IN YOUR FACE: STEPHEN DOBYNS AND EILEEN MYLES GO FOR THE FINAL FOUR

myles

Eileen Myles: all sexes and genders want good skin

DOBYNS BEAT LOTS OF GOOD POETS TO GET HERE, AND SO DID EILEEN MYLES. NOW ONLY ONE CAN ADVANCE TO THE FINAL FOUR.

WE ASK ONLY THAT THESE TWO POEMS STAND IN THE LIGHT SO THAT WE CAN TELL WHICH ONE IS BETTER.

‘BEING’ IS EASY, BUT TO BE BETTER—TO BE THE MORE LOVED, TO BE MORE FAVORED—TAKES IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL, SOCIALLY, PHILOSOPHICALLY & AESTHETICALLY—DESPITE THE PROTESTS OF THE WEAK.

PERCEPTION ITSELF DEPENDS ON WHAT IS, OR IS NOT, BETTER: CREATION, IMAGINATION, JUDGMENT, ACTIVISM, THE SENSES, AND LOVE ITSELF, MUST CONSIDER ‘BETTER OR WORSE.’  WHY IS POETRY ANY DIFFERENT? IS POETRY LACKING IN APPEALS TO THE SENSES, OR IMAGINATION, OR JUDGMENT?  WHO WOULD PERISH IN AN EARTHEN JAR JUST TO SPITE THE HIERARCHY LEADING UP TO THE HEAVENS!

MARLA MUSE: Tom, what soaring rhetoric to start this match-up between these two excellent poems!

DOBYNS!

Allegorical Matters

Let’s say you are a man (some of you are)
and susceptible to the charms of women
(some of you must be) and you are sitting
on a park bench. (It is a sunny afternoon
in early May and the peonies are in flower.)
A beautiful woman approaches. (Clearly,
we each have his or her own idea of beauty
but let’s say she is beautiful to all.) She smiles,
then removes her halter top, baring her breasts
which you find yourself comparing to ripe fruit.
(Let’s say you are an admirer of bare breasts.)
Gently she presses her breasts against your eyes
and forehead, moving them across your face.

WHAT AN OPENING STRATEGY!  DOBYNS TAKES IT RIGHT TO EILEEN MYLES’ FACE!!

“LET’S SAY YOU ARE A MAN (SOME OF YOU ARE)” WHAT A PROVOCATION ON THE PART OF DOBYNS AGAINST MYLES!!

LET’S SEE HOW SHE REACTS!

MARLA MUSE: What an image by Dobyns!  And right in Myles’ face!  This contest is freaking me out already!

MYLES!!

Eileen’s Vision

One night I was home alone
quite late past eleven
and my dog was whining and
moaning and I went over
to stroke her & pat
her & proclaim
her beauty

MYLES COMES BACK STRONG!  SHE COUNTERS DOBYNS’ OUTDOORS SCENE WITH A ‘HOME ALONE AT NIGHT’ AND FENDS OFF THE HUMAN BREAST IMAGERY WITH PATTING AND STROKING HER FEMALE PET DOG!!  BEAUTIFUL: COUNTERING OUTRAGEOUS, SURREAL OUT-OF-LEFT-FIELD, SEXUAL IMAGERY WITH QUIET, DOMESTIC INTRIGUE!  MYLES DOESN’T PANIC.  SHE STANDS HER GROUND!  THE DOG IS A BRILLIANT TOUCH, AND ‘PROCLAIM HER BEAUTY’ IS DEFT, INDEED!

BUT DOBYNS COME ROARING BACK!

You can’t get over your good fortune. Eagerly,
you embrace her but then you learn the horror
because while her front is is young and vital,
her back is rotting flesh which breaks away
in your fingers with a smell of decay. Here
we pause and invite in a trio of experts.

A MORAL LESSON FINDS ITS WAY INTO DOBYNS’ GAME PLAN!  OR IS IT FATE? ONE GARISH IMAGE FOLLOWED BY ONE EVEN MORE INTENSE: SEX, AND THEN ROT! WHOA! CAN MYLES STAY WITH DOBYNS HERE, OR IS HE GOING TO BLOW THIS GAME WIDE OPEN? NOW…WHAT’S THIS? “WE PAUSE AND INVITE IN A TRIO OF EXPERTS?” DOBYNS GOING TO HIS BENCH ALREADY! HE SLOWS DOWN THE GAME! DID MYLES EXPECT THAT?

MYLES TRYING TO COME BACK:

&
then I returned
to my art review
but Rosie wouldn’t
stop. Something was
wrong. & then
I saw her.

JUST LIKE THAT MYLES DRAWS EVEN WITH DOBYNS!!  THE AMPERSAND SIMPLICITY, EVOKING TENSION WITH “SOMETHING WAS WRONG. & THEN I SAW HER.” BEAUTIFUL! MYLES MAKES AN IMPRESSIVE COMEBACK AS THE FIRST QUARTER DRAWS TO A CLOSE!

DOBYNS LOOKS A LITTLE SLUGGISH TO BEGIN THE SECOND QUARTER:

The first says, This is clearly a projection
of the author’s sexual anxieties. The second says,
Such fantasies derive from the empowerment
of women and the author’s fear of emasculation.
The third says, The author is manipulating sexual
stereotypes to acheive imaginative dominance
over the reader—basically, he must be a bully.

DOBYNS IS APOLOGIZING FOR HIS POEM!! AN INTERESTING STRATEGY, BUT IT DOESN’T SEEM TO BE WORKING.

AND NOW MYLES COUNTERS:

It looked like a circle
a wooden mouth
in the upper third
of my bathtub
cover which
was standing
on its side
it is the Lady I thought
this perfect sphere
on the wooden
bathtub cover
incidentally separating
kitchen &
middle room
in my home
where I
live &
work. That is
all.

MYLES ALSO TURNS MATTER-OF-FACT, BUT SHE STAYS WITH THE PICTURE OF THE DOMESTIC SCENE, NOT WAVERING FROM THAT, AND “IT IS THE LADY I THOUGHT” KEEPS THE TONE OF MYSTERY AND REVERENCE AMID THE PLAIN. MYLES BOLTS INTO THE LEAD!

AS WE START THE SECOND HALF, DOBYNS WORKS CAUTIOUSLY:

The author sits in front of the trio of experts.
He leans forward with his elbows on his knees.
He scratches his neck and looks at the floor
where a fat ant is dragging a crumb. He begins
to step on the ant but then he thinks: Better not.

WHAT A MOVE BY DOBYNS!  AN ANT! IS THIS A DELAYED RESPONSE TO MYLES’ DOG?

MYLES STRUGGLES TO MAINTAIN HER ADVANTAGE:

I’m just
a simple
catholic girl
I had been
thinking, pondering
over my
review. That’s
why it’s
so hard
for me but the
Lady came &
she said, stay here
Eileen stay here
forever finding
the past
in the future
& the future
in the past
know that it’s
always so
going round &
it is with
you when
you write

WHAT A MOVE BY MYLES! SIMPLE, ELEGANT, INSPIRING, THIS “SIMPLE CATHOLIC GIRL” PUTS HER FINGER ON WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT: “FINDING THE PAST IN THE FUTURE & THE FUTURE IN THE PAST.”  AND THE AMPERSAND SEEMS TO BE GIVING DOBYNS PROBLEMS.

AS WE ENTER THE FOURTH QUARTER, MYLES HOLDS ONTO A SLIM LEAD…

DOBYNS:

The cool stares of the experts make him uneasy
and he would like to be elsewhere, perhaps home
with a book or taking a walk. My idea, he says,
concerned the seductive qualities of my country,
how it encourages us to engage in all fantasies,
how it lets us imagine we are lucky to be here,
how it creates the illusion of an eternal present.
But don’t we become blind to the world around us?
Isn’t what we see as progress just a delusion?
Isn’t our country death and what it touches death?

DOBYNS GETTING A LITTLE HEAVY ON THE RHETORIC…HE’S NOT GOING TO CATCH MYLES THIS WAY…HE’S GOING TO HAVE TO BE MORE AGGRESSIVE…

MYLES:

& she didn’t
go, she
remains a stain
on the bathtub
cover

NICE!  THE THEME OF PERMANENCE, BUT DONE WITHOUT A SHRED OF HYPERBOLE!

DOBYNS:

The trio of experts begin to clear their throats.
They recross their legs and their chairs creak.
The author feels the weight of their disapproval.
But never mind, he says, Perhaps I’m mistaken;
let’s forget I spoke. The author lowers his head.
He scratches under his arm and suppresses a belch.
He considers the difficulties of communication
and the ruthless necessities of art. Once again
he looks for the ant but it’s gone. Lucky ant.
Next time he wouldn’t let it escape so easily.

DOBYNS TRAILING IN THIS GAME, AND HE’S STARTING TO GET FRUSTRATED. HE THREATENS HARM TO HIS ANT! DOBYNS IS STILL TRYING TO RECONCILE HIS POEM WITH HIS OPENING FANTASY IMAGE, AND ITS CAUSING HIS PLAY TO BECOME TOO PONDEROUS. HE’S THINKING TOO MUCH OUT THERE. “LUCKY ANT.”  AN EXISTENTIALIST CRY OF DESPAIR?

MYLES:

along with
many other stains,
the dog’s leash &
half-scraped lesbian
invisibility stickers
and other less specific
but equally permanent
traces of paper &
holes
four of
them and they
are round too
like the Lady
& I don’t have to
tell anyone.

MYLES HINTS AT THE DOG AGAIN WITH A MENTION OF THE DOG’S LEASH, SYMBOLIZING MAN’S CONTROL OF NATURE; THE ARTIFACTS OF HER HUMAN LIFE, HER “STAINS” AND “STICKERS,” A BRIEF REFERENCE TO LESBIANISM, BUT NOTHING HEAVY-HANDED HERE, “THE LADY” GETS A LAST MENTION, AND THEN THE POEM CLOSES IN SILENCE: “& I DON’T HAVE TO TELL ANYONE.”

AND THAT’S IT! MYLES WINS! EILEEN MYLES IS GOING TO THE FINAL FOUR!

MARLA MUSE: What a thrilling contest! Congratulations, Eileen!

STEPHEN DOBYNS GETS IN THE FACE OF TESS GALLAGHER

Tess Gallagher with Raymond Carver:  Gallagher faces Dobyns in Round Three.

The road to the Final Four in this South Bracket battle, in Scarriet March Madness 2011, once again has a clash of two poems showing remarkable similarities to one another.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Both poems take place outdoors in a public space.

Both involve a sudden and surprising act of human intimacy.

From “Allegorical Matters” by Dobyns:

you are sitting on a park bench…A beautiful woman approaches…removes her halter top…she presses her breasts against your eyes…

From “The Hug” by Gallagher:

A woman is reading a poem on the street…Suddenly a hug comes over me and I’m giving it to you…A man walks up to us…”Can I have one of those?”…I walk over to him and put my arms around him and try to hug him like I mean it.

Following the hug, Gallahger’s 46 line poem ends with a stanza that reflects on the experience:

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it
to be a masterpiece of connection,
the way the button on his coat
will leave the imprint of a planet in my cheek
when I walk away. When I try to find some place
To go back to.

The Dobyns poem, which is 51 lines, also analyzes the experience, but in a lengthier and more self-conscious manner:

Here we pause and invite in a trio of experts…The author sits in front of the trio of experts…My idea he says, concerned the seductive nature of my country, how it encourages us to engage in all fantasies…He considers the the difficulties of communication and the ruthless necessities of art.

Gallagher takes us into “the hug,” and then informs us that afterwards she is lost, and doesn’t know how to live or what to do in the cold and fallen world that exists outside the connection of “the hug.”

Dobyns absorbs the reader in his fantasy of breasts-hugging-your-face.  Dobyns then tries to explain his fantasy to “cool stares” of “experts.”

Both Dobyns and Gallagher are examples for their time: both poems scream ‘we are living in the era of the self-conscious, guilt-ridden, anxious artist of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus!’ 

Both poems are Faustian bargains of self-conscious, psychological, artistic experiment: what will happen to me if I truly hug someone, or if I put my sexual fantasy on display in my art?

The difference is that Gallagher is asking the reader, ‘what will happen to me?’ while Dobyns seems to be asking ‘what will happen to my poem?’  

Thus, Dobyns is more post-modernist, simply because he is more conscious of his art.

Dobyns is less personal than Gallagher—who seems more stuck in the 1970s confessional school of poetry.

Dobyns also introduces that wonderful transgressing ant…

Allegorical Matters

Let’s say you are a man (some of you are)
and susceptible to the charms of women
(some of you must be) and you are sitting
on a park bench. (It is a sunny afternoon
in early May and the peonies are in flower.)
A beautiful woman approaches. (Clearly,
we each have his or her own idea of beauty
but let’s say she is beautiful to all.) She smiles,
then removes her halter top, baring her breasts
which you find yourself comparing to ripe fruit.
(Let’s say you are an admirer of bare breasts.)
Gently she presses her breasts against your eyes
and forehead, moving them across your face.
You can’t get over your good fortune. Eagerly,
you embrace her but then you learn the horror
because while her front is is young and vital,
her back is rotting flesh which breaks away
in your fingers with a smell of decay. Here
we pause and invite in a trio of experts.
The first says, This is clearly a projection
of the author’s sexual anxieties. The second says,
Such fantasies derive from the empowerment
of women and the author’s fear of emasculation.
The third says, The author is manipulating sexual
stereotypes to acheive imaginative dominance
over the reader—basically, he must be a bully.
The author sits in front of the trio of experts.
He leans forward with his elbows on his knees.
He scratches his neck and looks at the floor
where a fat ant is dragging a crumb. He begins
to step on the ant but then he thinks: Better not.
The cool stares of the experts make him uneasy
and he would like to be elsewhere, perhaps home
with a book or taking a walk. My idea, he says,
concerned the seductive qualities of my country,
how it encourages us to engage in all fantasies,
how it lets us imagine we are lucky to be here,
how it creates the illusion of an eternal present.
But don’t we become blind to the world around us?
Isn’t what we see as progress just a delusion?
Isn’t our country death and what it touches death?
The trio of experts begin to clear their throats.
They recross their legs and their chairs creak.
The author feels the weight of their disapproval.
But never mind, he says, Perhaps I’m mistaken;
let’s forget I spoke. The author lowers his head.
He scratches under his arm and suppresses a belch.
He considers the difficulties of communication
and the ruthless necessities of art. Once again
he looks for the ant but it’s gone. Lucky ant.
Next time he wouldn’t let it escape so easily.

The Hug

A woman is reading a poem on the street
and another woman stops to listen.
We stop too, with our arms around each other.
The poem is being read and listened to
out here in the open. Behind us
no one is entering or leaving the houses.

Suddenly a hug comes over me and I’m
giving it to you, like a variable star shooting light off
to make itself comfortable, then
subsiding. I finish but keep on holding you.
A man walks up to us and we know he hasn’t come out of
nowhere, but if he could, he
would have. He looks homeless because of how he needs.
“Can I have one of those?” he asks you, and I feel you
nod. I’m surprised, surprised you don’t tell him
how it is—that I’m yours, only
yours, etc., exclusive as a nose to
its face. Love—that’s what they call it, love
that nabs you with “for me
only” and holds on.

So I walk over to him and put my arms
around him and try to
hug him like I mean it. He’s got an overcoat on
so thick I can’t feel him
past it. I’m starting the hug and thinking, “How big
a hug is this supposed to be? How long
shall I hold this hug?” Already
we could be eternal, his arms falling over my
shoulders, my hands not
meeting behind his back, he is so big!

I put my head into his chest and snuggle in.
I lean into him. I lean my blood
and my wishes into him. He stands for it. This
is his and he’s starting to give it back so well
I know he’s getting it. This hug. So truly,
so tenderly we stop having arms and I don’t know
if my lover has walked away or what, or
if the woman is still reading the poem, or the houses—
what about them? the houses.

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it
to be a masterpiece of connection,
the way the button on his coat
will leave the imprint of a planet in my cheek
when I walk away. When I try to find some place
to go back to.

Dobyns wins, 88-75.

Dobyns advances to the South Bracket Finals.

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS APR SWEET SIXTEEN WINNERS!

EAST BRACKET

BARBARA GUEST

LESLIE SCALAPINO

GILLIAN CONOLEY

CAROLYN CREEDON

NORTH BRACKET

PHILIP LARKIN

BILL KNOTT

HOWARD NEMEROV

MAURA STANTON

SOUTH BRACKET

TESS GALLAGHER

EILEEN MYLES

STEPHEN DOBYNS

SHARON OLDS

WEST BRACKET

ALLEN GINSBERG

JOY HARJO

CAROLYN MUSKE

STEPHEN DUNN

In the East Bracket, four relatively unknown poets emerged victorious from competition with John Ashbery, James Wright, Robert Creeley, James Tate, Stanley Kunitz, A.R. Ammons, and Jack Spicer.

Poetry tournaments are richer and more exciting with upsets than other types of competitions, and this is because reputations of clique-poets tend to be artificially inflated.  But kiss-ass and in-crowd behavior don’t help when you’re under the net and playing for a win in front of crowds!

Poems matter when it comes to winning, not poets. 

We’ve all dreamed of writing that one great poem that will ensure our place in eternity.

Poets’ names travel faster than poems, and poems these days don’t travel very fast at all.  Editors, publishers and critics need to identify the best poems; but what usually happens is poets—who are more ambitious than poems, as it turns out—fight to the top and occupy mouths and ears and anthologies.  A poet’s name is sung and the poems follow, even in the wake of the famous poet, obediently and hardly read.

Poets’ names should come attached to poems; instead we get poems meekly following poets’ names.

It give us great pleasure then, to present sixteen poems which have tangled and tussled and proven themselves.

We are proud of the poets, too, but you can be sure their place in the sun is deserved.

The 2010 March Madness Tournament used the BAP volumes (David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series) from 1988 (its founding) to 2009.  Billy Collins’ “Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey” won that tournament.

These 2011 March Madness poems are from one anthology, the best of APR, (the American Poetry Review) from its founding in 1972 to 2000, and produced by the editors of APR, Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, and Arthur Vogelsang.  So these poems are seen through that lens—the editors did not include Billy Collins—but it’s an important lens, and shows basically what American poetry was doing in those years.

Two big names have survived so far: Larkin (one of a few Brits in the collection) and GinsbergSharon Olds is well-known, and Stephen Dobyns has some renown.

The poems will be examined, because they have to win more to get to the top: Elite Eight, Final Four, and the Championship.

Thanks for watching!

HIRSCHMAN AND DOBYNS SEEK TO CENSOR EACH OTHER IN SWEET SIXTEEN TILT

MirthGirth

“Two centuries ago, in the early years of the Romantic movement, there was a hope expressed in some quarters that religion, having died as a dogma, might be reborn as art. In a notebook of about 1804 William Blake has left a vivid—if unpolished—example of this idea. He writes as one for whom the poetic imagination is a numinous world-building power that can never be supplanted or dethroned, either by the mockery of rationalist critics or by scientific theories:

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau!
Mock on, mock on— ‘Tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again

And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s particles of light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

Don Cupitt, from After God (1997)

Jack Hirschman earned a controversial Round One win over Robert Penn Warren when rumors circulated that refs and judges tampered with results in a way that favored the Southern Agrarian/New Critic/Twice Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner in  both Fiction and Poetry (the only one to do so). In the firestorm which followed, Warren dropped out, and Hirschman advanced to Round Two with “The Painting.”  Here are the opening lines:

So there it is:
a painting of the late black heroic
mayor of Chicago
in woman’s underwear
in the name of artistic iconclasm
and free expression

In his poem, Hirschman argues the painting should be taken down:

We are partisan, Mr. Make-It Curator,
and you, Mr. Make-It-New-Artist,
we’re at war
with art as privilege,
with the kitsching up of soul,
with the gooning of the truth
about those who help working people see
how beautiful the reality
of their imagination as a class
in motion actually is.

Do we acclaim the removal of the painting?
Emphatically, provacatively
Yes.

Stephen Dobyns has clearly got the stuff to handle Hirschman’s in-your-face play.  Here’s a passage from “Allegorical Matters:”

Gently she presses her breasts against your eyes
and forehead, moving them across your face.
You can’t get over your good fortune. Eagerly,
You embrace her but then you learn the horror
because while her front is young and vital,
her back is rotting flesh which breaks away
in your fingers with a smell of decay. Here
we pause and invite in a trio of experts.
The first says, This is clearly a projection
of the author’s sexual anxieties.

Before we relate how Hirschman, like a man possessed, put in 3 point shot after 3 point shot, and took a 51-32 half-time lead, we might ask: do these two poems reflect a vital speech-making, a 20th century leap into honesty and truth-seeking, or rather a road to hell, in which mere rant becomes the norm, due to Emerson’s emphasis on “argument” as the crucial movement of the poem? If Hirschman believes the highest morality is the dignity and justice for the working class, should the poet—always paying attention to words—ask all sorts of questions of HirschmanHow do you define the ‘working class?’  Isn’t free speech a friend of the working class? etc, thus exposing the shallow message and the bankrupt reasoning of the poem, in terms of the logic of its words and phrases (never doubting Hirschman’s sincerity) or, should Hirschman’s poem be allowed to stand as it is, an opinion welcomed for just that: its opinion?  But if Hirschman’s poem does not persuade us with its message, doesn’t it fail?  How can a poem like this be allowed ‘to stand as it is?’  Either we are won over by its argument, or not, and it stands or falls based on the logic, or success, of its argument.

On the other hand, why can’t Hirschman’s argument simply exist as drama—without its success as an argument having anything to do with its success as a poem?

And yet, Hirschman’s poem explicitly denies another work of art, “The Painting” of the title, this consideration: “The Painting” of Harold Washington, the mayor of Chicago, is a bad argument, Hirschman claims, an attack on something which is more important than itself, and thus it needs to be censored.

Thus we defend the poem on a principle which the poem itself denies.

But on the other hand, if we do not defend Hirschfield’s poem; if we reject the poem, we do so violating the very principle (freedom of speech) we are supposed to defend.

If the argument were in an essay, we’d be asked to accept the argument, or not.  But because the argument is in a poem, we cannot accept or reject its argument as an argument alone: but does the poem itself argue that there is more to it than its argument?  No, the poem seems to only be about its argument.  But the argument of the poem rejects free speech in the name of art, so the argument of the poem as a poem is an argument of the poem against itself as a poem; it argues for itself as an argument, not as a poem. But if we reject its argument, does that mean we have to accept it as a poem?

Or can we accept it as a poem, but still reject it aesthetically?  Accept its right to exist, but still reject it in terms of taste?

But what does it mean to ‘accept-but-reject’ something?  Can we remove a painting if our taste rejects it?  Or can we only remove a painting if we reject its argument?  But why?  Why can we remove a painting if its message offends—if it offends argumentatively, but not if it offends aesthetically?

What if “The Painting” (of Harold Washington, mayor) which the poem rejects pleases us, only because we get a secret thrill from “The Painting’s” pure iconclasm, a rush purely because  some line is being crossed, so that it is neither aesthetics, nor argument, which is at the heart of the matter, but merely an emotional thrill? In this case, we care not whether the poem aesthetically pleases us, or whether we agree with the argument of the poem (we may get a further thrill from disagreeing with the poem)—we enjoy it beyond all that, for reasons the poet (who believes in his message) never consciously suspected.

Can we conclude, then, that argument as the external key to any poem is extremely problematic?  The very nature of an argument is that it never stands still; the artist is never really in control of an argument; it always slips out of his hands and runs away to the opposite wall; artistic control requires materials that do not slip away and run, and return and come back, and then run to the other side again.

In his poem, Stephen Dobyns seems to intuit this very theme of an argument slipping away:

But never mind, he says. Perhaps I’m mistaken;
let’s forget I spoke. The author lowers his head.
He scratches under his arm and suppresses a belch.
He considers the difficulties of communication
and the ruthless necessities of art. Once again
he looks for the ant but it’s gone. Lucky ant.
Next time he wouldn’t let it escape so easily.

Will the counter-revolutionary Dobyns get the best of the revolutionary Hirschman?

If you had this feeling, your feeling was correct, dear reader.

Hirschman barely misses two three point shots at the start of the second half and doubt creeps in.

Dobyns gains confidence as Hirschman’s first-half fury turns to second half fear.  Momentum swings. Hirschman’s big lead slowly dwindles, and finally, Dobyns prevails, 99-94.

You knew this would happen, didn’t you?

You were certain that mystery– and doubt—would triumph at last.

THE FICTION POETS BATTLE: STEPHEN DOBYNS V. JIM HARRISON

jim harrison

Jim Harrison: You want a poem? I’ll give you a poem…You want a novel? I’ll give you that, too. And a movie script. You can have one of those. Now let’s go have some lunch.

Dobyns and Harrison are both known for their fiction, and each has had two films produced from their work; one of Harrison’s: “Legends of the Fall,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt.

Stephen Dobyns (7th seed in the South bracket) is a late 20th century prose poem master, using the form for limitless accessible expression (there is no end to the possibilities of accessible poetry).

Allegorical Matters

Let’s say you are a man (some of you are)
and susceptible to the charms of women
(some of you must be) and you are sitting
on a park bench. (It is a sunny afternoon
in early May and the peonies are in flower.)
A beautiful woman approaches. (Clearly,
we each have his or her own idea of beauty
but let’s say she is beautiful to all.) She smiles,
then removes her halter top, baring her breasts
which you find yourself comparing to ripe fruit.
(Let’s say y ou are an admirer of bare breasts.)
Gently she presses her breasts against your eyes
and forehead, moving them across your face.
You can’t get over your good fortune. Eagerly,
you embrace her but then you learn the horror
because while her front is is young and vital,
her back is rotting flesh which breaks away
in your fingers with a smell of decay. Here
we pause and invite in a trio of experts.
The first says, This is clearly a projection
of the author’s sexual anxieties. The second says,
Such fantasies derive from the empowerment
of women and the author’s fear of emasculation.
The third says, The author is manipulating sexual
stereotypes to acheive imaginative dominance
over the reader—basically, he must be a bully.
The author sits in front of the trio of experts.
He leans forward with his elbows on his knees.
He scratches his neck and looks at the floor.
where a fat ant is dragging a crumb. He begins
to step on the ant but then he thinks: Better not.
The cool stares of the experts make him uneasy
and he would like to be elsewhere, perhaps home
with a book or taking a walk. My idea, he says
concerned the seductive qualities of my country,
how it encourages us to engage in all fantasies,
how it lets us imagine that we are lucky to be here,
how it creates the illusion of an eternal present.
But don’t we become blind to the world around us?
Isn’t what we see as progress just a delusion?
Isn’t our country death and what it touches death?
The trio of experts begin to clear their throats.
They recross their legs and their chairs creak.
The author feels the weight of their disapproval.
But never mind, he says, Perhaps I’m mistaken;
let’s forget I spoke. The author lowers his head.
He scratches under his arm and suppresses a belch.
He considers the difficulties of communication
and the ruthless necessities of art. Once again
he looks for the ant but it’s gone. Lucky ant.
Next time he wouldn’t let it escape so easily.

—Stephen Dobyns

Jim Harrison’s poem is taken from a series of prose poems published in APR called Letters to Yesenin. (Yesenin was a Russian poet who hung himself in prison.)  Harrison (10th seed in the South) is no stranger to the prose poem, either. He wrote these poem-letters in the early 70s while living on a farm (all the poets lived on farms in those days).  He was in his early 30s at the time, but he makes it sound like he’s an old man: a litany of ills verging on acute self-pity, resembling a Richard Hugo rant. (Has Harrison had a hard life? Yes.)  Anyway, the crumbling wreck of a soft/hard, self-pitying American man was all the rage in the 70s.

#9  (Letters to Yesenin)

What if I own more paper clips than I’ll ever use in this
lifetime. My other possessions are shabby: the house half
painted, the car without a muffler, one dog with bad eyes
and the other dog a horny moron. Even the baby has a rash on
her neck but then we don’t own humans. My good books were
stolen at parties years ago and two of the barn windows are
broken and the furnace is unreliable and field mice daily
feed on the wiring. But the new foal appears healthy though
unmanageable, crawling under the fence and chased by my wife
who is stricken by the flu, not to speak of my own body which
has long suffered the ravages of drink and various nervous
disorders which made me laugh and weep and carress my shotguns.
But paperclips. Rich in paperclips to sort my writings which
fill so many cartons under my bed. When I attach them I say
it’s your job afterall to keep this whole thing together. And
I used them once with a rubberband to fire holes into the
face of the president hanging on the office wall. We have freedom.
You couldn’t do that to Breznev much less Stalin on whose
grave Mandelstam sits proudly in the form of the ultimate
crow, a peerless crow, a crow without comparison on earth.
But the paperclips are a small comfort like meeting someone
fatter than myself and we both wordlessly recognize the fact
or meeting someone my age who is more of a drunk, more savaged
and hag ridden until they are no longer human and seeing
them on the street I wonder how their heads which are only
wounds balance at the top of their bodies. A manuscript of
a novel sits in front of me held together with twenty clips.
It is the paper equivalent of a duck and a company far away
has bought the perhaps beautiful duck and my time is free again.

–Jim Harrison

MARLA MUSE: The Harrison poem sounds a bit rambling, though of course it’s charming. The Dobyns poem has more art. I rather like the Dobyns; it’s very clever.

And Dobyns proves his worth on the court, Marla.  Dobyns wins 66-54.

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