Tuesday, August 23, 2022



Richard Noel, a poem by Harry Tomas

The poem "Richard Noel" is Harry Thomas' slap at obscurantist modernism in all its forms, resisting the lure of diffuse and the oblique for the clipped, staccato version of Rudyard Kipling, although Kipling himself would have furnished the fife and brass to accentuate and enliven the ratta-tat-tat of the military drums. Thomas' poem is a rhythmic straight jacket, the confined emotionalism of someone trying to keep their bleeding heart to a steady, unexcited beat. If only if he'd actually let it all go to provide us with something fiercer, more explosive than this soggy parody of Hemingway's succinct, staccato  effusions about a Personal Code.
To finish the long profile

**his grade depended on,
the afternoon before
**the surgery, alone,
he worked late in the library.
**I saw him typing away.
On my desk were his ten pages
**the first thing the next day.
Over the years I, too,
**have had hard things to face.
But when did I once summon
**such fortitude and grace?
It is admirable, one supposes, that a student gets their homework turned in on time despite an affliction, but this tribute, with its hushed bathos, seems very, very silly indeed. There is something remarkable in the attempt to overstate a point using such a crabbed rhetoric; the clichés and the conventional wisdom toward the sick and the afflicted area boiled , chipped and chiseled to their irreducible essences, leaving only a salty residue of uninteresting thinking. There is ossification here, there is poet tasting, but there is no poetry, such as we understand it. So what does one do to mend this tendency of amateurs to compose and distribute this stanza'd insult to the eyes? Exactly nothing. Nothing can be done to cure the lagging tastes of the naive.

There is that large faction of the otherwise diminutive poetry audience that likes its verse rhyming, rocking in a cadence that suggests a three-legged clogging competition, stanzas that are morally coherent and as comprehensible as a stack of pancakes, and the seldom discussed aspect among the rest of us self-declared elites fighting back gag reflexes is that this more or less a permanent state of affairs in this odd and contentious corner of the literary world. For all the chatter some of us offer up about being ecumenical. inclusive and appreciative of the broadness contemporary contains with regards to style, aesthetics, and the subtly differentiated concerns each of the coexisting schools collectively undertake to have their respective poems achieve their results, many of us choke with contempt and despair over the obvious if unacknowledged truth that doggerel, poesy, poet tasting and all the loutish rest are permanent fixtures in the literary culture that thrives beyond the ramparts.
There are no mass conversions forthcoming when it comes to convincing the rest of the poetry world that they’d be better off reading the stronger stuff. Consumers know what they want to read, and the amateur poet, not beholden to a particular school of poetics or allegiances formed while they were a graduate student, will write exactly how they see fit, daring, strange enough, to write poems that make sense.

I don't think there is anything subtle or understated about "Richard Noël”. This set up is basically the plot line of the old ABC-TV disease-themed "Movies of the Week", where the usual tragedy was introduced in the first act, the resolve of the afflicted is tested as he or she struggles to get on with their life is shown in the second, and the third act concludes with the victim teaching a doubting observer a lesson amounting to the life can be lived fully even with a hindering, perhaps fatal ailment. These soapy melodramas were churned out week after week, and what their popularity attests to is that this sort of by-the-numbers approach to conflict and resolution is what the public accepts as the height of dramatic action.

What's off putting to me is the patronizing tone Thomas takes toward his subject --the whole Kipling "Gunga Din" tone of Imperialist paternalism (where there is the narrator's surprise that what he regards as "civilized" virtues emerge from a heathen subject) weighs this down with a sure paving of the narrative line to a limited series of genre constrained conclusions.
It might be interesting for a writer to use this situation as a reason for soul-searching and critical self-examination, but that is a tricky balance to achieve, to getting the details of the afflicted's situation right with a delicately deployed tone , and having the narrator's introspection not overwhelm the poem and make the poem a bottomless confession. And what ought to be achieved by the third act, that final part of the dialectic, would need to be an insight, an image, a phrase that is somewhat apart from the previous two elements, something unique and not facile, as Thomas' finishing stanza was in "Richard Noel".

The execution is competent enough, although there isn’t an appealing rhythm anywhere in the poem. It’s hemmed in by its lack of distinction or character. While I don’t the poet’s sincerity, this rhymes of the sing-song variety; each time a line alights upon a previous line’s phonic twin, there’s a perceptible crash, or a thud. It’s not that I’m opposed to rhyme, but it is certain that in these days following the post-modernist insurrection a poet who rhymes should be exceptional. Thom Gunn gets the craft write with his verse, bringing in associations that surprise the reader expecting a vague gloss of the subject due to the presence of rhyme. His work is wonderfully controlled, musical, artfully constructed without indicating the labor it takes to compose with such a tuned ear:
The Man with Night Sweats
By Thom Gunn

I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat
Wake to their residue,
Sweat and a clinging sheet.
My flesh was its own shield:
Where it was gashed, it healed.
I grew as I explored
The body I could trust
Even while I adored
The risk that made robust,
A world of wonders in
Each challenge to the skin.
I cannot but be sorry
The given shield was cracked,
My mind reduced to hurry,
My flesh reduced and wrecked.
I have to change the bed,
But catch myself instead
Stopped upright where I am
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,
As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.
There are other poets who write a fine poem in more traditional modes who haven’t sacrificed their wit; one may argue on ideological grounds that the formalism one comes across is a reactionary movement linked in spirit and practice to a more rigid culturally conservative impulse, but for my part I prefer to judge the poet by the work. Eliot, Pound and others where profoundly nasty people who did work that with stood their propensities toward bigotry and general “A”-holism. It’s a simple matter of judging what works in the poem, and what doesn’t.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Jill McConough and Stephen Dunn discuss female breasts

 Jill McDonough needs a thicker skin and a perkier attitude, as she seems way too concerned with the fact that men like breasts, and worse, seem are going to remain men after all the social revolutions that have wasted our time in the last five decades. "Breasts Like Martinis", the current selection in Slate, would have us believe the girls are going along with the joke in an sexist terrain and manage to best the best efforts of the men who seek to demean them, but it all seems like a set up. A network TV drama couldn't be more black and white; someone is right, women, and someone is wrong, men. This is a fill-in-the-blanks formulation.I wonder why she and her partner were in that bar to begin with, and why didn't just leave the place which was giving them the creeps? McDonough remained and just leaned into the punch she saw coming, and goes home with her girlfriend to write a poem about the thin layers of her issues with men and their fascination/obsession with women's mammaries. There's nothing "tits up" about this poem.

In a discussion on Slate's Fray Poems forum,someone who was not enamored of McDonough's poem posted what she considered a "good" poem about a man's relationship to a woman's breasts, Stephen Dunn's queasy "The Routine Things Around the House":

When Mother died
I thought: now I’ll have a death poem.
That was unforgivable.

Yet I’ve since forgiven myself
as sons are able to do
who’ve been loved by their mothers.

I stared into the coffin
knowing how long she’d live,
how many lifetimes there are

in the sweet revisions of memory.
It’s hard to know exactly
how we ease ourselves back from sadness,

but I remembered when I was twelve,
1951, before the world
unbuttoned its blouse.

I had asked my mother (I was trembling)
if I could see her breasts
and she took me into her room

without embarrassment or coyness
and I stared at them,
afraid to ask for more.

Now, years later, someone tells me
Cancers who’ve never had mother love
are doomed and I, a Cancer

feel blessed again. What luck
to have had a mother
who showed me her breasts

when girls my age were developing
their separate countries,
what luck

she didn’t doom me
with too much or too little.
Had I asked to touch,

perhaps to suck them
what would she have done?
Mother, dead woman

who I think permits me
to love women easily
this poem

is dedicated to where
we stopped, to the incompleteness
that was sufficient

and to how you buttoned up,
began doing the routine things
around the house.

I'm underwhelmed.Stephen Dunn is a good poet quite a bit of the time, and it's a stretch to say he's done some writing that is quite exquisite. This is not one of them; it's not enough to assert that one must admire how unembarrassed he is to address his childhood curiosity about his mother's breasts, and hence furnish us with clues to his later ideas about women. This poem stinks , since it's written to argue a point, a rationalization of what one puts forth as an invisible truth about men and their mothers. It's an essay, a loose-limbed formulation , a dubious dialectic. It leaves what is interesting, the actual experience and the paradigm shifting potential it can give us, and turns into a lecture. It's hard, I suppose, for males to confront their mother's influence on their personality in a voice that doesn't approach the smarmy, the smug.Dunn's poem was a queasy bit of lecturing disguised as unadorned honesty; it reeks of an odious smugness. I assume that he wrote the poem because it is impossible to attack; no one in the world really wants to talk to another about times they were in the same room with their naked mom. It's a gutsy poem, and a bad one. Maybe he wrote it on a dare.

Stephen Dunn swings for the fence with his poems, and when he connects, the crack of the bat is loud and the ball is lost to the suburban trenches. What I enjoy about this poem, "And So", is Dunn's clarity and the ease in which this sequence of images, with the tone modulating ever so from point to point. It's a poem about nothing in particular and things in general, about the things that come into the narrator's field of vision and the memories that are sparked after his failed phone call and his resulting walk through the town he lives in. I especially liked the Nina Simone citation, since one of my absent-minded habits is to start thinking of or even hum a sung a phrase someone else had said had inspired; it's like a private intermission from the affairs of the day. This is a record, also, of the narrator's own thinking, thinking, in this sense, being not an interior essay one fashions as if preparing for debate, but impressions of what's seen conveyed in broad strokes, sketches of the real-world one is lost in. Less argumentative than reflective, with the reflection being refreshingly profound yet elegantly modest, it is a poem of someone starting a point of the day in a casual funk who comes to realize that the world in miniature, his suburban (or exurban) locale, is abuzz with others wrapped in their chores, their jobs, their hobbies lest they think too much on the emptiness around them and drive themselves desperately crazy.

And So    

Stephen Dunn

And so you call your best friend       

 who's away, just to hear his voice,

but forget his recording concludes

with "Have a nice day."

"Thank you, but I have other plans,"

you're always tempted to respond,

as an old lady once did, the clerk

in the liquor store unable to laugh.

Always tempted, what a sad

combination of words. And so

you take a walk into the neighborhood,

where the rhododendrons are out

and also some yellowy things

and the lilacs remind you of a song

by Nina Simone. "Where's my love?"

is its refrain. Up near Gravel Hill

two fidgety deer cross the road,

white tails, exactly where

the week before a red fox

made a more confident dash.

Now and then the world rewards,

and so you make your way back

past the careful lawns, the drowsy backyards,

knowing the soul on its own

is helpless, asleep in the hollows

of its rigging, waiting to be stirred.

This reads effortlessly, and it's an easy mistake to assume it came to him effortlessly .It has the breezy informality of what Ted Berrigan could do with this remarkable faux sonnets. It's hard thing to pull off , the moment-to-moment progress of someone moving and thinking as they move about a community they know, and even Berrigan was, much of the time, a little too much off beat personality, too little genuine poetry. Dunn is a bit more formal than Berrigan (whose charm lies in his shambling verse), and that bit of reserve brings us a sharper focus as his gaze and thoughts engage. It's a swift stream .

Saturday, August 20, 2022


Flarf? Seriously? Sure, and we'll set up a Department of Crayola studies right after this already tedious digital in joke finally stomps the last shimmer of resonance from The Ironic Effect .Flarf is late in the game, I think, attempting to be something that Pop Art was during the Sixties, a species of Capitalist Folk Art where the commercial design of advertising was taken as a worthy aesthetic principle by serious working artists; it presented us with Soup Cans, Colleges with goat heads, American Flags and raunchy car seats , products of design all, and served as a genuinely odd fulfillment of Walter Benjamin's much cited essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". Benjamin had thought that mass production of aesthetic objects would cause the mystifying and distancing aura to evaporate from around paintings, sculptures, and the like and allow the rest of us to appreciate, enjoy and be inspired by art in a way that didn't rely on a priesthood of critics and academics to keep us attentively dumbfounded with a theoretical catechism. This was not unlike Martin Luther's spearheading the Protestant Reformation, initiated but the invention of moveable type and the printing of the Bible ; the Catholic Church had lost it's exclusivity as interpreters of The Word, and Luther presented that all a worshiper needed as his Bible and the courage to seek the God of his understanding. Alternative currents within alternative streams makes for intriguing footnotes in literary histories and can give reason for a Cultural Studies major to further beg the question as to how information glut and digital dispersion usurps claims to regional voices and the certainty of the distinct and original voice rising above the rabble, but we have , in essence, the return of the Dada Gesture. The point is to gum up the works and make farting noises in the back row while the admittedly stuffy conversation , quietest and post-avant, drones from the podium. Good for a giggle, but Flarf seems like an undergraduate writing program manifesto that managed to crawl out the Kinko’s copier and land on someone’s accommodating server.

Poetry encompasses all sorts of odd configurations and rethinking, it seems to me , and will continue to do so regardless of anyone's well-worded attempts to put a fence around the form and preserve its purity. Language , we tend to forget, is a living thing , used by millions , billions of us around the globe to get across the complexity of experience with a finite vocabulary, and to encompass new successes, new disasters. It's a malleable entity, and while the meanings of words and their syntactical constructions change with constant use, tempered by technology, politics, pop-cultural, language and its literary forms, the novel,the poem, the play, the short story, wind up settling down into a semblance of order, structure, coherence. Frayed, changed, tweaked, but intact. 

I'm not a Flarf fan--I will take William Burroughs, Godard and Pynchon over the easy ironies of a generation of bright scribes who seem intent, to hammer the remaining life from the concept of irony--but those who've been around poetry classes, workshops, reading series and have written three decades worth of material trying to debunk previous standards simultaneously and extend them yet further, we've seen this energy before. This is to be expected and desired; while there's only so many intellections one can play their variations upon in the attempt to develop an original poetic and aesthetic with which to nestle their work at a theoretical distance from a casual reader, the real energy is in the work itself, the actual poems that get written with the attitude to "make it new". Verve and innovation are what poetry constantly needs to keep in a relevant resource for a reader desiring something more gratifying than having to contend with thick , sober prose paragraphs from authors who cannot stop describing how the universe does and does not work.

 It's not that I don't "get Flarf", but rather that the kids have discovered my old toys in the attic, in the form of old avant gardisms and moldy experimentalism, and who have painted the notions in colors of their choosing. An aesthetic that generally suggests a preference for inappropriate juxtapositions of rhetorical pitch and tone, practitioners of flarf scour the Internet for the convolutions, crazed coinages, conflations, and confusions an unmonitored language finds itself subjected to; the findings are brought back to the reader (anyone eager to be in on the joke) in poetic form, shall we say, in an effort to bring an x-ray to the pinched seriousness of a literary establishment's endeavors to pass itself off as essential to existence. It is, we guess correctly, a joke. If that's the case, it's a joke that gets told over and over, the thinking being, it seems, that a concept gets more profound and funnier with frequency. I used to have great fun with the find and replace mechanisms embedded in Word documents; I would cut and paste a straightforward NYTimes article detailing some bloodless activity only wonks would be interested in, and then used find and replace to switch-out appropriate ones for ones that were non sequiturs. Finding and replacing all uses of the article "The", for example, replacing it with a nonsense sentence like "Jesus, your breath makes want to eat Cheeze Whiz Hunger Punks". And so on. It was instant Dada, incredibly funny, but after the glee came the tedium of just doing something in an attempt to re-ignite a mania that had passed. Flarf seems a more grandiose version of that and, as with many experimental movements of the passing moment, the rationalizations for their perpetuation is more artful than the work itself.

Meantime, poetry withstands this assault as it withstood the valiant energies of my contemporaries and me, the best of their efforts will be absorbed, the best work will find homes in appropriate anthologies and website archives, and another group of writers, some years younger, will begin their attempt to usurp the current residents at the top of the heap. One might call this a dialectic, a cycle; one might also consider terming it a pathology, having as much to do with vanity, ego, status, and the conviction that one's generation is the last word at the end of history. Language and it's attendant form, poetry, however, goes on. We still breath, it still thrives.

Friday, August 19, 2022


Billy Collins writes as if he's a tourist in a gated reality, a walker in his town discovering and re-noticing the things and details of a community he has strolled through countless times, on countless days. He presents in ideas in tidy frames , discussing their parts with low doses of  irony, a splash of erudition, and then reassembling his subject so that it mostly resembles what it looked like before, if slightly reconfigured. This amounts to rearranging the same furniture in the same room much of the time, which means the element of surprise is no longer possible. His poetry is graceful and  amazingly approachable in its best form, but soon becomes formula . The reader, desiring a variation of something (much) darker or more difficult than the handy menu of resolutions that are Collins' stock-in-trade, finds it harder to distinguish the poet from a writer of light and limited amusements. His books are more interesting if you consider them the way you would be a new season of a favorite television drama;  whole new episodes that amount to new paint jobs on old story lines. This would allow you reap much more praise on Collins without the queasy  qualifiers that attend an honest appraisal of the work. He's writing the same old scenarios with absolute brilliance!!

"The Quaintness of the Past" is typical Billy Collins, the narrator, at home, reading a magazine in which he happens across a photograph that gets his attention and draws him in, an image of an old road house with a Plymouth parked in front. Where another poet would have done their best to merge with the contents of the photo and attempt a reconstruction of the lives, details and tone of the period with a vivid and often strained re imagining of a time they did not know first hand, Collins plays what is often his best card, the observer who wants to assemble his own version of the quaint image that caught his eye. He admits up front that he thinks for a moment of contriving his own memorable image, taking a snapshot of some random place in his neighborhood, perhaps the ideally described cafe near his home where he has coffee, a pastry and admires the French girls behind the corner, and then reappearing on this scene a hundred years later to experience how quaint and picaresque one's old time can appear, given enough distance.

The point Collins is getting at, not so subtly and in the plainest, least compelling language he can muster, is that our imaginations arrive on the scene before our eyes do. Instead of offering up a real image of things and places from another era and giving us a view of how life actually was, the narrative forms we've learned get the better of us and compel us instead to view the images as perfect arrangements of a sort, a world of harmony and natural order. Collins undermines this view and bluntly informs         us that the perfect arrangements and harmony are constructions based on our collective desire to believe that there was a better life in less complicated times. This habit is a generational yearning that gets pushed on to each succeeding generation, and he asserts that there will observers of future images from our time who will wish they had lived in the early 21st century, before the fall from grace.

There is a collective habit to distance ourselves from the past so that we might be able to construct an idea of a social perfection where the conflicts of our time melt away once we come to our senses. I think it less about the evasion of our deaths (although that is an implicit idea in the poem) than it is in the willing creation of various kinds of Heavens on Earth; what Collins does is step back from the encroaching nostalgia and sees himself inventing his narrative and thinking how he'd go about fabricating his evidence that what religion regards as reserved only for the after life--peace, harmony, serenity--is achievable while on earth. It is , of course, the problem with photography as a medium, discussed persuasively by Susan Sontag in her essay "On Photography"--that because the photograph seems to arrange it's accurate images of real things in well-balanced frames that suggest a natural set of relationships between the people and things in the image--forgetting, as often as not, the photographer's skill at manipulating what he or she is making a record of--there is a habit of mistaking the scenes as being free of editorial intervention.

From a distance of years, decades, the relationships seem without stress, conflict, and that becomes the mythologized Usable Past with which diverse populations--average citizens, politicians on the left and right, captains of industry, philosophers, and poets--  use to make sense of the current period. Collins , of course, cannot let his point stand by itself and supplies us with a Twilight Zone -like coda in the last verse, instructing his readers that this habit will go on long after our long speculations have turned to dust A large part of why Billy Collins has such a large readership is that besides from being superficially clever, he provides, often, a moral of the story, something that puts him more allied Rod Serling than the company of other poets. No offense to Serling or the Twilight Zone, a series I revere, but Collins' points, his lessons, his morals are obvious and smug, elements he can typically disguise with a judicious application of deflecting wit.His insight is that our plans seldom work out for us, but we continue our practices despite  evidence to the contrary, the lesson being that a utopia between our ears is better than no utopia at all. One senses Collins bemusement and comes away from his books feeling patronized. Here, though, his usually persuasive artifice can't make this poem seem anything more than a simple set up for a punchline, a clever ending. You've read this poem before, you've actually scanned the first line; you know exactly what he's going to do with it.

Thursday, August 18, 2022



Quora is an internet hub where the didactic among us can answer a variety of questions about a wide swath of issues and top. The queries are meant to be responded to by self-declared experts in the field , the best of which are occasionally extracted and published in Slate, an online journal of some reputation. The questions are not always groundbreaking or pertinent to hot button topics that might be driving the news cycle at the moment. 

Someone recently asked if we are in a position now to know who the "best poet of the 21st Century" is yet. Yes, eye rolling ensued after I read it, and yes, my thought was likely like your own, something to the effect this century isn't even two decades in age. How could we know yet who the best among the thousands, millions we haven't encountered, online or in print. But it advances another question, which would be how are to determine the best from a field that has as many poets in as many places with as many approaches as there seem to be stars in the night sky? We can make the case for a "best poet" of the 20th century, in a way because that period is concluded, and we have the advantage of perspective. We can read and consider the broadest range of poets and styles and innovations from the writers of that period, we're able to establish a general sense of what the philosophical, spiritual and aesthetic properties of the time were. 

Likewise, we may make judgements based on the reasonable and, most importantly, not inflexible criteria we establish from which to judge what is, truthfully, an overwhelming swath of writers who are relevant to 20th literature. And then we get into further complications, as the question of who is the best poet, the best writer, the best playwright contains the tacit assumption that the poets we are to pick from share a mostly similar background, with elements of ethnicity, cultural upbringing, education, gender (yes, gender), race , sexual orientation and , most importantly, style and technique being more or less the same (with variations) to make decisions regarding who composed the best work achievable. Poetry, though, is the oldest of writing forms , it is said, it is a way of writing that comes not merely from the European models that Americans inherited as a colonized outpost of England, but in matters worldwide. 

Hundreds, thousands of different styles, traditions, cultural origins, politics, cosmologies, theological conceits, techniques, different languages that have expressive properties that are unique and inseparable from the written and uttered expression. And it's gotten even more fractured, in particular, as more groups within our populations approach the mainstream culture from the margins where they were formerly consigned and forgotten about; the discussion as to what constitutes a good poem and what makes for a great poet is language that is has many pages, many chapters, many specific and relevant insights that. Even asking as to who the best poet of a given time excludes many poets and poetry schools that are vital, interesting, and important to the expression of experience that would otherwise remain anonymous. 

The better approach is to admit your subjective stance and declare who your favorite poet is and to make the case for him or her or they who most matter to you; an intelligent , personalized insight into a writer's work is a form of what is termed "heroic criticism", where one might admit that they only have a glancing familiarity with the critical conversation concerning poetics and still find an articulate argument, predicated from a personal encounter with the text, and achieve a nuanced reasoning that returns the poet to the reader's life .

 As much as I've enjoyed the apparatus of serious criticism and have found benefit in the distinctions and particularization of different bards and the energies that have informed their work, there has come, in my aging view of things, a desire to discuss a poem in a manner one engages the topic of good sex, which is personally, thoughtfully, with a discussant sensitive to the subject and who needn't a specialized vocabulary to appreciate the moves , the nods, the feints, the culmination of well rendered stanzas.

Thursday, August 11, 2022


 Someone with whom I've argued with for years on Slate's Poems Fray forum some months ago posted an "original" "poem", requesting, without qualification, all critical comments. The poem was a cryptic attempt to merge science and math into a presentable metaphorical system, the result being, I thought, muddled, lecturing and undermined by the author's determination to make a sweeping generalization about the imprecise nature of existence and our limited capacity to know it precisely. Not a bad premise for a life's writing, of course, but execution is everything; the poetry still has to be good. The poem is here. My response is below. What follows in the thread is the author tripping over himself with backsliding and quease-inducing equivocation.

The idea of imagining what machines might dream about, if they were sentient, has been done before, and the punch line whether they "dream of electronic sheep" is itself rather well-known and branded by a specific writer, Philip K. Dick. His novel is "Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep", which was the book on which Ridley Scott's movie Blade Runner was based. Dick's title is an ironic reference to the plot, about self-aware androids violently considering the nature of their existence. Your use, I'm afraid, lacks irony and does not advance on the original idea, which is what an inspired borrowing should do.

The problem with taking a phrase or title so closely identified with a renowned writer is that you are obliged to use the borrowing as a springboard to an entirely original work of your own, inspired by but very different from the inspirational source. Hemingway borrowed the phrase "for whom the bell tolls"  from John Donne for his book on the Spanish Civil War, and didn't merely insert it into a work at face value, for decorative purposes. The title made a suitable counterpoint for his succinct, gripping narrative of men trying to maintain "grace under pressure".

What you have here is not a poem, but a series of questions that are flat and rather ordinary bits of poesy one finds in many poetry workshops blue penciled off the page. You don't seem to be writing about anything; your passive tone is something you perhaps think provides your writing with a lyric sway and a spiritual lilt, but poetry, by the sorts of poets we discuss here, even the ones some of us don't particularly enjoy, have a tougher language. They are interesting to read, at least in so far as they, for the most part, appear to be attempting to crystallize the best language for their experience, and the ideas that follow suit.

No ideas but in things.--William Carlos Williams wrote that, excellent advice to anyone trying to write poems. Your problem is that you want to write about abstract things, metaphysical things, mystical things, and desire to join the farther reaches of scientific hypothesizing with dreamier theological daydreaming, but you ignore the world of things, which is our senses can measure and experience with certainty. You rarely begin with the material, you rarely convey a theme that might be based on actual experience, you are hardly ever convincing in any emotion you suggest chiefly, I believe because you start with a skewed idea of what a poem should be and tailor your writing to suit the template you've adopted.

I think you should junk the poem and try to write a poem about something that is solid, has density, is something a reader would recognize, and try not to insert an editorializing cliché or a vacuous "summing up" that turns your efforts into post cards and photo captions. You seem unable to get away from the tired phrase, the dog-eared adage, the trite truism; you need to try very, very hard to transcend your worst habits as someone attempting to write poems. At present, they seem intractable.



Upon  Hearing of Another Marriage Breaking Up  is a poem that reads as it were edited with a lawnmower.  Author Dean Young reads this poem in something much less than a resounding manner--to say that his recitation was singsong would be a comparative compliment. And it would be a lie, at least of the sort you tell your ordinary friend with artistic manners, so to not hurt or offend them. What the poet offers on this soundtrack has the flat, expressionless timbre of someone in shock, before they passed out from the loss of too much blood. As a poem nominally considering the dissolution of "another" marriage--it's implied that the narrator has had several couples in his social circles disband their unions and that he is tired of it, bored with it, angry, perhaps , that they don't appreciate his standard of the good life--the poem considers not tragedy or heartache or the sullen self-recriminations and lashings-out , but rather the notion that insane lack of passion and a profusion of mired boredom proves a fatal combination for the soul. 

The passing details, like junco feathers, dog food, bat wings, other people engaged in public affection, or at least public cooperation, are things regarded with an off side glance, in peripheral vision. The narrator sounds like someone who is had has made ennui their kingdom and , while applying the psychology as philosophy, cannot truly grasp the world and the people , places and things in it. There are murky attempts to address what is clearly seen with poetic indirection, what is not entirely broken down or entirely caked in mud remains clean and useful, what makes no noise makes no problems and is perfectly okay to remain as it is, not bothering me with petty detail. The moral of this story is that the narrator, a witless husband, an Asperger's tainted poet, is unaware of the world as is and cannot see that his universe is falling apart; the flimsy assumptions are flaking , bending, curling up, cracking, blowing away . 

An ambitious scene to undertake,but it is a pity that Young cannot give you a sense of the life that is lacking in this narrator's existence. He writes as compellingly as he reads aloud. The best compliment I can pay this that this sounds like a third rate imitation of Ron Silliman's and Rae Armantrout's work; the two of them are Language poets, a school that is controversial even until now. But think what you may, there remains strong poetic styles behind each of their work, a shrewd and hard intelligence working in their seeming obscurity. Young is merely oblique. His accomplishment here is that he cannot make you care much for his poem about not caring. Humor is evident when there is laughter. Otherwise, it is attempted humor; what Young often does is attempt to engage a habit of speaking that results in ambiguity and unintended irony. This is the sort of banter the hip geek humanities major with a hard dose of reconstituted deconstruction allegedly indulges in more often than not, a pile on of dead signifiers and post-Tarantino prolixity to obfuscate a simple request, command, or observation. 

The results, I'm certain, are typically hilarious to a circle of friends tuned to the same punch lines or who have seen the same movies, the same books, the same tv shows, but if humor isn't able to reach beyond the camp fire circle and hit a broader population with funny bones, it is merely snark and sarcasm, regardless of apologetic explication. This does not imply that poetry need be as clear as sports writing; but occasionally a muddle in a poem demonstrates , for me, muddled thinking , a consciousness without an apparatus, a useful style. The muddle thinking goes beyond what the poet writes, though, as seen in the critical vocabulary that makes the production of the weak tea Young okay. The ought to cease that practice and so stop the insanity.

This poem from Dean Young's collection Private Mentor took be aback. It was a jolt, a tingle, a shooting pain above the eye. It was as if someone had just walked across where someone was already buried, someone I knew..

The first time I saw my father after he died,
he kept knocking against the window
even though I was afraid
that the cat would kill him. At least crash-

landing on the sill and then knocking more
was an improvement over the mechanical
bed, no glasses, no teeth, only Holy
shit I’m dying on repeat in his mind,

his three terrified, disgusted, bored offspring
in the ozone waiting room politely ignoring
the bilge from the grief counselor.

They’d had bad dreams before but weren’t sure
they too were cinders shooting through the cosmos
from one oblivion to another.
One thought of his convertible in the parking lot,
was it locked? One discarded baby names on her list.

One became an anvil but if you asked,
No he’d say, he wasn’t hurting anyone.

Something green hustled by whose only job
was swabbing surgery floors so it was good

Dad’s spirit didn’t cling to him, it needed
some air. How can I remember a voice
so clearly but not a thing it said?

The shrinking was immediate. Once

I thought a frog in a puddle in North
Carolina, easy to hold in my hand,
possible to protect. I was wrong.
Then after the fawn coming pickpocket close,

he gave up for years until yesterday’s
black stone on the beach with his gentle eye
for which I’m grateful still, and cherish
then heave back into the sea’s honeysuckle.

A bit surreal, and well done, definitely Kafkaesque with the blend of bewilderment and institutional sterility. It's a comic poem, I would guess, close to a comic book logic, perhaps with a bit of prime Woody Allen thrown into the mix. The image of the spirit of the dead father hovering and drifting through the site of his death strikes me as something a family survivor would come up with as a buffer against the coming shock of a parent's death; lets imagined Dad as a spirit as new spirit ambling about just as he did when he was still alive. There is a desire, primitive and grossly selfish, to let everything fall apart and drop one's pants to moon the portrait of the dead patriarch, but it's hard to muster up the courage,the brio, when the spectral father is roaming around his old places of love and work, tending to things he hadn't finished . And the moral and economic center of the family shifts and we realize, at last, that we are fully adult. It's difficult to act like a child , even when the Old Man is gone, when you know you're acting.

When my family discovered my younger brother dead in his apartment in January of 2000 , we stood numbly in the parking lot while the police did their work. After a half hour of managing only tears and half sentences, I made a joke, referring to the time when my brother, bottoming out on drugs at the time, used to sneak into our late parent's garage located below their condominium." Well, now he can move back into Mom and Dad's basement" I said. There was silence for a second, and then laughter, deep, grating guffaws from four shell-shocked siblings. And then more tears came between the laughs, and we ceased being numb and recognized the meaning our loud tears; grief and relief, mixed in gasping intervals. We would mourn the loss of our brother forever, and it was likely we were glad that wasn't yet our turn to be staring straight up at the ceiling or open sky, seeing absolutely nothing.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022


 Bacl in the day Robert Pinsky , Slate magazine's poetry editor, had the enviable task of selecting and posting a poem for interested readers to debate each Tuesday morning, a fact I mention only because the discussions that result appear on that magazine's attendant Fray forum contribute to the minor declarations you read on this blog. The talks alternate between lively, inspired, dull and droning, and there are those outbreaks of real acrimony over imagined transgressions a few participants in the digital ether believe have been committed against them. It's a quarrelsome rhubarb much of the time, there are moments when I wonder I spend so much time on the board, between work, freelance assignments, reading my book of the week and the regular social engagements:might I have take that time and write the great American rent check instead? Maybe, but I realize quitting the board would deprive me of a source of material to post on this blog; for the last five years I've been commenting on Pinsky's selections, honestly, subjectively and all that, and have blended the best of the exchanges into a single blog post. Sometimes, however, I get stumped, there is a poem I can't respond to, not because I don't understand it, but that I understand it too well. There are things I prefer not to think about, although I know I have to. Try as I might, the issue appears again, that low branch I run into while looking back to see how close the boogieman man is behind me. Whack! Sophie Cabot Black's poem "Biopsy" smacked me hard.


Once he lies down, he says, he is afraid
There is no getting back up. Maybe
It will be that nothing ever

Is the same; you put the body down
On the adjustable bed in the room where
Those before you also came and climbed into

Clean sheets, one blanket, one pillow, and a noise
Turning into trees whispering overhead.
People dressed in the exact clothing of each other
Walk in and never look at us. He is still afraid,
And so I lie down first, which is to say nothing
Except I am not him, concentrating on the manufactured

Tiles above us, which came from somewhere far
And were brought by truck or rail to this city
Where in time they were laid one by the other

To make a ceiling, sky below which we lie
Looking for stars, as the needle enters the vein,
And we search for any possible constellation, something

Familiar to name.

The Black poem "Biopsy" hit close to home with me because I had a biopsy myself three two years ago, one of the most nerve nerve-racking and dread-filled events of my life. Some peculiar had come up in the results of a blood test a doctor had ordered up, so we arranged for some tissue samples to be extracted from the area of concern.This was one of those health plan doctors who seemed to habitually overbook his daily practice and who's staff is humorless and seeming more interested in their tasks than in the patients. I was instructed to take off my pants and have a seat in an examination room and wait for the doctor ; an hour later, after reading every chart on the wall at least three times, no one had come into the room. I put my pants back on and went back out the nurse's station to complain, and the response from the staff who'd heard me were stares, blank stares, more annoyed than anything else, like who was I to complain about being kept pantless in utilitarian examination room for an hour without even a magazine to read?

Black's poem is effective in sound and image, but more importantly it gets that anxiety of the mind trying to distance itself through various means and subterfuge from the nearness of death, a dread compounded because the thoughts you're trying to bury or obscure have a way of emerging back up to the forefront of consciousness; that sinking feeling gets you again. It does sound, I realize, that I am complaining about the small things, but this dread was awful. I was in a mild depression for days leading up to the exam , and the actual appointment was prolonged, bureaucratic. It was my good fortune that the results of the lab analysis were in my favor, but the processes leading up to the relief were interesting to note, especially the various kinds of deal making I was doing with God or whatever fateful pixilations that await. I was , in effect, preparing to settle my accounts on this planet between the mental sessions of minimizing and maximizing the pending news about the health of my prostate. Black's poem is about someone's psychological defenses against the cold facts of the certain death nudging up against unavoidable events. It is enough to make you pause and retire your certainty as to how the way things should work. You're forced to deal instead with the way things are, concrete and unmindful of what you'd rather be doing.