enough to make a poem and to force it, even though private language isn't always an element that makes for a good poem. One is, of course, compelled to fill in the blanks, but we do get the gist, we get a crystallized essence, that of someone alone, after a service, returning to the daily rituals and routines where the familiar things are made strange, foreboding.

This morning began like anyone's:
coffee. Mine a bitter roast
too weak for the daytime
that keeps me up half the night.

The coffee is meant to give purpose to one's day, but it only ruins one's waking hours and time of sleep, and tastes bitter, as she knows half-sleep is not good for you. The days ahead are approached with caution, a creeping dread that changes the flavor of what's in the cabinet.

Back home, I liven things up
by microwaving popcorn:
an edible jazz I feed to the trash
for our walk to the curb.

It's not hard to see why the small matters that might have made home life a joy in the past seem a burden now, but it's an attempt to distract one from the core set. All the things we make become waste, all things of this earth return to the earth.

At the end of the day, one shadow
seems made of a deeper gray:
have I somehow earned this
by refusing for years to fear it?

I was speaking to a friend the other night on the matter of aging and he, a robust 70-year-old, remarked that he is at the point in his life where half the people he's ever known, his age, are dead. To combat his despair, he remains active: his hand goes out toward new friendships all the time; at times this seems like a mild mania he suffers from and one wonders how convincingly he can become best friends with a host of associates he's known only scant years and who, generally, are fifteen to twenty years his junior. But he smiles, this man who's been to many funerals, he is gracious, he is engaged with his world and community and he, perhaps, has found something that essence that of attitude, of spirit, that prevents the objects of his world from becoming harbingers, reminders, latent symbols of demise. But Rosser's speaker hasn't this resilience, a creature of habit for whom the familiar items seem merely to taunt and withhold truths. There is a parsing of the words one uses to describe their quality of being--a dissection, in other words, of something that is already dead.

Here at last my martini
embalming its hollowed olive,
and, as apparently originally intended,
salt for my salary, sighs for my meat.

A martini, embalming, a hollowed olive, the price one has paid for their life, salt for the meat, we have a language that finds itself conflated, with meanings and emphasis spilling over one another, a pickled narrator pondering the inevitable from the standpoint of something that is not living in any vital way but merely preserved. Rosser's language is masterfully exact in the sort of round-robin associations these bouts of pronounced foreboding can bring. This flesh is scarred, embattled, without a determining will to make a change this late in life, this flesh is tired, wounded. This is the internal narrative of someone waiting for the other shoe to fall.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

 I've said some rude things about Camille Paglia when the academic-turned-public intellectual was a regular columnist at Salon.com. I was berating her for basically wasting the opportunity to be smart about cultural and political issues by lavishing each form of self flattery. To court cliché, even Norman Mailer has more modesty. I haven't changed my mind, but I should mention her 2005 collection of poetry criticism, Break,Blow,Burn. It's the liveliest collection of critical remarks I've in years. Camille Paglia published her collection of poetry essays Break, Blow, Burn (now in paperback) in 2005, and straight away there were those neoconservatives who seized upon the firebrand professor as one of their own, someone brings "reason" back to the classroom.It was hoped in some discussion groups I've recently emerged from that Paglia is Sanity itself, ready to unfasten the choke hold of incomprehension that's been around literary criticism for decades. The short version of all that conversation was that Paglia would be the celebrity academic intellectual who would sift through the Great Books and present a straying society the Values and Virtues William Bennett cherishes almost as much as he does a solid poker hand and a stall stack of chips.Hold the phone. I don't think Paglia represents "a voice of reason", since the word "reason" is the last thing you want to apply to a close reading of a poet's work. It implies, by default, rationality, and it's never been the poet's assignment to reason through experience as if he or she were a scientist trying to classify and categorize the world about them.

Rather, poets, good poets, and their work continue to attract us because the way in which they usurp the instructed ordering aspects of language and instead find ways to integrated what is seemingly inexpressible, felt experience, the "interiority" of being, with what is observed in the factual being. It's perilously hard poetry to write successfully and, even when it's done well, reviewers toward totalizing , sense-making totems that bring a reasonable and agreeable sheen of coherence to a work; the way we've come to discuss poems falls too often in the smelly troughs of conventional wisdom, received perceptions, cracker-barrel philosophy, simplistic and simple-minded platitudes, all of which are devised, by consensus or conspiracy for readers and reviewers, to have the world remain entirely comprehensible and sane.

The voice of reason is the enemy to good poetry, and that is what Camille Paglia knows better than any other commentator; a poet, she argues in Break , Blow Burn (now in paperback) is that a poet , though a conscious and determining artist, acts nonetheless as a conduit for the wild strands of personal narrative, religion, myth, comprehensible realism, rage, philosophy merge, blend, twine and twist in the same discussion. Poetry is the language of unreason, another way of taking the pulse of the culture as seen from the particular and individual poet's voice who lives within and yet is compelled to view it askew. The essays in Break Blow Burn argue that the poems under review are not required to "make sense", to deliver a singular meaning, easily digested and disposed of, but exist instead to provide a subtler, more nuanced , more complex sense of what experience entails. Many ideas from many sources come to bear on a poem's thesis, and Paglia pulls them out, addresses them, and demonstrates the fascinating dialectic of the way ideas, images, expressions and varied idioms influence one another, offer shades of inference, change meanings.

It wasn't enough that the national discussion on poetry was already pathetic and contrived, a contest between assorted second and third generation splinter groups of specialized enclaves trying to inhale what was left of the air in the tiny room where the debate raged. Amazingly, the conversation had become as dumb as it was insulated. In the 2001, the New Agers and refugees from shoe gazing concerts got into the act with the publication of Roger Housden's slim collection Ten Poems to Change Your Life, in which he presented the undefined general reader with a set of poems, varied to gender, nationality, religion, life style orientation, that they might consider between errands and cell phone chats: " The Journey" by Mary Oliver ,"Last Night as I Was Sleeping," by Antonio Machado, "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman ,"Zero Circle" by Rumi ,"The Time Before Death" by Kabir,"Ode to My Socks" by Pablo Neruda , "Last Gods" by Galway Kinnell, "For the Anniversary of My Death" by W. S. Merwin, "Love After Love" by Derek Walcott "The Dark Night" by St. John of the Cross .

A high-quality selection, give or take exceptions according to tastes, but Housden's intent seemed less to introduce readers to the wonders and varieties of perspective poetry might offer than to bring us to the lectern where he would deliver his Message of the Day. Following each poem, there was a light discussion of the life's circumstances the preceding poet wrote about and Housden would extrapolate through a number of nimbly massaged points of literature, theology, popular spirituality, to give the imagined reader a broader perspective, a moment's respite from that crackle and insistence of contemporary consumption. The aim of the collection, hardly surprising, was to have the stressed audience abandon their cell phones, lap tops, and exercise equipment and make time to smell the roses before they were gone , trampled under the heel of progress.

It's not an original premise, but it remains sage advice all the same, and one could for the moment put their disdain for the use of a poet's work as fodder for a feel-good mill, although containing the contempt was harder than it would seem. The irony was that the fresh perspectives, the original language use, the carefully crafted evidence of subtle intelligence interrogating the problematic nature of existence was being used as another means of delivering readers to insights they already know. One hoped, even prayed, one hid under sheets of wishful thinking; any way of bringing readers to quality poets was worth a bit of pimping by an enterprising editor and motivational guru. Or was it?The problem remained that the skewed thinking that characterizes much of the best work would only confuse and further complicated the world for an audience that wanted assurances, not ironies from what they read and reflected upon. The mind was already a roiling with contradiction and discontent. Housden's editorial genius was his ability to ignore problematic subject and stir his declarations skyward, looking over the hill for the displaced Gods who formerly assured us a coherent world.

Ten Poems to Change Your Life turned into a series of five similarly named collections, a choice gathering of poets per volume, followed by Houston's compulsively upbeat chats. A gimmick has been established for Housden and was performing handsomely—the books, pocket sized, were perfect for bookstore cash register stands as impulse purchases, and in the dozens.

One despaired seeing that Housden's books sold while the poetry section remained the slowest selling in the store where one worked; the audience was ready to read one poem by Walt Whitman and absorb a slight ration of cracker barrel spiritualism as an afterward, but such readers weren't inclined to pick up Leaves of Grass and do their thinking. Housden's audience is one that wants to be told what things mean. Housden's brilliance isn't what he says about the poems but rather in recognizing an area of mild interest to big audiences that hadn't been adequately exploited and denuded of any possibility of inspiring even a minor itch.

It was enough to make one wants to give up the game entirely and watch DVD reissues instead, but there is a blast of fresh air coming through the room, Camille Paglia's Break , Blow, Burn, a collection of forty-three poems brought together for a close reading by the author. Paglia is a humanities professor at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and made her entrance on the national stage with the publication of her bulging, bombastic and usually brilliant book Sexual Personae, a sprawling study of sexual identity, its profound effect on art and culture, and the endless way that it's been disguised and altered. Personae was maddening in all its phases and investigations, with theories and declarations worthy of full dissertations popping up every few pages, yet no matter how one read her breathless , in-your-face explications that every proverbial pore of existence, society, and culture was dripped with sexuality (repressed or blatant), you couldn't dismiss with the usual brush-off .

Paglia's basic thesis about the best way to appreciate poems is to stop worshiping reputations and the sordid prestige that comes and begin instead to read and think about particular poems. Hers isn't a sensibility to bow to fashion or some one's deeply intoned name; fame and a gimmick will not acquaint the poet under review any slack. As she says in the preface, what she believes in are great poems, of themselves, separate from larger bodies of work. What we get in the forty-one essays in Break, Blow, Burn are her intense, close readings of what she regards as the best poems in English; the selection and the arrangement of what these "best" poems come to be won't satisfy every taste or notion of what honestly comprises the best work, but Paglia didn't write these missives to cosign every lazy idea we've had about poets and their work.These are her favorites, using her criteria, and quite unlike many skimpy or corpulent collections slapped between covers to satisfy a fleeting fashion, she will lay her arguments in solid, comprehensible and far-flung terms, returning again, again and yet again to the respective poems she's reviewing. Less a medium to make us feel warm and secure, her poems have to do with an extreme engagement with life on life's terms. Whether finding whole worlds of secular metaphysics contained in the few lines of Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of a Jar," sweetly limning the edgy and cavalierly erotic voyeurism of Paul Blackburn's "The Once Over" or marveling at the triple tiered city speak of Frank O'Hara's fantasy "A Mexican Guitar," Paglia discusses each of the poet's work as points in which spiritual certainty and intellectual pragmatism come into conflict, war with one another, and emerge by poem's conclusion with some third perception larger than the opposing inclinations which reveal a finer, more complex, less fixed situation for the human condition. In each case, Paglia follows the poet in the process of bringing together the poem, their process of perception, beginning with what was observed, the associations the image conjures or suggests, and delicately observing how the poet controls their associations, no less careful than a great composer, giving play to the various senses and associations each phrase and delicious reference appeals to.Paglia's genius , if that's it to be called, is her ability to recreate the poet's thinking at the moment of composition. This makes her discussions intimate, vital, a whirlwind of excited speculation.

Flux, change, destruction, growth, all the things that make the up the endlessly repeated cycles of death and birth, are what connect these poems, and Paglia , in these vividly studied pieces, isn't about to let any of us slide by with only a nodding acquaintance with what a poem can mean as well as be. Her view of art is that it increases our awareness of life's enormity, not reduces it to some meager paragraphs of ego massage, and it's a good thing that she was willing to put her notoriety on the line in introducing some rigor into the general chat. Finally, what is especially inspiring in Paglia's fierce arguments is her refusal to grant the readers slack. None of this material is over your head, she seems to insist, Get on the ladder and see what's out there.

Monday, October 31, 2022


 "The Unfortunates" by poet Cates Marvin, is a sad tale of sensitive people who are overwhelmed by life's cruel tricks to make them feel bad and keep them awake at nights contemplating what is horrible, ugly, and unfortunate in the cities they live in. It is not to my liking , mostly because the poet, Cates Marvin, tries to find some equal ground between herself (and those she presumes to speak for) and the homeless she espies whose misery gives her the jitters and attending guilt feelings, to which I say no dice. These steamy, cold streets are the mean ones better writers than Marvin, or me have walked down before, and they've managed to absorb the steaminess and squalor of their life and, depressed or no, didn't obsess on their frayed nerves. Their anxiety wasn't the subject, but an entrée to another topic. Marvin sticks with the frayed nerves, and that makes the poem a chore to read even once. It's a straining, over stocked equation; after spending the first stanza presenting the pathetic detailing the doings of the sad creatures he pities in ways that make them sound exotic, alien and strange, the second stanza smacks us across the face with slippery buckets of self-reflection in which Marvin, or the poet's stand in, waxes and whines on how this saps the vitality, makes the soul sink, and essentially turns sleep into a rehearsal for death:

Those hours we haggle,
wondering when the sincerity of sky's blue
will arrive, how come nobody's bothered to
repair the loose latch on the front gate, and
what kinds of eyes melancholy lovers have.

There is enough baloney here to make a hundred Salvation Army sandwiches. And for his sleep, one wonders why she doesn't buy ear plugs and a new mattress. Fragile poets are nothing new to verse and one ought not condemn them outright for their confessions of bad serves and upset equilibrium, but Marvin is neither Eliot nor Plath nor John Berryman , all three of whom could do more with their depressed witness to harsh facts and resulting sets of despair with remarkable self-reflection; the result was an honest poetry of personal exploration, and none of them, I recall, used the facts of poverty or squalor as a pretext to wallow in the kind of makeshift misery Marvin has concocted.

 It helps us to remember that Samuel Beckett's plays, novels, and poems were about those situations that have sapped us of our will to live creatively and makes a continued life of drudgery unthinkable to bear, and yet we do, getting up each day to face the same repetitious humiliations not from any courage to stay the course but because, more plainly, less gloriously, much more banally we cannot think of anything more interesting to do with our days. From this, Beckett gives us great comedy and creates a language of men that is more animal instinct than discourse; he digs within the sour mood of dread and drudgery and reveals sentences as loud and fragmented and repeated at odd intervals to kill what small spark of truth still rests in us, dormant. Beckett , unlike Marvin, reveals nothing apart from antics and absurdity, the rituals and recitations of characters keeping themselves distracted against a yawning chasm. Marvin can't stop talking about it and her feelings, and this quality, this yakkity yak she provides us does nothing to make you care or make you stay interested in the struggle. 

The intent of the subject makes her lines lead-footed, with some comically awful alliteration.", malice moves like mice…" is noteworthy not for evoking states of depression and ennui, but rather of old cartoons where the mice come out of their hiding places after the lights are out and throw one hell of a party). It's not a good fit at all, and somehow I'm dubious to Marvin's intent with the poem. The message is less about economic injustice than it is Marvin's feelings of powerlessness, which is fine in itself, but powerlessness in and of itself should not result in this kind of static, powerless writing.

Friday, October 21, 2022


It's been famously remarked that writer Rod McKuen was "America's  most understood poet". It was a smug bit of left-handed complimenting, a crack appearing to underscore the rosier, more banal, more hypnotically obvious this man's verse was. The proper poets, academics, and critics of the era, the 70s, considered what McKuen as worse than fresh spit. The irony, you'd think, was that he cried all the way to the bank, as he was among the best-selling living authors in history. Rod M. became quite a one-man industry, with books, records, greeting cards, calendars, movie scores, long sell out tours on a global scale. Who was laughing last? Barry Alfonso's 2019 biography of the writer, A Voice from the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen,  spent a good amount of time researching the many claims the poet made about his life and finds a personality more complex and melancholic than  one might suspect. Slate, the online culture and news magazine, additionally published an article asking why is it that we, collectively, do remember or at least mention a man who was, at one time, the most popular writer in the world. It's not that I've come to love McKuen's poetry more than I had, but this attention has made me consider the influence the bard has had on my growing desire to be a writer of some measure.

It's worth sharing, I think, that McKuen was a gateway to a larger lifelong experience with poetry; he was a primary influence in motivating me to write and eventually publish my poems over the last several decades. My early influences were a mixed bag of styles, beginning with Dylan's bucolic surrealism, up to Eliot's fractured, despairing modernism, Ginsberg, of course, and critically, McKuen's solipsistic romanticism. 

I was fifteen or sixteen, a choice age to get obsessed with feeling unique alone in the world, and McKuen was the poet I related to most because his persona was more cinematic than poetic. Even then, I imagined this character after hours, walking the waterfront in a thick fog, harbor lights and neon signs of seedy bars blurry through the dark gray patina, Bogart as Marlow or the Continental Op mulling over the day's events and a life of failed love affairs. It was an image of the man alone, carrying an emotional weight that would seemingly crush others of lesser depth of character.  I wrote especially awful and clumsy imitations and unintentional parodies of the poets and lyricists I admired and composed a good amount of broken line stanzas trying to assume the voice of a man who, like, McKuen, spoke from a position of long life and experience. The problem was obvious because I was in my mid-teens, had no real experience and, though McKuen's accounts of his life were fictional, lacked that poet's richness of imagination. But I continued writing, discovering more poets, a rich blend of modernists, classic voices, international voices, and learned one line at a time how to compose a poem rather than merely express feelings, real or imagined. 

 McKuen was sincere in his quest to get at those things he needed to clarify for himself. Still, I am convinced that he became a salesperson as much as an artist (in a sense) over time, standing for Rod McKuen Inc. Over the decades, I poked my nose into the unending stream of books he produced with stunning regularity and concluded that he had stopped any honest writing years ago and was composing verse he knew his audience wanted. He was writing for the marketplace, whether he was aware of it or not. But while McKuen can be listed as a trader in the mawkish, the trite, the bathos-ridden, one cannot with ease point toward a commonly agreed-upon example as to what constitutes a clear and substantial alternative in the quality field. Billy Collins and the wonderful Dorianne Laux come easily to mind. However, both skilled with accessible senses of language and the added sense of writing about what's recognizable in one's life and helping a reader through a series of beliefs where their world is more extraordinary than it was before. Their likes are rare, too rare, though, in the field of poets with followings--the notion of quality poets is an idea that is a muddy pond. While I enjoy a good many "difficult poets," I have to say that mine is the situation shared with academics and the self-appointed readership elite I've already mentioned; I know the critical language, I know the theories, I know the standards of consideration. It's a trap that one cannot see they're falling into which bedevils Modern Art across the board, in writing, visual art, what have you:  you cannot "see" (or "get") unless you "know" the theory and the historical forces that have brewed and seduced each other to make that theory possible.

 Knowing the rap about an art that is, by definition, supposed to deal with hard-to-express beliefs is more important than either the art and, most tragically, the human life is supposed to augment and bring quality to. In this regard, McKuen wins the argument about the value of his work; he was awful as a poet, but the alternative was smug and something of a private club that few in our population found worth the bother to apply for membership in.

Sunday, October 2, 2022


 Patchen was a poet with a thick diction and lead-footed cadence, and his poem “The Artist’s Duty” is likewise a wide load and wide of its mark.It’s a supreme example of what I’ve talked about constantly since I’ve started posting on the internet, the self-important poem-about-poetry. My point, in brief, is that the creation of art that contains it’s own form as it’s subject matter is evidence of a bored technician who , perhaps suffering from an inferiority complex in a world that they see as being really constructed by workers whose hands are layered in dead skin and scars, have to trumpet their own occupation. The notes are off key and played to o hard, the result being noise, not revelation. The aim , of course, is to convince the many that poetry such as that written by the secretly insecure poet is something no one can surive this life without. Patchen writes with a big, blunted pencil as headvances his manifesto:

So it is the duty of the artist to discourage all traces of shame
To extend all boundaries
To fog them in right over the plate
To kill only what is ridiculous
To establish problem
To ignore solutions
To listen to no one
To omit nothing
To contradict everything
To generate the free brain
To bear no cross
To take part in no crucifixion
To tinkle a warning when mankind strays
To explode upon all parties
To wound deeper than the soldier
To heal this poor obstinate monkey once and for all

To verify the irrational
To exaggerate all things
To inhibit everyone
To lubricate each proportion
To experience only experience

To set a flame in the high air
To exclaim at the commonplace alone
To cause the unseen eyes to open

To admire only the abrsurd
To be concerned with every profession save his own
To raise a fortuitous stink on the boulevards of truth and beauty
To desire an electrifiable intercourse with a female alligator
To lift the flesh above the suffering
To forgive the beautiful its disconsolate deceit

To flash his vengeful badge at every abyss


It is the artist’s duty to be alive
To drag people into glittering occupations

To blush perpetually in gaping innocence
To drift happily through the ruined race-intelligence
To burrow beneath the subconscious
To defend the unreal at the cost of his reason
To obey each outrageous inpulse
To commit his company to all enchantments

Not graceful by any means — Patchen is an exclaimer, a walker in clown shoes — and his grandiosity of the important and great things he thinks a poet should do is a conceit he appropriated from Pound, one that he does not make any more interesting. Artists making art about their art are spinning their wheels most of the time, seemingly trying to convince themselves that they’re geniuses when no inspiration is forthcoming. This is one of those kinds of poems; intriguing for historians, perfect for aspiring and delicate ubermensch, but useless for the poetry reader, or even the poet who has it in mind that a poet should be using poetry to see the world outside and not navel-gaze on it’s own imaginary perfection.

Horace and Virgil and Wordsworth were able to turn poems about poetry into literary art because they were that rarest thing , writers of true genius.That’s why they are are still read, and likely why the works have been preserved over time; quality does make a difference. I’d wager that they were able to write about anything they wanted to and be able to make it interesting for reasons beyond the ridiculous self-importance that goes on in Patchen’s humorless puffery. Patchen is not a genius, and cannot really make his pedanticism rise to the level of being compelling.

Someone who seeks good writing, originality, fresh perception, unencumbered by an author’s ham-handed attempts to disguise a lack of grace or power with what becomes a low-grade ideology. The reader is one who seeks a poet ,a writer who can get their ideas across without rhetoric usurping the subject.For the most part, at least this is what I have always assumed to be the case, most readers of poetry are practitioners of the craft. Even so, most poets read as readers, foremost, and they (we) in general react badly to writers swaggering around the page wasting their(our) time with hosannas about poetry’s higher and grander purpose. There’s an impatience with poets who don’t sound as though they leave their house to take a meal with friends.

Poetry in particular is and always will be where the depths of soul are plumed, where emotions are bared,and writers will reinvent language again and again to capture the tension between interior sensibility and the harder facts of material life.Poetry is introspection by default; what we’re talking about is how well the individual writer creates work that gets that oscillating tension. Mooning over  poetry itself, though, is a dead giveaway, more often than not, that the writer has little to say and yet must hear his voice. Unfortunately, we get more prate than poetry when this the case. It’s a dubious proposition that Patchen wrote these lines intending to be humorous or ironic; he took himself so seriously that a good laugh would crack his mask. As granddaddy to the Beats, heir apparent to Pound, he most likely meant every word he wrote here. Poets are the new priesthood, the antennae of the race, the mystics and fools who have turned their insanity into a virtue and now a weapon to upstage, upset and overthrow the repressed lives that The System gives us. This was revolutionary thinking in the fifties and sixties, when there was only a suburban squareness to rebel against, in addition to an illegal and immoral war in Vietnam. One can well imagine a generation of poets and readers being wowed by someone insisting that wild and random behavior and utterances are, in fact, a benefit to humanity. It merely seems quaint now, sadly dated. Patchen’s certainty here seems ,in retrospect, something you’d see the late Dick Shawn singing in a Mel Brooks parody of counter culture heroes.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022