LIFE BRACKET ROUND ONE PLAY

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Semeen Ali competes in the Life Bracket with 15 other poets

William Logan is known for fierce criticism.

His poetry is nicer.

His poetry is where his scholar smiles, that aging tour guide, who gently waves his hand. He has published a lot of poems, but the criticism is what he is known for.  His critical lash has stung. His poems? Not a mark.

His criticism is the offense, his poetry, the defense. His poems are thick walls to cover himself.  His critical reviews score big. His educated poetry defends against the long pass. As a poet, he belongs to the Difficult School, that briar patch established by Sir Geoffrey Hill, admired, but rarely entered, and when you get into it, you will die by scratches unless you exit with great difficulty—this is why Poe’s gardens were razed; to bad poets, everything is difficult, (even writing poetry), and therefore difficulty easily becomes a banner of the academic realm. The frowning briars are tenacious, like pride, and they are all that’s needed to keep the million flowers and their scents away.

Logan is not a bad poet, however; just one who is always looking over his shoulder. What if some offended poet intends a criticism as a form of revenge?  Logan’s poems dare not make a mistake; the dictionary is carefully consulted.

Because he is a good critic—agree, or not with him, he’s good—the law of aesthetics says Logan must be a good poet; poetry is what the critic in us writes. He seems to have decided contemporary poetry is mostly bad because it offends High Modernism; but where Pound was a critical crackpot, Logan is a critical lion; his defense of High Modernism has surpassed by great lengths what it ostensibly defends; he has forgot himself, gone into his humor and become a Poe (who, if read correctly, is funny; wit is criticism’s best weapon) or a Pope, or a Byron, and thank goodness he has! How dreary poetry would be today, without the prune and dance of William Logan.

Just as he escapes overrated High Modernism in his heated criticism, Logan occasionally escapes High Modernism in his poetry; but why he soars in criticism, and not in poetry, it is difficult to say. Perhaps his poetry is the diffident, abashed Dr. Jekyll to the criticism of his Mr. Hyde.  The split in Logan is artificial, since the natural split which once existed, between prose and verse, has closed up; the poets write in prose, too.  A hint of this truth is that when Logan writes formalist poetry, he’s much better.  He doesn’t want to sing so much in poetry, perhaps, because he doesn’t want to seem doubly odd: a Poe-like critic and a Poe-like poet.  He wants a little respectability, at least.

Logan is the no. 1 seed in the Life Bracket (the brackets are somewhat randomly named) and the line is from one of his formalist poems:

“‘I’ve never thought of you that way, I guess.’/She touched me then with a ghost of a caress.”

(It almost needs a comma after “then;” it is the pause right there that creates glory.)

It just so happens his opponent is Garrison Keillor. We found this by Keillor on FB:

“Starved for love, obsessed with sin, /Sunlight almost did us in.”

There’s a greater aesthetic distance possible between two formalist lines than between any two lines of prose.  Have you noticed that?  The Keillor is delightful.  Starved for love, obsessed with sin, Sunlight almost did us in.

But Logan wins.

****

Danez Smith, the no. 2 seed in the Life Bracket, is a contemporary poet getting a lot of attention lately. His poetry doesn’t need verse. It has so much attitude.

“I call your mama mama”

Akhil Kaytal is also a contemporary poet who throws into poetry the best and funniest of what he finds.

“How long did India and Pakistan last?”

Attitude is really not about attitude. It’s about fact. “I call your mama mama” is a fact.  It’s not speculative.  The speculation naturally follows after. The speculation, the thinking, and the poetry, is implied. And this, really, sums up the respectable, contemporary, academic, vers libre view.

Is it really love when you call your lover’s mama mama? And when your imagination takes you far into the future, from where you ask one you loved if a little graffiti you made on a marble step is still there, you naturally want to know: How long did India and Pakistan last?

Danez Smith advances.

****

Divya Guha breaks our heart in ten seconds.

No, in ten words:

“The shaver missing, your greedy laptop: gone too, hiding you.”

It doesn’t cry about the leaving—it discovers the leaving, which is better.

The contrast between the shaver (a device belonging to the body) and the laptop (a device belonging to a great deal else) is complex and effective. The “shaver missing” is the real blow; because of the sequence of things, we assume this is the first thing the poet notices that is gone, a device which is mundane—but intimates the domestic and the intimate—which makes the “gone too” poignant, if only because the “greedy” laptop can “hide” much more of a person, and whether it (or he) is gone, or not.

Guha, the third seed, tangles with Semeen Ali’s broader observation—also a discovery, and also poignant on a small scale:

“for a minute/That one minute/contains my life”

Semeen Ali is the author, and we love the box-within-a-box-within-a-box aspect of her contribution. We think to ourselves, “how is it possible, really, that one minute contains a life?”  But the poet is very sly, because, after all, it is only “for a minute” this miraculous “minute” occurs.

Nine words by Semeen Ali against ten by Divya Guha.

We love both, but there is a little more happening with “The shaver missing, your greedy laptop: gone too, hiding you.”

Divya Guah will advance to the second round.

****

The sentiment expressed by the fourth seed, N Ravi Shankar, is overwhelming:

“You are nude, sweet mother,/so am I/as the bamboos creak a lullaby”

Who would write something like this, but someone very comfortable in their own skin?  Writing lovely poetry may only take one thing, and one thing, alone: don’t be uptight.

The pleasure evinced is such that it almost seems like wisdom.  Why is that?  When does the sensual become philosophy?  The great secret to this seems to hover within Shankar’s fond and rapturous lines.

Lily Swarn, another poet from India, counters with:

“The stink of poverty cowered in fear!”

This, too, has an uncanny strangeness about it.  It strikes us as marvelously original, as if the force of a personality, or the primitive cleverness of a god, were uttering divine poetry in a half-dreaming, prophetic trance.

The insouciant rhyme of “You are nude, sweet mother,/so am I/as the bamboos creak a lullaby” gives it the edge.

R Ravi Shankar wins.

A lullaby roared by fans fills the arena.

****

Next:

Rupi Kaur v. Kim Gek Lin Short.

June Gehringer v. Alec Solomita

Marilyn Chin v. Stephen Cole

Sam Sax v. Dylan Thomas

 

MARCH MADNESS!! 2019!!

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It’s here once again.  Poetry March Madness!!

Previously, Scarriet has used Best American Poetry Series poems, Speeches by Aesthetic Philosophers, and poems of, and inspired by, Romanticism

This year, our tenth!—and we’ve done this once before—lines of poetry compete. 

The great majority of these poets are living contemporaries, but we have thrown in some of the famous dead, just to mix things up.

The line is the unit of poetry for ancients and moderns alike—moderns have argued for other units: the sentence, the breath—but to keep it simple, here we have fragments, or parts, of poems.

Is the poem better when the poetic dwells in all parts, as well as the whole?  I don’t see how we could say otherwise.

What makes part of a poem good?

Is it the same qualities which makes the whole poem good?

A poem’s excellent and consistent rhythm, by necessity, makes itself felt both throughout the poem and in its parts.

A poem’s excellent rhetoric can be strong as a whole, but weaker in its parts—since the whole understanding is not necessarily seen in pieces.

This is why, perhaps, the older, formalist poets, are better in their quotations and fragments than poets are today.

But this may be nothing but the wildest speculation.

Perhaps rhythm should become important, again, since rhetoric and rhythm do not have to be at war—rhythm enhances rhetoric, in fact.

Some would say modern poetry has set rhythm free.

No matter the quality under examination, however, any part of a poem can charm as a poem—with every quality a poem might possess.

Before we get to the brackets, let’s look at three examples in the 2019 tournament:

Milton’s “Glory, the reward/That sole excites to high attempts the flame” is powerfully rhythmic in a manner the moderns no longer evince. It is like a goddess before which we kneel.

Sushmita Guptas “Everything hurts,/Even that/Which seems like love” also has rhythm, but this is not a goddess, but a flesh and blood woman, before which we kneel and adore.

Medha Singh’s “you’ve/remembered how the winter went/as it went on” is so different from Milton, it almost seems like a different art form; here is the sad and homely, with which we fall madly in love.

And now we present the 2019 March Madness poets:

I. THE BOLD BRACKET

Diane Lockward — “The wife and the dog planned their escape”

Aseem Sundan — “How do I make the paper turn blood red?/How do I make everyone read it?”

Menka Shivdasani — “I shall turn the heat up,/put the lid on./Watch me.”

John Milton — “Glory, the reward/That sole excites to high attempts the flame”

Philip Larkin —“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”

Eliana Vanessa — “I’d rather be outside, with him,/turning stones in the rain,/than here,/listening to the hum/of so many skulls, alone.”

Robin Richardson — “Please let me be a blaze. I will destroy,/I mean create again this place.”

Khalypso — “to wake up/strangers & sticky & questioning.”

Walter Savage Landor —“I strove with none, for none was worth my strife”

Robin Morgan — “Growing small requires enormity of will.”

Joie Bose — “I am a fable, a sea bed treasure trove/I am your darkness, I am Love.”

Daipayan Nair — “I run, run, run and run/Still I don’t reach my birth/I don’t cross my death”

Edgar Poe — “Over the mountains/of the moon,/Down the valley of the shadow”

Linda Ashok — “When you have a day, let’s meet and bury it.”

Hoshang Merchant — “I have myself become wild in my love for a wild thing”

Aaron Poochigian — “beyond the round world’s spalling/margin, hear Odysseus’s ghosts/squeaking like hinges, hear the Sirens calling.”

****

II. THE MYSTERIOUS BRACKET

Jennifer Barber — “Sure, it was a dream, but even so/you put down the phone so soundlessly”

Percy Shelley —“Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.”

A.E. Stallings — “Perfection was a blot/That could not be undone.”

Merryn Juliette — “grey as I am”

Michelina Di Martino — “Let us make love. Where are we?”

Sukrita Kumar — “Flames are messengers/Carrying the known/To the unknown”

Ben Mazer — “her room/retains the look/of the room of a stranger”

Richard Wilbur —“The morning air is all awash with angels.”

Sridala Swami —“There is only this book, and your one chance of speaking to the world is through the words in it.”

Nabina Das — “under the same ceiling/fan from where she/later dangled.”

Kushal Poddar — “Call its name around/with the bowl held in my cooling hand./I can see myself doing this. All Winter. All Summer.”

Meera Nair — “How long can you keep/The lake away from the sea”

Ranjit Hoskote — “The nightingale doesn’t blame the gardener or the hunter:/Fate had decided spring would be its cage.”

Aakriti Kuntal — “Close your eyes then. Imagine the word on the tip of your tongue. The warm jelly, the red tip of the quivering mass.”

Srividya Sivakumar— “I’m searching for coral and abalone deep in the dragon’s lair.”

Sophia Naz — “Deviants and dervishes of the river/lie down the length of her”

III. THE LIFE BRACKET

William Logan —‘I’ve never thought of you that way, I guess.’/She touched me then with the ghost of a caress.”

Danez Smith — “i call your mama mama”

Divya Guha — “The shaver missing, your greedy laptop: gone too, hiding you.”

N Ravi Shankar—“You are nude, sweet mother,/so am I/as the bamboos creak a lullaby”

Rupi Kaur — “i am not street meat i am homemade jam”

June Gehringer — “I don’t write about race,/ I write about gender,/ I once killed a cis white man,/ and his first name/ was me.”

Marilyn Chin — “by all that was lavished upon her/and all that was taken away!”

Sam Sax — “that you are reading this/must be enough”

Dylan Thomas —“After the first death, there is no other.”

Stephen Cole — “I feel the wind-tides/Off San Fernando Mountain./I hear the cry of suicide brakes/Calling down the sad incline/Of Fremont’s Pass.”

Alec Solomita — “All of the sky is silent/Even the jet shining/like a dime way up high”

Kim Gek Lin Short —“If truth be told/the theft began/a time before/that summer day.”

Lily Swarn — “The stink of poverty cowered in fear!!”

Semeen Ali — “for a minute/That one minute/contains my life”

Akhil Katyal — “How long did India and Pakistan last?”

Garrison Keillor — “Starved for love, obsessed with sin,/Sunlight almost did us in.”

****

IV. THE BEAUTIFUL BRACKET

Mary Angela Douglas — “one candle grown lilac in a perpetual spring”

Ann Leshy Wood — “where groves of oranges rot,/and somber groups of heron graze/by the bay.”

Medha Singh — “you’ve/remembered how the winter went/as it went on”

Yana Djin — “Morning dew will dress each stem.”

John Keats —“Awake for ever in a sweet unrest”

Sushmita Gupta — “Everything hurts,/Even that/Which seems like love.”

William Shakespeare —“Those were pearls that were his eyes”

A.E. Housman —“The rose-lipt girls are sleeping/In fields where roses fade.”

Raena Shirali — “we become mist, shift/groveward, flee.”

C.P. Surendran — “A train, blindfolded by a tunnel,/Window by window/Regained vision.”

Dimitry Melnikoff —“Offer me a gulp of this light’s glow”

Jennifer Robertson — “ocean after ocean after ocean”

Sharanya Manivannan — “burdening the wisps of things,/their threats to drift away.”

Philip Nikolayev — “within its vast domain confined”

Ravi Shankar — “What matters cannot remain.”

Abhijit Khandkar — “So I write this poem and feed it to the ravenous sea.”

*****

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

INDIAN POETRY—JULY

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Welcome to another installment of Indian Poetry, where Scarriet briefly engages each month with 7 contemporary poets from India who write in English. For the English-speaking reader, World Letters, for a few minutes, is spread out here before you, accessible in all its beauty and complexity. Scarriet does not cheer or flatter—the opinions are sincere.

Tabish Khair writes essays and novels, and his poems (published by a major publisher) read like good prose—which could be good or bad, depending on what you want from your poetry. Poetry is the fine dining of food. We want our poetry to be cooked with the best ingredients—that is, we want our poets to be slightly smarter than our prose writers, be slightly more educated, have a few more ideas—as they whip up the magic preparation of what we call poetry.

There are thousands of poets whose poems rise to a certain prose competence, and there is always a feeling when reading their poetry, even with some admiration: I wish this were less like prose and more like poetry.

Tabish Khair is, unfortunately, one of these extremely competent poets. Take the first stanza of “Nurse’s Tales, Retold:”

Because the east wind bears the semen smell of rain,
A warm smell like that of shawls worn by young women
Over a long journey of sea, plain and mountains,
The peacock spreads the Japanese fan of its tail and dances,
And dances until it catches sight of its scaled and ugly feet.

The first line has two wonderful things going for it: a lovely iambic rhythm and an arresting phrase, “semen smell of rain.”

But the second line is pure prose:  It explains. It uses too many words. And, the music is dull. And the effect is…well, we’re now reading prose…”A warm smell like that of shawls worn by young women.”

The difference is startling.  Put “the semen smell of rain” next to “shawls worn by young women.” There’s no musical correspondence whatsoever. The poem turned into a novel after one line.

Khair’s lyric subjects, and his acute sensitivity to those subjects, are exquisite.

Of course it is asking a lot for a poet to be lyrically exquisite in every line.

*

Akhil Katyal understands what poetry is—journalism which tells important news by recounting small things. Most importantly, he is witty; he also feels deeply; and he does his research—one could easily see him writing investigative prose pieces for Vanity Fair, the New York Times, or the New Yorker. (Katyal is a college poetry teacher)

Is poetry journalism?

Today, the best of it is—educated readers these days read journalism and novels; they don’t read much poetry, and so a poet strikes a compromise: let my poem be a journalistic essay—detailed, factual, up-to-date, like any decent piece of journalism, one-sided? Sure. Maybe political, maybe not.

But finally, and this is what a good poet like Katyal does—add a touch of sentimentality, just a touch, and widen the time/space window, so the whole, at last, seems more poetry than journalism.

Here’s an excellent example (notice the journalism: “ozone,” etc) from Akhil Katyal, (and a fine poem):

For Someone Who Will Read This 500 Years From Now

How are you?
I’m sure a lot has changed

between my time and yours,
but we’re not very different,

you have only thing on me—
hindsight.

I have all these questions for you:
Do cars fly now?

Is Mumbai still standing by the sea?
How do you folks manage without ozone?

Have the aliens come yet?
Who is still remembered from my century?

How long did India and Pakistan last?
When did Kashmir become free?

It must be surprising for you
looking at our time,

our lives must seem so strange to you,
our wars so little

our toilets for “men” and “women”
must make you laugh

our cutting down of trees
would be listed in your “Early Causes”

our poetry in which the moon is still
a thing far away

must make you wonder, both for that moon
and for poetry.

You must be baffled,
that we couldn’t even imagine

the things you now take for granted.
But let that be,

would you do me a favor,
for “old time’s sake”?

Would you go to Humayun’s Tomb
In what used to be Delhi

and just as you’re climbing the front stairs,
near the fourth step, I have cut into

the stone wall to your left-
“Akhil loves Rohit”

Will you go and look for it?
Make sure it’s still there?

**

Anand Thakore, with a musical, and ‘some schooling in England,’ background, was a real delight for this critic to discover.

Is Thakore known in America? A poem like “Elephant Bathing” almost needs no comment—it is that good.

Note how much is going on in the poem, driven by a Wordworthian mental energy, and expressed with such ease and clarity:

He will never go there again,
Hip-flask in pocket, camera at hand,
Far from the crowded confines
Of the human animal he could not trust,
To the lush cricket-choired thickets
He so jealously loved;
Dense, creeper-canopied spaces
Where he would listen eagerly
For the sudden slither of a python’s tail,
Or the persistent mating calls of leopard and crane,
Studying the stealthy ways of predator and prey,
Till panther, bison, hyena and stag
Seemed part of a single guileless continuum
He had only begun to see his part in.
Now home and city hunt him down,
Building about him their busy labyrinth
Of doctors, nurses, brothers, and sons;
Though tiger and spotted deer remain,
Frozen above his bed in black and white.
An egret pecks noiselessly at a crocodile’s jaws,
As pale flamingoes, stripped irretrievably of their pinks,
Leap into a flight forever deferred.
Where you are going, they seem to say,
You will have no need for us or all you remember.
And yet the thought of getting there is not unlike
A great lone tusker taking the plunge,
His vast grey bulk sinking below the riverline
Against a clear black sky,
Till there is no more of him to see
Than a single tusk,
White as a quarter-moon in mid-July,
Before the coming of a cloud.

There is more poetry in Anand Thakore’s hyphens than in most poets’ metaphors.

The lovely syntax, which ends in lines like, “He had only begun to see his part in,” is magnificent. The worst praise given to Thakore would be to praise his grammar—as powerful, smooth and sure as the instinct of an animal—because grammar makes most poets, as poets, uncomfortable—which is a terrible shame.

Anand Thakore, on every poetic level, is a master.

***
Jeet Thayil is the classic ventriloquist-as-poet—there exists a happy estrangement between the poet and himself: he, who is never amused, and lives in a kind of continual panic—talks directly to himself, for his own amusement.

There are those who “try and write a poem for others to read,” and then there are those who write for themselves alone, and, after it’s finished, say, “Oh! that will do for a poem.”  Thayil is very much in the latter camp, and really, it’s the better camp to be in.

This state of splitting oneself up—“I’m going to start talking to myself now—not going to write a poem!—just talking!…” is the ventriloquism of the poet talking through (during?) the poem—we doubt the ghostly voice coming through the poem and we doubt the ghostly poem itself, but somewhere in the back of our brains the two meet up, and all is good.

Ultimately, any trick—the one practiced by Thayil, or any other—to “make what you’re writing seem like poetry” is going to have the same effect as the leaf which ‘gives off green,’ which looks green, but has no green in it—the poetry is a sign there is no poetry at all in the person who is crying to us “as a poet.”  The poet is hollow, empty—a ghost.  And this awareness that one is hollow is the one thing which makes the poet feel aesthetic, or, if aesthetics is not a hang-up, reassured.  And, of course, the projected voice, which wants no part of the poet, is a ghost, too.

As we would expect, a desperation of ghosts exist everywhere in Thayil’s poetry.

Life Sentence

Let’s say you’re not opposed to the ghost
in principle, you understand her neediness,
and let’s say she’s distracted, or busy,
she’s busy looking for a way back in,
but the shore appears distant,
not to mention, impossible to attain,
a far-off place where her former friends
no longer speak her name, which is lost,
and no word she hears is audible
through the static and the clatter;
so let’s say you forget to speak her name,
you do not repeat her lovely name,
because your talk is of meat and money,
and let’s say you’re not crazy or bitter,
it’s just that you don’t want to hear her say,
Why, why did you not look after me?

****

Saima Afreen writes apocalyptic poetry—the kind where the end of the world is in every line; blood, stars, milk, grandparents, fire—a blinding, cosmic rhetoric makes the reality described in the poems resemble a few seconds after a nuclear blast; the shower of debris is the poetry—blown to bits by poetry, covering us in ash; the quotidian is gone; and this is both the weakness and the strength of such poetry.  We have the ability to absorb such verse, but the verse seems almost eager, at times, to destroy that ability.

Squeezed sunset
Adds its fire to blood;
the skin holds kilns
of centuries, flickering, melting
lifting rusted letter-boxes
by their roots, the frost within
the struggle of light.

Is how her poem, “Valediction” begins.

Saima Afreen writes fiercely, her poetry lifting us up in its arms, to put us down, who knows where.

*****

Anupama Raju is mystical, playful, strange, and, when not too abstract, or self-resigned, a very strong poet.

Everyday Sounds

The neighbour slams the door,
swearing at an unwelcome milkman,
expects his next guest to arrive –
the other he would like to murder.

The lady upstairs grates a coconut,
drags a chair across the room,
hopes it will drown the argument
with the other whom she cannot hate.

The child downstairs wails,
holds a gun to her parent’s head,
screaming for the brother’s toy –
the other she wouldn’t grow up with.

You chew weak tea without slurping,
read the papers, talk of the world’s woes
in your succulent prose while I respond in insipid poetry –
the other language you don’t acknowledge.

I continue to speak.

The apartment house chaos is described well—especially in the second stanza, with the half-rhymed stanza of “coconut, room, argument, hate.”

Is it wrong to wish the poet had fought a little harder in the final stanza?

“I respond in insipid poetry—the other language you don’t acknowledge. I continue to speak” is perhaps meant to be other than what it seems, but to me, it seems like surrender. It’s impossible to pronounce “in insipid” without sounding insipid.  The sounds of the apartment house are more interesting, and perhaps this is the point. Is “I continue to speak” meant to be heroic, helpless, or both?  Raju is teasingly mystical, and if you don’t ask too many questions, I think you’ll quite enjoy her poetry.

******

Sujatha Mathai has published five books of poems; she uses poetry to—inspire.

Almost 500 years ago, in his Sonnets, Shakespeare asked, what is poetry’s “use?”  It turned out, for Shakespeare, it was simple: to inspire romance, marriage, and reproduction.

One goes back further in history and finds “The Art of Love” by Ovid, which gave advice to lovers.

Contemporary views on love have taken a darker turn, as more and more voices are heard, many struggling with grim survival, and the urgency of love and breeding has been replaced by U.N.-type concerns of individual rights and sustainability.

In the following poem by Mathai, the pragmatic grandmother has the most interesting line—it’s the latter part of the poem (which we sympathize with, of course) which unfortunately becomes a bit abstract.

Light

“He who seeks light must learn to walk in the dark” —St. John of the Cross

When I was seventeen
And dreaming of distant lands
And faraway loves,
My grandmother said
‘Get her married
before the light
goes out of her face.’
The light in a woman’s face
Should not be so brief.
It’s meant to last a long time,
Nourished by the soul.
Well, they got me married,
and
put out that light.
But I learned to live in candle-light
When the other lights went out.
One learns by subtle contact to reach
Electricity at most mysterious levels.
Light goes from the face, but
Survival lends one light
that shines most brightly.
She who seeks light,
Must learn to walk in the darkness
On her own road.

*******

This ends our July report. Thanks, as always, to Linda Ashok, the inspiration for this international sharing.

 

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