When I was on the plane home this summer, I read some of the Atlantic’s “Fiction 2009” issue, which started out with a terrific essay by Tim O’Brien called “Telling Tails.” “In fiction workshops, we tend to focus on matters of verisimilitude largely because such issues are so much easier to talk about than the failure of imagination,” he writes. “And for the writer, of course, beefing up a character’s physical description is easier than envisioning a sequence of compelling and meaningful events in which that character is engaged.”
This discussion warms my heart. “From your lips to their ears,” I pray. I heart imagination. (I just heard a long interview on “Fresh Air” with the novelist José Yglesias in which he described his latest novel in a way that made it sound as if it were actually a journal transcription: apparently everything in the novel really happened! I hear these things and know literature is dying.) Of course, with O’Brien, almost everything can be imagination—does he really have two sons, or are they as imaginary as the daughter in The Things They Carried? (Yeah, I know, that was fiction—but it didn’t stop readers from asking him after his daughter at readings.) And of course, it doesn’t matter: the essay goes on brilliantly, ending with a take on “The Aleph” by Borges.
But here’s what gets me: in the middle of this wonderful paean to imagination are planted two of the dullest poems ever written. They are there because they were penned by Donald Hall, who apparently must be printed these days because he used to be “a name.” (Not a household name! He’s a poet after all.) There’s nothing in this work that reflects what poetry can do better than prose, or that asks the reader to think even for a moment. It takes more brain power to move your eyes from the end of one line to the beginning of another than it does to let the banality wash over you.
A cheap and thus nightmarish Hotwire itinerary had me routed from Hartford-Bradley to Chicago to Milwaukee to Minneapolis. Rains delayed the Chicago landing to the point that I was not going to be able to make the Milwaukee-Mpls exchange. United routed me straight to Minneapolis! I got in earlier + got to snooze along the way.
Today’s New York Times has an interesting opinion piece on a type of constraint-based writing practiced “during the late 19th-century telegraphy boom.”
[S]ome carriers charged extra for words longer than 15 characters and for messages longer than 10 words. Thus, the cheapest telegram was often limited to 150 characters.
So Twitter had a precursor. Ben Schott, the article’s author, draws from the third edition of “The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code” to list phrases that were encoded into words so as to subvert the restrictions: “aerial” was the code for “act upon your attorney’s advice,” for example. (It’s an insight into the kinds of communications during that time that phrases such as “Advance as far as you can without exciting suspicion,” “A large amount has been embezzled (by),” and “How much is your life insured for?” required common one-word codes.)
I’ll be teaching constraint-based practices during the fall term to senior writing majors; might be fun to come up with a list of codes students might find useful when Twittering…
I love all the turning I have to do with New American Writing #27. There are some poems for which I have to turn pages, which is always exciting. But I actually loved turning the book on its side to read Amaranth Borsuk and Gabriela Jauregui’s “Paul Braffort’s My Hypertropes: Translations and Transversions.” And turning it repeatedly up and down for Todd Melicker’s “king” and “queen.” And turning it on its side again for Caroline Knox’s “Key” and Alice Jones’s “Crystal objects.”
[As if to dispute these, Clayton Eshelman’s poem “Descent” begins with an epigraph from Sam Shepard “(after the Vallejo program)”: “Why do poets write vertically?” to which he begins to answer, “Cremasteric / metaphor. Descent intensifies / consciousness.” Ah yes. Bless Matthew Barney for bringing the cremaster muscle to our attention! In three lines the poet hints to us that women, alas, lacking testicles, muddle along in untroubled unconsciousness. But I digress.]
There are two of Braffort’s poems translated and Transversioned by Borsuk and Jauregui here, presented in three columns (original, translation, and Transversion) for ease of comparison. “Our method builds on that of poets and theorists Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, for whom translation stimulates creative experiment,” they write in an introduction, “as well as on the Brazilian concrete poets’ notion of transcreation, whereby every translation is always already a reinvention of the original. Each translation and Transversion is a collaboration, both between the two of us, and between our poem and Braffort’s.”
This is tremendous fun to read. Braffort’s title “La voile se lève sur les fondements (A Claude BERGE)” is, in Transversion, “The Bellye Lifts Over the Fundament (For Gertrude STEIN).” Their main task is in finding four homonymic matches for a fifth word, which Braffort accomplishes (in French) using the word “mathématique” and which the two translators accomplish for “mathematics” in English. But in the Transversion, they must find four homonyms for “perseverate,” which leads them to, in one case, “Perc. Everett.” The two-page extravaganza is both fascinating and extremely enjoyable; I’ll probably call on it when teaching Oulipo strategies to undergrads this coming fall semester.
Todd Melicker’s poems appear across a spread, with the odd lines set to be read right-side up, and the even lines set to be read upside-down. Before I figured out how to read the poem, I was dutifully turning the book over with every line—but it didn’t take long to realize that I could read the right-side up lines all at once, flip the book, and read all the upside-down ones. (I prefer to think that I admit of all possibilities rather than that I am muddling along in untroubled unconsciousness, occasionally bumping into walls.) Doing this reinforced the idea from the titling that the king and queen are on opposite sides of a perspective, though still partners. The poems are suggestive and ambiguous, permitting re-reading and more or less requiring that you slowly spin the book around as you step into their world yet again.
The format of these poems immediately attracted me, but don’t get me wrong, the whole issue is terrific. (Click over to their website and subscribe today!) Happy as always to see new work by Ahsahta authors Brian Henry, Rachel Loden, and Dan Beachy-Quick, and by my colleague, Martin Corless-Smith (I liked his title “The Evening of a Faun”—G.C. Waldrep’s “Apologia Pro Vita Tua,” as well). Poets whose work I’m just getting to know (Edward Smallfield, Etel Adnan) are there too. I’m looking forward to reading Ben Lerner’s essay on Barbara Guest.
Lest I seem all warm and fuzzy today, let me sneak in some snark: what is it with the current New Yorker’s creepy “spots”? There I was, enjoying their article on Al Franken, when a cockroach showed up on page 32—and I don’t think the fact that it had a pin through it makes it any less creepy. And then earwigs, and beetles, and flies! You’d think they want us to throw down the magazine and run away screaming.
Sometimes I find a poem that makes me want to avert my eyes. Either it’s telling me too much, or it’s so pitifully awkward, or it’s hilariously badly written—but I stifle the impulse to laugh (sometimes not-so-successfully) because of my sense that the person who’s written it is surely embarrassed and doesn’t want any more attention.
Then again, the poem is in the American Poetry Review or The New Yorker*, so you figure the poet wanted you to read it. Even wanted you to admire it.
First case in point is Edward Hirsch’s “Milk,” on the back of the recent APR. Here is the first line: “My mother wouldn’t be cowed into nursing.”
Get it? OK, so sometimes puns can be funny. And sometimes they can just make you cringe. Given the author and the publication, it’s fair to think this line is meant to be taken absolutely straight—we’re in a No Irony zone, and this wasn’t something somebody found using Google.
I sometimes like to imagine what goes on behind the scenes—for example, when they were filming the movie Cujo, you know that somebody had the job every day of bringing a St. Bernard to the set, covering his mouth in foam, and ordering him to attack a car. And you know, as well (if you’ve owned a dog), that that animal has to be thinking something about humans while being put through that exercise. So I imagine editors sitting around a conference table nodding their heads at line one, saying, “Ooh. That’s good.”
My mother wouldn’t be cowed into nursing
and decided that formula was healthier
than the liquid from her breasts.
I count a 4/3/3 stress stanza. We’re in confessional free-verse territory, but this isn’t a confession of the poet’s—it’s rather a cranky (grown-up) kid’s complaint against his mom and (we see later) a paean to “a woman who had a baby daughter” and, using what might be the only stock cliché referring to nipples**, “tipped her nipple into my mouth.” I can’t help hearing Adrienne Rich: “I was constantly struck by how many poems published in magazines today are personal to the point of suffocation. The columnar, anecdotal, domestic poem, often with a three-stress line, can be narrow in more than a formal sense.” (from “Defying the Space That Separates,” Adrienne Rich, in Arts of the Possible)
This happened a long time ago in another city
and it is wrong to tell about it.
It was infantile to bring it up in therapy.
It bugs me that I can actually hear the faux-solemn reading voice in which this stanza would be intoned, even as the poet begs us to imagine him as a nursing baby with his grown-up head. Well, bub, you’re well into it now, so—erm—you don’t get to be forgiven for telling it yet again, let alone publishing it in 24-point type on the back of a tabloid. And, gosh darn it, we all know how this ends, yes?
She lifts my face and I taste it—
the sudden spurting nectar,
the incurable sweetness that is life.
Cue the audible sigh! Life is incurably sweet—as long as you don’t step outside your apartment, read the news, look for a job, or check your retirement account. And as long as you aren’t female: none of the females in this poem, including the baby daughter, fares as well as the poor, psychoanalyzed poet.
In The New Yorker, Donald Hall publishes “Meatloaf,” a poem that tells you (in stanza 1) that it’s in nine stanzas of nine lines of nine syllables. (Thus, Hall’s deceased famous-poet wife, Jane Kenyon, becomes “Jennifer” for the sake of the form.) I don’t like knowing this. I much prefer discovering form as I read along—with the possible exception of James Cumming’s sestina instructing one on writing a sestina, which throws up its own hands in frustration because it’s decided to use “thirty-nine” as an end-word (“and thirty-nine / isn’t exactly rife with associations, The Thirty-Nine / Steps excluded,” as I no doubt imperfectly recall). OK, so for the rest of the poem you’re thumping along counting 9, 9, 9. If, for whatever reason, you’re still reading.
The poem name-checks Kurt Schwitters, Auden, Ted Williams’s cryonically preserved head, and the delectable “Lauren,” a woman lithe enough to climb Mt. Kearsage while the elder poet sits in the car writing this poem. And, in case we’ve begun to forget, stanza 5 begins “When I was named Poet Laureate….” (At least Ed Hirsch didn’t write, “When I was named president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation”—whoops! He did, in the author’s note at the bottom of his poem. Never mind.)
You just wonder how confessional literature went from something like Plath’s sly and torrid descriptions of suicide in “Lady Lazarus” to these lines:
In fall I lost sixty pounds, and lost
poetry. I studied only “Law
and Order.” My son took from my house
the eight-sided Mossberg .22
my father gave me when I was twelve.
This is why, in one final and true confession, Hall is forced to admit “my stanzas [are] like ballplayers sent down / to Triple A, too slow for the bigs.” Nobody at The New Yorker is going to send Hall back to the minors, regardless of how minor the work, just as nobody who dreams of a Guggenheim dare diss Hirsch. Stan Apps recently wrote that the poems not included in the Flarf section of the latest Poetry were worse than the intentionally bad Flarf. Could it be that Gary Sullivan et al. are the little boy shouting that the Emperor has no clothes?
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..
*I know. I have New American Writing #27, so why oh why am I talking about this stuff?
**Though Kathleen Woodiwiss, in her blockbuster romance Shanna, wrote the unforgettable sentence “Her breasts were like short-fused bombs,” it never took off as a cliché.
I brought two wonderful literary magazines with me to the cabin—The Poker #9, edited by Daniel Bouchard, and New American Writing #27, edited by Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff. Both are worth spending hours with.
Juliana Spahr’s cheeky “Clear-Dark” leads off The Poker with a preface describing its composition: “[L]ast year, I began a project with my co-conspirator Stephanie Young to co-write some poems that we would then submit to the NEA.” They were spurred on not only by the fact that “the pack of poets that I tend to run with” had been shut out from the NEA grant winners in 2007 but because “Despite reading several books of poetry a week for at least the last ten to fifteen years, I had read none of the winners before. I knew a few by name and reputation. But most of them I didn’t even know who they were.”
Not willing to leave it at that, Spahr and Young undertake to read books by some of the grantees. “[T]here was no work in the modernist tradition at all in the ones we read. And there were no poems in other Englishes. And no poems of resistance or revolution. And there were no poems about the war at all. These are things I think anyone who follows the poetry prize circuit expects” (italics mine).
The impulse to reverse-engineer the NEA process is familiar—maybe it’s as prevalent as the impulse to see whether the International Library of Poetry would ever reject a poem (the impulse that in part gave birth to Flarf). And despite Poets & Writers’ querying headline (“Can Flarf Ever Be Taken Seriously?”) the fact is that is has been, and is (though one wonders whether the NEA would agree). I think of Spahr’s enterprise as a kind of adventure with flarfy overtones, though there are of course differences. She is careful to keep mockery out of her work, and writes with a sincere attempt at a “quiet” voice—though she kind of sabotages her enterprise by writing about war, a verboten in the NEA’s crop of grantees. She also admits to not being able to shed certain modernist techniques, such as lists (in her poems, lists of soldiers’ names).
And the results? Well, no, Spahr was not given an NEA grant on the basis of these poems. (She did get a handwritten note suggesting she reapply.) But the poems are not intentionally bad, either. They’re not, in my judgment, anywhere near as interesting as Spahr’s last few books, but they remind me of Jørgen Leth’s films born out of Lars von Trier’s “assignments” in The Five Obstructions: given what might seem absurd constraints to anyone else, her artistry asserts itself regardless.