Political correctness and poetry

Wallace Stevens
Poet first, not propagandist.

It’s as tough today to write a convincing poem about political issues as it was during the Depression. A poem that is not strident, dogmatic, and beside the point — if we concede that the point of poetry today, as in the past, is to explore the new, not turn over the old and obvious.

(The dictionary definition of poetry is worth citing here: “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.” Even if we know that in the wake of war, catastrophe, and civil unrest, elevated thoughts are not as easy to produce as an elevator ride up to haberdashery, say. And beauty itself comes often in camouflage.)

In today’s arts climate, in fact, the new PC orthodoxies are already old, tired, obnoxious, and obvious.

They harken back to the revolutionary foment of the Depression, when either you were with us or against us (a dedicated leftist, even commie).

Skeptic poets Steve Petrini (left) and Greg Zeck, with Mrs Petrini, an admirable animal doctor, in between.

Wallace Stevens, 1879–1955, was one poet dedicated to verse, however perverse and even, in some of his verse, he acknowledged, ironically, “otiose prettiness.” He was a poet, the maker of new things that would last and stay; a reformer, he thought, in poetry and politics, but not a young revolutionary.  He would not “take the point of view of a poet just out of school” (see The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens by Paul Mariani).

As per today’s young wet-behind-the-ears firebrands, certain words may be allowed. Other words not. Certain attitudes are admirable; others detestable. Certain races and sexual preferences, which have long been “privileged,” must yield to new privileges for minorities and LGBTQ+ (whatever plus is: is it back there in the dark somewhere with Bed, Bath & Beyond?).

If you’re looking to submit literary work to a little magazine and read what the editors are looking for, chances are very high you’ll find among their desiderata the word “diversity” and its half-demented cousins. 

My 2nd book of poetry, just released, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around, contains a poem, in fact, “What We’re Looking For,” based entirely on such editorial shibboleths. Harken if you plan on submitting to our magazine, the editors counsel:

We seek mysteries and marginalized voices, a sense of shared wonder, inclusive art that asks questions, explores mystery, and works to make visible the marginalized, the overlooked, and those whose voices have been silenced, including LGBTQ+, neurodivergent writers, women and women writers.

Heavens help us all. If we could write no better than this clod of an editor, how could we get into any magazine? (I know! Let’s found our own magazine … and welcome those who look, act, think, and smell like us! Neurodivergent writers, whatever that means! If we can’t find an acronym, we’ll use jargon! Don’t let English get in the way!)

I would hope, that among us older, more experienced, more reflective literary artists, diversity could signal an artist who has the most words, the supplest syntax, the most exploratory mind. What does it matter if he or she is white, black, red, yellow, straight or queer? 

Use your experience in life, yes, and in letters — and let it rip. Don’t be shy. Don’t hold back. Don’t whine about who might go tut-tut-tut. Too many editors and critics are truculent little whiners. Let them whine. Go your way and make it a journey.

In my 70+ years’ experience in reading, writing, teaching, living, and, yes, like you, suffering, I’ve become who I am today — a human being with a lot to say … and a way of saying it. A voice, in short, that does not rely on acronyms, jargon, and petty-minded formulae.

So, please, sir editor or madame, when I grace your journal with a submission, don’t throw me an 18-year-old reader as your first line of defense, someone who’s read little if anything of the literature of the last 100 years. And may be armed primarily with the prejudices of hisr youthful generation. (There’s a pronoun suggestion for you: hisr. His or her. I’m afraid “hers” is already taken and “their” is, believe it or not, plural.)

If you’re looking for mystery, Ms. or Mr. Editor, look at the words of the writer. The words should be true to the writer’s experience in his or her world and in craft. If she has been silenced or, perhaps more accurately, participated in silence, she needs to develop a voice of her own so she’ll have something to say and a way of saying it.

Her voice can’t merely cry weh ist mir! or how persecuted I am!

Get a life, young lady, young gentleman. A life in writing. Learn to write, that is. Dare to stumble, fall. Get up and stumble again. And when you get up, for gods’ sakes revise! 

Writing is a lonely craft. You’re on your own. Get on with it. 

Poets, amateur & other

If you’re on social media, you may have noticed poetry groups. They are a kind of epiphenomenon, a wart or wonder on the face of language enterprises generally.

Pardon my cynicism. But it’s in the service of a decent cause, I think: skepticism that good poetry can be produced by people who write but don’t read poetry.

Why do so many people write poetry? Is it a good thing that they do?

We might cheer the general idea that poetry should be more popular or more prevalent in our culture. Songs are popular, are heart and soul of pop culture. And it may not matter much that most song lyrics are bad.

Politics is a matter of general concern, though most of us aren’t particularly articulate about our political views. Yes, we complain. But do we know how to bring the country together? (A politically motivated view of poetry is expressed by minorities, like the lesbian writer Julie S Enszer, in an opinion piece called “Are Too Many People Writing Poetry?” Her view is that the more we have of minority opinions, the better. But minority opinions from untrained voices do not necessarily make good art. And such opinions, these days, overload the literary journals.)

Whether motivated by song or politics, poetry should be written by people who have read it and even studied it.

Otherwise, the idea of poetry is cheapened.

Why so many poets or poetasters? We all want to express ourselves.

The problem is knowing how to do so.

We all want to distinguish ourselves from the animals, some of whom have articulate voices or a bit of same. Crows and parrots can imitate language. Bulls and bears can roar and grunt. 

But it’s only human beings that have articulate speech.

Some more, some less.

If speech is to become poetry, the speaker must know something about craft. Like other crafts, and arts, poetry has evolved through the centuries. So those who write poetry in the early 21st century should not sound like they’re speaking from the 18th or 19th or even 20th century.

Polly Put the Kettle On, so we’d all have tea. Which is great. But this move doesn’t guarantee good poetry.

But tons of would-be poets today sound just like that. They mistake rhyme as the crucial element of poetry, not an accessory or even accident. They are guilty of what Chaucer calls “drasty [nasty] rhyming.” By god, friends, if we have to go this pilgrims’ road together, let’s have some decent rhyming at the very least. And, what’s better, some attention to what really constitutes poetry in the 21st century.

Heightened speech, I would say. Rhythmic speech. And access to articulate ideas from all sources, written and spoken. 

Poetry is a tough business, as I’ve said before. Not for sissies. Not for whiners. Or for those who expect instant praise or give up easily.

So today read a poem. Go to Poetry Foundation, for example, and dig around a bit. Why not? it will spare you from the drasty rhyming found in poetry groups on Facebook and other muddied sources.

 

 

La figlia che piange: starting a poem

Gave a talk about a week ago about poetic craft. Seems that so many who write poetry, or aspire to write poetry, don’t know much about this essential aspect of the trade. As T. S. Eliot said, “I gotta use words when I talk to you.”

But what words? In what order? And how do we get there?

Weeping Girl
A pictorial idea of the weeping girl.

It was also Eliot who wrote an early poem called “La Figlia Che Piange,” or “The Weeping Girl” (Prufrock and Other Observations, 1917). I remembered this poem vaguely as I wrote my poetic craft talk, and looked it up. It’s a posed poem, you might call it, in which the poet, acting like a theatrical director, poses a young couple, the young man leaving or abandoning the young woman, who is crying. The third and last stanza goes like this:

She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.

Now, as I muse a new poem of my own, this sad, ironic little poem seems to want to inform my “cogitations.” 

As I wrote elsewhere, I know a pretty young woman whom I saw, after a recent group bike ride, in a new light, a side or even sidereal light. I was off to the side, that is, looking at her and appreciating for perhaps the first time not her lovely figure but her more sublime parts, specifically the features of her head, and I noted her long dark hair, her aquiline nose, her full lips, and thought I might get off to the side more often, less involved with the body as a whole, the body as desire, and more appreciative of such fine if evanescent features.

I could pose the girl, or her features, or try to pose them, à la Eliot. But his early modernist irony and cool are not what I’m after here.

As a writer, you might well not know what you’re after till you go after it.

So the effort begins, however roughly.

Off to the side, away from the beer glasses
and chatter, after the group bike ride, I see her
in a new light: not merely her lovely figure,
you see, full in the right places, tight in the others,
which too often I have looked on with desire,
an old man looking at a young woman
whom he does not know: dark hair flowing
to the shoulders, olive colored skin, 
eagle’s nose, full lips, and I’d conclude …

Well, a rough beginning, as I say, with some attention even as I go to form:. It’s the choice of the words, I say, what’s put in, what’s left out, however fortuitously: the sound echoes (beer, chatter, figure, desire); the syntactical parallelism, which makes the flow of thought and feeling easier to trace; the insistence on specific details at the end….

For now, this start is good enough, though no doubt I will look at it soon with some distaste, even revulsion. Good of kind, but not good enough. A start, but a rough and bumpy start. Yet desire is being transformed, as in so much art, however slowly, from the sensual and corporeal to something poignant, something of the spirit. Call this process sublimation if you will, though the results to date, for sure, are surely not sublime.

 

 

 

“Frame,” an apparently simple poem

These next few weeks I wish to present in these pages a few of the poems making up my new, second book of poems Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around

And use them to illustrate a few of the poetic qualities I’d like to suggest in these poems.

Here’s the very first poem in the book, “Frame,” in the first section (“Words, Words, Words”) of eight sections that the book comprises.

Frame
By way of epigraph

I put a frame around it
so I can say I found it,
so I can say it’s yours and mine
for this brief space of time.

By itself this poem may not look like much; but as an introduction to the book, it announces a couple of important themes and sets the tone for the whole.

It’s brief, obviously. So, as far as selection goes, there’s not too much I’ve put in the poem … or risked overloading it with. But the briefness, or tautness, I think, suggests more than initially meets the eye.

The quatrain announces that I’m framing the whole book, or approach to the book, in terms of the themes of art and mortality. Here is a group of found poems (77 in all) that well might have been lost to time and attention had they not been assembled and packaged here. Bits of language, I mean, that I’ve gathered up and put inside the frame of a book. Yes, they existed outside the book — in other books, articles, newspapers, fragments of speech that once hung in the air — but are here gathered up and framed, and so presented as a whole, for the first, and only, time.

And why do such a thing? Why beg, borrow, steal bits and pieces of discourse from such varied sources? 

… so I can say it’s yours and mine
for this brief space of time.

The collection is not others’ now, not the original authors’, editors’, speakers’. Nor is it mine, the poet’s, exclusively. It belongs to you as well as me. It’s shared discourse or communication we’ve arranged between us through our efforts of writing and reading. 

And what good does this exercise do us? 

You may have to read more of the book to know. Or to tell me what you think of our mutual efforts. For my part, I think the communication even here, in this one stanza, is a communion too, something that unites us, for a moment, in “this brief space of time,”  not necessarily anything sacred or transcendent but the time we spend reading and writing, the time of our lives, which is not simply the empirical continuum, the line that ends in death for us all, of course, the flat line of our end, but is the time-space continuum in which our lives begin, endure, encompass so much, and end.

You think I’m stretching it here — the thin red line of this simple-looking quatrain? Maybe so, but I was trained in reading and writing literature and literary criticism. There’s a lot that can be seen in a short poem like this if the words chosen are well chosen and somehow point to common human ends and enterprises.

 

 

Selection and syntax

In my last entry, dated 8 October 2021, I made a few suggestions about the craft of poetry, citing “selection and syntax” as two of the principal tools that poets use to achieve their ends. 

Let me enlarge on that idea here, and refine it too.

Be selective

John Ashberry
John Ashberry, American poet, 1927–2017

Selection, first, means we are selective, yes? We may throw in everything but the kitchen sink in our first drafts. After all, we may well be compelled by a crazy buzz, an inspiration, and the heat of the moment is a chance we don’t want to let pass by. But what’s produced is a first draft. It’s molten. Let it cool. Then see when red hot turns to blue how many impurities remain.

They’re embarrassing, from the distance of time and reflection. They’re included in the heat of the moment, sure, but now look uncouth, not cool. They mock our vanity, our impetuousness.

Of course, I’m presuming the poet is capable of a certain critical distance. And this may not always be true. You see this foolish attachment to self in amateur poetry, the kind of stuff people throw up in Facebook and elsewhere on the web. There’s a sense of entitlement and stubborn pride here. I wrote it, therefore it stands as written. But we all know, if we’d acknowledge it, that modesty is in order; that we haven’t written a poetic masterpiece in the ten minutes we slapped and dashed out this morning’s poem. (Maybe Mozart could do this. The rest of us? Unlikely.)

Here’s a typical poem from an amateur site, a good start by a talented teenager (this is from 2014, and I don’t see anything very recent by this poet: has she revised the poem? has she stopped writing altogether, alas?):

Hand me another drink
Soupy slurred words slide from her lips and drip to the floor,
Mixing in with the pool of regurgitated gin and tonic.
Her mouth is bitter but her thoughts are true;
Only the drunk can tell the truth.
Her incoherent words fall to the floor followed closely by her slouched figure and salty tears.
She sleeps on the bathroom floor …

Okay, the first line is great: no words wasted here. “Soupy slurred,” though? And then “slide”? I get the attachment to sound for sound’s sake. Poets are suckers for sounds, after all. (Never weaned properly, as Donald Barthelme might say.) Sound fights against sense, but sense, even common sense or a sense of fun, I think, would suggest something more regularly rhythmic and compressed here, e.g.,

She slurred her words, I think.
They dripped on the floor 
and what’s more
mixed with her vomited
gin and tonic. It’s
disgraceful …

But I don’t presume to write, or rewrite the poem, merely suggest that poetry is usually not prose. It’s more rhythmic, it aims for beauty, even beauty in travesty, as here; and it uses formal devices to achieve these ends.

Her mouth is bitter but her thoughts are true,
She spews in order not to be blue …

You see how long and slouchy the penultimate line is (“Her incoherent words …”). Jump on it. Cut it in half. It’s a hissing, slouching snake, and must be wrangled into submission.

Selection, then, is being selective, choosy, fussy. Your first inspiration may be great. But the game is 90% perspiration, remember. The first draft is generally just a first draft, a rough approximation of what you can end up with.

Here’s another half-finished poem, from Facebook. I’m not going to comment on it, but leave it to you. What would you change here, and why? What would you leave out, and what put in?

What do I have left
empty words scattered across blind space
images of yet another dream, forgotten
I link these thoughts yet nothing remains
the death of a poem daily resounds,
heavily in my mind
we don’t know each other but we still share
all these hopes fragmented by distance
and the past echoes a call, a sound
asking for truths, for answers
while I am lost momentarily,
in delicious failed metaphors, limply hanging, in darkened gardens of night

Control your syntax

As for syntax, the second tool, its use in poetry may be harder to explain.

Syntax is the order of words in a sentence. Some people write short, simple sentences, others long and complex. Obviously, there’s no right way to write sentences in poetry. Realistic prose may demand short, Hemingwayesque sentences. Bu poetry is another beast.

Syntax in poetry is the ability to control the shape, form, and length of your sentences, whether they’re long, short, or in between. And the chief guide in this matter is your reading. Which writers do you read and admire? Which do you learn from?

If you read only Hemingway and admire him, you may end up as his epigone or imitator. If you read Faulkner, you’re traveling another road.

William Faulker
William Faulkner, great American prose stylist and Nobel Prize winner, 1897–1962.

When it comes to poets, some may write long and prolix sentences like Faulkner. I think of Walt Whitman, Charles Olson, Marianne Moore, and John Ashberry. But at their best, these poets show complete control of the long line, mastery, as in this stanza from Ashberry’s “The Painter”:

Imagine a painter crucified by his subject!
Too exhausted even to lift his brush,
He provoked some artists leaning from the buildings
To malicious mirth: “We haven’t a prayer
Now, of putting ourselves on canvas,
Or getting the sea to sit for a portrait!”

This is a poem of sestets, stanzas of six lines, plus a closing tercet. In the sestet quoted above, there are only two sentences. The first is the opening line. The second is the rest of the stanza (though you could say that second sentence contains another, the quoted material). 

This is a wonderful stanza, and it stands as written — without excess verbiage and in complete syntactical control.

In my own case, I tend to write long sentences — the result perhaps of reading Whitman, Faulkner, Melville, Moore, Ashberry. But I feel I can control the sentence, even such a long, tortuous sentence as begins this poem from my recent second book of poetry, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around:

Myopia: Word of the Day
For Jen again

You say you can’t see anything beyond
the tip of your nose, my love, yet if this is
myopia it may owe, after all, to the Greek
myōpía, “nearsightedness,” i.e. (id est),
to use a Latinism, something contagious
and coming down to you, honestly enough,
through the obscure centuries, deriving
from mýein “to close the eyes or mouth”
(close kin to the Latin mūtus “inarticulate,
dumb, silent” or, as we’d say in English,
“mute,” which, true enough, sweetheart,
you have seldom been). Consider too mystikós,
“connected with the mysteries,” or “mystic,”
an enchanted Greek isle perhaps? Let’s not
forget also -ōpía, a combining form of ṓps
(stem ōp-), meaning “eye, face, countenance,”
and the gods know yours are beautiful: opa!
Yet what doth it profit a man, or woman,
to gain the entire world if he/she closes
the eyes, or mouth, and trips over the obvious,
a metaphorical sense, “inability or unwillingness
to act prudently,” developed in English only
at the hyperopic end of the 19th century.
So look, look, look, my true love, and see.
Here we are then, you and me, together
this blazing instant. Let that be a lesson.

This kind of syntax may require more trained attention than the average poem asks of us. May reflect my academic background as teacher and writer. May be a taste that must be acquired. But for me, let me say simply enough, it’s part of the voice I have developed through a lifetime of reading, writing, and feeling. That last sentence, incidentally, “Let that be a lesson,” is a tribute to the academy and a mockery of it too, a very short, didactic utterance in a long, even long-winded poem. (I certainly did not write the poem to teach anybody a lesson, especially my wife, but to learn what kind of lesson there might be in taking a word and idea from the dictionary and weaving it into a meditation of a married life.)

Questions? Comments? Agreements? Disagreements? I welcome ’em all. Thanks for reading.

A few sugggestions about the craft of poetry

I’ve been asked by a business friend on the East Coast to host a one-hour Zoom session later this month on the craft of poetry — this in the wake of publishing, just this week, my second book of poetry, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around.

Cover of the paperback edition of Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around (2021).

The title of the collection might seem to suggest there’s not much craft involved in writing poetry, or found poetry, anyway, which is what I’m doing here. But that suggestion is misleading.

In fact, finding poetry all around is very much a crafty case of keeping the senses alert and attuned to the possibilities of poetry. And then knowing what to do with these possibilities. If you aren’t alert to language, how can you be a poet? Language is your medium, the air you breathe, the soup in which you swim.

Your poetic senses or sense of poetry depends on language.

Here are some likely sources for poetry, especially found poetry: 

      • An odd remark by a friend or a passer-by
      • A line or two in a newspaper article
      • A passage in a book
      • An obituary
      • A dictionary entry
      • A song

Yes, it’s the job of the poet to be attentive, or attuned, to the music in the air. Not just melody but rhythm, stress, dissonance, oddity.

In the foreword to Lost & Found, I cite “selection and syntax” as principal tools a poet uses in turning everyday sources into poetry. He or she must know what is linguistically impressive, or odd, or resonant. Then has to know how to turn such oddities, whether long or short, into lines of verse.  (Verse means, at its root, a turning: the poet plows ground to the end of the line, then turns around and plows one more furrow, whether he’s writing iambic pentameter or free verse.)

But let me give a few real-world examples from the book:

      • “Frame”
      • “Poem in Form of To-do List”
      • “Orchidaceous”

“Frame” is the first poem in the book and a suitable gateway to the book as a whole. This short quatrain, founded on slant and repeated rhyme, might have taken root simply in the idea of losing and finding, as the title of the book proclaims. That and the notion of the frame, which I’ve meditated from time to time, because like many of you I’m interested in painting and decor, I mean hanging stuff on our walls that brightens or tones our day, gazing at it, admiring it, inviting friends to gaze and admire. 

Frame
By way of epigraph

I put a frame around it
so I can say I found it,
so I can say it’s yours and mine
for this brief space of time.

Wouldn’t it be supercool, I mean, if poets and writers, like painters, could hang their stuff on the wall and so impress or stop in their tracks the passerby or guest? I’m jealous of these confounded exhibitionists! Why can’t I do what they do with my craft?

“Frame” acts as an epigraph, or epigram, to all the poems of the book. I’m saying here that the material I’ve found, or cribbed, is art or poetry simply because I place it in the context of art, in this case, the framework or casework of a book. I separate a stray remark from the ephemeral world in which it is uttered and lost — you know, the kind of odd or funny remark we might laugh at one moment and forget the next. The poet wants to find the remark unforgettable, so arranges to put it in a frame where it won’t be forgotten. This kind of capture, like photography, freezes a moment and makes it available to the future.

But finding and freezing a remark is just half the battle: the poet also has to share what she’s captured with the world: “so I can say it’s yours and mine.” An authorial gesture becomes a communion, something she has in common with the audience she finds in writing the poems.

And, of course, that sharing, like all forms of human sharing, exists only “for this brief space of time.” You may consider this space to be the space of the poem, or the volume of poems, or the space of our lives. Life is indeed short, and if art is long it may not be forever but let’s enjoy it while we can. Indeed, it’s this poignant tension between the moment and the timeless that turns us to art as both producers and consumers.

The second poem I’ll cite here is another kind of animal. It doesn’t rely on rhyme, or even reason, to make its point, though the point may be much the same as that of “Frame.”

Poem in Form of To-do List

        • Finish Claudia’s website
        • Wash summer clothes
        • Practice Gregg shorthand
        • Organize your lives on hard drives
        • Buy 6-volt lantern for camping and tornadoes
        • Tell Jen you love her
        • Drive Mom to salon (if Mom were only here)
        • Snap pix of armadillos DOR (you’re not in Minnesota anymore)
        • Tell Diana how much you care
        • Study Djokovic’s lethal backhand
        • Tell Tom he’s a no good dirty bastard
        • Plan family reunion
        • Ask Jen what she meant by the child that died
        • Help in kitchen (only if she asks)
        • Meditate on where you’ve been and where the hell you’re going

This list poem may look like an everyday to-do list in some respects. In fact, I might have recorded some of these items in a practical, or transactional, list I was keeping a few summers back:

      • Claudia is a Mexican painter friend, whose website I created and kept for a number of years.
      • When summer approaches, you’d better get the summer clothes out of the attic and freshen them up, no?
      • Summer is the season of camping, and you don’t want to do all of it in the dark, do you? Get a light. And keep it in the closet, too, in the spring season of tornadoes. (My wife went through a tornado when she was a girl, or should I say a tornado went through her or her house, and she always keeps survivalist gear, including lights, in the closet.)

But a list of literal things to do tends to suggest things that are not literal, not practical or transactional — the things having to do with the brevity of light, life, leisure, summer:

      • Organize your lives, your various lives (as poet, spouse, parent, friend), on hard and durable drives, whether on your computer, or in the form of publications, or as impressions of the drive or life force you leave behind with friends and family.
      • Think of your dead mother and her faded beauty, her faded life.
      • The child that died? Maybe my wife, Jen, said something literal about a child that died. Maybe I was thinking of the times she had a miscarriage and abortion.

A list or catalog poem is not difficult, but depends as you see here on both the literal and the figurative. It’s an exercise in association. One thing, on the surface, suggests another, which may be lurking just below the surface or in chthonic depths.

Again, as with the “Frame” poem, this to-do poem dredges up stuff that ordinarily would be kept in mind briefly, then forgotten. Poetry, like other arts, seems to have as motive power the idea of saving, shaping, and preserving. The distraction and detritus of our mental life are transformed into something more durable, more formally impressive, more suggestive, more sharable.

Finally, in this blog, let me offer one of my dictionary poems for your consideration.

Myopia: Word of the Day
For Jen again

You say you can’t see anything beyond
the tip of your nose, my love, yet if this is
myopia it may owe, after all, to the Greek
myōpía, “nearsightedness,” i.e. (id est),
to use a Latinism, something contagious
and coming down to you, honestly enough,
through the obscure centuries, deriving
from mýein “to close the eyes or mouth”
(close kin to the Latin mūtus “inarticulate,
dumb, silent” or, as we’d say in English,
“mute,” which, true enough, sweetheart,
you have seldom been). Consider too mystikós,
“connected with the mysteries,” or “mystic,”
an enchanted Greek isle perhaps? Let’s not
forget also -ōpía, a combining form of ṓps
(stem ōp-), meaning “eye, face, countenance,”
and the gods know yours are beautiful: opa!
Yet what doth it profit a man, or woman,
to gain the entire world if he/she closes
the eyes, or mouth, and trips over the obvious,
a metaphorical sense, “inability or unwillingness
to act prudently,” developed in English only
at the hyperopic end of the 19th century.
So look, look, look, my true love, and see.
Here we are then, you and me, together
this blazing instant. Let that be a lesson.

Background here: my wife had cataract surgery recently, which didn’t go too well. Her vision seemed impaired, not improved, for some time after the operation.

Transitions, first book poetry
Cover of paperback version of Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989.

But dictionary poems? How ghastly! you might think. Who wants to rummage in a dictionary to write a poem or read it? Sorry, friends. I was an academic for maybe 15 years, teaching college English (writing and literature). I was in academe, that is, though never truly, fully of it. (But that’s another story, suggested in my first volume, Transitions.)

The dictionary, as I say somewhere in the endnotes to Lost & Found, can be considered “the history of our travels as a human race, our longings, mergings, conquests, accommodations to other tribes and peoples.” Take just about any word in the dictionary, read its definition, consult the etymology: where it came from, how it’s used now, where it might be going. Isn’t this about the most thrilling and “diverse” journey you can imagine? Every time we use an English word, we invoke our nameless, faceless ancestors, from whatever tribe, and the tribes they fought and fucked. We catch ourselves up in the history of the races, our races, however obscure, and our race to catch up, using such words, with the modern worlds of both commerce and art.

Well, this consideration may or may not be helpful to you if you’re a poet. It’s not a how-to guide, for sure. Not 10 Easy Steps to Transform Vague Emotions into Finished Poetry. No, it’s a few  suggestions, that’s all, about some of the resources we might use to transform raw materials. Or to understand how poets work with these materials.

      • Memory
      • Free association
      • Sound association (rhyme, off rhyme, repetition)
      • Transactive discourses (lists, thank you and welcome notes)
      • Dictionaries

That’s all I know, for now anyway. Any questions or suggestions? I’d be delighted to take them up and consider them in these pages.

Poetry as a group venture

Writers are necessarily engaged in a solitary enterprise.  They work alone with words and try to make sense of a world, however complex or simple it may be. They try to reach out to others with the burden of explaining and clarifying.

A man asserted to the universe that he existed— in Stephen Crane’s words.

A man said to the universe: Sir I exist! However, replied ...

And if the universe doesn’t care, the post-Darwinian, postmodern universe — the man, or woman, whether poet, storyteller, historian, science writer — keeps on writing and trying to make sense.

One way of coming out of his solitariness is to meet with other writers, of course, who may be similarly alone and urgently trying to break out of their skins. So, writers meet in writers’ groups, fiction writers congregating and poets pausing mid-pentameter to sniff each other’s stuff.

A small group of poets has resumed gathering now in Fayetteville, nearly post-Covid, every couple of weeks in a local coffee and beer cafe, and trying to accomplish something human and humane.

We exchange poems and discuss a few ways to market the idea of poetry —in particular, a local poetry collective that can go out and perform in the community and resurrect the idea that poetry is not only entertaining but somehow necessary.

We may not be minstrels who go round and roust up the nobles and peasants alike in the interest of community. But shouldn’t we be able to attract a few people who are tired of streaming media and screaming TV ?And who may not even realize they are sick and tired of these entertainments?

According to dictionary.com, poetry is “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.”

Can’t contemporary poets excite a little pleasure in those for whom words are not simply grunts or commands?

Poetry can be beautiful, surely. It’s necessarily imaginative. It can even be elevated, though this is not necessarily so, not in the 21st century.

To excite anything like popular pleasure, poets must break out of their solitariness, the environment in which they work, and share their stuff with each other, bolstering and criticizing at the same time, urging their words to make more sense and engage with the public.

How do we reach others who may need the solace and the light that poetry can convey? How do we convince them that poetry is not an archaic enterprise, not necessarily or essentially academic or precious, but an integral and saving part of who we can be as humans?

If language is a gift, not simply a transactional commodity (do this, do that, when can I see you again?), then we are give and receive if we read and write and listen to poetry. A poet is a maker (from the Greek poiētḗs), and he makes things happen. He opens eyes. He taps into primal and insistent impulses. Yes, yes, yes, we all want to live before we die. We  want to know and feel what it is to live and to share this gift with you.

Poetry can and should be exciting. It may be entertaining. But it’s primary aim is not to compete with TV or the movies. It has something deeper and sometimes more subversive in mind.

 

Found poems

For some time now I’ve been fascinated with found poems. Found poems? What are they?

I don’t mean poems found while leafing through books or journals. I don’t mean reacquainting oneself with poems learned or loved in school.

I mean finding preexisting language that, despite its unpromising context and sometimes strictly practical uses, suggests and can readily be adapted into poetry.

I mean verbal artifacts found in books, magazines, journals, wine labels and reviews, advertisements, technical descriptions, correspondence (letters, emails, text messages), and throwaway lines from conversations.

Collage by my friend, the graphic artist Dan Thornhill, Little Rock, Arkansas.

As critics have pointed out, found poems are kinds of collages, bits and pieces of verbal debris, could be, plucked out of various contexts and put together by he/she who has eyes to see and can supply the mucilage of alert observation and interest.

Can’t remember when I first began writing found poems, maybe 20 years ago or more, but lately my attention has been fixed on these patches of language. Things I read in the newspaper, like readers’ comments, become all too easily a poem. Often I make such a pastiche out of one source, but it can come from several in the typical way that a graphic collage comes together.

Here’s one I just plucked the other day, for example, from the Washington Post, not an article but comments on the article supplied by readers.  The comments are so quick, keen, fresh, demotic, however educated many of these readers seem to be, that they practically compile themselves. All the observer has to do is a little choosing and editing.

Supreme Court Rejects Trump’s Bid to Shield Tax Returns
Reader comments, Washington Post article of 2/22/21

Yes, the Witch Hunters are closing in.
The Orange Blob’s lifelong crime show
comes to an end. Get your popcorn ready.
He would not last a week on Riker’s Island.
What will Spanky McBonespurs’ defense be now?
For a good laugh, tune into Carlson or Hannity
tonight. Bad day for Former Guy. Bet he wishes
he’d chosen Manaford and Stone for the court.
Lock him up and throw away the key. A good last
30 days: Biden president, Limbaugh dead, and
Vance is closing in on Trump’s tax records.

So what such a composition lacks in clarity or consecutiveness pales in comparison to the vigor and humor of the language. Here is where the people, the verbal people, exact and enact their revenge against the president’s dull-witted idiocy. 

Clarity and consecutiveness, at any rate, may be more the stuff of prose, especially expository prose, than poetry. The poet yearns for freshness and surprise — and keeping his eyes and ears open finds it everywhere.

Unity, however, is a more elusive quality that the found poem poet must look for. All the stuff in the poem must belong together, in one way or another, however surprising and apparently out of context it might at first appear to be. The poet uses what Hart Crane (1899–1932) might have called “the logic of metaphor.” It’s another, a different logic than the rational and organizational world insists on. An older, more archaic logic of emotional and visceral connection.

So I leave you with another found poem I found, or put together, just the other day, after being bombarded for a week or two with a newly found poem just about every day. I wondered how you could instruct, or encourage, other poets to try their hand at found poems. Or at least to explain how the game works and what it’s worth. Here goes:

How to Write a Found Poem

It’s like collage, those in the know
say, from French colle paste, glue
(<Greek kólla) + –age, as in mucilage,
I’d add, Middle English muscilage
<Middle French musillage <Late
Latin mūcilāgō a musty juice, akin
to mūcēre to be musty. See mucor 
if you must. But hold on, what’s 
the point here? Oh, yes, collage and 
mucilage! So what you need to do,
ephebe, to write a found poem is to
find it in the stuff of every day, 
the natural or not, who cares, speech 
of men and women as they work 
and play and carry on, for example, 
newspaper comments, want ads 
(personal or not), oral interviews, 
old letters, the blab of the pave 
perhaps, a story heard or overheard, 
and then fix your attention like good 
strong glue on the essence, the fresh 
phrase, you can throw out all the chaff,
you jackdaw, you chuff, just seize
the good stuff in your beak, don’t
hold back like that, what are you
thinking? there’s so much of it,
dear people, and all so good!

You might have caught some of the sources here, more varied than in the first poem above: the dictionary obviously and then the poets Wordworth (“the natural speech of men”), Whitman (“blab of the pave”), Wallace Stevens (“ephebe”), and W. C. Williams (“what are you thinking,” from “Tract”). Wherever and whatever your sources, pluck them boldly and let them shine in the new context you both perceive and create.

Revising a poem

One of the delights of writing poetry, believe it or not, is rewriting it. Sure, the initial impulse may yield something suggestive, but unless you are Mozart (most of us are not) we tend not to dash out an immortal work of art on the first draft.

I’ve had occasional luck in writing poems that needed little or no revision. But this is not the usual route at all. Instead, I’ll write something on the spur of the moment, or be spurred by a story I heard, an article I read, something going on around me or around the world. Then I’ll put the draft aside a day or two, and come back to it. Or, more likely, a week or two, a month or two, a year or more down the line.

What seemed so wonderful at the spark of creation now looks suspect. Redundancies. Cliches. Incoherencies. (What do I need to explain, in a short lyric, and what explains itself or needs no explanation? What evades or defies explanation or expectation?) Do I lack convincing imagery?

Poetry, as opposed to fiction, is almost all texture. You don’t have to concern yourself overly much with plot, or story, or character. Read my flapping lips, dear reader: poetry is the words on the page. It’s images, ideas, rhythms.

So here’s an example of how I’ve recently set up revising a poem, a decent beginning that I’ve had around quite awhile and which began as purely a technical description of a plant found in the calcareous fens southwest of the Twin Cities. (The poem derives from an interview I had conducted with Steve D. Eggers, with the US Army Corp of Engineers, St. Paul District, for an article about calcareous fens in a river watershed publication.)

sterile sedge
A growth form of the sterile sedge (photo by Steve D. Eggers).

To the Sterile Sedge, version 1
With thanks to Steve Eggers

Perennial herb of fens, your tufty
stems erect and many slender leaves,
your four stalkless spikelets, your
egg-shaped perigynium spreading
or bent backward at maturity, beaked
and double-toothed and dark brown,
your humble nutlet, your staminate-
only, seedless sterility: who see
you as we rush by on the highway?

Well, this may be fine and well as far as it goes, but I think you’ll agree with me that it doesn’t go far enough. It’s a technical description flavored by very specific sensory words, some of them rarely found in the layman’s vocabulary. So the words draw attention in and to themselves. They leave a pleasant hum in the brain, could be.

But so what? The poem, as is, is an extended address or apostrophe to the sterile sedge. I mean, it’s an invocation, as in “Oh you who are so-and-so or such-and-such, etc.” So we’re beginning to get acquainted with this unknown and obscure plant. 

But only the last two lines, which pose a question, make the poem a sentence and begin to make sense of it. Here you are, humble, sterile, drab, unnoticed plant. Who in the world would ever see or notice you … besides a botanist?

So the question is posed but not answered. 

The next version of the poem attempts to provide an answer, adding six lines to the original nine.

To the Sterile Sedge, version 2
With thanks to Steve Eggers

Perennial herb of fens, your tufty
stems erect and many slender leaves,
your four stalkless spikelets, your
egg-shaped perigynium spreading
or bent backward at maturity, beaked
and double-toothed and dark brown,
your humble nutlet, your staminate-
only, seedless sterility: who see
you as we rush by on the highway?

We have our own reasons, I suppose,
perhaps illicit liaisons, perhaps work,
licensed or not, on new developments,
the usual human things which threaten
your species and prolong ours, for which
we implore your forgiveness and sing this song.

Okay, so we’re beginning to supply an answer. 

The question is how satisfactory is the answer? How close does it strike to the hearts and minds of most readers?

Looking back at this draft now, I imagine it’s a hit or miss answer. If you’ve ever had an extramarital love affair or extralegal business transaction, these items may appeal to you. But I fear they’re not universal enough in themselves, nor described in particular, convincing detail.

I could go on supplying detail, which might heighten the interest of the poem, but I fear moralizing too much or insisting on a view that’s too personal, despite the use of the first person plural (“we”).

After the poem lay about for years, gathering dust or, better, must, becoming more suggestive if not quite finished, like an aging wine, I had another go at it and came up with this:

To the Sterile Sedge, version 3
With thanks to Steve Eggers

Perennial herb, your tufty stems and many
slender leaves, your four stalkless spikelets,
your egg-shaped perigynium spreading
or bent backward at maturity, beaked
and double-toothed and dark brown,
your humble nutlet, your seedless
staminate-only sterility: all these
in fact are of little note to us as we
rush past on the highway overhead
or walking the field trample underfoot
everything in our way, until, suddenly
we stumble and, surprised by joy, fall
on our knees and humbly at this late
date implore your forgiveness
and beg your longevity.

This third version is most satisfactory to me, though gods know if it will be the final.

What do you think?

I’m sure there is room for improvement — in diction, rhythm, specificity, universality, concern for the reader. But whether I’ll trot out 80 drafts or more, the way Robert Bly and Donald Hall used to do with each other’s poems, I doubt it.

There comes a point in poetry, as in life, where good enough might be left alone and, yes, where the perfect is the enemy of the good and even the publishable.

At any rate, I hope I have suggested a few ways for you to step back from a poem and play the friendly and helpful self-critic too.

Patriot: has it come down to this?

These days the words “patriot” and “patriotism” have been getting a rough ride. They’ve been coopted, as I’m sure you know, by right-wing conservatives, or, let’s be a little nicer here in our distinctions, radicals and even traitors.

It’s easy to grab a flag and wave it, or wave a word, or wave your dick, for that matter, if that’s all you have to wave. To make a big display out of something that you don’t begin to understand.

In the wake of the mob riot at the Capitol, on January 6, we might consider these titbits in the news:

  • The waving of many flags, and the indecorous wearing of flags, on the part of the mob as they assaulted the Capitol.
  • Ivanka Trump’s reference to these mobsters, her father’s own mob, as “American patriots” … and the reaction from Bob Sommer, a good friend of her criminally convicted and then pardoned father-in-law, who told her he was “horrified I attended your wedding.”
  • The same unconvincing honorific “patriot” applied to the mob by state legislators from Virginia and West Virginia.
  • Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, an enthusiastic defender of Trump for far too long, that is, sycophant and bootlicker, being cursed by an airport mob as he was getting out of D.C., one of the vulgarly hystericals being “Mindy Robinson, who describes herself as a conservative activist and host of ‘Red White and F You: Unapologetically Patriotic.’” 

Trump-behind-glass

Image 1 of 4

Trump addressing supporters from behind glass and flag, 6 Jan 2021.

You would think that if people knew anything about the English language that they profess to speak, they would know what “patriot” means and meant. While the definition of the word, according to Merriam-Webster, is “one who loves and supports his or her country,” that common and I would say superficial meaning has been amply qualified through the years. As Merriam-Webster also says, in a long disquisition on the word, “The word patriot signifies a person who loves his or her country and is ready to boldly support and defend it. That meaning has endured since the word’s arrival in English in the 16th century, but it has not marched through the years unchallenged.”

It would be worthwhile for all of us to read M-W’s longer, historical discussion of the word, including its use in both Europe and America to distinguish between “good patriots” and “false patriots,” in other words, those who are unlike us, whatever we are like or whatever we like.

The more education you have, could be, the more you want to mull and gnaw and digest what abstract words like patriotism really mean. In this case, don’t you want to know what exactly does it mean to love your country and support it?

In my years in graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, which coincided with our misadventure in Vietnam, I was reading modernist poets including Ezra Pound, whose take on the old Roman poet Horace’s idea of patriotism would light a torch in me. While Horace proclaimed, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” that is, it’s sweet and right to die for one’s country, Pound, in the wake of the disastrous folly of WW I, wrote in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”:

Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor … 
 
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy …
 
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

And of course there’s the famous poem by Wilfred Owen, a British poet and soldier who died in WW I, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which ends:

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

When I was studying in Texas, and getting tear-gassed marching on the state capitol (which we never reached, state workers hanging out the windows and shouting to the police, “Kill ’em! Kill ’em!”), common redneck bumper stickers included “America, love it or leave it” and “My country right or wrong.”

No, I think if we love our country we reprove it, and improve it, when it’s wrong, as it has been on many occasions. It was wrong, under LBJ, to get involved in the Vietnam War. It was wrong, under George W. Bush, to invade Iraq. And it was wrong, during much of these past four years under Trump, to suppress voting rights and civil rights, deny climate change, and rile up an ignorant populace.

These Trump years remind me of the fable of the belly and the members that Shakespeare uses in Coriolanus, one of his history plays. A mob of plebians is complaining how the patrician rulers get all the food and do none of the work, but then the patrician Menenius Agrippa explains to them:

The senators of Rome are this good belly,
And you the mutinous members; for examine
Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly
Touching the weal o’ the common, you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds or comes from them to you
And no way from yourselves. What do you think,
You, the great toe of this assembly?

Whatever you think about the patrician bias of such advice, the point is clear on many levels that riotous behavior reduces rather than affirms or augments the state. A mob of fools, or asses, or toes, as Menenius suggests, does not assure the health of the whole; rather, blessings come from above and flow throughout the body. Or, I would say, blessings come from the whole and are distributed to the parts.

If it is time, from time to time, for Liberty to be leading the people, let’s make sure that Liberty is a wise guide, not a wise guy, a dummkopf, an ass like Trump — a figure with moral and intellectual bel-esprit. Loving our country, finally, being true patriots, requires care and calm and vigilance as well as the gift of discernment.