Thursday, October 15, 2020


 If you have any desire to write poems that are distinctive, fresh and are notable for having a language style that is interesting and able to “express the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable “, you have to cleanse yourself of the vanity that everything you write as a poem is precious and must remain untouched . 

You have to read what you’ve written with a critical eye and find out what it is you’re trying to say , and then chip away everything that in the draft that does not add up to a convincing poetic sequence. Having favorite poets and being aware of the techniques that make up their style is a must; if you understand why particular poets appeal to you, have an effect on you, cause you think about your world in a more nuanced way, then you have the start in developing a good critical ear for your own work. There are things that great poets like Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Eliot, Laux, Wanda Coleman, O’Hara do make their poems memorable and a proper and alluring expression of their personalities.

 So it wouldn’t be at all harmful to your creative expression to get into the weeds a bit and study precisely HOW your favorite writers are achieving the resonance that comes from a well considered poem. This will likely improve your habit of mind as you compose and will strengthen your creative flow while writing. Along that line, you have treat your first draft as a first draft and realize that half of what goes into a poem, more often than not, is rewriting, revision, correction, editing.

 I was told by a poet fifty years ago that in order to make something wonderful in the form of a poem, the “best writing has to be removed.” For me , this was getting rid of didactic language, lectures, pointless literary allusions, and concentrating on what is truly “poetic” in something I’d just written. This next point has an endless stream of variations, theories, styles and the lot and each has a coherent aesthetic , but any poet worth reading over time realizes the difference between poetry and prose. They do different things. As a wise writer named Clyde Hadlock once said of the two, “Prose is the photograph, poetry is the x-ray.” 

Friday, October 9, 2020

A few poems by LOUISE GLUCK

 Louise Gluck's poem,"Crater Lake",is cold as refrigerated marble , a specimen of wordy inertia. Not that it really matters, though, since the effect here is walking into a room thinking that it was empty and coming upon someone already there there, back turned toward the window, muttering phrases and broken references to whatever is passing on the street. 

There was a war between good and evil.
We decided to call the body good.

That made death evil.
It turned the soul
against death completely. 
You do get the feeling that there is a submerged attempt to marry myth archetypes with the sweltering and restless subconscious tensions that confront us as we, a race, reconcile the glory and agony of love and death, but Gluck boils her worries to an arhythmic, unmusical aridity. Think of that strident piano banging in Kubrick's most pretentious film Eyes Wide Shut; terse, strident cadences applied to a scenario of ritualized, debauched despair, pushed forth with a hardly an interesting nuance, phrase, image to part with and make us consider the further complications. The pretentiousness comes in large measure from Gluck's glib and unconsidered use of Big Terms in an effort to make a reader pause and inspect a line for a profundity that isn't there. "Good and evil", "love", "death" , "love" are all dished out like portions of food you don't want to eat--eeeewwww, cooked carrots, liver, creamed corn, grossssssssss--and yet we have to read and digest on the sorry promise that it's good for us. Gluck, though, recedes into a vagueness here that commits the worse sin one can manage for an oblique poem; it provides you with no reward for reading it. There is an absence of euphony whatever and underscores the notion that the poem fails because it cannot sustain itself without knowledge of the myths Gluck is ostensibly deconstructing.  It does, perhaps, fulfil a structural function with the single narrative which this poem is reported to be a part of, but the effect is lost here; we assume, the punch of this writing exists only its context with the other works that go with the storyline it obliquely refers to.

"A Myth of Innocence" [], which is lecturing, nearly hectoring, and weighed down by a ridiculous solemnity that reminds me of the pinched nerve seriousness of elder priests at mass whose ruthless lack of cheer or life would make a nine-year-old boy or girl want to liven things up with arm farts or gum popping. Gluck's writing is so weighted with unbelievably padded writing that it reads in slow motion, like a funeral march, through all the obvious paraphrases of overplayed myths and the cumbersome attempt to bring a universal concept into a private moment when one's loss becomes the sadness of the world.

She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,
I was abducted, but it sounds
wrong to her, nothing like what she felt.
Then she says, I was not abducted.
Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted
to escape my body. Even, sometimes,
I willed this. But ignorance

cannot will knowledge. Ignorance
wills something imagined, which it believes exists. 

This syntax is tied into knots and hamstrung loops of unfulfilled metaphor and allusion that it makes you think of a distracted chef who cannot complete a single plate of palatable food. I get a strong feeling that this poem is likewise composed of scraps, items intended for more complete poems, wholly coherent and perhaps fresher in their utterance. So many indefinite and transcendental qualities zig-zag in this writing, mentions of myth, reflecting pools, a yearning for a younger self and an unassigned future. It's a traffic jam of references, not particularly musical or convincing beyond nudging a reader in the ribs.This may be a poem that Gluck worked on quite a bit in order to give a semblance of poetic content, but no matter how she tailored her first draft the writing remains lifeless and unconvincing. I've written hundreds of poems that I hoped to make evocative with a mannered strangeness of phrase and allusion until I realized I had only produced a variety of convoluted poesy. Gluck should have cleared her palate, and gone for a simpler, less cluttered tongue to speak what her muse presents to her.

Critic Robert Christgau commented once that Eric Clapton was a classy blues guitarist who was perfect for the tasty, brief statement but who had the habit of playing in long form and , consequently, losing emphasis, momentum, and gaining only redundancy. Something similar might apply to Gluck, who's strengths can be seen here, a confident voice, a sense of place, a subject addressed directly and indirectly without drift in a voice that still has the capacity to be surprised. This is a wonderful lyric, as much as other of her admirers might object to the term; she sounds like she had an idea of what she was trying to achieve. --tb

The Wild Iris

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure sea water.


There's a poignant moment somewhere in At The Dance, but Louis Gluck's drifting, shapeless, monotonic style effectively obscures it. She is an outstanding example of the sort of poet who has charmed the chronically introverted and other over-thinkers who love to think they have a rich interior life but who can't really make it of any use; rather than measure among the experiences she's had and decide what carries the most weight and value. We are handed , over and over, a series of lumpy reminiscences that resemble a long gaze into a an unkept house; nothing gets thrown away , every item has equal value, and the narrative , such as it is, lacks any animation. Gluck loves to talk, but is hesitant, it seems, to create a hierarchy of signifiers that would create a momentum toward what she wanted us to assume was an inevitable irony. This is a droning piece, and what ought to have been a cleverly constructed series of parallels between the the protocols of dance, the rituals of attraction and the surrendering and reacquisition of power in interpersonal relationships is static instead, at best the the static-like rip of Velcro jacket being slowly pulled open.
By smell, by feel—a man would approach a woman, ask her to dance, but what it meant was will you let me touch you, and the woman could say many things, ask me later, she could say, ask me again. Or she could say no, and turn away, as though if nothing but you happened that night you still weren't enough, or she could say yes, I'd love to dance which meant yes, I want to be touched.
Some readers may find the seemingly un-ruddered drift of Gluck's poem appealing and opine that the spread of daily speech is in itself fascinating, and others would prefer that the writer remember that poetry is writing , distinct from speech, and that the power of daily speech would lay in how well the elements are selected, presented, given voice and cadence. Gluck , to my ears, is attempting an imagined transcription of a spontaneous utterance ; the effectiveness of something so literal is best spoken, I suppose, but here, sans sound facial expression, hand gestures, the pauses, rises and diminutions of the voice actual heard , I find the poem to be dormant. It does not move toward some crystallized set of particulars that memorably frame the exposition. In the area of prose poems detailing an author's bringing a past event into an at least temporary relief, I prefer Dorrianne Laux's poem How It Will Happen, When. Her tone is more engaged with the specific images that arise from her rummaging through her recent history--she shows an intimacy in the descriptions only the long view can provide, and yet holds back revealing the final mood as she constructs this poem neatly between the mess her mate left her to deal with, the ritual cleaning the house and the burning of all traces of what would remind her of a memory that would other wise shackle her, and the fast, unexpected revelation that what was an intellectualized acceptance of loss now hits her hard and without relief; triggered by a random occurence, she knows her mate is gone and not coming back, and this creates empathy within the reader. It's a poem of felt experience, and what I appreciate in Laux is her craft, which we do not see on the page. This has the power Gluck doubtlessly attempted in her poem. One might call this a poem of awakening, when young women discover what they are attracted to and that they , in turn, are attracting the attention of young men, and it's here where I think Gluck missed her opportunity to present us with something effective and delicately presented, which is the potentially metaphorical structure of dance It's not just that young women come to understand that they have attractions and are attractive in turn, but also a sense of empowerment; one finds themselves in a mysterious position of both drawing attention to themselves by simply being , and there is a gathering feeling that one might also control the elements about them with various, nascent rituals of beckoning and denial. She draws away, but does not flee the situation, she looks down, but does not leave his side, she watches where his hands touch her body and flinches at a sudden brush or attempted caress, but does not reprimand, lecture, become angry or afraid. 

This seems a dance no less than the location the title suggests, and what really dilutes the power these burgeoning emotions and impulses might have contained is the way Gluck , or her narrator -stand-in, goes on with a what comes to a dead pan recounting of the facts; her poetry, perhaps, was supposed to emerge from the tone, but I would have been interested in something more closely observed, with something more about the interactions between the young women and young men, the camps coming into the hall in various clusters and cliques, where they chose to stand, some snippets of overheard dialogue, the eventual pairing off and awkward exchange of exploratory small talk. This sounds more plotted than the monologue Gluck offers us, but it is a way this poem might have come alive with a sense of place rather than become what it remains, a routine , uninflected regret. Gluck sums up of the scenario in a quick application of the story's moral, a conspicuous working of the old saw that when a women means no, she really means yes. Something wonderfully twisted here might have emerged if she had hacked away at the talky qualifications around the poem's main points and pushed harder toward the edge, talking about how women and men cause hurt and are hurt in turn by misreading's of intent and gesture. 

What Gluck had here was a small poem, a minor sigh of regret in later life, the impression that strikes you when you're preparing for the day in front of you , or when you stop to catch your day. It is a slight insight into what had done in the awkwardness of maturing, but the scale of this thing, not epic length, not Ashberyesque in density , is, all the same, too much for this slight conceit. What might have been intriguing would be a juxtaposition of the narrator's current situation and the anecdote she's chosen, with a judicious use of the telling detail, the image that can stand alone, unadorned , which could contrast with an equally effective image . This is how one produces resonance that carry on beyond the page, and this is among the things that distinguishes poetry from the linear inclinations of typical prose. This is typical prose that requires an editor's blue pencil.


The length of In the Cafe, appearing this week in Slate, would have you think that author Louise Gluck is a monologist. That's not the case, we find; a skilled monologist will have a a point or an effect they achieve , more often than not. Gluck's poem long lines are merely that, long, un-inflected,without snap or spice. Instead, we have a droning account of a male friend who happens to be a serial romancer--a sensitive male who absorbs portions of women's lives and energy over a period of time and then leaves them for the next adventure. It's not that this isn't worth writing about, but this is more topic drift development, an exercise in killing time. Gluck doesn't even go through the pretense of trying to make this intriguing as poetry and offers up the stale device of disguising undistinguished prose in irregular line breaks.

Gluck's long- form poetry is part of the disparaged School of Quietude, the conservative conglomeration of professional poets who's careerism controls the major book contracts, literary awards and plum teaching assignments who's market-pleasing style, a gush of self-infatuated musings that prefer to leave the reader hanging in murmuring waves of uncommitted relativism--the sort of work that doesn't move you to think beyond your conventional wisdom but leaves you anxiety -ridden in the decorated fringes of your misery. The attitude, among the worse offenders , seems to be gutless, indecisive, reflective rather than reflexive, passive rather than active in the world. One appreciates stillness and the sharply observed detail independent of an interfering ego, but that is not what Quietude, in the worst of it's world, is about; the poets seem to be bothered that they were cursed with compositional skills. You read them time and again and come away with the idea that a requirement among this coterie is to speak of themselves in their work as attempting to have an experience. You can feel the shrug , sense the poet dropping his pen, you can nearly hear the soft swearing under his or her breath about the perception being too hard to convey with wonder, awe, as a miracle in itself. That is to say, complacency wins again and the prospect of changing one's loath some circumstance is too frightening. One would rather suffer with what they know rather than dare a single foot step in another direction. The worst of this kind of poetry, I've heard, is like a three hour forced tour of your own living room.

Hers is better described, perhaps, as the "School of Drone", a kind of outlining of unexceptional incidents involving straw figures wherein a reader suffers what would have been a tolerable three minute on -air NPR essay about a diminutive epiphany stretched egregious lengths. that provoke involuntary teeth grinding. One doesn't really care about Gluck's portrait of a man-in-process; she attempts a neat inversion in maintaining, toward the end, that this man wasn't wasn't a bastard nor a feckless creep. By the time she grapples with her reasons for having sympathy for her comrade's quest for enlightenment, we are out of sympathy with her tale. This becomes the melodrama you switch the channel from.

It's cut-rate D.H.Lawrence, but without the  skewed erotics.She does, retain Lawrence's rhetorical bulk.Like him, she sounds like she's trying to talk herself into believing her basic premise as well as the reader, a trait that makes "In the Cafe" a dry lecture that hinges on a vague and brittle point. This poem is the equivalent of the bore at the party who continues to prate although everyone else has gone home and the lights are turned off .Adding to the despair over this poem's glacial pace is the promise of the first lines, which are bright, with a hint of witty resignation; 
It's natural to be tired of earth.
When you've been dead this long, you'll probably be tired of heaven.
It's a perfect set up for a story of an every man's quest for the place where he might find contentment in love and spirit. But where there might have been a telling comedy that provides the moral that our expectations undercut what we assume are our virtuous yearnings instead turns into a drab recollection. No time is wasted in weighing down the promise of the first two lines with the leaden grouchiness of the second two: .
You do what you can do in a place
but after awhile you exhaust that place,
so you long for rescue. 
This gives the whole game away.I wonder if this would have worked far, far better if Gluck had written this as a short story. The prose -quality of these lines might have bloomed a little more, breathed a little more air, the scenario might have been more compelling.The first lines are terrific and they could have been a poem by themselves, a condensing Gluck seemingly wants nothing to do with. Being succinct has amazing advantages.It provides an ending, a place to land. Gluck and other writers --myself at times--often mistake raw length for more substantial writing.Some writers have the gift to go long and reward the patient reader .Most do not, and few of us are Proust, few of us are Whitman, few of us are early Allan Ginsberg.


Tuesday, October 6, 2020


 David Biespiel is a poet after my own heart, which means that he prefers to have his language interesting and spiky on the surface rather than being merely clear; this will allow the reader ample chance to sort through his tricky conflations and tricked up tropes and so enjoy the benefits of delayed awards; for all the cuts and nicks his writing can cause the uncalloused psyche, there is a marvel of a writer taling about the plain facts in not so plain ways, and that's fitting. Nothing really is what it seems to be at first, right? Well, no, nothing is what it seems like at second either, which is why I suppose Biespiel writes the way he does, and why his poems merit more than one, two or three readings. They are compact measures of various narrators climbing out of their life time of rhetorical defenses. This we see in his poem Though Your Sins Be Scarlet"There is something intensely private going on in this poem and for want of anything else to say, the conflict herein involves someone struggling with sexual orientation . There are enough phrases and oppositions joined in smarting retorts to make us assume this otherwise unremarkable interpretation , especially in this richly conflicted section:

Scarletted-up—all those years—I fiddled and giggled
And got muscle-bound as a deaf dreamer, a striper,
A pressed-against pirate, got teary and ripe with the scuttled
Worry coming back again and again, and no winners
To speak of, no vintage TV to settle in with like sins
Of the zodiacal light or kissing cousins or crummy laws.
I haven't been called a weak sister, and I don't mean to, that's plain.
But the rummy tumblers, the bloody knuckles, I'll crawl
For them. I'll crawl. And the cutting up and the swear words—
One gets the struggle of harboring the secret and toying with the idea of letting it all out and allowing the cards to fall where they may, but there is, again, conflict, a taking back of one's decision and yet another attempt to live up to ideals other than the ones finds or creates for themselves. The images provided by television, by conflicting stereotypes, whether body builder or sentimental sissy, offer anything like real solutions to this dilemma of identity and desire. Sadly, though, it seems that one has accepted their lot , to be marginal and abused and used with no center of self to fall back upon when reflection is finally possible but there is no other life one can imagine they'd want to lead. It is a poem of a some one's hell who cannot see a way out of it.

Biespiel's poem deals with a personality that is, if not at war with itself, at the very least is attempting in this impressionistic stew to merge contradictory notions of gender and the sexual/manneristic qualities any of these memes ought to ensure. There are no real incidents in the poem to locate these flashing qualifiers to and hence create a picture or at least a narrative outline, rather we are in that sort of verse that is a form of mumbling, a stream of associated terms and distinctly paired contradictions that are like a species of schizoid speech one might see in public places as homeless men or women speak to vacant spaces as if someone were actually there, embroiled in a life time of counter assertions to demands and pressures they feel have tortured them long enough.

In any case, there are the constant contrasting of qualifiers, material references of macho body building culture and camp elements more directly gay and effeminate by association, that the poem seems not about straight versus homosexual identity, but rather appears here as streaming bit of harsh imagery of the confusion as to what sort of identity a gay man might settle into; identity crisis might be the basic point of this odd, effectively elusive poem. A life situation, barring particulars that could happen to anyone.

Commenting on this same poem, Paul Breslin remarked on Slate’s Poems Fray:

This poem speaks in a voice that soothes pain with the pleasure of extravagant language but, unable or unwilling to name the source of pain directly, arrives at no closure--the poem doesn't so much end as stop, for now.. The speaker needs to keep talking because silence is unbearable, while the playfulness of linguistic invention comforts.

This nails something I was thinking while I read the poem again and again, that it's part of a longer and perhaps endless stream of cognitive associations that just happen, in this example, cluster around a cluster of ambiguities and which hint that the language might further morph and encompass another series of binary oppositions that confront a restless personality.It's a writing that makes me think of John Ashbery , only with more agonizing, more self-laceration; Ashbery's soft focus dialectic between consciousness and the phenomenal world maintains the lyric tone and finds the narrating presence at some measure of equilibrium despite an influx of sensory input (whether memory, an offhand remark, a distracting aroma).

There is aesthetic distance between Asbhery and the things that inspire him to write poems the way he does. One can even say there's a serenity in this realm.Biespiel's poems, though often as cryptic, are shorter, yes, more constrained than Ashbery's quotidian expansiveness, and there is a provocative admixture of the self-mocking, the lacerating, the cynical and the fatalistic that makes his willful refusal to clear subject and tone seem like a bomb about to go off. Biespiel might be carrying on the dark, depressed tradition of Mark Strand or the Confessional poets; this is the poetry of thoughts seeking a clear, declarative phrase, only to have their distinct lines blurred again by persistent agitation.


 Wallace Stevens found 13 ways of looking at a blackbird; Ishmael Reed's poem "Scrub Jays" imagines the birds looking back   at the man glaring at them, finding six stanzas of taunts. This is , in essence, a poem about aging, the gaining of some simple knowledge that was formerly obscured by ego and youthful exuberance. Where a younger man could sustain a good battle in protecting what he perceives to be rightfully and exclusively his, his apple trees and the fruit they bare,  running to and from his house with all manner of pesticide, rakes, air horns , convinced that he can make short order of this ordeal and restore the principle of property rights to his personal piece of earth, the body with time grows slower, muscles go soft, bones ache, the awareness arises that no amount of assertion of will can make settle anything permanently. The bird is the old man's inner voice, speaking in mocking tones under remains of the rhetorical veneer that refuses to acknowledge inevitability. It is not this bird, nor even birds in particular that will win this battle.

What good are apples
To old men, anyway
You have lost your bite
You have run out of
 Ladders to climb
Your ultrasonic solar-powered
Animal repellent
The Honda among dissuaders
Might rid your garden of
The capo cats, but
 The bandit raccoons
Within 48 hours  
What good are apples, indeed what good are things that one attaches one's name to and changes their essential nature from being something useful and with a function , or purpose, in a large and infinitely complex system of things and makes them mere trophies, souveneers of a conquest? With the ache of the limbs and the fading of light from eyes that no longer see things crisply, clearly, without ambiguity, the possession of things is an error, a mistake in perception.  Nature, in any event, turns out to be not a particular thing one does battle against, not a personality, a thing, a personality one defines the terms of their existence against. Nature merely is, that condition of existence within which all things exist and , more or less, abide by. This includes the deflating ego of many a strong willed man and woman who assumed their could change the terms of the condition . The tragedy, voiced by Reed in the voice of birds who mock him for his erring presumptions about his cosmology, isn't that we all become bitter old men yelling at kids and critters to get off their lawn, but that we might never realize that we didn't own the lawn in the first place.

Sunday, September 20, 2020



Creating a timeline concerning the rise and wane of Dylan's considerable talent is easy, but the criticism of his work is a subtler enterprise. That is the actual analysis, inspection, parsing, interpretation, theorizing of the music and words themselves, and the taking into consideration the external factors --politics, fashion, religious conversions, divorces, age--that inform the creation of the music. Criticism is the x-ray we use to get inside the work and attempt to come up with adequate terms and descriptions as to how Dylan's material works and , perhaps, why it stands out among the throng of other singer-songwriters who hadn't near Dylan's resourcefulness. 

Criticism, distinct from the consumer-guide emphasis with reviewing, is an ongoing discussion that seeks less to pass judgement than it does to comprehend large subjects thoroughly by interrogating one aspect of the work at a time. It is, of course, something like a make-work project as well, a means that some of us use to escape the terrifying silence that falls behind all of us at one point or another, that emptiness of space that sends a shudder down your spine when it seems even your thoughts are too loud and echoing off the rafters. Many writers keep writing, turning from mere expression into pure process, and it is with a good many worthy writers where we can look and see where their particular timelines became crowded with product that vacillates crazily between good , bad and awful, rarely matching what critical consensus considered their best material from their best period. 

Edward Dorn is said that almost any good poet has written all their best work by the time they reach age 35, with the general output after that time becoming less daunting,daring, spry. Dylan is like this, I suppose, as is Woody Allen, John Ashbery , John Upidke, and Elvis Costello. I'd always thought that it was a hedge against death, that as the hair and teeth fall out , the arthritis escalates its assault on the joints and the memory takes on the consistency of swiss cheese, the writing, one poem after another, one novel after another, one movie, one song, one opera after another, the work somehow forestalls the inevitable darkness that awaits everyone. And criticism comes in again during these late period efforts of less notable content and turns itself into apologetics, where one theorizes about the proverbial canvas and kinds being changed, the brush strokes being bolder and less intricate as established ideas are played through yet again. It seems we're stuck with this crazy cycle ; even critics, great ones and mere carpetbaggers, want to deny death in some sense and also avoid the idea altogether that they've nothing left to say about another man's words.



You know, Bob Dylan criticism really isn't hard. The essential core truth is that Dylan's high flight of genius stopped at John Wesley Harding. The rest is fitful, sometimes inspired craft; for long stretches it is halfhearted going through the motions. The main QUESTION is -- why? Why did the innovative genius, the wild POETRY dry up? You might say it was the motorcycle accident and getting married, but then you have the amazing brilliance of the Basement Tapes songs and the subdued audacity of JWH. THEN you have the mellow craftmanship of Nashville Skyline, the growing boredom of New Morning and Planet Waves and the revived storytelling ability displayed on Blood on the Tracks, with faint echoes of the early genius. The rest is somewhere between concerted effort and sour laziness. This is my thinking after considering the work of the most influential songwriter in rock for a good 40 years.

Thursday, September 10, 2020


 Perhaps because I'm showing every calendar day of my 68 years , or  maybe because I've been typing poems, reviews, short stories and features stories for over  40 years some folks have assumed that I know what I'm talking about . A few anonymous folks on the various internet venues that concern themselves with creative matters have been brave enough to pose a question or so to this graying and cranking presence. Most recently a soul queried whether " writing 500 words a day, three times a day, too much?"  The question wasn't quite clear as posed--did they mean writing 500 words three times a day?  Charge, said my ego, bluff your way through the ambiguity. This is what I answered :
"Not if it works for you in terms of getting the writing done . If you have a lifestyle that would not be adversely effected by writing according to a work schedule—social life, family responsibilities, personal care—then no, it’s not too much. Consider that the word “write” is a verb in the sense that I’m using it, and verbs describe action; writers write, it’s an activity they perform on a regular basis. It’s why we call them writers. Consider also that great writers, popular writers write pretty much every day because there is usually a project they are working on, a writing project they are more than likely getting paid for.
"This mean the writers are working against deadline, and that means they have to “go to work” to meet the deadlines and be paid for their labor. Which brings up the next point, that writer is an occupation, and that writing is labor, work. Even authors of literary masterpieces will tell you no less than that. If you desire to be a writer, whether poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, or even a dedicated blogger, you have to have the discipline to take a seat and write as required whether you feel like it or not. Getting started is the hardest part of writing."

Wednesday, September 9, 2020


 Why does anyone make boring art, since you’re asking. The poets who write boring verse are most of the people who fancy themselves word slingers of that sort—quantity diminishes quality. It seems that most of the poems one comes across from new poets in whatever forum—magazine, open reading, workshop, high school newspaper, university press— are pretty much eccentric minds with pedestrian sense of language application who want to capture big ideas, big emotions and big spiritual concepts in pathetically clunky sentences , often choking their best ideas to death with overworked metaphors , unmusical similes and a fatal lack of self awareness as to whether what they spend so much time writing is something an actual reader beyond their circle of friends might want to read. We also suffer from the tone deaf experimenters who want to be abstract, avant gard and boldly innovative who haven’t the slightest idea of how to be interesting in an opaque way. 

John Ashbery, Bob Perelman, Leslie Scalapino, Gertrude Stein—they were hard to understand as poets go, but they were lively , innovative and striking in their styles and and habits of phrase making, and they are the exceptions to the idea that most avant gard poetry, as such, is abstract for its own sake and therefore useless and a grind. 

Ashbery I enjoy because I don't understand what he's getting at but I adore the way he tries to get "there"; no one else has done a better job at doing the kid of writing that vividly presents the streaming thought process of an alert intelligence interacting with the material world , with the thick bramble of half-formed recollections in the unspoken realm of the mind coloring and characterizing the ideal form of the exterior world, and the place, thing, person in turn triggering a wave of nearly related associations from farthest corner of memory , a wave of fascinating distractions. 

Perelman because he is a satirist of broad reading and culture consumption who prizes the power of the non-sequitur who composes with the voice of an ostensibly sane, rational persona speaking calmly to a crowd who soon enough is talking of subjects and policies of High, Middle and Low culture that overlap each other and seemingly redirect and real point or insight to a fathomless ocean of babble. Perelman appreciates that the voice of authority utters non-sequitur s at all times and that it takes very a gentle tug at the string to make the words go to war with each other rather than  cooperate . 

Scalapino I find brilliant, endlessly engrossing because he subject is memory and image, she is a very personal poet ,but a poet not inclined to contain her perceptions in cans of predigested resolution. Rather, her verse is chopped up, cut up, sharp and angular, repetitive to the extent what one considers an image, a sentence, from a multitude of angles, perspectives, a set of images and memories appearing and vanishing, details added and others removed or diminished in size and emphasis. There is a strong visual sense to Scalapino's writing, an element akin to the the work of the Cubists who wanted to create paintings in which the world is not merely recreated to formal rules of composition but rather seen all at once, immediately, denying the convenience of narrative templates to define experience and make it instead inert aesthetic material. I rather like the restless discord that rumbles over Scalapino's pages. 

Then there are the poets who are bored and brandishing an unearned cynicism ,boring readers of poetry who render judgement that typically amount to “meh”. These folks are a species of glum Gusses and Gussies who might as well be flipping the TV channels .

Monday, August 31, 2020

Campion the Champion

Loft Mentor Series: Peter Campion - YouTubeI was doing a bit of cleaning up of old computer files yesterday when I came across this fine poem by Peter Campion , posted in March 2004 at Slate by their poetry editor Robert Pinsky. "Poem to Fire" is an alternately sweet and brutal examination of an American dualism that no one's able to resolve, sex and cars. 
Peter Campion is a good poet but a dreadfully standard-issue reader, and as always, the tinny recording values offered by Microsoft engineers makes the merely unexceptional become truly awful. Which is too bad for Campion, because this is a good poem that has legs beyond the poet’s near motionless reading?Near motionless indeed, since this strikes me as about speed, impatience, anticipation, the world whizzing by in a television ad fantasy of a man rushing through traffic, in his home town, lifted on the wings of his desire and lust as he attempts to free him of the ordinary stuff of existence he endures and land him in the presence of the woman that makes the battle with jobs, traffic lights and slow drivers worth it all. Campion conveys a masculine verve that seeks what arouses the male sensibility; the town he rushes through is a blur of details he desires to be past, beyond, liberated from as he vanishes into the v shaped perspective of the road vanishing over the perfect hillside that exists only in the mind's eye.

Fast transparency that explodes the fuel and air
in the cylinder and shuts the intake valves and thrustsdown on the piston so the crankshaft spins and spins

It is the rush, the race, the mechanics that are erotic and the source of the stimulus that engages the senses, that creates the elusive reference to the body's swelled reaction to a fast tracking of particular set of ideations. This is a waking dream dream scenario where each strand of sensation and movement ceases to be distinct and isolated and which seem to meld into one primal rush to "be" in the world as intensely as the body can stand:

this pull to her could be your own impersonal presence /cloaked in the day to day of the malls and condos /all those wired sensors keeping on guard for you /except you flicker even inside the wet wall /where papillary muscle makes that sweet pulsation in whatever room she's moving through this moment /under the cotton and the cool smoothness tinted blue.

This is a kind of race toward an extinction, a surrounding of all manner of power and control to something greater than the hunter can manage; the poem ends in the suggestion of softness and "cool smoothness", a space of erotic surrender where the armor is doffed, the bullets unloaded, the pent up knots and coiled aggravations of the day released in some fantastic exchange until  there is a drift into oblivion where gas pedals and traffic lights matter not at all.It reads best, without Campion's recitation, when you regard this as bittersweet jag of thought where one finalized object of desire colors the surrounding world. This is done wonderfully, the world defined by the reach of one man's looping obsession.

Campion turns an ordinary thought into an extreme language that simulates the frequent fast-forwarding a good many of us power-obsessed sorts are prone too, wherein the world of home, work and community relations can go to a sudden and unexplained hell for all we're concerned because there is a sudden and seeming instinctual need to severe ties and race forward toward that which is most desirous to us. Prohibitions, niceties and protocols are damned, we want what we want when we want, and we've the will and the means to achieve our ends.

Male fantasy, perhaps, rarely acted on to the extent I've described because most of us don't fancy jail or losing jobs as acceptable consequences of pursuing a whim, but it is the mind set that Campion details in his abrupt, speedy phrases; in the chase, the world is a blur, details like their defining points and accompanying contexts, and there is a kind of elevated euphoria that arises in the acceleration toward desire.A sort of drunkenness, I suppose, an urge to burn up what energies there are in one's body and in the world where one lives and to be made in the flash of either a literal or metaphorical flame into a another form of energy; it is the urged to be changed, and in this case it is the eroticism of thinking of the woman he his racing toward, that creature of another kind of power with whom he may merge and dissolve. This is DH Lawrence at fever pitch. Lyricism has more than one kind of music to play along with, but let us also say that music is not always lyrical. I don't think Campion intended sweet sounding passages that might assume to emulate an easily assimilated melody. This is not Sara Vaughn, but rather Charlie Parker. As with Parker's serpentine phrases and crammed choruses, the matter is speed, which Campion gets right, and the attending anticipation that becomes sheer impatience with the world the higher the velocity becomes, or the higher the desire for yet more speed becomes. The poem doesn't sound lyrical to me at all, and the angst isn't in the sort that would make muscle men behind the wheels of Detroit's noisiest engines contemplate their long empty nights at intersections. 

The poem works for me because Campion's voice comes from a condition of his narrator's thinking rather than a nuanced response to events that have already happened. It is about the wish for a rapid exit from obstacles, and it is in this instance that he creates his breathless, blurring effect. The physical world is summarized and dismissed while the desired object is enlarged in the expectation. As with all things erotic, the urgency and tension are created in the distance between the two, in that in-between state the narrator desperately wants an immediate exit from. This is much less about the actual race to his lover's house than it is about a mindset that takes control of the nervous system and produces a physiological effect. Our driving hero might well be stuck in a traffic jam on the Interstate for all we know, and that matters little here.The relationship between the speaker and the woman seems to be suffering from some unspoken fallout, even if it is only physical distance. What falls outside the frame in this case only intensifies my curiosity about the extreme in which the narrator's personality is tilted. It's not important for me to know anything about the woman (if she even exists in this narrator's frustrated thinking jag), only that it's a telling element, a slight detail that convincingly leads up to a fleeting state of mind that Campion isolates particularly well.

Thursday, August 27, 2020


She asks, during a Stevens exchange "Isn't a lyric poem supposed to be about emotion? Last time I looked, irony was not an emotion. "
The Thrilling Mind of Wallace Stevens | The New YorkerYes, a lyric poem is the verbal equivalent of a musical evocation of intense feeling that defies the logic of words to express adequately. Thus, the looping chains of association , the constant comparisons of unlike things, including the sounds of the words creating euphony.Intense emotion colors the entire world, cast it in all engrossing tint. The world to the perceiver makes a certain kind of sense, though the sense eludes them more often than not; there is even an element of paranoia that can come to play here, as in the notion that everything in the world, be it people, places, things, institutions, weather, are all somehow connected to the internal transformation.Irony alone isn't an emotion, but because it has something to do with an individual's perception, whether the poem's speaker or the reader can become a key and determining factor in how hot emotion might boil or cool off, whatever the case may be.

Irony concerns the incongruity between what is said and what actually is the case, and since a lyric poem operates on the transcendent level where emotion bypasses logical argument in pursuit of impossible language capturing the inexpressible, conflicts, dis-junctions, distortions and contradictions between myth and fact, action and deed are likely to happen as default conditions, and will ratchet up the energy a lyric swoon requires. I see it the other way around, since it seems to me that Stevens believes in the adage that there ought to be "no ideas but in things..."(concisely phrased and explained by William Carlos Williams). Stevens, with compatriots Williams, Eliot, et al, were, in their varied ways, obsessed with making language a hard, malleable material no less than clay or steel, and they wanted to write and elaborate upon images that didn't obscure the fantastic qualities of the world their language was supposed to be writing about. Perception is a dominant concern for this generation of modernist poets, and Stevens, I believe, followed the loose dictates brilliantly and developed a methodology of processing the world that could capture in it many of it's amazing juxtapositions. What is amazing about Stevens' work is that he develops a philosophy of perceptual imagination from the world as it already is.As for supreme fiction, well, it's Stevens' term, and it is a brilliant short hand for his unique compositional practice. 
"What our eyes behold may well be the text of life but one's meditations on the text and the disclosures of these meditations are no less a part of the structure of reality. "

-- Wallace Stevens
Logic by itself is over rated certainly, but unalloyed intuition is equally the subject of excess estimation, and is, in fact, a recipe for perceptual disaster. Stevens realized this and made a body of work that provoked( successfully I think) thought and discussion about the interaction of imaginative and materialist approaches to appreciating and divining the corners and contours of the earth. 
"All the great things have been denied and we live in an intricacy of new and local mythologies, political, economic, poetic, which are asserted with an ever-enlarging incoherence. "
--Wallace Stevens 
Intuition and imagination are the things that give the world outside our bodies the shape and scope, and logic is that no-less human tendency to discover the order of raw sensory data and thus engineer ourselves usefully within it. Each capacity, with all their attendant subdivisions and distinctions, cannot be divorced from the other, the mind cannot exist sanely sans the capacity to know when the imagination ends and uncompromised reality begins. This is the basis of Steven's work, his central idea: all the great poems of Heaven and Hell have already been written, and what remained to be examined ,in the kind of intensified investigation that poetic language allows us, are poems of the Earth, not the least in this subject matter being the ceaseless contradictions and conflicts of humanity's desire to name the world he lives in and control it. 
"To regard the imagination as metaphysics is to think of it as part of life, and to think of it as part of life is to realize the extent of artifice. We live in the mind. "

--Wallace Stevens 
The world, the Earth, Nature itself, of course, can be imagined in any number of ways, and humanity itself may well come to believe his abstract definitions as implacable facts, but Nature goes on in its own set of processes that man is finally subject to. However reshaped into man's image (or the image of the God man believes himself to resemble), nature pushes on, grows, expands, decays, renews, recycles, re-molds , destroys and creates anew, constantly churning, upsetting and moving through the convulsions and rough beauty that are the evidence of its life cycle.
All this renders the hoary substance of humanity's definition into so many fictions, supreme and less so, a poetry that nears special knowledge but which lacks the final gaze beyond the last, final veil. Our language is our method for beautiful guess work. Stevens gave a poetry that centered around this, to which his last message might well be that we have Poetics that cast itself in perpetual awe.

What we draw from a poem like "Sunday Morning" is his penchant for addressing everyday occurrences in terms that approach the mythological. We can suss and hacked through the ornate textures of the writing and found the "common place" events and emotions that Stevens loved to broaden in scope with his righteously writ rhetoric. This, I think, is precisely the sort of reading he would hope a reader would embark on. You've also given us a vivid time line with your deciphering of Stevens' lush tones, and have opened the door on his grand theme, that our world as we build it, live in it and contemplate its larger moral and aesthetic worth, is connected with a habit of mind, a quirk of human personality , that has never left us.As with other modernists of his period--Eliot, and Pound, certainly-- Stevens viewed the material world as evidence of myth-creation, objects, art and philosophies that are extraordinary less for what they reveal about fixed and permanent virtues, but more the poetic ingenuity in the language created to make their case. Here, with a simple Sunday coffee by the sea and an incidental twinge of guilt, we are linked to legends and sins of cultures worshiping allegedly alien gods.Our reality , composed as it is with particularized aesthetic rigor and moral complexity, is no less a supreme fiction. Behind the fictions and the dimensions of the respective paradigms they allows us to live within, lies the differentiated mass of humanity, constantly creating the grand poetry that is the essence and unseen breath of their lives.
I don't know why there's all this defensiveness about whether Stevens is "obscure" or not. Erudition describes someone versed in many subjects that are outside the scope of the everyday; such knowledge is by nature obscure. This needn't be a veiled insult, though, because in the hands of a supreme poet, it's not a bad quality at all. The real issue comes down to readability , I think. It's the crucial distinction here between what Stevens gives the world with his splendid blend of intellectual rigor and musicality, and what this week's poet tries to slip under the door.

Steven's verses are with abstract ideas, subjects by their nature obscure and requiring rarefied terms and jargon to describe dimensions that don't readily lend themselves to streaming, concise captions. But where something as Brock-Broido's work is made dense and unclear by a strained cadence and self-consciously uglification, Stevens' ideas are smoothly parlayed to a larger world by way of addressing his emerging ideas of phenomenal existence through the lens of the world whose intransigent knowability he interrogates. His is a world that retains its mystery and wonder and which is still capable of creating actual, unsentimental awe in the curious and alert mind. "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction", "The Blue Guitar", "Emperor of Ice Cream" have that rare musical curve and sweep that set up paradoxes and then resolves them in ways that make their perception as much a part of natural process as anything else a species creature like man might abide by.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

HOWL by Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" is over a half century old now, and it will do us no harm to review the first stanzas yet again, for the are as vatic, volcanic and visionary as they were when they first saw print in 1955.The transcendent beauty of a inflamed mind that's suddenly and completely found an articulation for the unspeakable has never been captured better. "Howl" was the perfect bit of literary insanity to appear in a decade where America had collectively laid down and played dead: 
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves

through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,

who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,

who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York.

who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night

with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,

incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between,

Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,

who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,
who sank, all night in submarine light of Bickford's floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi's, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox...(c)Copyright 2005 The Estate of Allen Ginsberg.

"Howl" is one of the most important and influential poems of the 20th century, and it simultaneously invigorated free verse with the range of its rage and honesty, and spawned a generation of imitators who composed indulgent and lazy lines that were more pose than poetry. This is a poem that speaks from the middle of the century with a voice gorged with collective anxiety and spiritual hunger for an element that would counter technologized conformity and the loss of authenticity. Its long, Bible-cadenced lines have resonated into the century following its debut, and it's likely that succeeding generations of disaffected yearners will find the poem's scalar cry appealing for the way it touches on those soul-demolishing duties that are difficult to identify, impossible to purge yourself of. The real paradox of "Howl" is that it's a poem, a great poem that addressed the great unwashed elements of American culture and their plight outside the mainstream which is now very much part of the Establishment it railed against and, in some sense, sought to disassemble. Only truly great pieces of writing do that, and regardless of what one thinks of the later Ginsberg work where he abandoned Blake an visions and allegory in favor of a relentless and largely inane species of self-reporting, "Howl" is the inspired and wonderfully sustained work of a young in full control of the language and rhetoric he was using. It's a masterpiece by every criteria, and it remains a powerful indictment against repression, censorship, the closing off of the soul against experience and vision. 

Even as its been absorbed into the American canon, it continues to transgress against expectations of conservative decorum and other constructions of serene and apathetic community relations; it continues to howl, quite literally, over the fifty years since it's publications. In the increasingly control-freak environment of that pits paranoid nationalism against civil liberties , "Howl" and it's piercing message is perhaps more relevant than ever.The fact that one still finds room to discuss the poem's politics and philosophical biases seriously attests to the quality and originality of Ginsberg's writing; mere political tracts, like Baraka's "Someone Blew Up America", will grind you down with polemic and are rapidly, gratefully forgotten. Ginsberg was among the very few American poets who broke through the larger culture because he was, to coin a phrase, the right man at the right time. The conformity of the fifties, the anti-communist paranoia was sufficiently alienating enough for enough citizens to rebel and push against the barriers of a socially enforced tranquility. The fact that he was, at the time, especially potent in is writing (as well as being a brilliant self-promoter of himself and his friends) doubtlessly aided him in the ascendancy. These days, it's Billy Collins who has the amazing fame and fortune, writing smaller, more conventional, masterfully composed epiphanies of an everyday America that may exists only in the imagination; he is exactly the right poet to come along at time when millions of citizens are weary of nonconformists and their rights. This isn't to suggest a cyclical theory of recent history, but I do find the positions of both poets ironic, if unintentionally polar."Howl", poem, vision, political screed, confession and testament in one, is read and debated over and over again, its choicest lines cited, each quote resonating and stinging as great work ought to. A great poem.

There is an unfortunate hip cache that has formed around this poem and all things Beat in general--needless to say, both he and Kerouac became iconic and brand names, products to be sold with other units from the store shelves of corporate America these once-young men belittled and disowned--but a reading of "Howl", a verbal exclaiming of it's wonderfully and brilliantly reaching imagery makes all such commercial aberrations vanish from our concern. The integrity of Ginsberg’s masterpiece is intact, and it still manages to strike a center in the soul that avoids the intellect all together and makes one wish to take a deeper breath and blow a long, bopping solo on the first saxophone some angel hipster might hand them.Oops, there I go again, seduced by Ginsberg's muse and speaking in images that cannot be verified or affirmed by proper critical tools. Just as well, for "Howl" is anything but proper. It is rude, joyous, rambunctious, and full of itself and in love with the world that seeks to shun its premises and assumptions. Much of great American poetry is like that, and Ginsberg's poem is still with us, an exhortation to not let the dull grind of conformity murder the spirit by the inch.Allen Ginsberg himself succumbed a little to his reputation and began to consider his every journal entry, seemingly, as credible poems in their own write, with the reader interested in the crafted music of words brought together left out in the cold as the poet's late publications concentrated more on the accumulated inanity of relentless self reporting. But he did write "Howl", and for this poem, along with "Kaddish" and "Super Market in California" (among others) his greatness is assured.

The real paradox of "Howl" is that it's a poem, a great poem that addressed the great unwashed elements of American culture and their plight outside the mainstream which is now very much part of the Establishment it railed against and, in some sense, sought to disassemble.Only truly great pieces of writing do that, and regardless of what one thinks of the later Ginsberg work where he abandoned Blakean visions and allegory in favor of a relentless and largely inane species of self-reporting , "Howl" is the inspired and wonderfully sustained work of a young in full control of the language and rhetoric he was using. It's a masterpiece by every criteria, and it remains a powerful indictment of repression, censorship, the closing off of the soul against experience and vision. ven as its been absorbed into the American canon, it continues to transgress against expectations of conservative decorum and other constructions of serene and apathetic community relations; it continues to howl, quite literally, over the fifty years since it's publications.
In the increasingly control-freak environment of that pits paranoid nationalism against civil liberties , "Howl" and it's piercing message is perhaps more relevant than ever.The fact that one still finds room to discuss the poem's politics and philosophical biases seriously attests to the quality and originality of Ginsberg's writing; mere political tracts, like Baraka's "Someone Blew Up America", will grind you down with polemic and are rapidly, gratefully forgotten. "Howl", poem, vision, political screed, confession and testament in one, is read and debated over and over again, its choicest lines cited, each quote resonating and stinging as great work ought to. A great poem.


Charles Simic's poems appeal to me for the same reason you might like a wisecrack someone makes as they recall an incident that  turns into one of  life's little lessons:  whether lost car keys, spilled milk, or walking around a department store with you fly open, a terse, casual summary, vaguely self mocking, with an odd detail tossed in for texture, makes the phrase memorable . We can each supply our own example of things a friend has said we wish we could claim as our original wit. Simic, here, has a poem, The Red Alarm Clock, I wish I'd written.

Red Alarm Clock
I want to sail down the Nile /At sunsetBefore I die, /"You said once, Cleopatra./The room, I recall,/Had a plank floor,/A narrow bed, and a window /Facing a brick wall,/Plus a chair where I kept /A pint of bourbon, /The coffee cup we used as an ashtray,/ And a red alarm clock.
This is a perfect snippet of a longer conversation, the start of something that makes you lean closer for the juicier parts, the contrasting accounts of what was said and done and how both the narrator and the "you" remember each other's response. It is a vivid, brief, alluring tease of a poem that does not drift off as would a conversation between two people fade as the couple walked further up the sidewalk from where you stood. It is cut off, rather, bright, loud, full of hard things, a tangible place. A room with a skinny bed, a window that gazes upon the grain of brick wall, a chair used as night stand to hold pint of bourbon. Simic has the particulars of a James M. Cain novel, he all but suggests a lustful reunion before and the beginning of a bittersweet dissection of an ended affair in the rumpled afterglow. 

 It's not unlike some smooth camera work; you can feel the lens slowing panning the stark room,  ending up in on the coffee cup --the additional bit of it being "used as an ashtray" is a precisely brilliant fit for the situation evoked here--and the red alarm clock,  uncluttered with poetic language, it's color alone setting the tone of  an urgency both these characters would rather ignore. The clock, though, is enough to bring home the fact that the clock is ticking all the same and that  time runs out for everything, even regrets and reunions. Simic  concerns himself with neither the back story nor the tale that continues after the last line, he focuses on this slice and creates, I think, a set of particulars that create a mood, if not a meaning.

The feeling of  that time has expired is made more tangible even by the way the narrator says, lastly, at the end of his sentence, as throw away detail "...and a red alarm clock ."  Unfreighted with meandering metaphors or latch key similes to ham handedly imbue the object with intangible qualities  a less evocative poet would mistake as essential and useful guesses as to the invisible and indivisible nature of things beyond their waking world expressions (and so hang themselves with empty language and trapeze like hurling to a rope that isn't there, Simic prefers the physical over the literary and lets the situation as described create the mood from within it's parts; the phone is mentioned,the color is emphasized, like something remembered , suddenly, brutally, an intrusion of truth that seeps into a conversation that reminds you that yes, whatever was the case before is done with and now is the time to move into respective horizons.While a good many , too many, poets have gone the way of trying to solve foundational problems with what poets are supposed to be doing-- deigning what the corrupted spiritual essence of a world overtaken by banal materialism, the gender stratification that lock us into ideas about the meaning of the world and the kind of warfare that can be waged to restore to a utopia no historian can point to?--Simic works in a way that is a method not unlike William Carlos Williams or, let us say, A.R. Ammons, other poets who remind us that for all our mental pyrotechnics, an object is sometimes, more often than not, still an object, and as an object it has a relationship among other objects and things in the waking world that we negotiate in a habits and gestures often too minuscule to notice . These are matters these poets take on, and with different styles and habits of mind, create a poetry that amounts to an investigation of a world that does not care what anyone thinks . Love and personal paradises will go away and become things of memory and personal mythology, but the red alarm clock will always be red until it rusts to a stop, and the time will always be right now until we stop asking .


Dredging the memory swamp for  a glimpse of how you used to conceptualize the world as a very young person who hadn't, as yet, been incorporated into the tough neighborhoods of  group think and bitter fear  is often times an activity that will suck you down to the  bottomless ooze of wishful thinking and  regret that will, if you're lucky enough to have held your breath long enough and clawed your way back to the rutted surface, convince you that you know nothing of the essentials that make up the meaning and direction your life took on. That can be depressing; for poetry,the matter is better served if the writer realizes what it is they cannot answer; the vague outlines, the nuanced shapes, the sounds and smells that get the mind swirling are all textures to recollected experience. The past is an impressionist painting and the art of it is in the Not Getting It Right. I rather like Kimberly Johnson's poem "Catapult" for that reason --her sonnet promises to capture her object memory in a set of metaphors, but  comes away only with what the images suggest .

The intent appears to be to make things that would other wise be mere remains and relics on the ground on which they were found into heavenly creations by making them airborne, momentarily free of gravity, suggesting that they could ascend directly to the next level just before they reach their penultimate height and give into the call of the flat, hard ground below. It's a fine idea for a poem, I think, bringing a child's idea into view and to capture both the expectation of miracle graces meeting an inevitable fact that gravity always takes its toll; even better that poet Kimberly Johnson has the child blithely ignoring whatever lesson adults might reasonably expect to be learned instantly and instead try the endeavor over again, until the agent of arced aviation is satisfied with the results, or, in other words, merely bored with her game.  

Bored or not, the child's devices and desires were to see things in transcendence, in flux, exhibiting the glorious suggestions that a light of God might shine on them; I sense a childhood fascination with flying, sensations of weightlessness, the exhilaration of being freed from the grasp of mundane earth with it's regimen of cause and effect and perhaps, as a result of that liberation, becoming empowered to transform the world one sees; this has much to do with magical thinking, I think, a child's cosmology that deals with the dark mysteries about why life is the way it is, hard, without joy, abrupt, the creation of private myth making as to why things are the way they are, locked into position, beholden to arbitrary laws of nature. 

Our catapult operator here desires a peak behind the wall that separates her world of neighborhoods, driveways, schools, traffic lights and the higher realm where everything that matters is a manifestation of grace; this could be a child's version of Wallace Stevens lifelong poetic task, to imagine beyond the cruelty of appearance and to get at the perfected state of Things In Themselves. The difference, I think, would be that the intent here isn't as baroque as Stevens' ruminations were; Johnson, young Johnson, perhaps, wants only a glimpse of what things might be like if solid, material things were closer to God's breath, just an idea of what it would be like to tap into a source of great power. Just a glimpse, mind you. Like Stevens, Johnson's young catapult operator wouldn't know what to do with the transcendent state for too long a period; Stevens seemed stunned into awed immobility and, I suspect, our protagonist here might have gone where ever else her curiosity dictated.