Wednesday, February 27, 2019


There are times in the middle of the afternoon after I’ve finished what I think is an inspired poem when I have the momentary sensation — fleet! is the world — that all those wonderful metaphors and inverted oppositions were given to me by God Himself. I’ve been sober for twenty years, though, and I have a strong feeling that if I ever heard God speak, he’d tell me to go ahead and have a shot of hooch. Faith I have, but not to the degree that I think a higher power uses me as a mouthpiece for his leftover tropes. The feeling passes, and I disabuse myself that poems and prayer are linked in degrees more bountiful than rare. I think the distinctions between the two things are clear and crucial, as both modes of address are for distinct purposes.The key distinction between poems and prayers are that poems are almost invariably written from within experience, and as a form, is under no obligation to detail and highlight it’s rhetoric toward any obligatory pitch or prejudice. The poet, distinct from the praying person, has the freedom to invoke God or invoke him not at all; the poet might even insist that the wonders he or she comes to write about are phenomena in and of itself, independent of anything divine. Poetry allows for the religious, the agnostic, the atheist and the indifferent with regards to God. The single requirement is that the poem meet the needs of literature, however the poet lands on the issue of the divine; what constitutes literary value, of course, is subject to a discussion that is nearly as abstruse and premised on unprovable suppositions as theology, Literary criticism might be said to be it’s own sort of religious dogma.
Prayers, in contrast, start outside human, terrestrial experience and beseech a higher power to intervene in human affairs. While poetry, in general, glories in all things human and is obsessed with the mystery of perception (finding that miraculous enough ), prayer assumes the human experience is flawed, in error, and needs a strong hand to right itself to a greater purpose. Prayer, in essence, is an admission of powerlessness or one’s situation and one’s instincts to cope with the difficulties presented; the varieties of spiritual inspiration vary and are nuanced to particular personalities and finer or lesser nuanced readings of guiding sacred texts, but prayers share a default position that human existence sans God is incomplete and in need to surrender itself to the Will of a variously described God.
It is possible to write a poem that addresses god that is not an entreaty, finding His presence in the world as we already have it, not as we think it was.”Question” by May Swenson does this.
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt
Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead
How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye
With cloud for shift

how will I hide?
It’s a fine poem, and Swenson is speaking from within experience, finding something wondrous in the world as it is. Her poem is about finding God in the details of this existence and does not beseech a higher power for guidelines about how to live a more righteous life according to scripture. Prayer assumes that human life, in essence, is merely an audition for a seat in Heaven. Swenson assumes we already have our seat and seeks God’s inspiration in making the place where we live purposeful and fuller. I don’t think God ordains prayers since they commence with the human subject starting a conversation with his maker in the search for guidance, inspiration, hope. Prayers (and poetry writing) are voluntary, as humans always have the choice not to pray at all and to neither seek nor have an interest in spiritual matters. God does not micromanage what human beings do.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019


Poet Frank Bidart writes about the odd and confounding ritual of issuing in a new President with "Inauguration Poem", a skimpy, momentarily evocative lyric that promises to deliver a moral but evaporates on the breeze instead. Just as well, really, since these slight stanzas are murmurings instead of exclamations, whispers rather than shouts. Bidart wants to write about the unnamed expectations come to be focused on the taking of the oath. With or without the new president's hand on the Bible, the varieties of disappointment will reign soon enough; even a god would have trouble solving every citizen's concern and dissolving each citizens unease with the empty sound that attends every step. There are no laws against loneliness. This is poem dwells on the idea that what we're actually dealing with as we witness an inauguration is ritual meant to stir ghosts; the past is present and constantly influencing the future, as the sage remarked, and Bidart attempts to isolate some elements of the allure that attracts the best and worst of us. It's a collective point where headstrong notions of putting things right which have strayed off course , grossly so, in the presence of a president who'll mount an assault on erring policies and social injustice, a public that desires a change in direction, the sociopaths, the malcontents, the would-be assassins who want to strike a blow against the organized brutality the state and the institutions have made his or her world. 

Today, despite what is dead
staring out across America I see sinceLincoln gunmennursing fantasies of purity betrayed,dreaming to restorethe glories of their blood and state... 
Expectation, hope, rage, rebellion, collective will--a noisy, bickering mess trying to sort itself out and praying for consensus as the new man takes an oath to do his best. Sometimes we make the right choice, history seems to smile and matters work themselves out in ways that amaze us and perhaps make us aware of a hesitant miracle taking place. Too soon, though, our basic interest, our native centers of concern, take credit for the good, we lay blame too easily outside our sphere, we destroy Eden once again with our will to have our way.

under the lustrous flooding moonthe White House is stillWhitman's White House, itsgorgeous frontfull of reality, full of illusion

There is always the chance to start over, though, this work in progress--this is a government as the boulder we roll up the hill, only to start over once it rolls down again. That seems the center essence of democracy quite despite what Presidents have to say about it--we are and will continue to clean up the mess we've made of things, to contend with the bad hands we've been dealt, the sorry slices of pie we've been served. It's not about the getting, it's about the doing, and the specters Bidart invokes at the margins serve to compel us to keep the wretched machine humming along.

Monday, February 25, 2019


Image result for gail mazur"In Another Country" is a big , comfortable chair of a poem to write, a familiar and over upholstered seat in the middle of a crowded room where the poet can plop and sink into the cushions, gaze at the books and ephemera surrounding here, musing, or rather half musing, on a snail-paced account of the week that is more wistful than touching, brittle rather than robust. Mazur has written of being dislocated before and has done some interesting things with the idea of culture shock within the larger stretches of one's own culture meeting up with minor key alienation to produce a sense of fleeting anxiety. This, though, is a return too many to the same well.The writing is shiftless, too cute--are we really supposed to think that her Houston students are such hicks that they shyly steal gazes at her mismatched shoes in the assumption that this is a fashion trend from the East Coast?-and smug. Not that Mazur is smug herself, but there is a tone and unapologetically disregard for thematic tightness where her comfort level for the details she is sifting through, highlighting and making half-formed asides about excludes the others in attendance, the readers. There's not a poet alive who hasn't written reams of poems one might consider "practice runs" or "finger exercises" that prepare one for a substantial bit of writing, and here Mazur suffers the embarrassing, albeit nonfatal indignity of mistaking her notes for a poem for the poem itself. She is a more interior designer here than poet, moving the furniture from one corner to the next, bringing in new pieces, refusing to toss anything out; someone might tell her that it's a bad habit to exhibit one's erudition in the form of formula name dropping

I sat at his oak desk trying to write,
ate at his table, holding his fork in my right hand,
turned the pages of one of the books,
then another, from his alphabetized shelves:

Mandelstam. Merwin. Milosz.
O'Hara. Petrarch. Pound.

It's fitting she ends the poem that she ends the poem with a paraphrase of an old joke relating to the mismatched shoes she stunned her Houston students with

—But those shoes, the maroon and the blue:
 as the joke goes, I had another pair, just like it, at home.

Likewise, it's likely she has a dozen poems in her files just like this one, earnest gatherings of incidental autobiography and tidbits of wit and self-effacement, some of which make it out of the drawer and fulfill a reader's expectation. This isn't one of those lucky poems. This is dizzy, torn, and mumbled, and the associative leaps Mazur tries don't make it over that yawning abyss of self-reference and land in a terrain where her subject is less private and insulated, more animated, more full of life we can empathize with.without a mention of an idea, a notion, a metaphor any of these writers have written or said offhand, let alone conducting the work to expand on the paraphrase and produce a discourse . The addition of these names to the poem's length reaffirms the amateur interior decorator analogy, as they're treated like pillows and throw rugs one leaves about a space to brighten the place up

Saturday, February 23, 2019


Image result for wc williams
I confess I was in love with my adjectives, metaphors, and unhinged diction when I was a younger man attempt to write in the shadow of the Elliots, the Ashbery's, the Stevens of the poetry world. Needless to say (but to be said anyway), I wrote many poems that could be blue-penciled into submission, as many, many of the things I composed were done on the fly, in full improvisational rant. Most of us are lucky enough to survive and learn from their youthful indulgence, and my preference in tone for my work is to be more concise, terser, more direct in my treatment of the world. It's an ongoing experiment in phenomenological terrorism, but we can conclude that my later offerings seek to get back to the data, the situation under a poem's consideration. One long for something to come from their keyboard that's less abstract and more at one with the material realm, a project destined to fail--one cannot step outside their own skin to observe oneself in their habitual habitat--but it is the attempts that are worth considering, pondering, it is the art that adds to our knowledge of the things we don't know. For others, of course, poetry is a means to classify, categorize, and index people, places, and things; it is a means to conquer the world and reduce to quantifiable data. Poetry here is means of missing the point entirely.

Sadness. The moist gray shawls of drifting sea-fog,
Salting scrub pine, drenching the cranberry bogs,
Erasing all but foreground, making a ghost
Of anyone who walks softly away;
And the faint, penitent psalmody of the ocean.

One needs to admit to Anthony Hecht's mastery of the carefully articulated tone of his work and appreciate as well the limits he observes when constructing correlatives between interior states with the material world. Not pompous, not grandiloquent, not bombastic, Hecht's poem "Despair" finds a way to make the sluggishness of the human spirit resemble the turns of the day--
Gloom. It appears among the winter mountains
On rainy days. Or the tiled walls of the subway
In caged and aging light, in the steel scream
And echoing vault of the departing train,
The vacant platform, the yellow destitute silence.
The adjectives are perfectly selected and fitted like the smaller, finer diamonds in a larger arrangement of vaguely tarnished gems, with the intent being to remind you, I suspect, that more often than not, one has found themselves caught unaware that the warm afternoon has taken on a sudden chill in just the minutes it took for the sun to take a late afternoon shift of position. It does just that, but it seems a bit false; the perception seems padded by the slightest degree. 
But despair is another matter. Midafternoon
Washes the worn bank of a dry arroyo,
Its ocher crevices, unrelieved rusts,
Where a startled lizard pauses, nervous, exposed
To the full glare of relentless marigold sunshine.

What I recognize over anything else is a world that seems to exist only for its elements--an Edward Hopper universe of subdued tones, melancholic hues, and diffuse light-- to illustrate a mood that itself seems more imagined, fanciful. The language eschews the chance to be vivid and naked with the sadness it attempts to corral and instead decorates the psychology. Phrases like "Washes the bank of a dry arroyo" or "To the full glare of relentless marigold sunshine," for me, hang there like waiting room art that is nebulous and comforting; the real experience is abstracted, obscured, defused of potential. This makes me think less of an accounting of what one has felt and found suitable expression for than a rumor of something having happened. This is the kind of language one comes upon with someone who has something on their mind they aren't comfortable exposing to an honest art. Measured, well crafted, balanced, similes and metaphors synchronized, but without a single provocative notion. You're left to admire the structure of the thing, the finesse of the inner mechanisms, and leave the poem without a hint of real feeling.


The conventional wisdom is the older artist uses bolder strokes and is more selective in the techniques they use from their assembled devices and acquired skills, an appealing prospect for older poets and readers who surfeited with the orgy of earnest self-interrogation. Enough about you, already, we know it's you who's had these experiences, tell us what you see without announcing that you're in the act of seeing. I don't constantly roll my eyes when coming across a personal pronoun in a poem--that would be rude, even in private--and I will attest to liking poets who have a winning manner that mitigates their constancy in work; I am a Norman Mailer fan, after all. But not everyone is so engaging nor interesting, at least when they are the articulated persona the poetry is coming through. You often desire the more direct approach; let's skip the foreplay and go straight to the perception, the place where the new idea forms. My model is William Carlos Williams, who could, to my mind (and ear), draw a lyric from the barest of linguistic ploys. It's a clean, well-lit poem.

Spring and All 
by William Carlos Williams 

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines-

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind-
Now the grass, tomorrow

the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined-

It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity ofentrance-

Still, the profound
change has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken.

There seems less of the telling-the-world-what-it-mean??s I gather from Hecht's skilled outline and sense in Williams, someone who has remained quiet and still long enough in the spaces he inhabits to have the world reveal itself. This poem is one of action, so to speak, activity, of how nature exudes and recedes with the change of the weather, how the terrain seems to wither under the severity of the cold wind and hard snow but comes to life again as the ground softens and the temperature warms a bitter air. Where Hecht, to me, reads as if he was determined to find dour inner states, Williams finds symmetry and elegance in what the passerby might consider a rough and unrefined wood; Williams' eye is sure, and his ear is tuned to the music that's already in the frame he wandered into; there was no need to busy up to his materials. Being the doctor, Williams had, perhaps, an innate appreciation of how things fit together, whether the human body, the buildings of a city that hugged a rough shoreline, or otherwise untrammeled nature itself. He is wholly aware that what he sees is already perfect before he arrives; perfection is independent of his personality and desires. There, his presence does not bring beauty to the landscape. It is his task to notice what's there, see what is in front of him that otherwise goes unseen, and notice the world apart from his ego. That is what makes Williams one of my favorite poets.

PERFECT PITCH: William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost

The similarities between William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost there , indeed, in the sense that we have two poets who have created a style of plain writing–writing, not speech, as neither poets are poets who attempt idiomatic epics– that want to get something of the grit, grime and grumble of life that previous generations of poets had theorized out of countenance, For myself, it is Williams who is the better and more bracing the two scribes, as I remember a passing remark from WCW suggesting (I paraphrase) that the thing itself is its own adequate symbol. Where systems of metaphor, allusion and simile were busy comparing this existence to more perfect orders and had essentially argued that real objects in the material world were irrelevant to the poet’s task of constructing arguments for a more perfect union of elements , Williams and his fellow travelers in Pound, Eliot, HD , Amy Lowell and a host of other nascent modernist bringing their own experience and idiosyncratic notions to the discussion, mutually agreed that metaphysics was suffocating poetry, robbing it all worth and potential to create beauty from freshly expressed perceptions; the perfect world of Ideal Types needed to be forgotten about, at least for a while, while the language poets used was reinvigorated , reapplied, basically reinvented as a creative force. The thing itself is its own adequate symbol.

Yes indeed, and this was a declaration that for the purpose of writing a poem that addresses the actuality of a scene, the phenomenological exactitude of objects and their situations, God was dead and it was the job of the new poet to get it right. Much of this imagism, a splendid but blessedly short-lived movement in modern poetry that wanted to excise extraneous words and metaphors and gutless qualifiers from poems that are tasked with getting this world and its things correctly expressed in unforgettable ways. No ideas but in things was a battle cry they might all have heard in their subconscious at one time; it rang loud, in any case.


Now they are resting
in the fleckless light
separately in unison

like the sacks
of sifted stone stacked
regularly by twos

about the flat roof
ready after lunch
to be opened and strewn

The copper in eight
foot strips has been
beaten lengthwise

down the center at right
angles and lies ready
to edge the coping

One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it.

Williams was a superb, brilliant exponent of this pared-down approach; his sentences are prickly, full of splinters, a description of action that contains rhythm , movement, precise descriptions of things that give a strong suggestion that the arrangements of the things in the world are extraordinary as they are, even when they unseen by human eyes and egos that translate the experience into easy narrative tropes; what is splendid about this poem, “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” is the lean and lyrical economy with which Williams gives us a good amount of detail; workmen on a break, the materials, and tools they are working with laying to the side, the light and time of day, the return to work, the steady hand of the workman who lifts a piece of the thing he is working on:
“One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it.”
Without fuss, commotion or straining rhetoric, Williams achieves a stark beauty, with his notion of taking his sentences and breaking them into smaller units of clear signification working subtly and directly to bring us to the startling last lines, “picks up a copper strip/and runs his eye along it.” That, for me, was a dicey image, since it suggests the grim prospect of having an eye poked out with hard, sharp, unyielding thing. But without the blathering on about courage, craft or anything else left and right intellectuals have romanticized about for decades before, Williams accomplishes one small thing that, in turn, went a long way in revolutionizing how poems come to be conceptualized. He achieves that fine balance between hard and soft things, he makes it tactile, he delivers his poem with such skilled brilliance that most readers miss it even after multiple readings.


I like this poem in theory, as it satisfies my current interest in poems that have a sparer, even skeletal structure, but Evans could have done something global here. What it does with the localization of grief--the stunned incredulity, the trudging past familiar and unfamiliar things--works well enough, but it seems to stop short. In fact, it stops right at the point when there's an opportunity for the narrator to make caste some lines of the world at large, in this time of grief, seeming spectacularly irrelevant:

Wanting to liveafter your deathis like wakingin an empty room:too much space.

I like this analogy because it hints at the seeming futility of our desires and goals when the worst thing finally happens, that the petty, homemade philosophies that gave us comfort and a sense of continuity through a chaotic world are flimsy premises once the unavoidable fact of death encroaches on one's most intimate sphere of association. This could have been a spare, concise King Lear moment, where a few lean stanzas describing the tone and mood of the universe after the bad news is learned and being processed could have brought a deeper, icier sense of psychic remove. It's not that Evans needed to add an onslaught of language to expand his view, but one does get the feeling that he was just getting warmed up before pushing his wits to another set of consideration; the entire poem reads like a set up that ends unconvincingly. Evans follows up his rich metaphor of comparing living beyond your time to waking up in an empty room with a sign off that is quick and cliché,
All day I sleep off
the crude hangover.
There is, to be sure, the suggestion that the narrator sought a temporary death through an aggrieved drinking binge, that he wanted to blot out and remove an accumulating mass of emotion that will inevitably overwhelm him and that this fits in neatly with the previous image, but it is cheap disservice to an evocative phrase. There is a point where the vocabulary could have expanded, swelled just a bit, that the metaphors could have gone beyond the tics and aches of the narrator's hangovers and dulled senses and demonstrated the external world at large, pieced together by senses that are deranged with sorrow.

I suspect Evans submitted these poems for publication too soon. While I like the style of the poem, it seems tentative; where he presents an interesting springboard to some inspired metaphors, he stops and this, I think, is the poem's failure. In the two poems you present, he is a bit talkier, and he edges closer to monologue, to prose, instead of poetry; they remind of the leaden open pages of Rick Moody's overwrought, hand wringing novel Purple America, a string of run-on misery that irritated me rather than feels sympathy for the man who must know care for his aging mother. Evans, I suspect, is still too close to his material. I am a fan of ambiguity in poems and I rail against the idea that poetic narratives, by necessity, be a righteously crafted thing that is a finished product, self-contained, which ties up the loose ends of a poem tidily the way a situation comedies end with an episode concluding laugh line. I think Evans is obliged to be honest to his emotional progression and leave this story unfinished; otherwise, it merely becomes another Lifetime movie of the week. What I didn't like was the convenient, easy, lazy bit about recovering from a hangover; it does not sound earned. Hence, I wanted more from this poem; it was building credibly, and then he stopped at the point when I think he should have pushed further. The poem is premature, I think; he should have set it aside and come back after some days had passed.


Someone I showed this poem to gave back to me after reading it back the book after a cursory glance up and down the page. She asked: "where's the beef?". Then we had a beef; I liked the poem, she didn't, and we took several hours to smooth out the differences between us.
 Assuredly, more than a difference of view on what constitutes quality in free verse poems was under review , and yes, I realize that recollection resembles a scenario for a minor key spasm of-of "flash fiction" that would be doomed to see print in a small magazine that would reach the hands of  on the chronically poetic. The "beef", is Ammons' details, and the poem works precisely because of his plain speech and the emphasis on his line breaks. Ammons' narrator highlights a more fleshed out version of the same sort of subject, making the point that what comes at you fast in life are marriages, births, and deaths, in that order, in thick, hard clusters; before you know it, you're at the end of it all while the cycle continues for another generation. One descends either into cynicism and despair, or one considers themselves to have been fortunate, blessed, to have lived a life that's endured joy, failure, and every celebration and tragedy in between. Yes, this is a poem, there is no pretense about it, and it works very powerfully because of Ammons' couplet form; the prose reformatting turns this into something anyone converted to paragraph form would be, a series of run-on sentences.I like his language, his ability to keep a topic running through a myriad of associations that wouldn't ordinarily meet in a piece of writing, and I admire his utter lack of pretentiousness. This is quite wonderful.

In View of the Fact 
By A. R. Ammons 

The people of my time are passing away: my
wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year-old who

died suddenly, when the phone rings, and it's
Ruth we care so much about in intensive care:

it was once weddings that came so thick and
fast, and then, first babies, such a hullabaloo:

now, it's this that and the other and somebody
else gone or on the brink: well, we never

thought we would live forever (although we did)
and now it looks like we won't: some of us 
are losing a leg to diabetes, some don't know
what they went downstairs for, some know that

a hired watchful person is around, some like
to touch the cane tip into something steady,

so nice: we have already lost so many,
brushed the loss of ourselves ourselves: our

address books for so long a slow scramble now
are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: our

index cards for Christmases, birthdays,
Halloweens drop clean away into sympathies:

at the same time we are getting used to so
many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip

to the ones left: we are not giving up on the
congestive heart failure or brain tumors, on

the nice old men left in empty houses or on
the widows who decide to travel a lot: we 
think the sun may shine someday when we'll
drink wine together and think of what used to

be: until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every

loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter

and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. . . . 


A previously unpublished poem by E.E.Cummings was recently discovered by literary professor James Dempsy in the course of researching Scofield Taylor, publisher of the influential magazine The Dial. The Awl as published it, a brief, spare observation that leaves you scratching your head, a typical response to Cummings best and worst writing. This poem, though, is different; the language makes us asks if Cummings were a racist. The start of the poem gets your attention quickly:
in nigger
the snow is perfectly falling,
the noiselessly snow is
sexually fingering the utterly asleep
The entire poem can be viewed here.

You can feel the hair rise on the neck of those modern critics already defensive about the politics of a number of  Modernist poets. This was another era, a good while ago, and it wasn't an uncommon thing for otherwise smart and perceptive people, Cummings included, using the word "nigger" without intending to judge and subjugate an entire segment of the population on the basis of race. That is to that I doubt Cummings use of the word was used in a racist manner; from readings of Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner and Van Vechten, the use seems more idiomatic than hurtful. "Nigger", though, has morphed in the many decades since Cummings' quizzical poem, as the history of the Civil Rights movement reveals the insane, hateful cultural undercurrent from which the word emerges. The word is loaded with the freight of every racist thought, judgment, and agenda that has been enacted in this country and it has become something that none of us can use with any authority other than to be hurtful. The other explanation for saying or writing "nigger” in light of what the word has come to mean is the kind of weak-kneed "irony", that one needs to use the word in light of the pain we allow them to cause. Lenny Bruce maintained that these are only words and it is our forbidding the use that gives them their hurtful power; expose the words and the lies behind them and we neutralize their power over our emotions. Lester Bangs, contrarily, wrote years later in an essay titled "White Noise Supremacists", that he had tried Bruce's prescription and uttered and wrote "nigger" in what he meant as irony--he was attempting to empty the term of the potential to cause pain.

Bangs, though, gauged the response of readers, editors, and friends and discovered his humanist reasoning wasn't assuaging anyone. The roots of the pain were too deeply embedded in our culture's worst sustained tendencies: this word, and words like it, hurt.  Cummings, as a poet, can be excused in part because I suspect he meant "nigger" to be a synonym for "night" or a term equally nocturnal; A quiet winter night in winter, snow on the houses, the lights are out. There is subtext s here, to be sure, the obvious ones being the sexual attraction of whites to blacks, but there are nearly always subtexts and ambiguity in poems; Cummings purpose is to create tension between terms denoting abstract virtues of black and white and force a reader, perhaps force himself, that one is drawn to the other and that , in fact, one needs the other in which to exist, thrive, to find happiness in the many layers of grief life-as-it-is will hand you. This is a reading, though, that is lost in the sweep of history, save a protest from an apologist arising here and there.  Cummings fans will no doubt make like this poem had never emerged.Is Cummings a racist for using this odious term? No. Could he have gotten away with writing this poem today? Not on your life.

Friday, February 22, 2019


Image result for ts eliot
T.S.Eliot wrote in a time when the Universe seemed to be rent, with heaven and hell bleeding into one another, a career on the heels of two world wars that shattered optimism one may have had for the promise of technology to replace a silent god, is hardly different than the dread that lurks under the covers of the postmodern debate over language's ability to address anything material, or have it convey ideas with any certainty. There is simply the fear that the names we give to things we think are important and worth preserving are, after all, based on nothing. Grim prospects, that, but, I think, seeks to provoke a reader's investigation into the source of the malaise, the bankruptcy of useful meaning, with a hope that the language is reinvigorated with a power to transform and change the world. Eliot's response was real art though, and if it did turn into resignation and nostalgia for more-meaningful past times, his articulation at least provokes a response in the reader, and operates as a challenge for them to make sense of his language, and understand the complexity of their own response. This adheres to Pound's modernist ideal that art ought to not just be about the times in which it's made, but that it needs to provoke a response that changes the times: transformation remains the submerged notion. There is beauty because there is power in the imagery and the emotion behind it and it's powerful because it rings true; a reader recognizes the state of affairs Eliot discusses with his shimmering allusions and responds to it. The material does not lie, and he certainly isn't being false by saying "this is my response to our time and our deeds". Rather, it's more that one disagrees with Eliot's conclusion, that all is naught, useless, gone to ashes. Better that one inspects the power of the truth that is in the work and develops their own response to their moment. It's less useful to try and argue with someone's real despair. A depressed expression does not constitute lying. 

Eliot was not lying in any sense of the word--lying is a willful act, done so with the intent of trying to make someone believe something that is demonstrably untrue. As the point of The Quartets and his plays have to do with an artful outlaying of Eliot's seasoned ambivalence to his time, the suggestion that "beauty lies" is specious. One has the license to argue with the conclusions, or to critique the skill of the writer, but the vision here is not faked dystopia Eliot contrived to a good amount of trendy despair--that comes later, with artless confessional poets who lost any sense of beauty to their own addiction to their ultimately trivial self-esteem issues. Eliot, however, one views him, sought transcendence of what he regarded as an insanely short-sighted world, and sought to address the human condition in a lyric language that has, indeed, found an audience that continues to argue with his work: the work contains a truth the readership recognizes. Eliot was following suit on the only prerogative an artist, really, has open to them: to be an honest witness to the evidence of their senses, and to marshal every resource in their grasps to articulate the fleeting sensations, the ideas within the experience. This is the highest standard you can hold an artist too; any other criteria, any other discursive filter one wants to run the work through is secondary, truth be told because the truth within the work is the source of that work's power. One needs to recognize what it is in the lines, in the assemblage and drift of the lyric, in the contrasting tones and delicate construction of vernaculars, what is that one recognizes and responds to in the work, and then mount their response. 

There is more to the Four Quartets or the plays than what assume is an admission of defeat in the hard glare of uncompromising, godless materialism--there is hope that his work inspires future imagining greater than even his own-- but I cannot regard the poems as failures in any sense, even with the admission that there is great beauty in them. Eliot renders his consciousness, his contradictory and ambivalent response to the world he's grown old in with a perfect pitch, and it's my sense that his intention to provoke the imagination is a sublime accomplishment. As craft and agenda, the later pieces work. 

What does Eliot's despair have to do with postmodern writers and writing? It's less about what one can call his "despair" than what his operating premise has in common with the postmodern aesthetic: Eliot, the Modernist poet extraordinaire, perceives the world the universe has to have any sort of definable center, any unifying moral force formally knowable by faith and good works. There is despair in the works, behind the lines--one responds to them emotionally and intellectually--and the power behind the images, the shimmering surfaces the diminished, de-concretized narrator feels estranged from, comes from a felt presence, a real personality. Eliot, though, turns the despair into a series of ideas and makes the poetry an argument with the present day. There is a pervasive sense of everything being utterly strange in the streets, bridges over rivers, strangeness at the beach, and we, it sounds, a heightened sense of voices, media, bombs, headlines competing for the attention of someone who realizes that they're no longer a citizen in a culture where connection to a core set of meanings, codes and authority offers them a security, but are instead consumers, buyers, economic in a corrupt system that only exploits and denudes nature, culture, god.

Eliot conveys the sense of disconnection rather brilliantly, reflecting the influence of an early cinematic editing styles: Eliot is a modernist by his association with the period, though at heart he was very much a Christian romantic seeking to find again some of the scripture’s surety to ease his passage through the world of man and his material things. There has always been this yearning for redemption of purpose in the vaporous sphere, and much of his work, especially in criticism, argued that the metaphysical aspect could be re-established, recreated, re-imagined (the operative word) through the discipline of artistic craft. Modernists, ultimately, shared many of the same views of postmodernism with regards of the world being a clashing, noisy mess of competing, unlinked signifiers, but postmodernism has given up the fight of trying to place meaning in the world, and also the idea that the world can be changed for the better. Modernists, as I take them in their shared practice and aesthetic proclamations, are all romantics, though their angle and color of their stripes may vary. Romanticism, in fact, is an early kind of modernism: the short of it is that there is a final faith in the individual to design of the world, and in turn change its shape by use of his imagination 

Eliot's turn to religious quietism isn't so surprising, given the lack of self-effacing wit in his writing that might have lessened the burden of his self-created dread of the modern world: a tenet of modernism, shared by any writer worthy of being called so, is that their work was to help the readers, the viewers, the audience, perceive the world afresh, from new perspectives, in new arrangements, to somehow help get to the "real" order of things behind their appearances, and, understanding, change the world again. Temperaments among poets varied as to how they personally responded to their need to live aesthetically--and in all cases, living aesthetically was a viable substitute for a religious rigor--Stevens chose his Supreme Fiction while being an insurance executive, Pond toyed with fascism and economics, Joyce opted for a life in the eroticized parlors of France and Britain, Williams found connection through his medical practice and biology, related, absolutely with his poetry. 

Overall, what keenly separates the modernist engagement with meaning creation was that it was the things of this world, this plain, this material reality, that were the things that would help us transform individual perception; the thing itself is its own adequate symbol. A nod to Husserl and phenomenology, the meaning of things in the world, as things, was mysterious indeed, but their form didn't come from the mind of a God who, at best, was an absentee landlord. Eliot, though, sought religion, and I don't see that as a failure at all: the work is too powerful to be regarded as either a personal failure if that's a claim one might nor as a poet. Eliot, as you say, is a poet of ideas, among other things, but ideas are useless in a poem unless they're seamlessly linked with an emotion, an impulse, and it's possible, I think, to see where the work was going: the kind of world Eliot described, with the kind of intelligence and personality that described it, was a bleak and unlivable sphere, requiring a decision, to commit to something that supplies meaning, fits the personality that needs direction.

 I don't regard Eliot as an artifact at all: I've commented previously on how the work still inspires readers to engage the world in new ways: he is a permanent influence on my work as a poet. The early modernists rejected the romantic label--for a variety of reasons. I'm sure they had good reasons, but Modernism, in many respects, is an old project with a new label. Can we really place Joyce and the Futurists and Eliot and Pound and Yeats and Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the same box? Yes, but it is less of a box and more of a tent; there is a lot more room to move around in.


I've thought for years that the best way to read John Ashbery's poetry is to first throw the instruction manual away and then go for a fishing trip in his various lakes of opaque meanings. Literally, imagine yourself in a boat in the center of a large body of water and cast a line into the water, and then reel in what pulls and makes the line go taut. Whatever comes up is always a surprise, unexpected, perhaps a tangle of things that wouldn't be bound together or linked in any conceivable but in the dreamy but sleepless realm of Ashbery's actively processing mind and attendant imagination. This might be the closest an American writer has ever come to transcribing the language of their thought process; for all the conventional wisdom about Ashbery's associations with painters, French surrealists, and the rush of popular culture, he very closely resembles the method of Virginia Woolf and the still engaging, if the topically staid process of stream-of-conscious.Ashbery's poems are filled with much of the material world, both natural and manufactured, fashioned, contrived, and constructed by human agency. In both Woolf and Ashbery, the central voice, the observer, distanced or not, renders an image, makes it solid and substances, gives it attributes and distinguishing nuance, allows the thing to be played with as the mind associates, puns, constructs parallel universes and contradictory timelines; sections of books, a cold cup of coffee on the magazine, a painting under a cloth, shorelines are seen from Italian villas, comic book heroes and the breathing of a grudgingly referred to "you" who is voiceless, without input. I was aware that Ashbery was an adherent of Wallace Stevens and his notion of the Supreme Fiction, a reconfiguration of the tension between Idea and physical expression to the senses. But where Stevens constructed grand rhetoric to address the generic formulations of every day--his poems often sound like critiques of a reality that is inferior to a divine Idea that makes their formation possible--Ashbery makes more informal, casual, and brings the distanced bewilderment to street level. There are glimmers, glimpses, observations, and sightings of the physical detail that assure you that you and Ashbery live on the same planet. Yet, at precisely the moment you come to a reassurance, these details blur and merge with the spillover of many other chats and conversations the poet seems to be having. The poems are not monologues, and one cannot call them a "medley of voices," as Richard Poirier had referred to in Norman Mailer's Why Are We In Viet Nam?. "Medley" implies an orchestration of unlike parts made to harmonize, to make sense in ways that give pleasure. Ashbery's voice is singular, his own, and what comes from his typewriter are whatever arguments, debates, interrogations are rumbling through his consciousness at that given moment. While Ashbery is capable of the well-turned sentence and even sweet music on occasion, his aim isn't to give pleasure but rather to make the ordinary and nettlesome extraordinarily weird. It's not that his poems are any more accessible than Stevens--his less daunting syntax actually seem to make his poetry more demanding than Stevens'-- but with patience, we can comprehend a language we might actually use, a voice that could plausibly be one we would have in those moments of lost thought, daydreaming, vague yet intense yearning when there is so much we want to bring together for a moment of clarity but are frustrated to find that our senses keep changing along with the world they behold. Ashbery is the central poet for many critics whose projects intend to lay out the rise of urban Modernism in American verse. Marjorie Perloff is someone else worth mentioning as much of who she deals with are city poets, worldly, college-educated, unashamedly bookish, and unafraid to employ a more vulgar popular culture, IE comic books, movies, advertising, along with the more swank and sophisticated allusions to high culture, whether literature, opera, theatre, painting. A connecting thread through much of the poets emerging after WW2 was their ambivalence to the plenitude of culture and media--Dwight McDonald's derided mass culture--and began, in their individual endeavors, to fashion particular styles to sift through the cultural dumping ground each of them was witnessing.

Elizabeth Bishop is exquisitely hermetic in her verse. She is much closer to the qualities Stevens praised for poetic surfaces calling their own form into question, and James Merrill, who was something of a virtuoso in sustained, whispering elusiveness. One sees why some of the poets of the New York School receive more attention from readers and critics, especially the work of Ashbery and Frank O'Hara (and to a lesser degree, the wonderfully digressive poems of Ron Padgett); meanings and intents about the growling contradictory messages of physical reality are dealt with as unresolvable conditions of existence in work, but the point is how the poet is engaged with their world. It might be said that Ashbery's work makes no sense and conveys a sense of witness to an ever-blooming enlargement of perception. The poetry of the New York School was, in essence, about talking about the world as it unfolded, an attempt to give a cadence and rhythm to the kind of personality which bears witness to the confluence of sight, sound, and smells. This is a fitting rite for a city that is in your face, traffic lights, pedestrian density, and raw-lettered advertising, the moment you step out the door of your apartment building; everything is seemingly noticed, nothing is trivial, everything is a part of the story. Sheer meaning, hard and fast, is not be found here, but feeling, resonance, introspection are. It is this several layered ambiguities that keep a reader up at night, staring out of the window, testing the keyboard as ideas about what we haven't thought about coming in phrases even God himself couldn't explain. O'Hara is not so oblique or confusing--he is popular precisely because he has the lyric capacity to merge his far-flung loves of high and low culture and still carry on a rant that achieves a jazzy spontaneity--he is the poet from whom Billy Collins has taken from and tamed for polite company. Ashbery is the stroller, the walker in the city, the flaneur, the sidewalk engineer examining the city in its constant self-construction, composing poetry of association that accompanies a terrain of things with inexplicable uses. What seems like a mighty muddle in his writing becomes full engagement of a personality in love with what the senses bring him; at his best, the intelligence of the poems is transcendent, and there is, in the main, a tangible joy in how he phrases his reactions, responses, and retorts to a world that always seems to baffle him in some wondrous way.


The Nation published a poem by a white poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, written in an idiom likely influenced by black American speech, and the result was a loud and sustained clamor of discontent, protest and other varieties of outrage from some readers. The Nation did a horrible thing; they allowed the poetry editors to apologize for a provocative poem obviously intended to provoke a discussion. The poem that riled so many:
If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.
                                          --Anders Carlson-Wee
Progressives get upset when they are called snowflakes, but the poetry editor's knee-jerk reaction to the critical reception to this poem is nothing less than a spineless surrender to the encroaching tyranny of politically-approved language. The editors , in their apology, tell us that their first reading of a poem was that it addressed, in idiomatic language, the problematic circumstances of disenfranchised Americans and the privileged elite that either ineffectively tries to help them or ignores them outright, about how the oppressed would advise others in the same circumstances to work around the obstacles that impede them. Their first assessment was the right one, and consider the poet's effort to compose the poem the way he did a brave and purposefully provocative one. Sadly, those looking to be offended dragged out their bullhorns and vehemently announced their hurt feelings, to which poetry editors Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith sheepishly said: " We can no longer read the poem in that way." Bear in mind, this reversal was not the result of a critical reexamination of first impressions or a philosophical discussion as to why they believe their first view was in error. The strong implication is that they didn't want to be yelled at anymore, This would have been a great moment to turn this poem into a useful discussion of the many perceptions might engender, about the role of voice in political poetry, about the validity or vapidity of negative capability, about how the author's persona in the poem advances the invisible cruel ironies of daily life for the marginalized or how it fails. It might have been the discussion this poem was meant to provoke. The editors write that they " ...recognize that we must now earn your trust back. " 

As poetry is an art meant to compel the reader to think about the world in different ways and to consider that matters between human beings are much more than mere sentiment, and given the editor's cowardly about-face on this issue destroys what trust I might have placed in these two. Worse, far worse is that they've destroyed their creditability as poetry editors. They are afraid of poems that might disturb readers. This is careerist ass-saving at its most loathsome. Burt and Smith should resign their position and seek less stressful work. Shame on them and shame on the Nation for allowing this flight from free expression.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

MOVEMENT by Wyn Cooper

Movement”, a poem by Wyn Cooper, is that frustrating species of a poem that starts off well enough, full of promise and intrigue, that chokes to a close. It begins as a smooth ride with effortless transitions between speeds suddenly becomes a lurching, jerking collapse. We are to make note of all the movement that occurs in this narrative, the countryside the narrator speaks of to his unknown companion. The tone is nostalgic, the recounting of annoyances fondly recalled. But time goes on, life advances from one neighborhood to another, one terrain for another completely unlike it. One moves and attempts to be quickly assimilated by something more urban, bustling, impatient, impolite, a city that the narrator doesn't want to discuss, not for long.

This is the pun contained in the title, an obvious ploy from the get-go; the irony, I suppose, would be that the weather, the relative stillness, the lack urgency in the bucolic ruins of fading America are not, in fact, cursed with inertia, as the speaker addresses the particulars with telling, nearly idealized detail. An implied sigh accompanies the pause between first and second stanza; this is the part of the conversation where the speaker is lost in thought and averts his eyes, falls into a melancholy that dares him to speak what he is not able to find words for. The poem goes from being fairly specific to vague and euphemistic. The effect is spoiled by Wyn Cooper's need, to sum up, the inchoate morass seething under the surface of these well-mannered images;
 "...before we
settled in a city of other movements,
found new rhythms that suit us better,
we tell ourselves over and over. "

The poem is a nice if other unremarkable presentation of the low-level anxiety that haunts the suburbia of John Cheever, who was a master short story writer and novelist who explored a generation of the white middle class that had to distract themselves with drugs, adultery, and workaholism. The aim of those who lived in Cheever's New York's outer communities was a continual effort to dull a collective suspicion that the lifestyle and manicured neighborhoods they chose for themselves are lifeless results of preferring Bad Faith over singular authenticity. Cheever, though, was much subtler and more lyrical as he wrote of his characters attempts to fill an emptiness that will not be healed. Cooper had some more writing to do to make this idea work; the poem just quits suddenly and the screen one imagines this monologue being played against goes blank. The last sentence reveals an unwillingness to see this thing through. The poet is unsure how he wants to talk about this string of related icons.


Former U..S.Poet Laureate Billy Collins has made a career wrenching irony from the small things and people that occupy his corner of the world, something akin to Fred Rogers trudging into his apartment , talking to his unseen friend, and then revealing the special wonders of the banal things that one might find in a single, middle-aged man's drab apartment. Collins' narrating presence booms all over his verses, soft, pleasant, melodious voice over a moderately amplified microphone, complete with windscreen, characterizing the houses, the workmen, the rote tedium of daily tasks done in homes and in small-town business districts.  It is not long, of course, before something makes the narrator expand this universe with an intervening sigh, a deep, worldly intake and release of air containing both stress and relief, like someone taking a bong hit, proceeding then to speak of those human conundrums that refuse to allow our lives to remain restful and fulfilling without interruption.  This neighborhood is a ganglion of bittersweet recollections, unpronounced love affairs, deferred passion, a corresponding universe of small matters, petty concerns twined together with a writer's straining sense of whimsy. I imagine this world as similar to a perverse Twilight Zone episode where the residents of a nostalgically named small town --Willoughby, anyone--live in knowing terror of the Writer who lives down the street who stares out the window , lurks in coffee shops and public parks, observing, jotting notes into a notebook or typing them into a laptop, returning to his study by mid-afternoon and composing his scenarios based on what he has seen ; inevitably, the scenarios, made up of minor tragedies, crashing irony, practical jokes, or static sadness, materialize in the town, among the residents, a citizenry compelled to enact and fulfill the musings of a writer who is incapable of doing anything else other than reshuffle his templates, mix-and-match his scenarios. My problem with Billy Collins and this poem are because of his pieces, and his poem ends with a "characteristic Billy Collins twist", which is another way of saying that it reads like dozens of professionally constructed verses he has produced. A twist in a story is a turn that we didn't see coming, in theory, but if the twist is "characteristic", it stops being a surprise. The trick of anthropomorphizing nonhuman things--and that is exactly what it is, a trick--is ultimately a tedious way of talking about human vanity as age encroaches and one's last days near. It is the kind of poem that Collins dispatches with the uniform alacrity and craft a thrice-weekly op-ed columnist produces a quickly drawn essay; the repeated tropes, the favored conceits, the reiterations øf conventional cleverness --are soon enough revealed. I admire Collins the way I admire grade B film directors, those able to produce endless fare with little variation in quality. He is a poet who is vigorously the same after all this time.  A vision of hell, I imagine, with the neighborhood transforming with new poetic unfoldings that are, in fact, a punning variation of jokes and anecdotes that have already been told. For the residents I imagine to live in the town Billy Collins' evil twin controls, what began as a stimulating change from their daily lives has become a bother, a terror of mediocre surprise, the case when the Unexpected becomes the norm. For the reader, it is the kind of thing that makes you want to have been over the poet's shoulder while he wrote the poem in question and telling him to stop.  "I've heard this joke before", you would say, "you need to write food reviews rather than poems. Please stop."

"Make it stop" a voice chimes in from the poem being written.

PARADISE by Emma Jones

Anyone will tell you, if asked, that what they want from this life are merely simple things, not much at all, nothing too large or complicated. Emma Jones in her poem "Paradise" would have us realize that simple things are less simple than the label would indicate. There is enchantment in building our particular nest, but there is work before there are glory, many surprises, and obligations to tend to after the daydreaming is done with:
What you wanted was simple:
a house with a fence and a kind of gulled
light arching up from it to shake in the poplars
or some other brand of European tree
(or was it American?) you'd plant
just for the birds to nest in and so
the crows who'd settle there
could settle like pilgrims.
A fine stream of language, this poem reads as if author Emma Jones were half asleep late in the evening typing rapidly, barely keeping pace with the colliding, chiming, alliterating language that flowed through her fingers and onto to the monitor. I'm assuming, of course, that this was composed on her computer, but even if I'm wrong it has that feeling of a ripe and rapid language that is intoxicated with the scents and scenery of a tableau being observed and then re-imagined. "Paradise" is a bit like the lash garden, foliage, and greenery Jones undertakes to evoke, the words and phrases demonstrating all sorts of conflations intent and verbal assault that there's the feeling of an everyday scene becoming virtual, enhanced, as if in high definition. Unreal as it may be, it fits a poem where the commonplace thing comes under intense scrutiny and unlocks the associative tendency. Perhaps Jones was half asleep, writing halfway between dream time and the solidity of the chair she was sitting on. It is lovely all the same;

Darling, all day I've watched the garden make its way
down the road. It stops at the houses
where the lights are on and the hose reel is tidy
and climbs to the windows to look inside
like a child with its eyes of flared rhododendrons
and sunflowers that shutter the wind like bombs
so buttered and brave the sweet peas gallop
and the undergrowths fizz through the fences
and pause at some to shake into asters and weep.

If nothing else, the makes me think of the book Cultivating Delight by essayist/poet Diane Ackerman, a lyric series of essays she wrote observing her garden grow , seemingly decline and then grow yet again in the course of year; Ackerman is an especially eloquent stylist with a broad knowledge of natural sciences who persuades you (or at least me) that the seasonal cycle is wondrous, fantastic beyond the scientific data one can cite, memorize.

Jones delights as she describes the garden growing lushly, thickly, out of control finally, finding it's way beyond human borders, insinuating itself into man-made things, onto houses, around windows, growing in and around the man-made things that intrude on the fertile soil. Her rhymes and slant rhymes are wondrous and give evidence of the musically tuned ear; the near enjambments and alliterations scan easily from the page, and effectively create a sense of sensory seduction--this comes off as an invasion of ambivalence, in that one doesn't know whether to fight for their boundaries or to give in altogether. It is closely observed, sweetly detailed, the way this growth, this spread simply and ably transgresses the invisible lines that define legalistically determined notions of property and in effect change the way one comes to regard the soil where they make a home.

A knowing scenario, the setting up of the small accumulations of things one wanted in a homestead, the fantastical growth of the garden that softens the hard-edged result of consumer-driven housing results and rewards the homeowner who has tended their plot, who has grown roots in turn, and the final summation, a bit of banter where a banal observation is an acknowledgment of a rare bit of sublimity in progress:

The garden is a mythical beast and a pilgrim.
And when the houses stroll out it eats up
their papers and screens their evangelical dogs.

Barbeque eater,
yankee doodle,
if the garden should leave
where would we age
and park our poodle?
"This is paradise," you said,
a young expansive American saint.
And widened your arms to take it in,
that suburb, spread, with seas in it.

One needn't surrender to the chaos of overgrown plants nor develop an obsession with cutting back a foliage that threatens one's doormat; balance is the message, the tending of things, the trimming, the hoeing, the time on one's knees with a spade, gloves and a box of tulip bulbs and apple seeds; a balance is maintained and the pay off, if that's the word, are those moments when what one has, a home, a garden, a preferred street to live on, family and friends to share it with, become of a piece; for the moment, for a precious few moments, things are absolutely perfect