MATTHEW DICKMAN AND SHARON OLDS ARE GROSS! AND THEY ARE FIGHTING IN THE WEST

Dickman and Olds have a popular appeal and are not afraid of gross subjects.  It seems that hiding behind every other poet these days is a gross stand-up comic who talks about stuff other people are too shy to talk about.  The poet (like the comic) who isn’t afraid to talk about the most uncomfortable stuff imaginable (just imagine!) achieves a certain fame.

So this is a battle of the gross poets.  Here we go!

First “One Year” by Olds, then “Slow Dance” by Dickman.  Here’s Olds:

ONE YEAR

When I got to his marker, I sat on it,
like sitting on the edge of someone’s bed
and I rubbed the smooth, speckled granite.
I took some tears from my jaw and neck
and started to wash a corner of his stone.
Then a black and amber ant
ran out onto the granite, and off it,
and another ant hauled a dead
ant onto the stone, leaving it, and not coming back.
Ants ran down into the grooves of his name
and dates, down into the oval track of the
first name’s O, middle name’s O,
the short O of his last name,
and down into the hyphen between
his birth and death–little trough of his life.
Soft bugs appeared on my shoes,
like grains of pollen, I let them move on me,
I rinsed a dark fleck of mica,
and down inside the engraved letters
the first dots of lichen were appearing
like stars in early evening.
I saw the speedwell on the ground with its horns,
the coiled ferns, copper-beech blossoms, each
petal like that disc of matter which
swayed, on the last day, on his tongue.
Tamarack, Western hemlock,
manzanita, water birch
with its scored bark,
I put my arms around a trunk and squeezed it,
then I lay down on my father’s grave.
The sun shone down on me, the powerful
ants walked on me. When I woke,
my cheek was crumbly, yellowish
with a mustard plaster of earth. Only
at the last minute did I think of his body
actually under me, the can of
bone, ash, soft as a goosedown
pillow that bursts in bed with the lovers.
When I kissed his stone it was not enough,
when I licked it my tongue went dry a moment, I
ate his dust, I tasted my dirt host.

SLOW DANCE

More than putting another man on the moon,
more than a New Year’s resolution of yogurt and yoga,
we need the opportunity to dance
with really exquisite strangers. A slow dance
between the couch and dinning room table, at the end
of the party, while the person we love has gone
to bring the car around
because it’s begun to rain and would break their heart
if any part of us got wet. A slow dance
to bring the evening home, to knock it out of the park. Two people
rocking back and forth like a buoy. Nothing extravagant.
A little music. An empty bottle of whiskey.
It’s a little like cheating. Your head resting
on his shoulder, your breath moving up his neck.
Your hands along her spine. Her hips
unfolding like a cotton napkin
and you begin to think about how all the stars in the sky
are dead. The my body
is talking to your body slow dance. The Unchained Melody,
Stairway to Heaven, power-cord slow dance. All my life
I’ve made mistakes. Small
and cruel. I made my plans.
I never arrived. I ate my food. I drank my wine.
The slow dance doesn’t care. It’s all kindness like children
before they turn four. Like being held in the arms
of my brother. The slow dance of siblings.
Two men in the middle of the room. When I dance with him,
one of my great loves, he is absolutely human,
and when he turns to dip me
or I step on his foot because we are both leading,
I know that one of us will die first and the other will suffer.
The slow dance of what’s to come
and the slow dance of insomnia
pouring across the floor like bath water.
When the woman I’m sleeping with
stands naked in the bathroom,
brushing her teeth, the slow dance of ritual is being spit
into the sink. There is no one to save us
because there is no need to be saved.
I’ve hurt you. I’ve loved you. I’ve mowed
the front yard. When the stranger wearing a shear white dress
covered in a million beads
comes toward me like an over-sexed chandelier suddenly come to life,
I take her hand in mine. I spin her out
and bring her in. This is the almond grove
in the dark slow dance.
It is what we should be doing right now. Scrapping
for joy. The haiku and honey. The orange and orangutang slow dance.

These poems are not terribly gross, we admit, but they’re not “Annabel Lee,” either.  The images are not pure. She’s got bugs everywhere and she’s licking dust, and he’s got the naked lover brushing her teeth and spitting into the sink.  No, it’s not the gross of stand-up comedy, for Dickman and Olds add heart and sweetness and care: that’s what poets do and comics don’t.  Comics are well-meaning, too, of course; the grossest comic is just trying to figure out life and express life just like the poets and the bitterest and grossest stand-up comic might be even more heart-felt and sensitive.  This is what people think.  This is why it’s always better to be gross—because the sweetness will be implied.  But if you are only sweet, the grossness is never implied.  In fact, if you are only sweet, people will think you are stupid; and they will be right, because why be one thing by being sweet when you can be two things by being gross?  Come to think of it, “Annabel Lee” is gross, too.

In this case, Olds shows the party-boy how it’s done.  Death and mourning trumps the slightly illicit slow-dance.

Olds 79 Dickman 71

WRITING AND RIDING: RICHARD WILBUR BATTLES LOUISE GLUCK

Here is the game.  The contest.  We present the two poems: first Wilbur’s, then Gluck’s:

THE WRITER

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

HORSE

What does the horse give you
That I cannot give you?

I watch you when you are alone,
When you ride into the field behind the dairy,
Your hands buried in the mare’s
Dark mane.

Then I know what lies behind your silence:
Scorn, hatred of me, of marriage. Still,
You want me to touch you; you cry out
As brides cry, but when I look at you I see
There are no children in your body.
Then what is there?

Nothing, I think. Only haste
To die before I die.

In a dream, I watched you ride the horse
Over the dry fields and then
Dismount: you two walked together;
In the dark, you had no shadows.
But I felt them coming toward me
Since at night they go anywhere,
They are their own masters.

Look at me. You think I don’t understand?
What is the animal
If not passage out of this life?

Wilbur (his poem is from Dove’s anthology) is logical and playful—that combination of which formal properties in the verse usually result.  It is a man anxious to be reasonable and understood.  Wilbur responds to the world in visions of happy quantity: the house is a ship. The bird sails through the window.  My daughter is at the typewriter now.

Gluck (not in the Dove) is neither logical nor playful.  She is mystical and serious.  She speaks as people speak when you overhear them; when they are not speaking to you, when they are not trying to explain anything to you, because you are merely evesdropping. 

Wilbur’s poem is earnest and polite; Gluck’s is a cry in the night.

Gluck 69 Wilbur 68

Louise Gluck has upset the master!

PHIL LEVINE AND STEPHEN DUNN BATTLE IN THE NORTH

dunn

#20 Stephen Dunn: tanned, rested and ready.

Phil Levine and Stephen Dunn may be the two living poets most dedicated to the poem as a critique of life/art.   All the critics would agree, and the two poems by these two poets in today’s contest are perfect examples of the poem as critique, with formal qualities in short supply, with content completely driving the form—which hardly exists, so vital is the content itself.  What happens when the content is so important that it overwhelms the form?  We might say, ‘you get prose,’ or we might say, ‘you get the sort of excellent poem which Levine and Dunn produce.’  Take your pick.

But when we say “critique of life/art,” that duality, ‘life/art,’ is important; we don’t use it lightly.  Art is easy to critique, obviously, compared to really having something philosophically astute to say about life, and many of our half-wits pride themselves on their critique of life, when they are really saying things about art. As poets, they write—in their poetry—against a certain style of poetry—and are often mistaken as poets who write poetry which is a critque of life.  Write what you know, goes the Writing Workshop mantra; the poet simply writes (in a ‘critique of life’ style) on poetry.

Think of how easy it is too critique Romanticism, for instance; to say it is hyperbolic, take-drugs-contemplate-flower-weep-over-love poetry. And to oppose it to a certain kind of “Classicism,” to which you, though modern, belong.  This critique (of Romanticism) pretty much sums up the position of Yvor Winters, early Poetry Workshop teacher at Stanford, and briefly associated with the Fugitives.

We can trace this influence easily: from Winters to his student at Stanford, Donald Justice, and then to Stephen Dunn, who studied under Justice at Syracuse, and Phil Levine, who was a younger classmate of Justice’s at Iowa, when they studied together with Robert Lowell—who studied with Fugitive poets Ransom and Tate. Which leads us back to Winters and early ‘classical’ Modernism centered around Pound.  Here is the rather small world of  Modernism and its Winters Classicism growing out of Justice at Iowa and the world of the American Poetry Workshop, anti-Romantic to its core.  People often talk about ‘the Workshop poem’ and what its characteristics are.  It has no characteristics; it is defined by what it is not: as far away from Shelley as it is possible to be.

The following is Levine’s “Simple Truth” and the title betrays everything.  Notice how it attempts to be a critique of life, when it really is a critique of a certain kind of poetry.  It doesn’t want to be that kind of poetry (“elegance, meter or rhyme”) and it doesn’t even realize it is wholly defining itself by what it is not. For what are we to make otherwise of a poem exploiting the taste of butter in the back of one’s throat that we can’t express in words as a critique of life?  Oh the woman who sold me the potatoes was from Poland!  Really?  This is schmaltz, not poetry.

THE SIMPLE TRUTH

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

How his friend Henri “began to kill himself” is passed over quickly for the more important “a simple pinch of salt.”  To get away from “elegant” poetry, Levine skips what really involves a critique of life—not that ‘a critique of life’ is what poetry should be, necessarily, but this is certainly how poets like Levine are marketed.  “Can you taste what I’m saying?” Levine asks in his poem.  Uh, no.  This is prose rising up out of the poetry patch to ask that we join in praising the poetry patch. This is what Keats, in his letter on the primrose, said poetry should not do.  There is nothing wrong with the earth and the things Levine is praising.  It’s the statement that earth must be opposed to elegance which doesn’t belong.  It’s not a poetic sentiment—and not even a good prose one.  We know that Levine’s school of poetry needs to say whatever it needs to say in order to reach its poetic conclusion—but the individual statements, and what they imply in the poem still need to be accounted for.  It’s not polite to stop a poem in the middle, but that doesn’t mean the reader won’t do it, anyway, if something is fishy—even if the poet (I’m just talking, here…) doesn’t realize it.

Here’s the thing about poetic prose, and wanting to write prose that’s poetic.  Prose that wants to be poetic is like having your cake and eating it.  You want to be poetic, but you also don’t want to be poetic.  You want to hit the ball smack in the middle of the bat with a nice loud crack! but you also want to have the ball dribble off your bat, too.  In the same swing.  So when you are talking in a less elevated fashion, as if you are just telling a story, and you throw in a few details just to set the scene—they are not that important so don’t pay too much attention to them—you are asking the reader to be of two minds, and this is a lot to ask of the reader: know when I’m being poetic and know when I’m not!  This sounds like a simple request, except that in a poem every syllable contributes to the whole effect, whereas in prose, entire words and phrases contribute to perhaps a dozen effects that are not even aware of each other, and this difficulty increases exponentially as prose proceeds.  What is seized upon by the poetic sensibility while reading poetry is meant to be quickly discarded while reading prose.  How can this be done simultaneously while reading one text?

The illusion that prose is poetry is aided by the fact that both exist in time—we proceed from one step to the next in both prose and poetry.  But temporality merely organizes prose; poetry is constantly acting on temporality to re-organize it.  To confuse these two functions is to lose the sense of poetry—while thinking one is gaining it—in perusing prose.

Back to the game.  Here is how Dunn counters Levine:

STORY

A woman’s taking her late-afternoon walk
on Chestnut where no sidewalk exists
and houses with gravel driveways
sit back among the pines. Only the house
with the vicious dog is close to the road.
An electric fence keeps him in check.
When she comes to that house, the woman
always crosses to the other side.

I’m the woman’s husband. It’s a problem
loving your protagonist too much.
Soon the dog is going to break through
that fence, teeth bared, and go for my wife.
She will be helpless. I’m out of town,
helpless too. Here comes the dog.
What kind of dog? A mad dog, a dog
like one of those teenagers who just loses it
on the playground, kills a teacher.

Something’s going to happen that can’t happen
in a good story; out of nowhere a car
comes and kills the dog. The dog flies
in the air, lands in a patch of delphiniums.
My wife is crying now. The woman who hit
the dog has gotten out of her car. She holds
both hands to her face. The woman who owns
the dog has run out of her house. Three women
crying in the street, each for different reasons.

All of this is so unlikely; it’s as if
I’ve found myself in a country of pure fact,
miles from truth’s more demanding realm.
When I listened to my wife’s story on the phone
I knew I’d take it from her, tell it
every which way until it had an order
and a deceptive period at the end. That’s what
I always do in the face of helplessness,
make some arrangements if I can.

Praise the odd, serendipitous world.
Nothing I’d be inclined to think of
would have stopped that dog.
Only the facts saved her.

It is easy—and necessary—to extract Dunn’s critique of life here: life is ruled by “facts.”  The narrator cannot save his wife.  Only the accident of “facts” can.  But Dunn is confusing the “facts” of his poem with life—more than just “facts.”  Dunn, like Levine, is confusing life and art; he thinks he is talking about life—reducing it to “facts”—but he is really talking about his poem, and its “facts.”  This “confusion” is not unusual, and as far as Dunn’s poem goes, this “confusion” is perfectly acceptable, since Dunn is telling us a real story about something that happened in his life—and putting it in “a poem.”  Dunn is conscious of this and says it explicitly: I will take what my wife says and put a period on it. But it’s a “deceptive” period, Dunn says, and here he is, again, imitating Levine (they are from the same pessimistic school) in criticizing not life, but a certain kind of poetry, a poetry “of elegance” which puts “deceptive periods” on things.

Dunn 83 Levine 82

W.S.MERWIN V. RITA DOVE

President Obama has Rita Dove going all the way in his Scarriet Poetry Tournament office pool.

Rita Dove will have to defeat M.S. Merwin in the South/Midwest Bracket’s semi-final to make it into the Elite Eight.  Her Penguin 20th Americna Poetry anthology has been the centerpiece of this year’s Scarriet March Madness Tourney—stretching its excitement and thrills into June.  Dove has three poems in her own controversial Penguin anthology and has barged into the Sweet 16 by knocking off young black poets.  Trashed by critics Helen Vendler and William Logan, Dove stands proud thanks to the success of her poems in Scarriet’s Tournament.  But she’ll have to beat the distinguished poet W.S. Merwin to advance.  Merwin brings this poem (from Dove’s anthology) to the table:

FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

We always feel slightly miffed at Merwin’s lack of punctuation—for whom does it serve?  Does Merwin (like a child) feel no punctuation adds poetic mystique to his work?

The idea of Merwin’s poem is an interesting one—the unknown anniversary of one’s death—and he gives it a fairly cursory treatment.  We are not thrilled by this poem, but we don’t dislike it, except for the reason mentioned above.

Rita Dove picked the following poem of hers for inclusion in her Penguin anthology of poems of the 20th Century:

AFTER READING MICKEY IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN FOR THE THIRD TIME BEFORE BED

I'm in the milk and the milk's in me! ...I'm Mickey!

My daughter spreads her legs
to find her vagina:
hairless, this mistaken
bit of nomenclature
is what a stranger cannot touch
without her yelling. She demands
to see mine and momentarily
we’re a lopsided star
among the spilled toys,
my prodigious scallops
exposed to her neat cameo.

And yet the same glazed
tunnel, layered sequences.
She is three; that makes this
innocent. We’re pink!
she shrieks, and bounds off.

Every month she wants
to know where it hurts
and what the wrinkled string means
between my legs. This is good blood
I say, but that’s wrong, too.
How to tell her that it’s what makes us—
black mother, cream child.
That we’re in the pink
and the pink’s in us.

This is a lovely poem, but we have no idea what “That we’re in the pink/and the pink’s in us” is supposed to signify.  Except for the charm of a mother and young child glimpsed, we have no idea what this poem is trying to do.  Is it pleased with itself that it is somewhat risque’ in content?  We are baffled.

Sorry, Mr. President!  You lose the office pool!

Merwin 88 Dove 69

HERE WE GO: NOBEL VERSUS SLAM! DEREK WALCOTT TAKES ON PATRICIA SMITH!

Derek Walcott, Nobel prize winner, is very well represented in Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology.  We go outside it, for a lyric by Walcott on oneself:

LOVE AFTER LOVE

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Here’s one of those poems which expresses a simple idea—loving oneself—and makes us stop and think: why hasn’t this been done before, or more often? 

Self-love, like vanity, is to be avoided, but here Walcott embraces it.  But so that self-love doesn’t seem like vanity or boorishness, he is clever to contrast it with a love affair (the “love letters” and “desperate notes”)—and so the poem doesn’t seem silly, but poignant, when it says, “Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another.”

The chief problem with the poem is its imagery, which is plain.  We have trouble picturing it dramatically.  How is the person feasting at the end, exactly?  Are they feasting on the love letters?  If so, how are they escaping their old lovers, in order to focus on the self?  Or is the command to “feast on your life” meant ironically?  The idea of the poem is clear, but its dramatic realization is somewhat vague.

Patricia Smith, a four-time National Slam Poet Champion, is not represented in Dove’s anthology.

In the following poem, Smith embraces the iconography that is Aretha Franklin:

ASKING FOR A HEART ATTACK

Aretha. Deep butter dipt, burnt pot liquor, twisted sugar cane,
Vaselined knock knees clacking extraordinary gospel.
hustling toward the promised land in 4/4 time, Aretha.
Greased and glowing awash in limelight, satisfied moan
‘neath the spotlight, turning ample ass toward midnight,
she the it’s-all-good goddess of warm cornbread
and bumped buttermilk, know jesus by his first name.
carried his gospel low and democratic in rollicking brownships,
sang His drooping corpse down from that ragged wooden T,
dressed Him up in something shiny, conked that Holy head of hair,
then Aretha rustled up bus fare and took the deity downtown.
They coaxed the DJ and slid electric untill the lights slammed on,
she taught Him dirty nicknames for His father’s handiwork.
She was young then, thin and aching, her heartbox shut tight.
So Jesus blessed her, He opened her throat and taught her
to wail that way she do, she do wail that way don’t she
do that wail the way she do wail that way, don’t she?
Now every time ‘retha unreel that screech, sang Delta
cut through hurting to glimpse been-done-wrong bone,
a born-again brother called the Holy Ghost creeps through that.
and that, for all you still lookin’, is religion.

Dare you question her several shoulders, the soft stairsteps
of flesh leading to her shaking chins, the steel bones
of a corseted frock eating into bubbling sides,
zipper track etched into skin,
all those faint scars,
those lovesore battle wounds?
Ain’t your mama never told you
how black women collect the world,
build other bodies onto their own?
No earthly man knows the solution to our hips,
asses urgent as sirens,
titties familiar as everybody’s mama
crisscrossed with pulled roads of blood.
Ask us why we pray with our dancin’ shoes on, why we
grow fat away from everyone and toward each other.

Smith is not shy about telling us how good a singer Aretha Franklin is (“extraordinary gospel”) nor shy about telling us what “is religion.”  Nor shy about addressing Franklin’s weight issues.  We are not terribly certain why she is not more shy on these matters, or exactly what these three issues have to do with each other.

Walcott’s poem is too shy.

Smith’s poem is not shy enough.

Walcott 60 Smith 59

NEW SCARRIET POEM: BIST DU EIN DICHTER?

s54-georg-buechner-540x304

Are you a poet?  Can your words make people cry?
It all depends on your family:
They are alive and they annoy,
Or you love them, and they die.

DARKNESS AND LIGHT: FRANZ WRIGHT V. MARY OLIVER

We all make mistakes.  Mary Oliver has had a brilliant career as popular nature poet, but she unfortunately published “Singapore,” betraying a fatal elitism.

But Oliver advanced to the third round in the East Bracket with her poem, “Singapore,” in a controversial win over Robert Pinsky, a poet of equal parts vast, heart-felt erudition and self-indulgent, lisping bore. The Oliver poem embarrassed us highly; the Pinsky poem bored us—with a slight grating sound.  The Oliver poem won.

Franz Wright has a dark, spirtual, melancholic swagger that is irresitible, and his poetry has been nearly as successful recently as Oliver’s mystical, motherly, environmentalism.

  OLD STORY

First the telephone went,
then
the electricity.

It was cold,
and they both went to sleep
as though dressed for a journey.

Like addictions condoned
from above, evening
fell, lost

leaves waiting
to come back as leaves–
the long snowy divorce. . .

That narrow bed, a cross
between an altar
and an operating table. Voice

saying, While I was alive
I loved you.
And I love you now.

Franz Wright is the poet of love—wearing black.  

Mighty good stuff.

Mary Oliver pleases in a more far-flung manner:

WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting 
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Franz Wright offers comfort from the broken body of himself; Oliver comforts with the natural fabric.

Oliver says, “Look at the sunrise in your door!”

Wright says, “Love me, stumbling on your threshold.”

Oliver is quick to give New Age advice.  Wright is broken, and past that.  That’s why Wright is better.

Wright 90 Oliver 77

CAN BILLY COLLINS SMOKE BEN MAZER?

After it has been read, a novel can feel less substantial in a reader’s mind when compared to a brief poem—if the novel’s focus is narrow, and the poem’s is wide.

America buys more novels than poems because we don’t trust our minds.  We need the concrete fact: I read 288 pages—and it was a ‘good read.’  The author took me somewhere.  I had a good time with him.  He bought me dinner, and then took me home. 

The poet and his one-page poem, however, barely murmur hello.  How rude is that?

It is true, that aesthetically, the novel which persists in keeping theme and plot narrowly tied up in a small, dim room, so that no chapter, character, or minor observance can move without bumping into one other, is usually a winner.  Novels we read in an afternoon, that unwind from a single spool, novels we can picture nearly all at once, like The Great Gatsby, have that narrow vision we like.  Compared to a novel like that, a one-page poem can be haphazard, sprawling, and damn confusing.

The confusing one-page poem is a wretched thing, and yet so many poets persist in it—why?   The poet suffers from penis-envy, perhaps; he’s not a novelist, so he’s going to make up for it by bulking up his little poem with as many facts as possible.  Poets used to view facts as the enemy.  What happened?  Why are poets now so in love with facts?  You can say, with a sly, Ashbery grin, well they are not really facts, but this doesn’t alter the aesthetic impact, the stylistic impression, the final result in the mind of the reader.

The ‘revolution’ of 20th century poetry can be summed up thusly: Death to Victorian rhyming poetry that tells a moral story!   The result, a hundred years later, is the Ashbery poem.  With all its myriad little facts indifferently mixed together in a funhouse mirror tale, the Ashbery poem  perfectly realizes that cry: Death to Victorian rhyming poetry that tells a moral story! 

But at Ashbery’s back I always hear: Auden—who kept jabbering away like a Victorian, even as he walked in the cool, modern idiom, even as he awarded Ashbery the Yale Younger.  Sometimes fine resemblances, more than the major distinctions, do us the most good.  Auden—if you read his early obscure poems you see Ashbery—perfected that indifferent voice which pipes in with facts, not in the Victorian, earnest, writing-a-novel-in-a-poem sort of way, but carelessly, so that facts pour in and shape the poem, rather than the poem shaping the facts. 

Isn’t this the major difference, after all, between the Victorian poem and the Ashbery poem?  In the Ashbery poem, the facts shape the poem; in the Victorian poem, the poem shapes the facts.  But still…the modern experiment can only go so far—and how far did it really go?  Too far, because didn’t it kind of kill poetry’s public, as American poetry now survives on creative writing workshop students reading one another? 

The poets cannot rhyme—the Victorians did that.  The poets cannot tell moral stories—the Victorians did that. 

But the best aesthetic revolutions should tell us what we can do, not what we can’t do.

Look at this poem by Auden.  It features two characters: the ambitious Victorian and the indifferent Modern.  It pre-dates Godot by 15 years.  It’s a novel-in-a-poem:

Who’s Who

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

The Moderns decided to chuck the “long marvelous letters” of the Victorian era, and replace them with blueprints of cryptic psychological truth.  Auden is careful not to reveal the gender of the indifferent Modern.  Maybe it’s Byron writing to Larkin?  Or Byron writing to Auden, himself?

Enough yapping.  Let’s rumble.   Collins v. Mazer.

Collins may seem like a zombie Victorian rising from the grave, but he’s just another version of that Modern who refuses to answer that Victorian’s “long marvelous letters.”  Collins is us.  Ashbery is us.  Just another modern version of that indifferent character in Auden’s “Who’s Who.”  Collins is enjoying his little world.  Note the wry reference to the 19th century:

 THE BEST CIGARETTE

There are many that I miss
having sent my last one out a car window
sparking along the road one night, years ago.

The heralded one, of course:
after sex, the two glowing tips
now the lights of a single ship;
at the end of a long dinner
with more wine to come
and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier;
or on a white beach,
holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.

How bittersweet these punctuations
of flame and gesture;
but the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
the sun bright in the windows,
maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
I would go into the kitchen for coffee
and on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.

Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette,
when I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
and stand there,
the big headlamp of my face
pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.

“holding one with fingers still wet from a swim” is glorious.   This is what the poets should be giving us today, instead of X, Y, Z on a blackboard.

Collins foregrounds the writing process itself in the second half of the poem, and this reflexivity is a Renaissance trope.  Collins is no Victorian, but he travels backwards a lot.  But this is what poets do.  The modern (post-modern, etc etc) poet is, in truth, an oxymoron.  Collins is obsessed with clarity.  (The future, i.e., the modern, is never clear.) That, alone, puts him above most of his contemporaries, who hint at everything, who struggle to say something so differently that obscurity results—because they think this makes them more literary, or more intelligent. 

Collins may be guilty of hinting too much in this poem: the locomotive trope may be too clever for its own good, ostentatiously following its tracks over a cliff.  Invoking 19th century progress is not exactly done in a joking manner; Collins, the first-person poet, is always so good-natured that the reader can relax (what’s wrong with that?)—and not worry about catching anxious irony and mockery.  One puff of smoke equals another puff of smoke.  The humor is gentle and self-effacing.  There’s no reaching after “long marvelous letters.” 

We have touched on a number of themes and they all come together in Ben Mazer’s poem—by which he hopes to pull off a miracle, and advance to the fourth round in Scarriet’s 2012 March Madness Tournament: defeating Ashbery, Heaney, and now, Billy Collins:

THE IMPERIALIST GOES TO INDIA
 
Hey, you look just like your facebook photo.
No, you don’t! I read your pores like a map
of everything that’s wrong with the world,
plus everything that’s right. Fields and fields
of daffodils and roses and poppies extending
all the way to the edge of the unshorn
virgin territories unexplored by balloon.
What is the word for this? It wells up
like silence in my groin and chokes
up in my throat like consonants
depleted of syllables. Ooooooooo
then nothing. I sit by a roadside
and have my fortune told. My lines speak triumph
but the voice that cloaks them is ominous.
I may have left Omaha and Idaho
to come to this, but I have fallen in love
and will not leave this till death wrenches me.
Like a librarian without a library
my love shines, she is loved by everyone!
Even small animals adorn her Madras
silks, would gladly die for her.
She cleans her perfect teeth with poppy seeds
and looks on me with a pure look of love.
What is it I see on the other side of myself?
I see, I see, a thousand monkeys
looking through a glass that separates
me from you—I see you trying
to penetrate the glass, but I can’t hear your words.
What are you saying? This drama is intense,
too much is swarming over the old castle walls.
Is this what my aunt meant back in Omaha?
Believe in yourself. Do what you love.
I thought that I had power, held the strings
to my own destiny, and those of others.
Or is that all a dream, will I awake
to find I loved what I already knew.
 
There is more anxiety in Mazer’s first-person—and there is something terribly endearing about the poem’s anxiety, because it’s so sad, without being complaining or hysterical, and it has hidden, nuanced humor: “plus everything that’s right.”  The icy humor of the post-modern.  plus everything that’s right.
 
How a poem ends is 90% of a poem’s success.  We like how Mazer’s poem ends—with a poignancy that sums up the feeling of the entire poem. 
 
By comparison, Collins’ ending feels too clinical: that comparison of train tracks to lines of poetry—we don’t like it!  It spoils a nice poem.  Puffing smoke like a locomotive, the industrious poet is a clown, here, and humor is the way we might say goodbye to our romantic cigarettes.  The poem is certainly winning.  But does it win against Mazer?
 
Oh my God…not another upset…
 
It is possible…?
 
Mazer 80 Collins 78
 
MAZER WINS AGAIN!!!!

“POEM” (NEW FROM SCARRIET)

POEM

Writing is talking.
Reading is a living conversation.
Hey! Any shred of news
Perused in time and space is 
The same as talking,
Don’t you think?
But famous words are silent.
The famous do not talk.
The living conversation
Happens in the cheapest newspaper or book;
You can chatter in reading, even though you are reading silently.
But when silence reads silence,
When words long dead speak truth still living,

When words stare at you, but say nothing,
Then you stare at them in the stunned

Hush of what must be death;
The psalms and commandments and poems
Of those who out-faced sorrow in desert
Cold, and in silent mountain scenes,
Chill you like cold mountain streams
Curling through your soul continuously.
Talk is done.  All that remains are dreams.

ROUND 3 BEGINS: BILLY COLLINS V. BEN MAZER

Collins: The 2010 Scarriet Tourney Champ and still in the hunt in 2012

Two years ago Billy Collins won it all: the Scarriet/BAP March Madness Tourney, and last year Scarriet/APR crowned Philip Larkin—only because one of Larkin’s best poems happened to be published in APR.

This year, the recent Penguin Anthology of 20th century American poetry, edited by Rita Dove, was the book used by Scarriet, but we confined the tourney to living authors and we did draw from a few poets not included in the anthology, because we figured: look, it’s missing Plath and Ginsberg, so we allowed ourselves that license.

The best poems in the Dove come from dead poets—in fact, when it comes to good poems, or famous poems, the latter half of the book is falling off a cliff: where are those “best-loved poems?”  The last 50 years haven’t produced any. They don’t exist anymore.  It isn’t that good poems are no longer being written; it’s that we lack an apparatus to compile and display poems that stick in the public consciousness.  What’s missing is salesmanship that relentlessly pushes The Famous Poem.  The Big Poem lifts all boats, but the sea itself is dry.  The boats have been cut up for firewood and set aflame, that individual poets might warm their hands.

Part of the problem is that editors  no longer know what The Famous Poem is.

The novelists are writing the famous poetry—yes, poetry is still earning its keep—in novels.

And if the poets accuse the novelist by saying, That’s not poetry! who is going to take the poets seriously?  The poets who have been saying poetry isn’t poetry anymore for at least 50 years?

So the irony.   Poetry still sells: but in Booker Prize-type novels.  Of course this is embarrassing to the poetry anthologists and to poetry in general.

Here’s what happened: it was laid out by Harold Bloom in the New York Review 25 years ago—if you are a poet, you must choose either Emerson or Poe as a model, (Bloom said it explicitly, just like that) and (according to Bloom, with the weight of the New York Review’s taste behind him) you better not choose Poe.  Emerson’s children are Whitman and Williams, Poe’s, European prose masters and poets who write the pure fire of meter and rhyme, like Richard Wilbur or Seamus Heaney.  But of course rhyme is not something one simply chooses to do—one must do it very well to have an impact.  To even slightly fail at rhyme is to crash and burn.  Line-breaks in prose never prove disastrous—it always works, in its way.   One cannot demand poets perform a formalist high-wire act; and if they don’t want to do it, why make them get up there?  Most poets are happier performing line-breaks on the ground.  You can’t make someone risk their life for their art.  You can’t tell someone who lives in a valley to climb a mountain.

The bigger problem, however, is that the whole idea of The Famous Poem has been abandoned.  Here’s a universally admired poem has been replaced by You might like this one.

What’s important about the Universally Admired Poem is that it, more than anything else, defines poetry for us all.  Defining it on a blackboard (or writing on a blackboard, ‘A poem can be anything’ or ‘A poem ought to have a political agenda’) is all well and good—but it really is the poetry, or the poem, that shows us what poetry can do, what poetry is.  What else can tell us, but the poem that is universally admired?

“Universally admired” might stick in some people’s craw—but what does that say about their craw?  How can “universally admired” be anything but good?  Yet there will be those—you know who you are—who will object to that phrase, and who will fear its implications.

In Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project Anthology, published in 2000 and titled America’s Favorite Poems, with American poets and poets from other countries, Poe, Shelley, and Billy Collins are excluded. (Rita Dove, who published Pinsky in her anthology, was included in Pinsky’s book).   These are quibbles, perhaps, but excluding those three poets seems a bit…crazy.

But back to Collins versus Mazer.  Perhaps we don’t live in a ‘Poetry Anthology Age’ and there’s no hope of producing popular poets anymore.  It seemed for awhile that Billy Collins was poised to become another Robert Frost in terms of notoriety, but the Robert Pinskys of the world perhaps don’t want it to be so.

We know this: Mazer will need to be at his best to advance past Collins!  

Mazer has already upset Ashbery—and Heaney!   Can he do it again?

HERE’S THE SWEET 16!

sweet 16

Before we formally congratulate the Scarriet Sweet 16 poets of 2012, who, pound for pound, are probably the most entertaining poets alive today, the poets least likely to bore you, the poets who simply have a high batting average of poems sure to interest, amuse, or move the common reader—before we congratulate them, we should address the burning issue which always seems to loom over this enterprise: we refer to the poets and readers of poetry who balk at the idea of poetry used as fodder for competition.

First, we would say the competition is the fodder, not the poetry.  The ancient Greeks, who had drama competitions in front of crowds, understood this.

The poetry contest, of which distinguished U.S. poets have so long been a part, is competitive—but since the process of picking winners is shrouded in secrecy, the process does not offend.

But there is absolutely no difference between what Scarriet does with March Madness and what the more distinguished elements of po-biz do with their contests and prizes.

The reason competition offends probably has to do with sex. Sex is all about ‘who is hotter,’ whereas love entails ‘being loved forever for who I am.’   The former creates anxiety, the latter comfort. Love rules morals. All literature has a moral basis.  These unspoken laws are surely the underpinning to the disquiet and protest which greets Scarriet’s attempt to toss poems onto a horse track.

Judgment, or the Critical Faculty, ride the horses, however.  “Judge not” is a moral injunction, not a literary one.  To write is to get on a horse.

Love cannot be escaped when we make moral judgments—but poems are not moral in the same way people are.  We hope the morals of the people are in the poems.  Morals, however, do not make us love poems as poems—which exist apart from human moral issues, simply because they are poems, not people.  This does not mean that poems are not moral, or that poems camot create a moral universe; what it means is that poems themselves are immune to moral concerns.  The decree against poems competing arises from the mistaken idea that poems are morally attached to their authors—they are not; and if they are good poems, this is especially true.  The moral person makes the moral poem, but something happens when the moral travels from the person to the poem—it transforms into something which is no longer moral, even though morals was the impetus.  The objection to poems competing assumes poems are continually creating the moral worlds of their authors in such a manner that they cannot be interrupted from that task, ever.  Which is pure folly.  Those who are really moral persons do not rely heavily on moral attachments between poem and person.  This is my poem, do not touch it! is the sentiment of the moralist who will never write a good poem in the first place.

There are many people who cannot reconcile the fact that morals are both oppressive and good.  But here’s the happy thing about poems.  The good should be present in the person writing the poem, even to an oppressive degree, but once the poem comes into existence, this moral creation, because it is a poem, escapes the oppressive  aspect of morals entirely while still being moral—that is, written by a moral person.  Art is the means by which the moral escapes its oppressive character.

Judging art is not a moral act, but an entirely free act;  judging cannot escape competition; judging cannot escape the horse race, for comparison is always at the heart of the knowing that is judging.  Comparison cannot escape competition. The horses cannot stand still while we judge.

Here they are, most from the Dove anthology, and all living:

EAST: Ben Mazer, Billy Collins, Franz Wright, Mary Oliver,

MIDWEST/SOUTH: Rita Dove, Derek Walcott, W.S. Merwin, Patricia Smith 

NORTH: Phil Levine, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Dunn, Louise Gluck

WEST: Sharon Olds, Matthew Dickman, Heather McHugh, Marilyn Chin 

Congratulations to the winners!

MARGARET ATWOOD V. STEPHEN DUNN: THE LAST SWEET 16 SPOT!

And the final Sweet 16 spot belongs to…

Atwood is Canadian, so she’s not represented by Dove’s Penguin anthology of 20th century American poetry;  Dunn’s got a couple of poems in the Dove, including this one:

ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE

He climbed toward the blinding light
and when his eyes adjusted
he looked down and could see

his fellow prisoners captivated
by shadows; everything he had believed was false.
And he was suddenly

in the 20th century, in the sunlight
and violence of history, encumbered
by knowledge. Only a hero

would dare return with the truth.
So from the cave’s upper reaches,
removed from harm, he called out

the disturbing news.
What lovely echoes, the prisoners said,
what a fine musical place to live.

He spelled it out, then, in clear prose
on paper scraps, which he floated down.
But in the semi-dark they read his words

with the indulgence of those who seldom read:
It’s about my father’s death, one of them said.
No, said the others, it’s a joke.

By this time he no longer was sure
of what he’d seen. Wasn’t sunlight a shadow too?
Wasn’t there always a source

behind a source? He just stood there,
confused, a man who had moved
to larger errors, without a prayer.

Stephen Dunn writes poems with confidence: let’s write the allegory of modern man using the allegory of Plato’s cave: why not?  Dunn talks himself into—and then out of—great rhetorical challenges, and that, it would seem, is the secret of his compositional method.  Ballsy talking.  More poets ought to practice this method.  It’s certainly better than the aesthetic tip-toe method or the obscure to prove I’m smart method.
Margaret Atwood has a similar kind of forcefulness in her poems; it’s the voice of the ultra-confident knower, confident that a poem will be enough to cow all objection.  It’s a poem—it doesn’t have to know a lot, but sounding wise is more than half the battle in sounding poetic.

IS/NOT

Love is not a profession
genteel or otherwise

sex is not dentistry
the slick filling of aches and cavities

you are not my doctor
you are not my cure,

nobody has that
power, you are merely a fellow/traveller

Give up this medical concern,
buttoned, attentive,

permit yourself anger
and permit me mine

which needs neither
your approval nor your surprise

which does not need to be made legal
which is not against a disease

but against you,
which does not need to be understood

or washed or cauterized,
which needs instead

to be said and said.
Permit me the present tense.

This is a love poem, but sounds, even in its wisdom, a little too hectoring.  “Love’s not love which alters when it alteration finds,” Shakespeare said, and this is what Atwood is doing: chasing down love’s bad habits, trying to make love behave. You’re objecting too much, Ms. Atwood.  If your lover wants to “fill a cavity,” let them, Shakespeare would say.

The Dunn’s  a little too obvious, as is the Atwood.

Dunn 74 Atwood 71

GRACEFUL, THAT SHADOW

Graceful, that shadow, which falls on our hearts,
Graceful this shade not seen by the shade;
Love overflows, but is not seen by the parts
That would know the desire that love has made.
Stealthily and gradually and secretly grows
The vine that has no grape—but will.
My father bends to the glowing rose
But the grape has grown to my window sill,
The sweet intruder has come with a sigh,
The hidden nature of the world stops
Moral vanity. We both die
In a force rising, and when it rises, drops.
If they want us, we do not answer—she
Wants to love someone desperately.

DANA GIOIA TAKES ON LOUISE GLUCK, ROUND 2 NORTH

Dana Gioia: not Dove material

Neither Gluck nor Gioia are represented by Dove in her 20th century poetry anthology.

Looking over Dove’s book, one is struck how prevalent rhyme is in the first 25% of the book (Masters b. 1868 through Roethke b. 1908 ), and then how it dwindles (Bishop b. 1911 through Sexton b. 1928) over the next 25%, and finally disappears altogether over the last half (Rich b. 1929 to Terrance Hayes b. 1971), as if no one rhymed in the second half of the 20th century to the present.

All the more interesting is the fact that all the poems known by the public, from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to “Emperor of Ice Cream” to “Prufrock” to “Waste Land” to “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” to “We Real Cool” to “Her Kind” rhyme.  Has a famous American poem been written in the last 50 years?  All those Workshop poems—and nothing has caught on.  All those poems not tied down by meter and rhyme—and not one has caught on.

The public no longer exists which simply takes pleasure from poems and celebrates that fact; today publishers are the last ones who can make a poem famous—and the publishers haven’t a clue, since rhyme makes them uncomfortable for reasons  too numerous to mention.

Here is New Formalist Dana Gioia’s poem, languishing on his website, but brought out here to fight for Sweet 16 in the Scarriet 2012 Tournament:

THE ANGEL WITH THE BROKEN WING

I am the Angel with the Broken Wing,
The one large statue in this quiet room.
The staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut
Faith’s ardor in this air-conditioned tomb.

The docents praise my elegant design
Above the chatter of the gallery.
Perhaps I am a masterpiece of sorts—
The perfect emblem of futility.

Mendoza carved me for a country church.
(His name’s forgotten now except by me.)
I stood beside a gilded altar where
The hopeless offered God their misery.

I heard their women whispering at my feet—
Prayers for the lost, the dying, and the dead.
Their candles stretched my shadows up the wall,
And I became the hunger that they fed.

I broke my left wing in the Revolution
(Even a saint can savor irony)
When troops were sent to vandalize the chapel.
They hit me once—almost apologetically.

For even the godless feel something in a church,
A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?
A trembling unaccounted by their laws,
An ancient memory they can’t dismiss.

There are so many things I must tell God!
The howling of the dammed can’t reach so high.
But I stand like a dead thing nailed to a perch,
A crippled saint against a painted sky.

Louise Gluck, Yale Younger Judge 2003-2010, did not make it into Dove’s book, for whatever reason—we might point out that none of her Yale choices have made an impact (think of Auden picking Rich, Merwin, Ashbery, James Wright, Hollander, and Dickey). Here’s her poem:

A FANTASY

I’ll tell you something: every day
people are dying. And that’s just the beginning.
Every day, in funeral homes, new widows are born,
new orphans. They sit with their hands folded,
trying to decide about this new life.

Then they’re in the cemetery, some of them
for the first time. They’re frightened of crying,
sometimes of not crying. Someone leans over,
tells them what to do next, which might mean
saying a few words, sometimes
throwing dirt in the open grave.

And after that, everyone goes back to the house,
which is suddenly full of visitors.
The widow sits on the couch, very stately,
so people line up to approach her,
sometimes take her hand, sometimes embrace her.
She finds something to say to everbody,
thanks them, thanks them for coming.

In her heart, she wants them to go away.
She wants to be back in the cemetery,
back in the sickroom, the hospital. She knows
it isn’t possible. But it’s her only hope,
the wish to move backward. And just a little,
not so far as the marriage, the first kiss.

Both of these poems are better than the majority of poems by living poets in Dove’s anthology.  Helen Vendler tried to make Dove’s shortcomings all about Wallace Stevens, but the real issue is editors lacking the courage to forget everything else and choose the best poems.  Gluck’s poem has a formal quality: there’s a lot of empty talk about how content is form, but here’s a real example: the poignant traveling backward of the widow.

We admire the Gioia more, but the Gluck gives us an emotional jolt: the heartbreaking “Just a little, not so far back as the marriage, the first kiss.”  Bravo, Ms. Gluck.

Gluck 72 Gioia 70

%d bloggers like this: