BEN MAZER: POEM FROM HIS FORTHCOMING BOOK

BEN IN ROMANIA

Greatest poet of his generation? Ben Mazer in Romania last month. Photo, Scarriet

THE GREATEST JOY KNOWN TO MORTAL MAN

The greatest joy known to mortal man,
shall live beyond us, in eternity.
Catching you ice skating in mid-motion,
cheeks flush, winter pristine in our hearts,
ineffable, permanent, nothing can abolish,
when the deep forest, buried in snow’s white
holds the soul’s eternal solitude,
when, melting coming in, each particular
that stirs the senses, is the flight of man
to unspoken urgencies, garrulous desire
continually fulfilled, the captured stances
that drift like music in the light-laced night,
shared words in murmurs soft as downy sky,
the stars observe with their immortal eye.
Furious, presto-forte homecoming
races into the eyes and fingertips,
confirming and commemorating bells
resounding with our vulnerable desire
in momentary triumph that’s eternal.
Life passes on to life the raging stars,
resonances of undying light.
All years are pressed together in their light.

Ben Mazer was educated at Harvard University, where he studied with Seamus Heaney, and at the Editorial Institute, Boston University, where he studied under Christopher Ricks and Archie Burnett. His poem which appears here is from his sixth poetry collection, February Poems, which will be published by the Grolier Poetry Press in the fall of this year. Mazer’s most recent collections are The Glass Piano (MadHat Press, 2015) and December Poems (Pen & Anvil Press, 2016). He is also the editor of The Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom (Boston: Un-Gyve Press, 2015). He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is the Editor of The Battersea Review.

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42 Comments

  1. Mr. Woo said,

    July 18, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    Beautiful, masterful. Those last three lines…Woof.

    I particularly love how lines 3 and 4 snowflake down through the rest of the poem.

  2. powersjq said,

    July 19, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    I agree with Woo: the last three lines are brave and stirring. I also enjoy the many deft touches of Mazer’s craft in this poem:
    * Tattoo of juxtapositions.
    * Structure (as indicated by periods): opening declaration, 12-line rush that introduces and develops the poem’s principal conceits (winter, music, stars), climax, and resolution.
    * Heartbreaking elegance of “light-laced night”.
    * Gracious nod to Thomas with “raging stars, / resonances of undying light”.
    * The sheer goddamned ambition of the piece.

    Mazer has indicated (in the interview at the end of _The Glass Piano_) that he favors writing poems in one go, editing lightly, then moving on to the next thing. I have an intuition that this poem may have suffered because of this process. I submit that the poem has some serious, but fixable, flaws. For example:
    * Hackneyed predications: “deep forest”, “eternal solitude”, and “vulnerable desire”.
    * Trite juxtapositions: “unspoken urgencies, garrulous desire” and “momentary triumph that’s eternal”.
    * Obtuse tropes: “the captured stances / that drift like music”, “Furious, presto-forte homecoming”, and “confirming and commemorating bells”.

    All the issues I’ve observed are fixable without damaging the poem’s parts and qualities. For me, this reads like a strong draft of what could become, with polishing, a great poem.

    • powersjq said,

      July 22, 2016 at 6:43 pm

      No response to this substantial crit? Where is everyone?

      • thomasbrady said,

        July 22, 2016 at 9:09 pm

        Hi Powers,

        Poetry is barely read these days, much less debated and studied. The “flaws” you cite are part of the flow of the poem—if we stopped to isolate what you term “hackneyed” and “trite” and “obtuse,” the poem would die. The ‘successful’ poem always has terms, words, phrases that fail. Its ‘success’ pushes us past them, as it were. If they stop you, the poem does fail for you. But I don’t think this can be argued or discussed, per se. The poem sweeps you along, or doesn’t.

        • powersjq said,

          July 27, 2016 at 4:17 pm

          Tom,

          “Poetry is barely read these days, much less debated and studied.”

          Thank goodness for Scarriet, for here we are: reading, studying, and debating poetry.

          I agree with you that it may be generically true, as you say, that “[t]he ‘successful’ poem always has terms, words, phrases that fail.” It is precisely the job of the critic to point out the failures, because poetry and perfection are worse than opposites, they are bitter, implacable enemies. To point to a poem and say, “This cannot be improved,” is to tantamount to saying, “This is not a poem.”

          “[I]f we stopped to isolate what you term ‘hackneyed’ and ‘trite’ and ‘obtuse,’ the poem would die.”

          Part of what makes some lines of poetry surpassingly beautiful is that they’re next to lines that are simply competent. Not every line can be sublime. A poet could kill a poem by insisting on sublimity from every word. But that’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m saying that some parts of this poem are not very good, and I’m suggesting that replacing them with something better is likely to improve the whole.

          “The poem sweeps you along, or doesn’t.”

          Yes, exactly. These lame tropes are stumbling blocks. I think this poem _might_ sweep me along without these speed bumps.

  3. July 22, 2016 at 8:43 pm

    It does need editing. I doubt the efficacy of forced metaphors like “raging stars”! A friend of mine recently published a book of stories in verse and at least it has substance because you can enjoy a story unless it becomes fashionably pretentious. https://www.amazon.com/King-Alfreds-Jewel-Imagination-Imaginative-ebook/dp/B00Q8LG8MO/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1469220158&sr=8-1&keywords=King+Alfreds+Jewel#nav-subnav

    • powersjq said,

      July 24, 2016 at 1:30 pm

      I’m reading “raging stars”, in conjunction with “undying light”, as references to Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

      https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night

      You say you “doubt the efficacy of forced metaphors like ‘raging stars’.” What makes this metaphor “forced”? What other metaphors do you have in mind here?

  4. thomasbrady said,

    July 24, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    I don’t think “raging stars” is a forced metaphor, or a metaphor, at all, really. Good poets don’t rely too much on metaphor, which defers and doesn’t conclude…*this partially resembles that*—to put it crudely: so what? Now metaphor can embellish, and comparison has conceptual force, but some poets think, with Aristotle, that metaphor IS poetry; no, it is not. The metaphorical is only one small aspect of poetry, and if too heavily relied on, ruins it. Raging stars is not a metaphor. One might argue it is a pathetic fallacy, but fires do, in fact, rage, so it’s not really a pathetic fallacy, either. And Powers, astute of you to find the Dylan Thomas reference. Mazer feeds on good poetry. That’s one reason why he’s a good poet. Imitation is never a feeble method in any pursuit. If this partially resembles that, and is found wanting, then, yes, this will sink it. But Mazer’s poem is no mere copy of the Thomas. It has an intricate wealth of its own.

    • powersjq said,

      July 27, 2016 at 2:54 pm

      Tom,

      “Raging stars” is not a classic metaphor of the form “Stuart is a bear,” but I think you were not engaging that point.

      You write, “Raging stars is not a metaphor. One might argue it is a pathetic fallacy, but fires do, in fact, rage.” Rage is a feeling. Stars do not have feelings. It is conventional to view anger as “hot,” but the feeling itself has no actual temperature, even if part of the embodied experience of anger is often a literal heating up of the face and chest. Stars may _burn_, but they do not _rage_.

      Why argue the small philosophical point? The big question is whether _language_ is metaphorical. When philosophers discuss metaphor, they are not discussing a figure of speech. They generally mean the basic process by which we use language to equate this to that in order to generate meaning from the juxtaposition. Whether _all_ language relies on this process is uncertain, but I believe _most_ language does. Certainly most poetry does. And all good poetry that I know.

      As to imitation, I don’t think this poem strongly imitates Thomas’s. But perhaps simply referencing another work would count as a kind of imitation, since it partially explains Mazer’s word choice. I believe it’s an effective reference and deepens the resonance of the poem. The final three lines are the best in the poem.

  5. Mr. Woo said,

    July 24, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    Does need editing, doesn’t need editing. Snore! As someone from the North who’s grown up surrounded by “deep forests”, I love lines 6 and 7 and the pervasive wintery blur of it all.

    And powers, isolating “eternal solitude” from the rest of the line seems foolish to me. It’s, “holds the soul’s eternal solitude,”, which musically I feel as beauty while also pointing to a human experience myself and many others have shared and can have a conversation with, regardless of whether one believes in “souls” or “eternity”.

    It takes balls and self-validation to write a line like that and pull it off and I say Ben does it again and again in this poem. Do I think parts of the poem “fail” as Tom said? Yes and no, but mostly no.

    The poem works for me.

    As the infamous Icona Pop sing, “I don’t care. I love it.”

    • powersjq said,

      July 27, 2016 at 3:07 pm

      “Does need editing, doesn’t need editing. Snore!”

      This is supercilious. If you don’t write poetry yourself, fine. The poem is what the poem is. Take it as it’s given on the page/screen. It’s died and gone to a museum.

      But my crits clearly take the stand of a fellow craftsman taking a serious look at another’s handiwork. I’m trying to learn from Mazer’s excellent piece. I’m not looking at it as stands, but trying to perceive how it was put together. I’m treating it as still alive, still breathing, still able to be different.

      “[I]solating “eternal solitude” from the rest of the line seems foolish to me. It’s, “holds the soul’s eternal solitude.”

      This is valid, of course. Analysis always kills something in a poem. But I’m not sure it answers my point. I was talking about specific predications. I hear the “O” assonance and “L” consonance that knit together “hold,” “soul,” and “solitude.” There are also the lovely “Ss” in there. A sonically deft line. This doesn’t change the fact that “eternal solitude” is cliche. Adding the rest just makes it overwrought, too.

      • Mr. Woo said,

        July 27, 2016 at 8:52 pm

        Personally I have a strict No Taking Stands Policy, and I’m especially against taking serious looks.

        You don’t like those specific predications, gotcha. I love that eternal solitude in the deep forests shit . Saying–it’s a fact that it’s cliche–eh, I don’t know about that.

        Had to look up supercilious in the dictionary. But I bet I can still qualify as a self-satisfied twat.

  6. July 24, 2016 at 9:55 pm

    I am one who thinks metaphor the heart of poetry. Having said that there must also be meter and rhythm. We take the greats like Shakespeare, Tennyson, Homer etc as yardstick and find the comparative figures of speech to be central. I work for David Hamilton who recently had some work edited by a well known company and the editor, who favours contemporary poetry told him he uses too many similes but Shakespeare is full of them.
    Burns most famous poem is a “Simile” poem: “Oh my loves like a red,red rose…” this is interesting stuff and although I work for a poet I am never really sure when I read it. “Raging Stars” could of course express a mood if not being referential and Van Gogh has made that image familiar to most.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 25, 2016 at 2:42 pm

      Shakespeare questions metaphor most famously with his:

      Shall I COMPARE thee to summer’s day?

      The answer is no.

      The summer day fades.

      You do not.

      Metaphor fails.

      You are nothing like a summer day.

      But whatever beauty a summer day has, DOES belong to you.

      So, the metaphorical trope is there—and yet it’s being abandoned.

      And the poem concludes, THIS gives life to thee.

      The impulse of the poet to make you immortal is what finally matters, not the comparison of you to a summer’s day.

      And if you read the whole poem in which Burns’ famous ‘my love is like a red, red rose’ resides, one sees a progression (as in the Shakespeare) AWAY from metaphor as the poet abandons comparison and says the lover will last when all material things melt, and I will come to you—action succeeds mere comparison.

      • July 25, 2016 at 2:54 pm

        Interesting points. Are you saying “action” is the essence of a poem? The editor I mentioned stated that a poem is a metaphor which is a very limited view, I think.

        • thomasbrady said,

          July 25, 2016 at 9:39 pm

          David,

          I guess by “action,” I refer to whatever strategy the poem, or the poet outside the poem, using the poem, takes. Metaphor—comparing this and this—has its place, certainly. But metaphor is a means, not an end, of poetry. It’s the beginning of the process, perhaps, or a conceptual aid, but not the essence.

          • July 26, 2016 at 9:22 am

            Interesting points. What is the definition of a poem? What distinguishes them from lineated prose?

            • Mr. Woo said,

              July 26, 2016 at 1:08 pm

              You decide Howells. Merriam, Tom, or any other editor/schmuck can at best give an informed consultation. You’re the final authority.

              • thomasbrady said,

                July 26, 2016 at 1:31 pm

                Mr. Woo is correct. There are no “rules” when it comes to poetry. The poet decides what they are. Now, there ARE rules for verse. And I seriously recommend Poe’s “The Rationale of Verse.” If you want the nuts and bolts. This is the only thing you need.

              • David Howells said,

                July 27, 2016 at 5:21 am

                Something must make a poem a poem or we will end up lik the “progrsessive” anti artists:”Its art because I say it is” pace Tracy Emin. If there is nothing to make it a poem then what is it?

                • thomasbrady said,

                  July 27, 2016 at 1:56 pm

                  David,

                  That’s why we need honest reviewers and critics. Let the poets display. But let the reviews say, “nay.” We could furnish graphs. Better when Alexander Pope laughs.

                  • powersjq said,

                    July 27, 2016 at 3:46 pm

                    I like the division of labor, but what makes a reviewer or critic honest? And why should honesty be their preeminent virtue? Why not acuity or compassion?

              • powersjq said,

                July 27, 2016 at 3:42 pm

                Woo is correct, but unhelpful. Yes, any schmuck can give a definition. But poems are concrete artifacts with real histories. Poetry is the actual product of an actual language. We’re not simply sketching definitions in empty Cartesian space here.

                Meter first, then rhyme, then figure.

                It matters that lineation is obviously a graphic artifact. The advent of writing surely changed what poetry is. As, too, must have printing. These are not idle considerations.

                Tom’s distinction between poetry and verse feels sharp to me. It’s not a tool I’ve used before, but I see how it might be very useful. I need to think about it more.

              • July 28, 2016 at 8:54 am

                Yeah, alright then, a poem is a poem if the writer says it is.

                • thomasbrady said,

                  July 28, 2016 at 3:16 pm

                  If the reader says it is.

      • powersjq said,

        July 27, 2016 at 3:18 pm

        Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
        Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
        Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
        And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
        Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
        And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
        And every fair from fair sometime declines,
        By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
        But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
        Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
        Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
        When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
        So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
        So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

      • powersjq said,

        July 27, 2016 at 3:34 pm

        Tom,

        You write, “Shall I COMPARE thee to summer’s day? / The answer is no.”

        But Shakespeare very clearly _does_ undertake a comparison. “Thou art MORE lovely and more temperate.” Indeed, we call the word “more” the comparative. This is grammatically unassailable.

        Then you say, “Metaphor fails. / You are nothing like a summer day.”

        Yes! This is how metaphor works. I say, “You are a summer day.” The listener understands that you _both_ are and are not (like) a summer day. Metaphor must fail in order to succeed.

        Then, “The impulse of the poet to make you immortal is what finally matters, not the comparison of you to a summer’s day.”

        You’re equivocating unfairly. Yes, the intent to immortalize (“thy eternal summer shall not fade”) is the persona’s prime motive. But summers DO fade. Summer is precisely a qualitative measure of time. That fact is the greater part of what makes the poem’s conceit so striking. Imagine if the key metaphor were, “You are the sky.” The sky is conventionally eternal. To say, “thy eternal sky shall not perish,” is not particularly striking or memorable.

        As for Burns’s roses, they, like summers, inevitably fade. It is a part of the basic idea of a flower that it is fragile and seasonal The idea of an immortal or eternal loveliness–which is not especially memorable or interesting–is MADE interesting through an artful comparison. That is why these poems are admirable. That is why we needs poets.

        • thomasbrady said,

          July 27, 2016 at 7:53 pm

          Good points on metaphor, Powers.

          Forced metaphors do irk me. Take Seamus Heaney’s best known work.

          “Between my finger and my thumb
          The squat pen rests, snug as a gun.

          I’ll dig with it.”

          The elaborate conceit of a grandfather’s spade digging the earth is used to make the poet’s “pen” a “spade.”

          But a pen does not dig. The idea is highly incongruent.

    • powersjq said,

      July 27, 2016 at 3:17 pm

      David,

      According to tradition, meter (measure) is the essence of poetry. Crafting with words begins with measuring them. Or in other words, It begins with rhythmic speech. Scanning lines is more basic as a poetic skill than analyzing tropes.

      Rhyme is hard to place. I suspect it’s an elaboration of rhythm, since rhyme happens only when the sounds and emphases land in the right places.

      Finally we add figures of speech (including metaphor), which give cognitive density and richness.

      Consider, for example, nonce poetry. Can nonce lines still be poetry? I believe they can. They definitely have rhythm and typically have rhyme. But there are no figures of speech (unless we want to stretch a case for onomatopoeia), no metaphor.

      Mood is an interesting addition. It’s something emergent, developed out of all a poem’s aspects and elements. Clearly not essential or fundamental, but perhaps still crucial? Food for thought?

  7. thomasbrady said,

    July 27, 2016 at 7:43 pm

  8. July 29, 2016 at 9:09 am

    What is nonce poetry? In Britain a nonce is a slang term for one who abuses children. That is an excellent post apart from that.

  9. July 29, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    These are important points. Somewhere Thomas and others made the point that poems need to have “Modernist” features to be accepted. What are these features? I am not clear on how Modernism still holds sway.

    • Dad said,

      July 30, 2016 at 9:47 pm

      I read and write poetry but am not a student of the art. Modernism seems to me to be reformist; its new form will be no form. It carries within itself the need to be disdainful of form, of convention. It is personal in its extreme individualism. It does not connect to common human feelings, but reveals its feelings as being unique to the writer. Thus it is proud to be obscure, for no one else has ever had these sensations or felt the world in just this way. Thus it is haughty. It says we are all strangers and wears its strangeness as a badge of honor, for the strangeness of this writer exceeds the strangeness of anyone who has ever written. It pities the ordinary poet, and the ordinary readers of his or her poetry, who may still be members of a multitude who are satisfied with their common humanity. But oh, how unique is this poet! His or her soul has reached the pinnacle of anomaly.

  10. thomasbrady said,

    July 31, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    “We’ll let you be great because you’re old and dead.”
    Can I be great if I write like the old, dead poets?
    “That’s not what I said.”

  11. Father Nosebest said,

    August 7, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    Dad above explained it perfectly.

    Linguistic Obscurantism + Elitist Snobbery = Modern Poetry

  12. August 8, 2016 at 7:17 pm

    I am sorry to sound obtuse but do you have any examples from actual work?

  13. Father Nosebest said,

    August 9, 2016 at 4:58 pm

    Something such as:

    http://www.shampoopoetry.com/

    (?)

  14. Father Nosebest said,

    August 9, 2016 at 9:33 pm

    Anything by Wallace Stevens…

  15. noochinator said,

    August 11, 2016 at 11:30 am

    From the final volume of Hoxie Neale Fairchild’s Religious Trends in English Poetry :

    The Modern Temper. Hollow men eating their Naked Lunches in the Wasteland while awaiting Godot. Botched civilization. Sick world. Untergang des Abendlandes.

    No life beyond the grave. Loss of traditional symbols of Western culture. No integrating myths. No worship.

    No reality independent of the disinterested observer. No objective, sharable truth or truths. No scale of values. No norm of human nature….No boundaries between the rational and the irrational, normal or abnormal….Semantic stultification: chasm between words and meaning. Solipsism. Nothing to discipline our emotions. No firm roots in domestic or civil ritual. Life patternless, purposeless, meaningless. Everything “phony.”

  16. thomasbrady said,

    August 11, 2016 at 1:22 pm

    Thanks, Nooch. This is a great summary of the Modern Temper.

    But we shouldn’t take it too seriously.

    Anyone, at any time in history, who is having a bad day, or feeling blue, can identify with these things. So it almost praises the “Modern Temper” too much to ascribe these things to modernity.

    Whenever religion is really successful, the poets will try to escape it to say something else. The Romantics did this when they moved toward the pagan—all the great Romantic poets did this. So it’s not necessarily a “Modern” thing.

    The problem might be then, not that these things exist, but that “we moderns” take what we now “understand” as “the Modern Temper” too seriously, and ascribe too much importance and significance to it all.

    • noochinator said,

      August 11, 2016 at 10:06 pm

      Of course if one bought into everything on the Modern Temper menu, one would go mad — and some do. But most choose as much of the disillusionment pu pu platter as they can stand without going all the way — which reminds me of the quote from Antonio Gramsci: “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.”


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