Tuesday, August 26, 2008

West Meets East

The following excerpts are from the Conclusion to Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Enjoy!

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that is one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things . . .

Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring. Sometimes we are inclined to class those who are once-and-a-half witted with the half-witted, because we appreciate only a third part of their wit. Some would find fault with the morning-red, if they ever got up early enough. "They pretend," as I hear, "that the verses of Kabir have four different senses; illusion, spirit, intellect, and the exoteric doctrine of the Vedas"; but in this part of the world it is considered a ground for complaint if a man's writings admit of more than one interpretation. While England endeavors to cure the potato-rot, will not any endeavor to cure the brain-rot, which prevails so much more widely and fatally?

Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? A living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let everyone mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprise? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It isnot important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality. Shall we with pains erect a heaven of blue glass over ourselves, though when it is done we shall be sure to gaze still at the true ethereal heaven far above, as if the former were not?

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace. . . . If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me. . . . It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. . . . Superfluous wealth can buy superfluitites only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.

. . . I love to weigh, to settle, to gravitate toward that which most strongly and rightfully attracts me; not hang by the beam of the scale and try to weigh less, not suppose a case, but take the case that is; to travel the only path I can, and that on which no power can resist me. It affords me no satisfaction to commence to spring an arch before I have got a solid foundation. Let us not play at kittybenders. There is a solid bottom everywhere. We read that the traveler asked the boy if the swamp before him had a hard bottom. The boy replied that it had. But presently the traveler's horse sank in up to the girths, and he observed to the boy, "I thought you said that this bog had a hard bottom." "So it has," answered the latter, "but you have not got half way to it yet." So it is with the bogs and quicksands of society; but he is an old boy that knows it. . . .

. . . Every one has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts - from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree
, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb - heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board - may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!

I do not say that John or Johnathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning-star. [end]

I may be going through a phase now, but as I read Thoreau's Walden I see again and again connections in his thinking with Eastern religious thought. Anyone who has learned anything at all worthwhile about Buddhism must know of the importance of attention a person gives to this or to that. It is an act of will to give attention to something. It may also be at the same time an act of love. Buddhism's talk of quieting the self is not nihilist talk conducive to self-loathing. It is a means of attaining a calm which enables clear vision, correct perceptions and wise choosing. The quiet, calm self can make choices based on the best information available. It is an act of will to calm oneself in the face of, for instance, repeated stories of the personal downfalls of leaders and the agendas which drew us to them initially but which now can no longer be pursued. It is an act of
will to pursue that which one believes to be honest, good and true. It is an act of will to acknowledge beauty. It is an act of will to love the neighbor. It is an act of will to open one's heart wider. An open mind is a great thing. How much more so an open heart.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Joy Leftow

The following post was written by Joy Leftow and posted originally at her blog. You can get to her original post by clicking on the title below.

thinking reading & writing

My characters come alive when I write them and very often I am acting entire scenes out while writing ... or so it would seem to anyone watching me. This is great for writing dialogue because when you speak your characters' lines you know when they ring true. DD says he never did this before but by watching me he observes how it helps me. I do this with my narrative poetry as well. I love friends with keen ears too. I like to read to people from my book or new poetry. Either. Somehow either way - I'm not exactly what you expect me to be. I've been compared to post modernist and confessional style poets but the truth is, at the time I was being accused of following or imitating them, I had never read Ginsberg or Sylvia Plath. I was too busy writing 10 to 30 page term papers a several times each term so I didn't have time for much else besides being a part time mom. Back then, I do a lot of creative writing except for my journals. I went to Columbia for 8 straight years. Before that I had my GED.

It's kind of amazing when you consider that drop out Joy became the ivy league drop in and now has two masters degrees. Colombia is tough and competitive - I kid you not. To maintain a 3.3 average is a full time job. After I graduated finally and settled into a J. O. B. I began writing again. It's hard out here for us poets and writers.

The point is that sometimes it's a deterrent when you really are difficult to pigeonhole. When you sound truly like you and no one else it's harder to fit in anyplace. People say they want creative and unique because that is what we're all trained to say. The truth is uncomfortable can be ok too and has its own power. Not everyone can love me or you or anyone else's work. Some people are naturally more controversial and colorful. It's the way life goes. "Explore ... Search for more, no more prisoners of war..."
Celebrating page 123 on my grind plus maintaining this blog and writing poetry too...
Oh and I forgot and working on the magazine and two anthologies!

Robert Peake

The following was posted originally at Robert Peake's blog. Enjoy!

Back On The Writing Wagon

There is a Zen story about working very hard wherein a young student (in some versions, an American,) approaches the master and asks how long it will take him to become a master himself. The master replies, “ten years.” The student emphatically explains that he will work twice as hard as any of the other students, pushing himself to the limit to master his teachings more quickly. “In that case,” replies the master, “twenty years.”

For me, poetry is like this. Usually, when I find myself wanting to work very hard, it is because I have not been writing consistently. You see, I have waned in my discipline of
getting up early before work to write. And, as a result, I notice myself daydreaming about dramatic change, such as a fellowship with a great expanse of uninterrupted writing time stretched out before me. Yet, invariably, I find that when I start writing consistently again, I become more satisfied and accepting of my present situation. My careerist thoughts subside. I enter back in to the vocation of poetry, the lifelong pursuit.

The art of not pushing, but rather focusing on consistency, is alien to our fast-food culture. And yet, writing something daily is actually a form of instant gratification as well — a true and lasting gratification of actually having written, good or bad. It is also, ironically, good for one’s career. That is because publication and awards are a numbers game. And writing consistently produces a greater volume of higher quality work than an approach of fits and starts. At least, that has been my experience so far.

So, it’s off to bed for me, and up early to bang something out — good or bad — for sake of staying in the flow.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Reginald Shepherd

The following was posted to the blog at The Poetry Foundation. Click the title below to follow the link there.

A Few Thoughts on Poetry and Criticism
by Reginald Shepherd

I adore Doug Powell as a poet and a person, but I must disagree with his recent post regarding poets and critics. It's true that the skills required to be a poet and the skills required to be a critic are distinct, but they're related, and to be a good writer one needs at least some of the skills of a good critic. (I also know from his writing that whatever Doug says about the divide, he has both.)

To be a good writer one needs to be a good reader, and a large part of learning to write is learning to read, to analyze (that is, take apart and examine) other pieces of writing and see how they work, if only so that one can utilize some of those techniques in one's own work--and for that matter, so that one can avoid some of them as well. (One can learn a lot from work one doesn't like.)

I've always aspired to be a poet-critic, being of the belief that at least as a poet one can indeed add a cubit to one's stature by taking thought. With the recent publication of my book of essays, Orpheus in the Bronx, I'd like to think that I've come closer to that goal.

I can't think of any good poets who have avoided thinking and writing about poetry and the issues it brought up. (We'll take up the question of what a "good" poet is at a later date. Much later.) To take some obvious historical examples, Pound, Eliot, Moore, Stevens, Williams, Zukofsky, the New Critics (including R. P Blackmur, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate, all fine poets), Auden, Spicer, and even Mr. Insouciance himself, Frank O'Hara, didn't do so, not to mention such diverse contemporary examples as Charles Bernstein, Allen Grossman, Robert Hass, John Hollander, Susan Howe, Mary Kinzie, Ann Lauterbach, Heather McHugh, Michael Palmer, Robert Pinsky, Ron Silliman, and Susan Stewart. The explosion of online discussions about poetry, in poetry blogs, on this web site, and elsewhere, is evidence that this process is still going on today, and hopefully will continue to enrich poetry and thought about poetry.

Visit the original post to see the many comments posted in response to this, and also to see Mr. Shepherd's second and third parts that continue this thread.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Taha Muhammad Ali

Voices of Conflict

Posted: February 21, 2007
Shopkeeper and Poet

We leave Jerusalem early in the morning, heading north through the dry hills and Biblical landscape of the Jordan River Valley. After about an hour, the world becomes green, then green and yellow – the wildflowers are coming out in the Galilee. About two-and-half hours after we start, we climb the twisting road up the hill into Nazareth. We’re here to talk with Taha Muhammad Ali, a self-described "half shopkeeper, half poet." I’ve been aware of the "poet" Muhammad Ali for about a year, through a translation of his work titled, “So What.” First, we meet the "shopkeeper."
For several decades, Muhammad Ali has owned a souvenir shop (the sign outside reads “The Prominent Souvenir Center of Nazareth”) just steps down the hill from the Basilica of the Annunciation, selling religious items, trinkets, plates and more to pilgrims from around the world. Apparently, business has been good, allowing him to buy a house and some other local property.
Taha (as he tells us to call him) is 76 and has one of the most remarkable faces I have ever seen – a large nose, very deep eyes and even deeper lines in his forehead. He has an oversized, imposing appearance, but is a very gentle man. And a born storyteller. Within five minutes of meeting, after I ask him about running the store, he tells me: “I’ve been successful in everything – except marriage.” His eyes are laughing – this is obviously a joke. “Every day my wife and I wake up and start arguing. We wake up very early and argue for several hours. I say, ‘I want a divorce.’ I go to the shop for four hours to escape. I go home for lunch. And my wife has prepared the most wonderful meal. I stay married. We do the same thing the next day.” The man is clearly in love, after 47 years of marriage. Later, when I have a chance to ask his wife, Yusra, what it’s like being married to a poet, she says, "Very good. But a little tiring."
Muhammad Ali was born in the village of Saffuriyya, a short drive from here. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, he and his family fled to Lebanon amid bombing from the air and artillery. When they returned about a year later, he says, the village had been destroyed. Many villagers, including Muhammad Ali’s family, moved to Nazareth, where he has lived ever since.
He is a self-taught man, having made it only to the fourth grade. He tells me he made himself a reader first, because he wanted to write. As a boy he loved Steinbeck, and in our interview he frequently refers to “Cannery Row,” and later came to Shakespeare and much else. Even today, at age 76, he wakes at 4 in the morning and reads for several hours before going to his shop. (He calls his reading glasses "my dreaming glasses.") He wrote short stories first and didn’t really begin writing poetry until he was middle-aged. "When did you know you were a poet?" I ask. "When my first poem was published," he says. Since then, he’s published many poems – a very personal and even private voice, but one that finds a way to speak to a very public conflict.

Here is Taha Muhammad Ali as he appeared at the 2006 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. He reads his poem "Revenge" in Arabic, and then Peter Cole reads it in English.

On Mahmoud Darwish

On Mahmoud Darwish
by Hosam Aboul-Ela21 August 2008

In an earlier post, I raised the issue of the dearth of translations done of intellectual and critical writing from Arabic (and most of the other languages of the world). The translation of poetry also presents special problems. Poetry is central to literary culture in Arabic and has been so since Arabic literature has existed, and thus, those who read Arabic literature in translation must have access to quality translations of poetry in order to have anything close to a complete picture. Yet the translation of Arabic poetry demands that the translator be able to cross over vast differences in structure, history, and language registers. The sad passing on the 9th of this month of the Arab world’s most important contemporary poet, Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, calls attention to the evolution of Arabic literary translation into English.
Darwish was first introduced to the English-speaking world via a slim volume of selected poems entitled The Music of Human Flesh, translated by Arabic literary translation’s eminence gris, Denys Johnson-Davies. Today, Darwish’s work appears in at least a half dozen volumes that include the work of perhaps twelve or fifteen different translators. The most recent to appear is Fady Joudah’s monumental and award-winning The Butterfly’s Burden, published just last year. Johnson-Davies’s volume appeared in a series for Arabic writers in translation, while Joudah’s was published by an American specialty press that targets connoisseurs of poetry. Whereas Johnson-Davies picked about twenty poems he liked out of several collections of Darwish’s early work, Joudah translated every word of his three most recent volumes. The earlier volume presents Darwish as the embodiment of a movement, the latter as a mature and complicated, yet still very moral, poet’s poet. The English-speaking world owes Johnson-Davies an enormous debt, but it would be a tragedy if thirty-five years passed without the arrival of a volume as sophisticated as Joudah’s Butterfly’s Burden.
By coincidence, Mahmoud Darwish died about two miles from the spot where I am writing this post. Less coincidental is my relationship to Darwish’s poetry, for its music and intellect is in the ether, infiltrating the very being of generations of consumers and citizens in the Arab world. I first heard him read at the Cairo International Bookfair in January 1995. All of Cairo seemed crammed into a large tent. At a dais in front of the overflowing crowd sat Darwish, a moderator, and three other poets. The first two poets did their best to read over the din that the massive crowd emitted involuntarily. Incredibly, Darwish created perfect silence in the hall merely by standing and walking to the microphone. By then I’d studied poetry pretty extensively in university classrooms, but observing firsthand a person hold such a huge audience in thrall made me understand something new about the nature of poetry.
A transition was already taking place in Darwish’s work at that time. The young poet’s work could make the most hardened Palestinian burst into tears, as I discovered when a schoolmarmish Arabic teacher I once had choked up, unexpectedly and to the embarrassment of her American students, while trying to recite one of his poems to illustrate a language point. But Darwish’s later poetry became increasingly complex in its allusions and bold in the diversity of poetic genres it employed. The raw feeling of his early poetry became increasingly subordinated to a thorough, unrestrained engagement with aesthetics. Darwish had used his fame to challenge his public to take a more sophisticated look at poetry itself.
With the death of Darwish, the Arab world has lost four towering figures in the last five years. In order of their passing, literary critic/advocate in the West Edward Said (September 25, 2003), novelist Naguib Mahfouz (August 30, 2006), filmmaker Yusuf Chahine (also this summer, on July 27, 2008), and Darwish were each the most prominent practitioner of their genre without question. Each of these four evolved to create multiple legacies over the course of their careers; they must each be studied in stages. Each of them became a household name in the Arab world and inspired simultaneously fanatical followers, polite detractors, and vociferous, even violent, antagonists. There is no serious consumer of contemporary Arab culture that does not have a vivid memory of discovering the work of one of these four for the first time, experiencing one of their masterworks and being invigorated, or having the good fortune to meet one of them in person.
No serious consumer of contemporary Arab culture can reflect on what the four of them accomplished without feeling a physical shudder. Combined, they’ve left bodies of work that we might build upon, react to, and argue against for generations. With their passing, contemporary Arabic culture passes into a new phase, which will not be characterized by new great individual avatars, but rather by increased attention (hopefully outside the Arab world, as well as in) to forms, movements, concepts—to the matter of art and ideas. Their final rest affords an opportunity, an opportunity for our restlessness.
Here is how Mahmoud Darwish is remembered in a news bit done by AlJazeera and uploaded to YouTube on August 10 (2008).

A Review from the Poetry Studio

The following was written by John Haynes and posted to the Poetry Studio group which you can join when you are signed up at Facebook. I have Mr. Haynes' permission to post this writing here.

Matthew Francis's 'Mandeville'

This book attracted me first because for most of my working life I've been thinking about how one culture looks at another, and one way and another, the reader of African literature is never very far away from Mandeville and his peers, and the mythology they use, from Othello's men with heads below their shoulders to the wonderful poetry that somehow comes out of the mouth of second language speaker Caliban, from the cultural stereotypes of Franz Fanon and Aimee Cesaire to the orientalism of Edward Said.

Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart as a response to western snobbery born of ignorance about 'primitive' societies and their strange habits. And he saw this prejudice in both Conrad's Heart of Darkness, too, a contested viewpoint, and in Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson, much less comestible but interestingly and generously nuanced by Achebe's contemporary countryman, Michael Echeruo who thought it 'understandable' that a European would see Mister Johnson's culture (Hausaland, in Northern Nigeria) with European preconceptions.

Much of my own thinking in and out of verse has been about this 'two cultures' situation, getting into, understanding, a different people's world, in my case, the world of Northern Nigeria. The first thing you find out, of course, as that though you well may see a different culture from a strange riddle-like angle, your own culture is not nearly as clear to you as you had assumed, and is in the end very much an array of assumptions rather like a psychoanalyst's unconscious, and that too has to be voyaged towards and discovered. And of course it's a truism that what you see in another's culture is a kind of discovery of your own. We are 'Martians' in our own back yard as well as in someone else's.

Craig Raine's Martian poems come out of the Russian formalist dictum that poetry, as a genre, is a 'making strange' of what seemed straightforward before, a view of course mooted in The Preface to the Lyrical Ballads where Wordsworth and Coleridge see the problem from both the view points I've been talking about. The Preface see Wordsworth's work as the use imagination to make the familiar strange, the light on earth and short, as clear and strange as it was when first seen as a child; and it sees Coleridge as the user of imagination to conjure up strange places against which we can match and 'see' our own quotidian lives.

In Francis's book (and these are first reactions. I need to read it again) there's a cunning combination of these viewpoints. The poet puts himself into the persona of Mandeville, and as with many poets who shift the ground in this way - into dreams, visions, historical settings - he is able to make us see not only through Mandeville's eyes, but also to see Mandeville through our own 'reading' eyes.

Mandeville is in some ways the typical Westerner abroad. What funny habits these natives have! And the double vision we have - Mandeville's and our own reading of Mandeville/Francis - enables us to see the sorts of things he claimed to have seen in that 'world', but also 'know' that he couldn't have (There just aren't ants the size of dogs) and yet despite the ignorance (There is no racial prejudice shown) enjoy the wonderful inventiveness of the man. And then we think, well maybe they weren't quite ants, but that's the nearest concept he had. Maybe there was some sort of giant tortoise or crab. And his gravelly sea, could it be some movement in a desert where the movement of the dunes is like that of waves? And his rivers of jewels, well could they just be glaciers perhaps? No doubt, I'm wrong in these speculations, but it's that area of experience, where there are things that to the gazer have not been defined or explained before, that Francis makes Mandeville throw up for us.

And then we think, well, what is 'behind' these inventions? Or misrecognitions? Of his? Of ours? What makes him so 'lust' after wonders? And here you can't help comparing his work to War of the Worlds in which science fiction is confused with science fact, and confused because of the fears it triggers. And then, is Francis, through Mandeville, begging for a more imaginative and plural view of all experience? A more hypothesizing attitude toward experience which comes to us when there's some breakthrough in physics or astronomy and we learn that such creatures may indeed be possible, if not in the globe Mandeville limits himself to, then orbiting one of the stars.

And Mandeville takes us back to a more spiritual time, when men thought about their souls and their origins and destinies more than the media would have us believe people do now. Because Mandeville's earth is also the 'round' of Prospero's human life, the circle of knowledge which always one way or another (including in the prejudiced) comes back to ourselves and our imagining. And this journey out is of course the journey in and the journey back, the Ancient Mariner's lesson, the vision of the Dark Tower, the emotional surrealism of the trenches.

Mandeville uses the idea of circumnavigation not just in an SF, though that's fantastic (sic) enough. But also in this philosophical way, recalling the string quartet circularity of Eliot's Four Quartets where the aim of the journey is

to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

if we can, that is. A tragedy for many of Mandeville/Francis’s crew is that they fail to recognize their ‘home countree’ and set sail again to go on looking for it, doomed to repeat their history, perhaps. Yes, familiar indeed.
The first canto of Francis’s Mandeville focuses first on the world as such.

For you must know that the world is round

this is set within a Christian renaissance world picture. Jerusalem is at the centre of everything, and where we start from is pretty grotty.

‘And our islands on the world’s edge are mere gritty dots
in that circling ocean, our shores crumbling into it,
the hills blurry with rain, the shires foundering in mud.’

Hence the quest. But the quest involves the hardship of sea life. Immediately he is confronted with the unfamiliar, at first the apocryphal barnacle geese, which hatch out of barnacles, learn to fly and so exchange the sea for the sky. Their uprooting he compares to his own.

‘And if like them you would uproot yourself you must spread
your sails to the twelve winds and cross the Great Sea Ocean
which is also called Death, for it flows round everything,

and immediately we see that this is also a sort of ‘sea journey’ in the Gilgamesh mode, the ship a kind of temporary coffin from which the voyager will, hopefully, emerge reborn, or at least – like the Ancient Mariner – wiser.

‘and know the place for the first time’

Francis’s narrator says

“And you will lie in the wooden dark waiting to breathe
the air your companions have used for their snores and farts
while the night is lifted and dropped with you inside it.’

Because the great ocean he goes upon is also death, and the 'wooden dark' reminiscent of the coffin, and a number of the incidents show him undergoing what turns out to be a kind of moral test, like a Spenserian knight in the endless forest.

The circularity is underlined at the end of the poem, when Mandeville reviews his life and travels, and then the truth of his reports, reports which historians and others have found so unlikely as to have wondered if the man himself ever really existed.

‘I, Sir John Mandeville, have travelled to here and here,
seen this wonder and that, and returned home. Believe me.
What I had said is true, or as good as, or was once.’

Truth, then, is relative to something else, to the person experiencing it, and to the reader of the poem’s imaginative ‘take’ on it. So Francis raises the question as to what is really so (and that 'it ain't necessarily')in an age where there is conflict in people’s minds about the nature of their world - about warming, about how global economics works - partly indeed of its physical nature, but more obviously the world of values which for Mandeville were secure at the centre of the globe where Jerusalem is assumed to stand. Nothing so central or certain for us, except perhaps the very shifting sands of consumerist 'progress'.

He like the poet goes ‘round it and about’, and much of our own uncertainty is like that, a kind of poetry which - like the voices of the sirens - we do not hear and, like Mandeville’s shipmates, may go on voyaging in search of even when we have come back to it.

He ends the poem.

‘So the man and his friends sailed back where they had come from.
Yet I believe they might have gone a few miles further
and arrived home. For you must know that the world is round.’

I’m not sure what I finally think Francis is ‘saying’. Perhaps this is a view of the individual life, that 'little round that Prospero talks about, or perhaps he’s thinking more widely about the mess we’re voyaging into as a culture, global indeed looking at apparent fantasies - the melting of the poles, malaria in England - in what looks like a strange other world, but one to which we must return as to reality. The whole imagery of the globe, the circular path typical of an art form, as against the straight path which in our time we imagine time has, and the line of line which most of us to not think of as ‘coming back’ in a different form, in a different world, sadder and wiser men and women.


Monday, August 18, 2008

About This Blog

This blog stems from an activity begun in Saginaw, Michigan, by the River Junction Poets. The activity was designed to provide opportunities for readers to share poems they like and to learn about poets and poems about which they maybe don't know so much. By celebrating birthdays of poets, we reminded ourselves of the human sources of poems. This blog features multiple contributors, lists of poets and their birthdays, titles of their recent works, and links to publishers and other pages with information about the poets. This blog has occasionally featured pieces written by other bloggers.

About the activity: from June 2005 to 2009, the River Junction Poets hosted readings on the occasions of birthdays of poets at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Saginaw, Michigan. Several of these blog posts describe these events, which were announced by the bookstore in its monthly in-store Newsletter. One of the store managers was so enthused by what our group was doing, he arranged for a sign to announce our activity and also arranged a shelf of poetry books near our group. Often, we sent a birthday card to the poet whose work we read, and we included the store newsletter that mentioned the event after we had all signed the card. We've received Thank You notes from several of these poets, which you can see in blog posts here.

If you are wondering what it would be like to host such an event yourself, consider what it would be like to sit and read poems by yourself in a place where others could join you. When we did this in Saginaw, we decided together on the dates to meet at the bookstore, and then I e-mailed the dates to the manager at the Barnes & Noble. At least one of us chose to act as host for each occasion, but, officially, no one signed up to attend any events; usually, however, people in our group would say if they were planning to be there or not. For me, it wasn't time wasted if I was host and no one showed up. That happened once, when I was the only one at the Lewis Carroll birthday reading. I actually ended up talking about Lewis Carroll, his poetry, and our group with two shoppers who happened to be there at the time. It was obvious that I was there for the occasion because there was a sign there announcing the event, and I was sitting there reading work by Lewis Carroll.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Types of Poetry

The following was written by poet Allen Taylor. It was posted originally at his website, www.worldclasspoetryblog.com. You can get to that post by clicking on the title of this post.

How Many Types Of Poetry
Are There?

14 August 2008, the poet @ 9:29 pm
I’d like to offer a great big thanks to Timothy Green, editor of Rattle, for getting me thinking on this. He commented on a former blog post about the nature of didacticism and I wanted to respond in a way that calls for more than a simple comment on a post. Here’s his comment:
The problem with didacticism isn’t that you take a position, it’s that you take it from the start — maybe it’s as simple as the reader’s trust, and being suspicious of rhetoric. Although I think it’s more than that — I think it’s hard to write a poem that isn’t dull without surprising yourself.
Bear in mind that didactic poetry is instructional and, as such, its purpose is to teach. Now, I come from the position that there is a place for didacticism in poetry. I think that all poetry is, in some sense, instructional, but the problem with much of the poetry that seeks to be instructional as an end in itself is that its instructions are preachy and detract from the poetry. I believe that poetry must always strive to be poetry first and anything else secondarily.
That said, however, I take issue with Tim’s opening statement here. He likely didn’t intend it the way it sounds, but this is how I took it. Where you start out with a position that you believe and you write a poem to defend that position. Tim’s statement makes me think that he believes that isn’t appropriate, but I think otherwise. There are many great poems that do just that. One such poem is Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica.”
In “Ars Poetica”, MacLeish sets out to tell us what a poem should be. Right from word one he takes a position and he sticks to it. All the way down to his final line, that poem makes one point. Every line contributes to the point. It’s a fabulous exercise in polemics. He doesn’t say what he needs to say in every way possible, but he does say it in every way that it needs to be said in order for the poem to make its point. And he took his position right from the start.
I think that’s what good poetry does, but I also agree with Tim’s last point. It’s hard to write a poem that doesn’t surprise yourself. I think Archibald MacLeish would honestly say that he did surprise himself in writing “Ars Poetica”. The lines are surprising, not for what they say, but in how they say it. Again, that is a mark of good poetry.
Pardon Me For Being A Wise Ass
I’d like to thank Jim Murdoch for his response to my last blog post. I think anyone who reads my blog long term has figured out by now that I don’t believe that a poem is a poem just because somebody decided to throw some lines on a page and call it a poem. My point for that post was two-fold: No. 1, I just wanted to be a wise-ass and make fun of myself a little bit, and, secondly, just prove that I’m a bit of a contrarian on these matters. I don’t follow rules too well. I prefer to deal with principles because principles are flexible; rules are not. That doesn’t mean that everything is equal. To echo the words of the Apostle Paul, the author of much of the Christian New Testament, all things are permissible, but not all things are profitable. In other words, anyone can call himself a poet and just toss words onto the page, but the real test of one’s work is not what he himself thinks of it, but what the aggregate of posterity thinks of it.
The Many, Many Types Of Poetry
I’d like to issue a third thank you. This one to G.M. Palmer who writes the Strong Verse blog. He’s drawn a bit of a line in the sand over there about what constitutes good poetry and what doesn’t. I certainly give him credit for his passion. I like many of his ideas and agree with them. But he’s got a few as well that I think are a bit stuck in the barn.
What I do like about him is his willingness to promote narrative long-term poetry. I too believe that it’s time to bring back the long form narratives, though not necessarily in the traditional rhyme and meters of old. Nevertheless, his passion is commendable.
Where I do take issue with him is in his insistence that avant garde poetry and Spoken Word forms are not poetry. While my readers know that I’m not preferential to the avant garde, I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss them on the basis that we don’t like them. Just because I don’t like somebody’s style or techniques doesn’t mean that what I do is superior to what they do. Palmer’s polemics leave much to be desired and I’ve found that, by reading his blog, he often contradicts his own principles.
For example:
  1. In his “Modern Aesthetics As Sola Fide” post he criticizes contemporary poets for their “it’s poetry because I say it is” position then he turns around in less than one week later and makes the argument that Language Poets, Spoken Word poets, and avant gardeists are bad because he says they are. Well, I think he owes it to us to defend his position with some examples rather than saying Google will lead you to the self-evident truths. Sorry, bad positing.
  2. In his bio he says his favorite book is The Divine Comedy by Dante then he says in “Why I am a Skeptic” that he dislikes anything trendy or experimental. This is really quite laughable. Dante himself was an experimenter. All great poets are. Dante’s experimentalism is evident in his use of the terza rima, which was never used before he employed it in The Divine Comedy. Dante’s work went on to inspire Petrarch and Chaucer, who borrowed the form for English literature. Other English language poets followed, all the way down to William Carlos Williams, who is perhaps an iconic figure in the avant garde traditions. Personally, I’ve got no use for any poet who doesn’t step outside of the ranks and do a little experimenting. Who wants to read the same rehashed lines over and over again?
Rather than wear myself out poring over every word of his blog, I’ll just stop right there. I am not setting myself up as opposition to Palmer’s ideas. I simply think he should communicate them better. I like what he has to say in “A Declaration on the Revision of Poetry”, but we can’t get too wrapped up in the language of forms.
To say that no one reads poetry today because “artsy journals” publish crap is ludicrous. People stopped reading poetry when they could just flip on the channel and watch Uncle Miltie wearing a dress and smoking a cigar. Poets have to stop dreaming about the future halcyon days when poetry makes a big comeback. We should instead put our overactive imaginations to work and produce good, imaginative literature for the people who appreciate it. What do I care if my audience is 500 or 5 million? I hope, of course, that it’s 5 million, but I’m not holding my breath.
While Palmer’s declaration has merit, I wouldn’t expect it to revive interest in poetry. People just aren’t going to flock to Borders Books to buy the latest issue of Palmer’s grand opus. They might, but they’ll only do so if their friends tell them it’s good enough to spend their money on. Otherwise, they’d rather watch Homer Simpson.
Poets have got to quit blaming each other for the problems that we find. It isn’t Ron Silliman’s fault that your books don’t sell on Amazon. It isn’t some vaguely-defined School of Quietude’s responsibility to ensure that the avant garde poets are represented in the great poetic pantheon. These kinds of ridiculous assertions are just rhetoric that gets us nowhere. If you don’t like concrete poetry then don’t read it. Someone else may love the hell out of it. That’s their business. Leave it alone.
Today, there are more poets writing poetry than there ever have been in U.S. history. There are also fewer non-poets reading it. Dana Gioia noticed that 20 years ago. He wrote a manifesto and it was widely distributed. Still, even after the New Formalists waged their hostile takeover and ransacked the halls and walls of academe and the NEA, fewer people care about poetry. I’m not going to cry about it. Ultimately, poetry will live on in some form. If it’s a form that I don’t appreciate then at least I’m glad that it’s still alive.
How Many Types Of Poetry Are There?
The answer to the question, “How many types of poetry are there?” is this: As many as people read. The poetry tent is big enough to hold the Language Poets, the New Formalists, and everyone in between. It’s big enough for lyric poetry and narrative poetry. It’s even big enough for a few lyric-narratives. Perhaps we’ll all have to tolerate a little bad poetry in order to enjoy the good, but the good that is there is really good so why let the rest get us down?
This isn’t some “live and let live” manifesto. It’s a hope that poets will take the time to learn from each other. I think you can learn good poetics from bad poetry. I also think you can pick up bad habits from good poetry. The real issue is, What are you doing to make yourself as good a poet as you can be? And don’t spend all your time fixating on the different types of poetry. Rather, take some time out to invent a type of your own.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Message from the Partnership of English Majors

The following originally aired on A Prairie Home Companion on Saturday, November 25, 2006.

Garrison Keillor: And now, a message from the Partnership of English Majors.

(audible TABLEWARE)

Sue Scott: Oh, Frank. This is so wonderful — I never went to a steakhouse before.

Tim Russell: Yeah, well. No biggie.

SS: You suppose they have salads here?

TR: Heck yes. Whatever. — Here, I got you something.

SS: What's this? A little bright blue box wrapped in a white ribbon—

TR: Yeah, the way I see it-- our information-gathering phase is over and it's time to move the relationship into third gear. So I'd like to gift you with this box.

SS: Sorry, you'd like to-what?

TR: Gift you. I'm gifting you here.

SS: Oh. Oh dear-I don't know--

TR: So what do you say, Jessica? Are you in or out?

SS: I like you, Frank...but— when I hear you use "gift" as a verb—

TR: Whatcha talking about?

SS: Gift is a noun, Frank. It shouldn't be used as a verb.

TR: Oh please. You're not going to be one of those people, are you?

SS: I am one of those people, Frank. I'm an English major-I thought you understood that.

TR: I thought you'd get over that, Jessica.

SS: Frank, being an English major is not something you get over. It's who I am. Language matters to me.

GK: Would you two like to see the dessert menu?

TR: Listen, mister, bug off, we got something going on here.

SS: Please, Frank—

GK: We have an audacious cheesecake tonight that is refulgent with cheese, a shimmering and resplendent dessert with plump, one might almost say Rubensesque, cherries on top.

TR: Hey, did you hear me, creep? Amscray.

SS: Did you say "Rubensesque?"

GK: Yes, of course.

SS: Most people would say "Rubenesque"—

GK: I know, but that would be wrong.

SS: Exactly. It refers to the painter. Peter Paul Rubens.

GK: Of course.

SS: You're the first person I know who has used that word correctly. I want to cry.

GK: Please. Here's a fresh napkin.

SS: For a moment, I thought you might be— but o no, I'm being silly—

GK: You thought I might be what?

SS: You're a waiter, but somehow I thought you might be a poet—

GK: I have a book of poems coming out next month. It's called "A Small Salad On The Side".

SS: Oh my gosh.

GK: It's my first collection.

SS: I'd give anything to read it!

GK: It's back at my apartment.

SS: Let me get my coat.

TR: Guess I'll take this ring and get out of here.

SS: Goodbye, Frank.

TR: I could've offered you a lot, Jessica. A lot.

SS: Maybe so. But there was no poetry, Frank.

TR: What????

SS: Poetry. (ROMANTIC VIOLIN) I could never be happy in that enormous condo of yours. That expensive furniture. The pool, the Jacuzzi. You forgot something, Frank.

TR: What was that?

SS: A bookshelf. There were no bookshelves. —Come.

GK: I'll get your coat. And here, sir.

TR: The bill. Oh thanks a lot.

GK: You're welcome.

TR: Don't expect a big tip, bozo.

GK: Eighteen percent. It's included.


GK: A message from the Partnership of English Majors.

There's more where that came from. Here you can order two compact discs featuring two and a half hours of Messages from the Partnership of English Majors and the like. No kidding!

Friday, August 08, 2008

Hayden Carruth

Hayden Carruth was born August 3, 1921. Next week (August 13th) in Saginaw, Michigan we'll meet to celebrate his birth, life and poetry. Mr. Carruth will not be there, but I'll have five copies of the following to share with fellow readers at the Barnes & Noble on Tittabawassee Road. A poor substitute, to be sure, but at that time we can sign a birthday card to Mr. Carruth which we can send to the address on his website.



Tap barometer, burn trash,

put out seed for birds, tap
barometer, go to market
for doughnuts and Dutch
Masters, feed cat, write
President, tap barometer,
take baby aspirin, write
congressmen, nap, watch
Bills vs. Patriots, tap
barometer, go to post
office and ask Diane if
it's cold enough for her,
go to diner and say "hi,
babe" to Mazie, go to
barber shop and read
Sports Illustrated, go
home, take a load off,
tap barometer, go to
liquor store for jug
(Gallo chablis), go
home, pee, etc., sweep
cellar stairs (be careful!),
write letter to editor,
count dimes, count quarters,
tap the fucking barometer . . .


for Joe-Anne McLaughlin Carruth
"Why don't you write me a poem that will prepare me for your
death?" you said.
It was a rare day here in our climate, bright and sunny. I didn't feel like
dying that day.
I didn't even want to think about it -- my lovely knees and bold
shoulders broken open,
Crawling with maggots. Good Christ! I stood at the window and I saw
a strange dog
Running in the field with its nose down, sniffing the snow, zigging and
And whose dog is that? I asked myself. As if I didn't know. The limbs
of the apple trees
Were lined with snow, making a bright calligraphy against the world,
messages to me
From an enigmatic source in an obscure language. Tell me, how shall I
decipher them?
And a jay slanted down to the feeder and looked at me behind my glass
and squawked.
Prepare, prepare. Fuck you, I said, come back tomorrow. And here he
is in this new gray and gloomy morning.
We're back to our normal weather. Death in the air, the idea of death
settling around us like mist,
And I am thinking again in despair, in desperation, how will it happen?
Will you wake up
Some morning and find me lying stiff and cold beside you in our bed?
How atrocious!
Or will I fall asleep in the car, as I nearly did a couple of weeks ago,
and drive off the road
Into a tree? The possibilities are endless and not at all fascinating,
except that I can't stop
Thinking about them, can't stop envisioning that moment of hideous
Hideous and indescribable as well, because it won't happen until it's
over. But not for you
For you it will go on and on, thirty years or more, since that's the
distance between us
In our ages. The loss will be a great chasm with no bridge across it
(for we both know
Our life together, so unexpected, is entirely loving and rare). Living
on your own --
Where will you go? what will you do? And the continuing sense of
From what we've had in this little house, our refuge on our green or
Hill. Life is not easy and you will be alive. Experience reduces itself to
platitudes always,
Including the one which says that I'll be with you forever in your
memories and dreams.
I will. And also in hundreds of keepsakes, such as this scrap of a poem
you are reading now.

"Prepare" is from Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995, available from Copper Canyon Press The two poems above are from http://haydencarruth.netfirms.com/poetry.htm accessed 8/8/08.

Informed by his political radicalism and sense of cultural responsibility, many of Carruth's best-known poems are about the people and places of northern Vermont, as well as rural poverty and hardship. About Carruth and his work, the poet Galway Kinnell has said, "This is not a man who sits down to 'write a poem'; rather, some burden of understanding and feeling, some need to know, forces his poems into being. Thoreau said, 'Be it life or death, what we crave is reality.' So it is with Carruth. And even in hell, knowledge itself bestows a halo around the consciousness with, at moments, attains it."
Excerpted from http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/232 accessed 8/8/08.

Hayden Carruth was 33 years old when doctors told him he would never again live a normal life. He had served in the Second World War, earned a master’s degree at Chicago, and gone on to edit Poetry magazine, one of America’s most distinguished literary journals. In 1949 Carruth, AM’47, took the bold step—bold for such a young and unknown editor—of defending Ezra Pound, scorned for his pro-Fascist wartime broadcasts, when Pound received the Bollingen Prize. He envisioned a long career as a poet, critic, and editor.

But this promise seemed lost when he suffered an alcoholic breakdown in New York City and ended up at the White Plains branch of New York Hospital, formerly the Bloomingdale Asylum. In The Bloomingdale Papers, poems composed during his hospitalization, he wrote:

The diagnosis is Anxiety psychoneurosis (Chronic and acute) Complicated by Generalized phobic Extensions and alcoholism.

Fifteen months in the “loony bin,” as he calls it, failed to cure him. His crackup was in part the result of phobias and anxieties that had haunted him all his life, complicated by the alcohol he drank to keep them at bay. After his release he spent most of the next decade in seclusion, too wracked with fear to venture out. He continued to write, but it was, he has said, “like squeezing old glue out of the tube.”

He never recovered completely, but he did manage to reenter the world. Drugs helped, as did the friendship of an understanding psychiatrist. So did music, work, the love of women, and two decades spent scraping a living in northern Vermont. There, far from the trodden paths of literary advancement, he began to regain his footing and find his voice. He did it by becoming “a yokel, a countryman, a guy who split wood and worked in a potato field”—and a poet of unusual range and power. ... Carruth today lives in the hilly limestone country between Utica and Syracuse. He and his fourth wife, Joe-Anne McLaughlin-Carruth, have a small red house perched on a hillside just outside the town of Munnsville, with a wide view of Stockbridge Valley. He bought the house on impulse in 1988 while on the faculty at Syracuse University, where he taught for a decade after leaving Vermont. A birdfeeder stands crookedly out front, and daisies and hawkweed flower in a nearby meadow. Traffic whooshes past, too close, on New York State Highway 46. ... Rejecting God and religion and what he sometimes dismisses as “Christian bullshit,” Carruth seeks no more transcendence than what human love affords. “The women in my life got me through, and sex with them got me through,” he says. “I think it’s more fun than anything else in the world, and more meaningful than anything else. Now I’m old and decrepit and I can say these things.” ... Carruth celebrates communion of all sorts. As singular and outspoken as he can be, he thinks the ideal of American individualism is dangerous and inherently violent. He knows too well the costs of solitude, and his poems display a respect for ordinary people.
Excerpts from http://magazine.uchicago.edu/0504/features/carruth.shtml accessed 8/8/08

Before his illness blossomed in 1953, Carruth was editor of Poetry at the age of twenty-eight, his poems were being published in the right magazines and journals, and he was on his way toward the type of conventional literary success of which, he had dreamed. When he collapsed it was recommended by his psychiatrist that he be admitted to Bloomingdale, a private asylum in White Plains, New York that was a branch of New York Hospital. While there for a little more than a year, he was heavily medicated with barbiturates and underwent numerous electro-convulsive treatments. His clinical diagnosis was "chronic and acute anxiety psychoneurosis with generalized phobic extensions." Carruth describes his condition as a neurotic, bordering on psychotic, fear of people and open spaces. Although, even now, when he talks about his illness one hears in his voice the inadequacy of any description. Despite his hospitalization, Carruth's condition did not improve. When he left the asylum, he went to his parents' home in Pleasantville, New York where he lived for five years in a make-shift room in the attic. There he listened to jazz and classical music, read, and, with great difficulty, wrote. He describes writing a line of poetry during that time as like "trying to squeeze glue out of an old, dried-up tube." With the exception of visits to his psychiatrist and late night attempts to walk to the end of the block while loaded with Thorazine, Carruth rarely left his room for much of that five year period.
It was during his time in the attic when Carruth discovered Camus. I am always moved when I imagine the serendipity of that discovery. Part of the pain of Carruth's illness was the severe contrast between the lucid, penetrating quality of his mind sabotaged by a deep and fundamentally inexplicable anxiety. The tension of living within a mind, the full beauty and power of which was crippled by a mysterious defect, fueled Carruth's sense of injustice. He had been living a sick joke at which he could not laugh until he read The Stranger. Camus invented a character (Meursault) who spoke to Carruth with all of the paradox, tension, and bewildered amazement at the circumstances of a particular life which Carruth harbored from his earliest memories, with one important exception: Meursault was free. The tone of his voice, what he chose to see, what he chose to ignore, reeked of an accomplished freedom Carruth never imagined possible until he read the first words uttered by the narrator of The Stranger: "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure." I like to think upon first reading those words Carruth smiled, paused, then began to laugh. He was hooked. I am sure he read the book several times, made notes, ruminated, made more notes. Eventually, with the help of a good psychiatrist, Carruth moved from his parents' home to a cottage on the Norfolk, Connecticut estate of his friend, James Laughlin, founder and publisher of New Directions. Laughlin offered Carruth the job of putting the back files of New Directions into order. During his time in Norfolk Carruth met and married his third wife, Rose Marie Dorn.
Excerpted from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3692/is_200407/ai_n9442607?tag=artBody;col1 accessed 8/8/08.

In his essay, Miller looked at one major influence on Carruth's poetry. "Carruth's relationship to jazz music has been lifelong," he noted, "and it has expressed itself on many different levels in his work." Carruth produced an essay, "Influences: The Formal Idea of Jazz," in which he described his personal feelings about the musical genre. He did read the prominent poets Ben Johnson, William Yeats, and Ezra Pound, but added that "the real question is not by whom I was influenced, but how." To Miller, Carruth's early grounding in traditional poetic forms prepared him to "improvise" later on, much like the way jazz musicians often study classical music early in their training: "The discipline must precede the rejection of discipline." In Carruth's poetry, that means using an external, fixed poetic structure upon which to launch improvisation. But even when he works in a spontaneous, "jazz" mode, his "poetic improvisation does not mean the abandonment of form or rhyme," declared Miller, "nor does it limit itself to any particular attitude or emotion. . . . What improvisation ultimately amounts to is structure becoming a function of feeling, whatever that feeling may be." Miller pointed to Brothers, I Loved You All as a prime example of Carruth in his spontaneous prime. Excerpted from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=1112 accessed 8/8/08.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

K. Silem Mohammad

K. Silem Mohammad asks the question that never seems to die: Is poetry a Technology?

I'm in the middle of teaching a 4-week online course on "Poetry and Technology," and some thoughts are bubbling up in my head that are probably too esoteric to include in my lecture notes (though that doesn't seem to stop me the rest of the time).

One of the assigned readings is Heidegger's 1958 essay "The Question Concerning Technology," in parts of which, as in other writings of his, he rehearses the old relation between poiesis and techne --"making" and "know-how," in the most simplistic translation I can render. Without getting too far as yet into Heidegger's notion of "enframing" (Gestell), the phenomenon he points to as the result of modern technology, that is, the "challenging-forth" of resources (including human beings) as a "standing reserve," I want to stop and mull over the poiesis/techne nexus, in ways that run the risk of stating the obvious, and/or simply reworking the gist of Plato's Ion, and/or boring the pants off of anyone.

Poiesis is making, techne is knowing how to do things, including making. When the making in question is of an explicitly material nature, as in sculpture, architecture, carpentry, etc., the role of techne is relatively unproblematic. It involves a knowledge of materials, tools, and, physical techniques (hence the word techniques). (This is the stating-the-obvious part, so please bear with me.) The techne of the builder, the craftsperson, the designer, is measurable and finite, at least at a certain basic level that defines minimal competence.

I'll put off till another time pondering at what point in history this happens, but at some point poiesis develops the specific sense of having-to-do-with-poetry, that is verbal poetry, that is an activity for which "making" starts to assume the status of a metaphor, something performed intellectually and/or emotionally that results in a physical artifact, but does not actually involve the manipulation of solid materials, other than a pen and paper (or keyboard, etc.). I say "other than" in order to point out that these materials, unlike, say, the marble used by a sculptor, do not inhere in the finished product--not that particular paper and ink, touched by the hands of the artist. The making performed by the poet is at a remove. It is a making that, for one thing, requires very little bodily exertion, things like repetitive-stress-syndrome aside. Most of it happens in the mind.

So as I was saying, poiesis eventually assumes this specialized sense. Or is this special sense there from the beginning? (I welcome input from persons whose philological acumen is more acute than my own--my days as a Classics major did not result in any permanent knowledgability.) That is, does poiesis from the very start stand in a relation of resistance to techne?

By "resistance," I mean to ask whether there is some implied distinction between the practical functionality of techne and a dreamier, more perverse aspect of poiesis. And if there is, is it there from the beginning, or does it emerge only at a certain time, under certain circumstances?

I'm worrying over all of this in order to get to my title question, whether poetry is a technology. I want to ask if there's a way of thinking about this in which it becomes clear that poetry absolutely cannot be a technology, almost by definition. And at the same time, I wonder whether poetry assumes an ironic relation to technology, in which it exploits technological resources, explores technological themes, and generally behaves as though it were a member of the set "things that are intelligible under the rubric of technology," precisely in order to burlesque that relationship, to flaunt its total resistance to any subsumption by (modern) technology.

In looking at the tendencies of the past century or so that involve heavy interaction between poetry and technology, one observes a fairly constant perversity quotient. Almost never is the interaction one of straightforward cooperation or mutual embrace, and even when it sets out to be, as in the case of the Futurists, the results are hardly coherent as a smooth symbiosis of industrial efficiency and artistic epideixis or supplication (let alone the inverse). Rather, one is always aware of the absurdity of the union, as though vandals had broken into a factory and readjusted the machinery so that its gears ran in useless circles, or so that its mechanized arms produced frivolous and obscene objects. This, in fact, is almost the entire program of 'pataphysics: an indulgence in the rote motions of "scientific" procedure, but with the prior knowledge and intention that any equations or formulae thereby derived will be fit for nothing more creditable than the outfitting of ducklings with bullet-proof vests.

Now, it is true, we live in a time when poets use technology constantly as a convenience and an aid to composition. Certain poetic works are designed expressly to be viewed/heard/experienced via technological media. Their very existence, in fact, would be unimaginable in the absence of technologies like Boolean generators, Flash animation, and so on. Is there a fundamental difference between these apparent alliances and say, Bob Brown's "readie" machine, a little wooden contraption with rollers that allowed a spool of text to unravel its message in an anticipation of digital advertising marquees and cable news networks' "crawls"?

My inchoate thesis is that when poetry puts on technological goggles and overalls, it does so ultimately to highlight its intrinsic incompatibility with the overarching agenda of modern technology--its capacity, perhaps, for "enframing" us all as a standing reserve of resources. This is in a sense yet another variation on the old "poetry makes nothing happen, and that's what's good about it" position. I'm tempted to push back further into history and suggest that poetry has also always had this relationship to philosophy, albeit in a necessarily subtler form.

Finally, part of what led me to write all this was the idea that the writing of poetry is most "successful" when one knows least what one is doing: when the poet's claim to techne is least sustainable. It's complicated, however, because it almost seems as though there has to be some claim to techne in place, just so that claim can be travestied, either overtly or in some secret laughing chamber of the poet's mind. Therefore, poetry written by persons without any literary or craft sensibility whatsoever will almost always be negligible, because the poet therefore has nothing to misapply or subvert. But poetry written under the misconception that there is a reliable set of techniques one can use in some "correct" way will be sterile, inert. If there is a technology of poetry, it is a technology of failure--a technology of the failure of technology, except so far as technology can be made to succeed in assisting its own failure as a measure of poiesis.

Posted at Mohammad's blog on Tuesday, August 5th, 2008. Used here without permission.


Saturday, August 02, 2008

Ethnic Identity

The following is excerpted from Jane Beal at The Poetry Place. The large bold type I added. I would like to comment here that we understand that she is presenting her opinion which is based on much education and thought. What is proven is proven to her, and glad as I am to have this from her, what is proven to her readers is for her readers to decide.

Jane writes: For several years, I have been teaching a writing course with the theme of “History, Memory, and Identity,” which, among other things, examines the autobiographies of men and women of mixed ethnicity. One writer, James McBride, has a Polish-Jewish mother and an African-American father. Another, Louis Owens, has a Cherokee-Choctaw and Irish ancestry, and still another, Vickie Smith-Foston, has an Armenian heritage though she was told all her life that she was of French and Italian descent. These writers’ lives prove what I have come to believe, namely, that ethnic identity is genetically inherited, socially constructed, and personally determined.

Over the years, I have come to see my own ethnic identity in these terms.
From my parents, I have genetically inherited the blood of the English, the Irish, the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Cherokee, and the West African peoples. My father’s surname, Beal, is an English name derived from the Old French word meaning beautiful or handsome (a word which occurs, for example, in the writings of the twelfth-century poet, Marie de France). My father’s mother’s maiden name, Baldwin, is Old English for bold friend. My mother’s maiden name, Bryan, is Irish and means strength, virtue, and honor. Her mother’s maiden name, Taylor, is a Middle English variant spelling of a word comparable in meaning to the modern English word “tailor.” Perhaps it is no surprise that my grandmother, Frances Taylor Bryan, was an expert seamstress who could sew a straight seam by hand at age three.

Excerpted from Statement Concerning Ethnic Identity accessed 8/2/08.