Archive for March, 2012

Leaping Into Haiku

Boy I feel all the joy of poetry reading all these magazines, I tell ya.  Before I started this blog, I was sure that only a small slice of American poetry was linear, spoke to people in a language a comon reader could understand.  Now, while I think there’s a big tent of poetry out there, a lot of styles and approaches, yet there’s a tremendous amount of straight-no-chaser poetry being written today.  Good stuff, often great stuff.  We’re in a  golden age, folks.

Anyhoo, Paul Miller has an interesting article in the current issue of Frogpond, “America’s Haiku Frontier,” comparing and contrasting contemporary Japanese haiku with the U.S. (North American?) variety.  One thrust of his essay, if I get it right, is that the magazines on this side of the water do not embrace fantasy (he also mentions direct metaphors, abstract language, and direct telling as no-nos for U.S. haiku), fantastic creatures, and the phantasmagoric (folks changing themselves) .

Well, as the author of the following two reasonably non-standard haiku, published in Modern Haiku and Frogpond, respectively, I’m thinking I have a different view.

the war

on the tv

in the background


Tuesday Tuesday Tuesday

Tuesday she died Tuesday

Tuesday Tuesday Tuesday

But I thought I would run through the mag itself and see how many poems directly contravene his thesis.  Right off, I found the end of a haibun, “apparitions,” by Al Fogel:

old negatives

held to the light…

smiling ghosts

and another haibun’s end, “Proof,” by Judy Stoddard:

Taken, cleaned, twisted,

Colored, wound, woven, donned —

I’m getting warmer

The former of which has a fantastic element, the latter of which piles abstractions one atop the other in a heap.

Or let’s go with an actual haiku, by Klaus-Dieter Wirth, in both English and German, which starts with the one line word: “imaginary”

and ends with “tracks in cypher”

(Want the middle line?  Buy the mag!  I have a standard of not producing anyone’s complete work, though I grant you it gets a bit problematic to discuss haiku with that stricture, and used the excuse of the first two pieces here being parts of haibun to stretch the matter a bit).  Which is enough to show there is some fantastic AND abstract woven in there.

And how do you call this a straightforward image:

“the old ache seeps downhill…”

by Mark Harris.  Which, P.S. and by the way, I love as a haiku (it finishes in a most satisfactory way, too).

Anyway, I don’t want to overstate, Miller is right on the nose for 95% of the haiku in these magazines, but there are those happy little edges where the rebels can have their fun.  Now how it will turn out as new editors take over, as we see happening now, I don’t know.  Surely many of our markets have been less adventurous than these two.  But it’ll be fun to find out, I’m guessing.

Happiness in haiku,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

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Poetry Poetry

What a deep, rich and wide vein of poetry this month in Poetry Magazine.  It starts with a sonnet sequence (only they kind of are and aren’t sonnets) by Patricia Kirkpatrick, “Vision Test,” “Survivor’s Guilt,” and “In Extremis,” beautiful and touching, about doing rehab after a brain tumor.  “Now age drapes childhood; // my hair, the incision.  I see a light, but forget // to click.”  the mix of varying metaphors with the details of the therapy, makes for a powerful experience.

Rick Barot works a series of words around and around in his poem, “The Wooden Overcoat.”  It starts: “It turns out there is a difference between a detail // and an image.”  It’s a poem that gets up and strides about the countryside, on its way to a satisfyingly strange ending.

I loved Eduardo C. Corral’s “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes,” written in a kind of Spanglish that’s familiar from my years living in Santa Fe.  “Once, borracho at breakfast, // he said: the heart can only be broken // once, like a window.”  Focus on the enjambment of that second line, how it deepens the meaning.  An I-am-my-ancestors poem that makes its point through repetitive images.  My favorite poem of the issue.

Yusef Komunyakaa’s work has always intrigued me.  He seems more oblique these days, but that’s probably just my limited exposure to his work (though I did buy one of his books, and enjoyed it).  His language calls me to keep going back to it, puzzle it out.  A wonderful quality in poetry.  His “Snow Tiger” starts out “Ghost sun half // hidden, where did you go?”  Again the enjambment is fun, the word ‘hidden’ being hidden on the next line, and then being caught by the ‘where did you go’ like a rebellious little child trying to escape.  But the poem has much greater depth and power than that little fillip implies.

I also enjoyed David Lehman’s “The Breeder’s Cup,” which has two quite different sections, and deserves some re-reading.

There are a number of other poems in the issue very much enjoyable, but let me mention at the last Wendy Videlock’s “!”  Gotta love the title.  The whole poem is just a hoot.  I love poetry that makes me smile.  It’s hard to write, I know, but very much worth it.  “I think that I shall never fear // a brontosaurus that is queer…”

And on that note, I leave you for the evening.

Peace and poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

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Riding Steel

In the current issue of Iron Horse Literary Review, Karrie Waarala has an engaging poem, “Still Life with Diner and Dog,” about that moment where we realize we are out of our element, among strangers, and they don’t think, act or behave like us.  “I think, ‘my god, they really talk like that up here,’ // as Lorraine asks, ‘That your dog?'”  There are amusing moments as the locals worry about the narrator’s dog out in the car as she sits inside, and Waarala does a nice job of turning the dog into a larger metaphor of her life at the end.

I also enjoyed Rebecca Parson’s “Phone Conversation,” about a sleepy conversation just before bed, in which we learn a lot very quickly about the couple speaking.   “…your father, // whose unsettled // prognosis changed // again.  The doctors don’t know // when, but…”  She does a great job of managing her enjambments to bring the reader along, and to add meaning and implications.  And I very much admire that ‘unsettled’.  Just the perfect word there.

Aran Donovan’s “Season of Insects,” is a poem that roared off after the inspiration of a great first line.  “What can we say of love // except it is full of bees?”  A line worth publishing a whole poem for, in my opinion.  ;->

Finally, I want to mention John Davis’ “Early Valentine,” a simple poem about a couple out for a walk, and stopping to kiss before they go in.  “how about kissing // one more kiss, a six-month early // Valentine kiss…”  Very sweet.  The straightforward language draws us in and makes us comfortable.

Thank you all.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson






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I tend towards positive comments on this blog, a conscious decision.  Often I read a magazine, and stomp about the house, saying how can they buy such ruckumschmuckem drivel and other biased fulminations, but that p.o.v. rarely gets pas tthe first draft here.  Simply enough, if I don’t care for a poem, I ignore it.  Why waste my time or my reader’s time?  And, of course, I try to keep in mind that I can be wrong.  I have been wrong a lot in my life, and embarrassingly so in many cases.   Not that this makes me so unusual. ;->  But it does, I pray, keep me reined in a little.

One poem I enjoyed for its humor in the current Laurel Review was “Brief on Brevity,” by Elizabeth Clark Wessel.  “When I try to understand the second law // of thermodynamics, I get stuck in metaphor.  When I try to understand metaphor, I never get stuck in the second law of thermo- // dynamics.”  Gotta chuckle at that.  And of course, the second law being things tend towards entropy, the fact is we probably DO get stuck in it when trying to understand metaphor, often enough — distracted by the cat, maybe, or something in the fridge, and there you are…!  I love poems that make me think and rethink.

Oni Buchanan has a poem, “Death Parachute,” which has some interesting images, playing around with a burlap bag and a chain link fence.  “the sunlight…created two fences: the fence itself, // and the shadow of the links cast // on the hovering surface of the billowing cloth.”  Quite arresting.  Honestly, though, I think the poem could have been tightened up, maybe ended with the phrase “to be surrounded by the colors we love // and the aromas most enchanting and familiar to us!”  An excellent line as well.

Way deep in the mag, Beckian Fritz Goldberg has the poem, “My Science,” which deals with the narrator’s recollections of the Gila Monster they kept in  second grade.  About the teacher’s spouse: “she seemed … as old // as the creased rock we studied…” about the Monster:  “”I’d study the writing // on his dull black body like pink-orange petroglyphs…”  A bit of grammatical difficulty there, but an arresting image all the same.  And this as well:  “The scorpions // we had had no venom.  They were just teachers.”  So many cool undertones involved.

Finally, I got a chuckle out of Mark Bibbins’ “Breakout Session.”  “Before we say anything else I’d like // to point out that this coverage // is favorable to the user.”  Kind of a loose, easy little poem.  “I’m quite sure I’ve uncovered // the source of this terrible light, // not quite lethal…”  Much fun to be found.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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I’m starting to understand American Scholar’s slant — they focus on a single poet, and have someone do a bit of an exegesis to intro the work.  It’s fun to hear what someone thinks of these poems — how someone reacts to them, and why.  (Of course, I would like something like that, eh?)

This issue features Kevin Young, a poet I have liked in the past, as I recall, though I can’t bring specific poems to mind.  Judging from these, I had good taste back then.  He starts with “Sorrow,” which does a couple really cool things right up front.  First, he manages to get the title to illuminate and deepen the entire poem.  This is not easy to do.  Mostly titles simply nail a poem down, give it a reference.  The better ones don’t give the whole show away.  But Young has a cannier agenda here — after giving you that hint, that theme, he starts with “The dogs ate what we did // only days // later.”  So he’s taking us on a journey away from the theme, or so it seems, but then snaps us back.  In the fourth stanza we start to get it: “”We feed them like sorrow // to keep them at bay…”  What a line.  And then an ending that just makes you stop, and start the whole poem again, coming to understand this is about grief, about death, and that oblique feeling we have at loss.

All these poems are about grief, it turns out, though sometimes we get at it sidewise.  “Wintering,” is the next one.  “I am no longer ashamed  // how for weeks, after, I wanted // to be dead…” The first line makes us want to read the second line, and the second the third, and the third line slaps us awake.  But note that word, ‘after.’  With that he has created a mystery, intrigued us: ‘after what?’ we want to know, and read onwards.  Great technique.  And so many worthy lines: “an old pattern of the dolls // of the world…”    Isn’t that why we read poetry, to have lines to whistle like a melody walking down the street? 

“Snow in April,” is at first a cute little poem, a fun, almost throw-away piece.  Very short.  “Winter, you are the worst kind of lover…”  But in the context of these other poems, it deepens, a laugh in the midst of hurt; suddenly the point of view is no longer amusing, but something more mixed.

“Effects,” is the poem of a master of the craft, an authorial voice with authority.  I’ll lay a few lines on you: “a town // not of the dead // but the deserted–” and “already your body lost // in the basement dark” and “in the morgue, the walls // of the dead // in their safe deposit boxes.”  Young is not looking to be cute, nor to impress.  He has something to say, and it matters.  I just love this guy.  Even better, rereading the poems returns a value as great as the first reading.  I’m glad America contains him.

Definitely worth going out to find some of his books.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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Penny By Penny

Someone reached my blog the other day with the phrase, “I don’t understand the poems in the New Yorker.”  Made me chuckle.  Don’t know that understanding is going to appear here, I get befuddled my own self.

But one answer might be to read the poems in The Threepenny Review.  This issue starts with a long poem by Louise Gluck, “Faithful and Virtuous Night.”  Anyone who has checked this blog out more than a time or so will know I have a hard time with long poems, they tend heavily toward bloviation in my view.  What I like about this one, though, is the turns away from the expected, again and again.  “My story begins very simply: I could speak…”  Then she describes her childhood: “On my bed, sheets printed with colored sailboats…”  She returns to themes, the boat theme here: “What really is the point of the lighthouse?  // This is north, it says.  // Not: I am your safe harbor.”  We learn much about the narrator’s childhood, how difficult it was, but with the occasional amusing aside.  “staring at the ceiling — never // my favorite part of the room.”  “my mother and father // were embarking on their last journey.”  So there’s a lot going on.  I guess what makes me really like this poem are the surges outward, the yearning to understand something deeper, to understand what is it going on out there: “something, I was sure, opposed the lungs, // possibly a deathwish — // (I use the word soul as a compromise.)”  Right at the end there is a twist that took me totally off guard.  “time passed: I became // a boy like my brother…” and then an ending that must be big enough to anchor such a large poem, sum it up, one all levels.  Not an easy assignment, but she certainly does so to my satisfaction.

I’ve given her so many words here, but there are other excellent poems in this magazine.  Kay Ryan continues the nautical theme, with “Ship in a Bottle.”  “not just a // ship in a // bottle but // wind and sea.”  So that stops me and gets me visualizing a bottle contains a ship and water, and then somehow wind.  Fun.  And a solid ending.  (Has she ever had an ending that failed?)

Dean Young gifts us a poem, “How to Be a Surrealist,” that doesn’t quite read as surreal for me (though it most certainly is).  Maybe because it has so many excellent lines, worth reading aloud.  “As long as there’s a sky, someone // will be falling from it.”  And, “red-wings // in rushes never forget their rusty-hinged // song.”

I liked Andrea Cohen’s straightforward, “Breaking and Entering.”  “The notion of the home // invasion is mostly myth.”  What a cool enjambment.  It’s neat to read such lines on their own, isolated from the rest, to see what emerges.  She also delivers some multiple meanings to add resonance.  “your interiors // get ravaged.”

A worthwhile read on the bus.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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