Tuesday, May 9, 2023



Experimental poetry, once a form that challenged established verse writing in both form and aesthetic, has shaped the history of Western Poetry. Throughout time, daring and expansive poetry has influenced younger poets, eventually becoming the new standard and displacing the old guard. This ongoing cycle of experimentation and rebellion has persisted since the emergence of literate individuals seeking to convey profound inspirations through language that surpassed mere description. However, what we witness today is a recycling of previous Avant Gard ideas and gestures, with slight modifications? The norm has become experimentation itself.

Yet, amidst this landscape, a group of poets known as the New Formalists have emerged. These poets, weary of free verse and open forms, choose to compose rhymed poems with traditional meter. Their presence and potential to undermine the hegemony of the experimental tradition have sparked controversy. Each individual is entitled to their preferences in literature and their critical rationale for appreciating particular forms of expression. Emotional responses, subject to marginalia and deformation, take on a poetic quality of their own. While they may not capture the essence of our fluid states of being, they allow us to engage with our recollections through a lexicon that momentarily aligns with our perceptions. This poetic guesswork, never definitive, perpetuates the dissension among those who eagerly await their turn to speak their worlds into existence. Nonetheless, it brings an indispensable quality—our love for the process of using language that mirrors the fluidity and unpredictability of experience.

Personally, I am drawn to poetic writing that possesses the rare quality of being both fresh and unique. I am less concerned with the theoretical aspects of a poem, whether experimental or traditional, and more interested in how it resonates and functions. If a poem evokes satisfaction in its readers, it becomes worth exploring the artistic endeavor undertaken by the writer—bringing skill and spontaneous inspiration to bear on the page. Poets such as Ron Silliman and John Ashbery have captivated me with their indirect approach to expressing life's complexities. Similarly, Thomas Lux and Dorianne Laux have invited me to follow their lines of thought, leading to unexpected and extraordinary results.

AFTER THE FACT, a poem by Mary Jo Bang

 Poet Mary Jo Bang has the unique ability to write a polemical poem that is both a superb example of straight talk-there is not mistaking her fevered sentiment for anything else--and an elegant sample of exquisitely placed similes and metaphor The power of "After the Fact" comes from the first lines, a narrator setting up the world he/she lives like it were subject to templates from which only tragic outcomes can result. The sin of this all, the source of the outrage, are the actors in the self-limiting melodramas--buffoons peacocks, egomaniacs, narcissists with trigger fingers mistaking the contrived circumstances of their cause for the way things required to go.

Sleep tight, you martyrs.
And you criminals who killed for a narrow share
of power and a few rotten spoils.
Enough is enough.

This is very tough stuff, an indictment with a sting, an x-ray to the heart of the matters; while those who wage wars justify their aggression in the many slippery rationalizations that seek "justice" through a rhetorical back door, the results of their righteousness, their efforts to set the world right, only make the tragedies worse. The calamity multiply, the genocides continue, the planet darkens even more and becomes unlivable-the only thing that seems to renew itself is the rhetoric that proclaims a vision of aggressive human perfection, a heaven here on earth, while the heart grows harder, colder. The fatal schemes, the complete waste of what's best in this existence, contract not just the heart, but makes the universe appear to shrink to a burned out cinder.

The corners converge, causing the globe to grow smaller
than all of time times space divided
by every petty difference.

The center would not hold for Yeats; it contracts for Mary Jo Bang, become a flaming ball of contentious bad faith. It's a simple morality tale, a simple but profound choice that each of us needs to make, to make decisions exclusively based on self-seeking, or to help others, create community, cooperation. Bang's poem/polemic provides the profound example of selfishness when it's codified with a language that adopts some leaner rhetoric of justice, peace, and harmony and uses the terms to rationalize an institutionalized State of War. It is the tragedy of trying to make the mystery of life comprehensible through fear-- investigating the life and ways of a Villainized Other is to trade with the Devil.

The girl newly dead on the sidewalk says,
"Excuse me, but—
what kind of moral force is brute moral force?"

The poem can be said to lack subtlety, but a muted message in this instance could be so finely wrought that even an informed reader would miss the point in searching for clues among the ambiguities. This has the brilliant, placard bearing power of Ferlinghetti's political poems, particularly "I Am Waiting"; it is a succession of one lines and witticisms that crystallize the crisis and makes it memorable. This is a poem meant to get you thinking about something besides whether it works as a poem. It does just that.

I don't think Bangs' poems encourages passive martyrdom of any kind, if I understand your question correctly. It has more the feel of a scaled-back soliloquy delivered in the last act of a Greek Tragedy, the summation presented while the evidence is plainly visible, undeniable, to anyone who might have been involved in debating war and power-grabbing in the abstract. The poem operates under the assumption that the evil doers--politicians, generals, corporations--are shamed to silence while the damnable curses are cast, but beyond this minor suspension of disbelief --politicians, generals and corporations won't reform themselves and seek justice rather than justice as the result of a good scold--we realize the poem isn't intended for the perpetrators of misery, but the citizens who've been seduced by a well-oiled propaganda.

We are governed solely by our consent, and the further implication is that the governed population's failure to hold their representatives to a higher, more consequential standard is just as responsible for the grim tales told here. Our songs, our campaign slogans, our policy discussions are geared to assure us that the greatest good is the intent, and that it surely will be the result. Mary Jo Bang's speech--and that is what this is, finally, a speech--shows the reader that there are leaders elected in our name who are singing of their esteemed virtues while everyone else can see the devastation they leave in their wake.

Monday, May 8, 2023


 Ezra Pound, was a politically reprehensible and one of the worst major poets of the 20th century. Traitor, reactionary, race-baiter, I have no sympathy for a man whose ambition had more to do with having power and influence over whole populations rather than poetry itself. He was, though, an idea man about the craft and art of the poem, and some of his criticism remains relevant. The way we discuss the quality and function of the image and the modifiers that do and do not attend it in context draw heavily from his notions about ridding ourselves of the weight of literary history and devising a poetics that can can help the reader perceive the world in new ways.  Pound didn't want to stop there, of course, he desired to rule the world and aspired to be The Boss. A bully and self-aggrandizing creep he may have been (and traitor) but some of the ideas, at least, had value. He wanted poets to have the trifecta of prestige items with power, the pen, the scepter, the   sword.

 Eliot, Thomas Stearnes, was allied to Pound as an antisemite and race baiting neurotic who disguised his bigotry in a tradition of genteel Classicism, but I will defend him as a poet; too much of his images, his cadences, his drifting allusions hit the mark ; he is one of those writers who had an especially strong gift for getting the elusive essence of alienation, dread, spiritual desolation in a dehumanizing culture in his poems without turning them into padded, freighted dissertations. It is one of the tragedies of contemporary literature that Eliot, whom I think is one of the strongest poets of the last century, should happen to be, politically, a callous and malicious monster. Even dried up white guys who are lousy with nonwhites and can barely conceal their frothing anti-antisemitism can, at times, describe a mood or provide nuance to circumstances that transcend their repulsive politics and personalities. 

Sunday, May 7, 2023


 Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, in a 2016 chat with a Wall Street Journal reporter, talked about “banging his head” against the likes of Joyce, Pound and their attendant difficulties and his eventual decision to align himself with poets like Philip Larkin and Robert Frost and “poets, who dare to be clear.” Superb models to use if you're aspiring to write in contiguous sentences, unmarred by needless line breaks. Poetry readers should be grateful that Collins found his voice in the place where the conversations are actually happening, in the world and not the rheumy chambers of a book-addled soul. Difficult poetry that is actually good is difficult to write, and there are only a few among the millions who do so who actually deserve attention, praise, and continued discussion. At this stage, it becomes increasingly the case that there are far too many poets in the world who are trying to out-perform Stevens, Eliot, Stein, Olson in pushing the limits of poetry; the last group I paid attention to who managed difficulty that intrigued, provoked and which stopped making sense in a variety of works that made younger poets like myself examine the tropes I was using and attempt, with some success, to put it back together again, perception and images in newer works that come out just a little more out of the long shadow of previous and still present genius. 

So thank you LeRoi Jones, Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout, Paul Dresman, Bob Dylan and a few dozen others read in fifty years of reading for helping me, no, forcing me beyond my self-entombing idea of genius and moving me closer to the public square. No longer a younger poet stumbling in his attempts to master what seemed to be the fashion at hand, I'm old enough to accept the less stringent view that the only criteria for judging a poem's style, format, complexity and other such matters is in how well it works on the reader who is reading it? Difficult or clear as glass, does the poem make a music one wants to understand? 

Billy Collins, of course, has his own amazingly effective style of clear poetry, and it's a marvel to read how he begins with a scene, a situation performing what is often a banal household task--listening to jazz, paying bills, a drive in the country, a bit of coffee in the city--and then a reverie of a sort, a memory triggered by some inane object, a recollection often seasoned with a light application of Literary Reference, just enough to expand the notion or expose a contradiction in his assumption (the insight often being a dead sage's warning or mere reflection about matters of pride and exaggerated expectations)And then there's a seamless transition to the scene from where he began his writing, the material world unchanged but, for the rumination that we've just read, is not the same as it was. His genius and flaw are the same heightened talent, his ability to produce these compact missives of everyday wonderment continuously. That's not to denigrate his skill at writing them, as the economy of his language, the resourcefulness of his imagination to find new twists and inlets within the limits of his style, and the genuinely resonating effect of his phrase-making mark a writer who works his pieces; he is a professional, aware of his audience, aware of his materials, an artist who refuses to let any of his ideas get muddied by the pretense   of deeper intimations. William Carlos Williams had the view that the thing itself is its own adequate symbol. Whatever one seeks to describe in the world one sees is already complex. Collins, more so than Williams, explores connections, fleeting though they are, of the things around the world his imagination creates a frame for when he departs from home. His strategies, of course, are more varied than what I've described, but this is a recipe he uses as often as not, a template he can expand, revise, contract at will, a habit he does splendidly. This makes him a good artist, a good craftsman, but it is also something that makes me want to call him a writer rather a poet.

He is, I think, the equivalent of the old school local newspaper columnist who would, twice or thrice a week, write 700 words or so about something in the news, in his life, whatever comes to mind, who would end his reflection that effectively left the reader reassured and just a little confused as to the purpose of that day's topic. The secret, though, was less to give meaning to the community one recognizes, but rather create the sense of texture. Columnist and poet Collins have skills that remind of things that you cannot quite put a finger on--something is lost, something     is joyful, something is sad or funny, but how, why, what is it?

I might mention as well that Collins' work seems to be a sequence of experiences that are uninterrupted by work situations. Others can, I imagine, provide me with poems of his where work is an element, a strong one, perhaps even the subject of the poem, but it occurs to me that Collins, at least in many of his poems, is a flâneur, a walker in the city, a watcher, the character who observes, records, relates the isolated bits of daily experience, testing the limits of his ideas, constantly re-acquainting himself with his fallibility. Please don't mistake that for a bad thing. It's nice work if you can get it.