Sunday, February 24, 2013

free verse vs. formal: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz....

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Traveling around my little home state as its poet laureate, I’ve especially enjoyed that audience members outside academia tend to ask truly basic questions, which after all represent concerns that everyone feels on contemplating a poem for the first time: who’s talking? why? where? Too much current poetry can’t answer those questions on the page, and even as a lifelong lover of poetry, I turn away from them, conscious of my biological clock’s ticking.

In other posts, I’ve indicated that the most frequent questions I hear involve form and meter. There are those who wonder if something can be called poetry if it does not have a regular meter, regular stanzaic shape, and often as not, a rhyme scheme.

Now I am a formalist myself (though I suspect and even hope this is unobvious when I read, because I pause in my recitation when the grammar does, not when a line does). I even use a goodly amount of rhyme and half-rhyme. And yet I employ these tools merely because they enable me, not because they represent capital-P Poetry.

Indeed, I steadfastly refuse to grind any ax in the free verse/formal verse debate,  partly since it seems to  make advocates on either side suddenly go brain-dead. Of course poetry can exist in an unrhymed and unmetered format: consider our own great Walt Whitman. Of course poetry can be formally constrained without being “academic”: never mind my own small example; consider Robert Frost, a die-hard formalist...who managed to capture the sound of actual speech far more effectively than free-verser Ezra Pound ever did.

The passionate free-verse partisans may believe that their mode is anti-establishment, which would of course be the truth– if today were 1920; since about then, free verse has reigned supreme in virtually every academic MFA program and among most noted poets. It is the establishment practice.

But then that other sect of blind debaters, formal fundamentalists, will allege that free verse shows sloppy thinking, shoddy technique – as if that applied, say, to Robert Lowell or, more contemporarily, to Louise Gluck.

In their turn, the free-verse crusaders will impute coldness, sexual frigidity, political reaction, and – again – “academicism” to formalist delivery -- as if any of these charges were relevant to the giants of the twelve-bar Delta blues, a mode that is surely America’s greatest formal contribution to world culture.

And so back and forth the ranters will go for hours, wading through idiocy all the while.

As I hear the free vs. formal debate rehearsed, I am too depressingly reminded of political dialogue in our day. I am never shocked by the slogans on either side of the liberal/conservative divide. It’s as though there were no real need for any of us to look at a given issue from more angles than just one: we liberals are sure we already know what the conservatives are going to promote; but we fail to see how perfectly predictable our own thinking is. And the conservatives have us pegged as well, without needing to hear us out.

When I was appointed poet laureate, I claimed in my address that a little humility never hurt anyone. The humble but crucial questions I encounter at the state’s libraries assure me that there remain at least a few open minds in the nation.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

"Occasional" poetry

I've had a whopping flu for more than a week, and, worse, just a week ago, my wife lost her lovely, valiant and generous mother. So there have seemed more important things in my life than this blog, more important than poetry. Hence the delayed appearance of this post.

In any case, when the time comes for my mother in law's memorial service, I suspect I may be called on to contribute some suitable verse if I can, and the matter has got me reflecting, not without some unease, on such expectations. I dearly loved my mother-in-law, and I will want to do her fitting honor– far more fitting than the teasing light verse I composed for her many birthdays. And yet I find the most taxing poems to construct are, precisely, those meant to mark a serious or solemn event. For me, after all, the excitement of composition lies in discovering where that very act of composition may lead. If I’m certain where I’m going before departure, I sacrifice any such discovery; a closely related problem is that my language and attention are apt to be no more than serviceable in “occasional” poems, mere means of getting from point A to a fore-ordained point B.

You can imagine my dread, then, at having to compose two poems of this kind in the past few months. The first would be for the wedding of our younger son to a wonderful woman. The second – and more daunting – would commemorate the 250th anniversary of my home town of Newbury, Vermont.  As if that weren’t enough, I was asked to ring in Haverhill, New Hampshire as well, the two towns –directly across the Connecticut River from one another– having signed their charters on the same day in 1763

In either case, my first notion was that for each poem, I'd need to drag in a lot of history, a need obviously acuter for the one about settlements two and a half centuries old than for the wedding of our twenty-somethings. 

In pondering that apparent historical imperative for the anniversary celebration, I heard myself droning along; the Vermont poet laureate’s recitation would resemble some stuffy, forgotten English poet laureate’s.  I’d not be flattering royalty, no, but wouldn’t I be chronicling the achievements of early settlers, paying homage, for example, to General Jacob Bayley or Governor Benning Wentworth, tracing the history of the railroad and/or local agriculture, pointing out the ancestral home of Boston University on the Newbury common, smiling in one direction or another at contemporary townsmen and –women. On and on. I was putting myself to sleep before writing a word.

So I set the town poem aside for a spell, turning to the matrimonial one. As I mused on where it might go, I happened to recall when we first really got to know our son’s bride-to-be. The couple was living in Alaska at the time, and my wife and I and our son’s two younger sisters had flown out for a visit. On the solstice, we water-taxied to an uninhabited island off the Kenai Peninsula. The place was spectacular, and yet, speaking for myself and (with her permission) for my wife, more eye-catching was the obvious love these two people felt for each other. We noted their shared humor, their zest for the wild world, even their common yen for certain foods. And all this was notable round the clock, because the sun never went down.

As I meditated, that is, the motif of midnight sun presented itself to me, and while I won’t judge the quality of my poem, at least I know it escapes the deadly and-then-and-then-and-then mode, narrative following our son’s development from infancy to matrimony. More crucially, I was able to include his future wife, as any marriage poem should. And the “poetic” link between a sun that refused to set and an inextinguishable love-light effortlessly ensued.

In a word, something sensory, something physical had provided entrĂ©e into the shorter poem. And its example soon got me off scratch with the 250th anniversary tribute. Just as I had literally pictured our group on Fox Island, I began inwardly to picture Newbury and Haverhill, as I’d so often done after climbing up a local hill. From that angle, the most conspicuous landmark is the Great Oxbow, the Connecticut River’s miles-long loop between the so-called Horse Meadow on the New Hampshire side and the Cow Meadow on the Vermont.

That intervale makes for some of the richest farmland in the east, as the aboriginal Cowasuck nation well knew. Of course, and much before 1763, they were the real settlers, raising maize and squash in the valley until they were all but completely wiped out by imported diseases and white pioneers’ military hostility, no matter the yen for peace that the great Abenaki chief Passaconway made evident.

My mind started to rove at will. It hopped to later times, when inhabitants drove timber in great booms down the river, the oxbow doubtless a significant obstacle. I began to “see” those river-drivers too, and the teamsters who hauled logs out of the woods on ice-roads, and the women who split kindling, raised children, salted food for winter and educated the young. Now I had a palpable landscape and a visible cast of characters to work with.

I always used to tell my students that just as the word imagination includes the word image, a poetic world in which imagination can flourish must include something in the way of the visible, merely so that readers understand where they find themselves.  As the midnight sun image had led me into the marriage poem, so the oxbow did for the anniversary poem.

In contemplating the latter, it struck me that the oxbow is named thus because it resembles a yoke, and that the yoking together of our towns’ citizenry made for an uplifting motif. (I might have used it for the wedding poem too, conjugal deriving from Latin words meaning yoked together.)

These two occasional poems made me practice what for so long I’d preached in the classroom: history (or philosophy, or religion, or politics, or any other generality, despite that idiot mantra, Show, don’t tell) is more than permissible in a poem; but in my opinion any such abstraction must be “grounded” in particulars, which tend to be what imagery evokes. For me, the particulars were, respectively, the look of a spit of land in the frigid Pacific and a great meander in a more local body of water I treasure.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

accessibilty and obscurantism

On one of my community library visits as Vermont poet laureate, I was delighted to meet a certain local farmer: he was no newcomer or wannabe or refugee Wall Street broker unconvincingly duded out in barn duds. No, this fellow was the real thing – redolent of the barn itself, possessed of the wonderful old-time accent now vanishing into the world of screen culture and robotized telephone calls. I’d noticed him holding a book during the presentation, and now I asked him about it. The volume turned out to be Frost’s Mountain Interval. When I said how I prized that volume, he gently challenged me: “How many poems can you say from it?” I boasted that I could likely do three entire, to which he replied, just as gently, “I can say ‘em all.” (That’s how Frost himself always put it: to “say” a poem.)

Indeed he could, as I gathered from quizzing him, not on “The Road Not Taken” nor on “The Oven Bird” but on less famous things like “An Encounter” or “The Gum-Gatherer.” 

That moment remains a joy to recall, and I got to reflecting on it lately when I came upon yet another poem from a super-prominent national publication that proved inscrutable (at least to me).  At the start, and not for the first time, I worried that, having just turned seventy, I was falling into the age-old geezer’s trap: if it’s new and I don’t understand it, then there must be something wrong with it. Clearly the magazine’s poetry editor, a bright and decent guy, sees qualities in such poetry that I don’t.  I try to be decent, so it’s maybe that I’m not bright – or at least not anymore.  But.

But let’s consider, all but at random, a poem by Rae Armentrout, who in 2010 won the Pulitzer for poetry.



Tense and tenuous

grow from the same root

as does tender

in its several guises:

the sour grass flower;

the yellow moth.


I would not confuse

the bogus

with the spurious.

The bogus

is a sore thumb

while the spurious

pours forth

as fish and circuses.

Ms. Armentrout is associated with a movement called Language Poetry, which sees itself as more “postmodern” than postmodernism proper, whatever that may be.  Its adherents, guided in significant measure by Gallic literary theory, claim that what we call “meaning” is merely an artifice, that we’re misguided to see any direct relation between a word and what it refers to. Language controls meaning, not vice-versa.

Now part of this conviction seems accurate, but at the same time, once you get by the jargon, also pretty darned simple.  Anyone who has written “creatively” for a week – or anyone, period – knows that you can’t type the word hamburger, for example, then sit down and eat the thing. Having waded through the theory, you arrive, I think, at truism.

As I say, I’m old enough as not particularly to care anymore what the professionally hip think of my opinions, so I don’t risk much when I suggest that there’s a lot of hooey involved here, or, if not hooey, at least misprision as to what poetry can and should accomplish. Would the farmer I described at the outset take time to memorize Ms. Armentrout’s poem? I’m betting not, but does that mean he is fool or Philistine? Again, I’m betting not.  A lot of us poets may lament our relative dearth of readership, blaming it, say, on American consumerism, the blight of TV, video games, and, precisely, Philistinism; but too few of us turn the lens on ourselves. If we want readers, we should be readable. This means in part that we must be generous enough to invite non-specialists into our poems.  When he read the most famous entry in Mountain Interval, I’m certain my farmer at least understood how the poet once stood at a fork in a woodsy road. That’s specific and clear in context. When I see a specific reference in “And,” however, I can’t contextualize it at all.

Fish? Circuses?

Let me quote the speculation of another prominent Language poet. Lyn Hejinian tells us that

Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts. Such contexts rarely coalesce into images, rarely come to terms.They are transitions, transmutations, the endless radiating of denotation into relation.

I once had some obligation to follow this sort of commentary, and I can still more or less do so. But would my Frost-loving farmer – or any of the other bright, book-loving folks that show up for my library talks – be enlightened to know that the experience of Mountain Interval is one of witnessing “the endless radiating of denotation into relation?” I have my doubts.

And here, for me, is a related irony. The theorists of much inscrutable contemporary poetry bill themselves as political leftists. Listen to their rhetoric, and you’ll find them dead set against elitism and traditional authority.  But just as I noticed how few  “progressive” professors at the local prestige college volunteered, when the economy went bust, to have their six-figure salaries reduced in the interest of retaining jobs for cooks and groundskeepers and custodians, I notice that these cutting-edge poets and their advocates seem rather indifferent to the tastes and pleasures of the very people whose dignity and rights they claim to champion.

But maybe I am just confusing the bogus with the spurious.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Some ignorant words on rap

A question I often get at readings, not that it surprises me, concerns rap music.

Do I like it?

Is it poetry?

Second question first.  A gentleman in Arlington, Vermont, opined that “if it doesn’t rhyme, then it’s not poetry.” I suggested that such a stricture would eliminate some of the greatest poetry in our cultural tradition, namely the Psalms found in the Hebrew Bible. Even so great a poet as John Milton, who believed rhyme to be “the invention of a barbarous age,” likely the 5th century, when Latin hymns began to be composed in rhyme, would– by my Arlingtonian’s standard– be ruled out.

And yet strong opinions about poetry seem to come with the territory. I wonder, for example, if Milton would have considered the scrupulously rhymed verse of Alexander Pope as non-poetry? Would Pope have acknowledged the heavily colloquial work of William Wordsworth as real verse? What would Wordsworth have made of Whitman, Whitman of Ezra Pound, Pound of the “deep image” poets of the seventies, and so on?

In short, the question of what makes poetry reminds me of the history of poetry. And nowadays, when we encounter everything from so-called Language Poetry to neoformalism to computer-generated verse, just to name a few trends, I am afraid that the only “definition” of poetry must be laughably vague: it is that collection of words on which its creator confers the name poem.

So I can’t legitimately claim that rap “isn’t poetry”. I don’t listen to it much, in part because its meters and rhythms seem so profoundly reiterative that I begin to feel the onset of migraine. And as for lyrics, when a young man named Chris Brown won a Grammy for an album last year, I went and Googled some of his: when they weren’t downright offensive in their misogyny and their glorification of violence, they were, in my view, simply lame: the rhymes were banal, or inexact, or both. So I looked up some lyrics by Jay-Z. My personal judgment call? Ditto.

But I’m getting too vehement here. After all, each to his or her own. My own children reprove me mightily when I get vehement in my comments on rap, saying, rightly, that I don’t really know much about rap, although that’s simply because there’s nothing about it that really draws me in. (Of course, any generation’s vernacular music must be aggravating to the preceding generation; that’s partly what it’s for. I remember my mother’s complaints about Ray Charles or Little Richard when I was a kid: Do we have to listen to this?)

Rap may be poetry, all right, but I just don’t see myself as being in a competitive posture toward it. My own poems tend often to be reflective, or contemplative, or, often, elegiac, and although I may be wrong, I find it hard to imagine that rap can provide a vehicle for modes of that sort. It has other fish to fry. It wants a high-energy, even a bodily response, whereas I scarcely expect my readers, on hearing something of mine, to jump up and boogie. (A side note: who can deny the brilliance of much hip-hop dance, which uses rap as its occasion?)

I don’t compete with rap because mass entertainment is not my aim.  I can already hear my critics saying, “That’s what’s wrong with so called serious poetry.  One Lil Wayne album outsells all that kind of any year put together.”

Right. And more people went to watch bear-baiting than went to see Twelfth Night, too. Britney Spears had greater single-album sales than Louis Armstrong. I could go on.

But I better shut up. One of my daughters is coming home for the weekend.