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Archive for January, 2013


In this week’s New Yorker, Claudia Emerson gives us “Early Elegy: Barber,” about a barber sitting in his chair, we assume waiting for customers who do not come, “facing / a wall of empty mirrors reflecting…the backs of his head, one after / the shrunken, redundant other…” Her turn, such as it is, comes when the man covers the tv at the end of the day. It’s a pretty straightfoward piece, the depth coming from a mirror being held up to one of us, in this-is-your-life fashion, metaphorically to show how one day reflects another, on and on, so we can give the fellow his elegy early, nothing’s going to change. A bit downbeat, I’m thinking. ;-> The horror is kept at one remove, which can be a very powerful multiplier. We don’t plunge emotionally into this poem, but we do feel the guy is losing something precious, drip by drip. The latest by one of our Pulitzer winners.

Now “Idyll,” by Richie Hofmann, takes a whole different approach, much livelier. Here’s a poem that takes standard metaphor — comparing various things to a mouth — and makes it interesting by jumping the metaphor around. It starts, “Cicadas bury themselves in small mouths / of the tree’s hollow…” but then has the wind grazing, one life abrading another as a rough tongue might, and ends with a final simile starting with “When I open my mouth…” So it’s not just the tree like a mouth, but a whole bunch of things that end up sharing the metaphor. Then he braids that together with a religious/spiritual theme, through: “I who pray I might shake off this skin and be raised…” and a line about confession. His third braid, with only two brief references, is about lovemaking. Back in the day it seems to me a single metaphor was enough to sell a poem, then at some point two metaphors had to share the poem, now it seems that a three metaphor braid is almost required to crack the top markets. And note the relationship between the metaphors. I saw Louise Gluck pull off this multiple braiding strategy in a poem in the New Yorker a few years ago, and immediately tried the technique myself, ending up with a poem that I placed with Nimrod, so it’s something that has appeal to editors. There is a danger, of course, in making a poem that’s a little too disconnected from the audience — getting the ‘huh?’ reaction — but it does have advantages; among other things, when done right it keeps the surprises rolling in. Editors love surprises. I don’t know that they are as critical for audiences, honestly, but the editors are the experts on that, and it’s a well-crafted poem either way.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Then in this week’s New Yorker, we are confronted with Michelle Whittaker’s “Process,” which strikes me as analogous to an early Cubist painting. Just as the title of a painting tells us this is about cats, and sure enough we can sort of see whiskers here and a tail over there, so in the beginning of this work we get pieces of a poem about a girl growing up: “Sometimes I’m a well-carved straggler / inside this kid.” who’s sometimes flirtatious “I’m the halter / falling from shoulders…” even sexy “I am a lifeguard inside / downing on the observers” and sometimes just discovering how to play, and the limits of play: “between high-five divers / and pushed play under the panic…” But in the middle fo the poem, Whittaker introduces the ‘you’ interacting with this young girl: “for you I am only the next inhale…” and we see this becoming a love poem: “I will crawl forever to the edge of almost / just like you…” It’s not a linear poem, and not an easy one, because not everything ties up into a neat bow, but we can see the poem underneath the surface, if you will, and what floats up is intriguing.

The other poem in the magazine is Michael McCLure’s “Mephisto 20” another relatively non-linear poem, but again one we can sort of peer into and make out shapes: “the garden does not sleep at night.” “finding stars, blotches of odor, / and pulses of organs…” from these we maybe conclude this is a poem about the universe writ large, what it’s like to be alive in the universe. For me, the whole poem is summed up, even saved, by the last two sentences, the first being an extreme closeup of a single detail, “the twitch of a zebra’s haunch…” and the other giving context to the reader, explaining who the narrator thinks himself to be. I was thinking to myself that I have seen other McClure Mephisto poems, so I googled him, and discovered McClure gives a bit of his own thinking on this poem ou there, if you are interested.

At this late date, I think of all the Beat poets as writing poems that sort of fling/flung images by the dozens against the wall to see which might make lasting marks. Not rigorous, tight poems, but here and there creating an interesting resonance. A danger/limitation of any work of art, I would argue, is it can at best only be as profound as the artist creating it. So we see La Pieta, and feel Michelangelo knew something eternal about the human condition in the tension between the humanness of Mary’s grief holding the body of her dead son and the divine power of the character of Jesus that transcends grief for all of us. That overcomes even grief, if you will. The field of humanness reveals the divine majesty. So we read Shakespeare, and find something deeply meaningful in the banter between characters — that the wisdom of Polonius (and Shakespeare had to have that wisdom to write it) should come from the mouth of a fool no one will ever listen to. The profundity is added to by the context of the player. Does that require far more structure, and reflection, than just flinging images one after the other rapid-fire? Before we answer with a snarky ‘of course’, remember Willy the Shake threw off these plays two and three a year, while acting as well, and writing poems on the side. How much deep reflection could he have had time for? We’ll never know. Either way, I would guess a quick, zen-like creation of art is the best way, sometimes, to get at that greater truth that piles up in layer after layer.

And thinking about how long it took Michelangelo to carve his marble sculptures, sometimes not. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Gonna comment on the last New Yorker rather than the one from this week, as I have been brooding over the poems a bit, letting them filter in.

So. Jan 14th, Galway Kinnell gave us “I Coyote, Stilled Wonder.” Not still wonder, but stilled. Right in the title he makes us stop and look a little more carefully. Then: “When did I get this bejawed look, that flashes up out of creeks and ponds…” He does a couple things in this opening sentence to bestir our interest — the neologism of “bejawed,” first off. What does that mean? And the sentence itself doesn’t make a lot of sense; but Galway Kinnell, from past experience, is a poet who does explain himself, so we are willing to read on to see what he means. And the poem does explain itself: we learn the “I” narrator is the coyote of the title, and he’s celebrating having eaten a calf. But there is “Man glaring into bloody mess on ground.” A big truism in poetry is the more words you cut out, the more powerful the poem. I might have spread that cant myself. ;-> Is this poem a little extreme in adherence to that notion? Or does that sentence suggest the primitive thought process of a coyote? Either way, “I could see Man raise arms, / steady his over-and-under, and squeeze.” Over-and-under being a type of shotgun. So there is a conflict here, and a threat to the narrator. The coyote is shot, and the title instantly takes on a deeper meaning. Stilled as in dead? But this reading conflicts with the bejawed look flashing up: that implies the coyote is seeing its reflection in the waters. So ‘stilled’ as in silent, maybe. His jaw was shot off: bejawed. The primal conflict between man and coyote gives tension, and keeps us reading and worrying out the deeper meanings. Adding interest though conflict is a good technique for the toolbox, one overlooked too often — we may think of it more as a fiction trick, but why not use it in our own craft? Food for thought. I know I went right out and tried a poem with conflict after this. I’ll let you know if it sells.

Billy Collins pretty much never uses the technique of a confusing line later explained: he’s clear and straightforward. So he has to rely on other strengths to keep the reader going. In his poem “Catholicism,” he starts with “There’s an opposum who appears here at odd times…” well, already there’s a disjuncture between title and first image. Why an opposum? Catholics play dead a lot? He keeps us interested through the first stanza or so simply with the power of acute observation and the telling detail, as we follow the opposum — who’s an interesting creature, inherently, after all: “he gets so close to the window…that I start to review my sins…” Well, that seems a little off. Looking at an opposum does not immediately make me think of my sins. And Collins acknowledges this: “What is it about him that causes…an examination of conscience?” Collins lists qualities of an opposum that might lead to such a turn, up to: “His opposable thumbs / able…to lift a chalice…” Bingo: the opposable thumbs make him like a human. Priest-like. So, priests playing dead? Digging through garbage? Funny of face, but a bit alien as marsupials, whatever that might conjure up? At the end we are presented a conflict between Collins and his Catholicism, done in such a flourish of detail that I at least am satisfied with the poem overall, and ready to go back and dig further into what symbols might be here, what meanings have been hidden, why I am a bit disturbed by this poem overall.

Peace in 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.

Related blog posts:

Rattle Magazine – Fall 17

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Poetry Not Critiques


There was more in this month’s Poetry than the critiques, fortunately, and I want to be sure to take a moment to cheer for Wendy Videlock’s gamble in her poem, “Proverbial.”  To take pithy little cliches, and turn them inside out one after another, and then try to make a poem out of it — you’re just so likely to end up with mud on your mallet. (see what I mean?  It’s hard to turn cliches inside out).  She dances the edge of that tightrope quite well: “Where there’s smoke there is emphasis,” and “All that glitters has been revised.”  And the one-liners get better at the end.  She’s got a new book out, folks, I’m just mentioning. ;->

Also, Shann Ray’s “Hesperus” is just straightly sweet, no irony, no posing.  Nice to see, and a fun poem.  I think we’re going to see more of him.

Finally, I really liked Kelly Cherry’s “Their Pleas.”  I don’t know that I understand who ‘they’ are by the end of the poem: “they want tokens…something small / and useful, something that will help them out / after life, maybe in an underworld.” But what a hair-raising line.  And such a spooky ending.

Peace in 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.

Related Blogs:

Poetry Poetry

Rattle Magazine – Fall 17

The New Yorker – Oct 30, 17

 

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In this month’s Poetry Magazine, several poets were asked to discuss poets they thought terribly overrated.  As victims, we got a mix of the usual suspects (e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas), and those not as often derided (Wallace Stevens, Baudelaire) so I thought I’d weigh in.  Now, what makes a great poet?  In one way, I have a pretty pessimistic view of the great poets — for me, in order to be considered great, one need only write a couple of timeless poems.  One probably isn’t enough, or Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress would have to get the nod.  Since I can’t say that I much cared for what else I’ve read of Marvell, let’s say one has to write two timeless poems to be a classic poet.  And here’s where I get harsh: I just don’t think very many poets have written many more than one or two great poems, even in long careers.  John Greenleaf Whittier, John Masefield, the list of those with a pile of solid work and one or two breath-taking poems is long, but for me, a classic poem almost memorizes itself: “I must go down to the sea again…” and it gives that emotional kick, that hair-raising moment: “and a star to steer her by.” and there just aren’t that many of those poems in anybody’s career.

So then I look at e.e. cummings, and the number of his poems I have big chunks of by heart is significant: the little goat man whistling far and wee, what do you think of your blue-eyed boy now Mr. Death, starting a worm farm, all these decades later, they’re all still in my head.  I will grant you the man wrote lots of drivel, pushing the boundaries until the works became meaningless.  Not a big negative to me, since even absolute top poets, Dickinson, Frost, also have huge swaths of forgettable work.

Dylan Thomas I understand the concerns over a little better, since his language is so often arch, and since his range of even decent poems is arguably narrower, but again, do not go gentle, and the language of Under Milkwood (granted it’s a play), and especially a Child’s Xmas in Wales…well, poets are home run hitters, and he’s walloped his necessary few, for me.  So he gets a mulligan on Fern Hill.

Now Baudelaire I figure I’ve just never seen a  decent translation, so I give the guy a pass.  It stinks in English, but I don’t read French, is my view.  Wasn’t je c’est autre Rimbaud?  One gets confused.

And Wallace Stevens…my wife and I wrote short stories together, and one of our most successful (published in Amazing) was titled “A Dwelling In The Evening Air.”  Yeah, I get that the poems don’t sing, and they are so far up in the head one might catch sinusitis, but the language is strung together in such a fascinating way: “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” I mean who even thinks to put a phrase together like that?  And I have quoted bring the roller of big cigars, and concupiscent curds, right out loud at my job (they do think I’m a bit peculiar, yes, why do you ask?) and from Eros Tyrannos: he waits and looks around him.  And the descending stair down which the blind are driven. Again, the measure of a poet for me is not the dreck, since we all have so much of it, but the home runs, the phrases that leap off the tongue.

Think of the vastly famous current crop of poets, and how many of them you can’t quote a lick of, before you beat on the flawed folks of the past.

But to prove I have no hobgoblins of foolish consistency in my head, I probably agree on the matter of Elizabeth Bishop.  Of course, she does have that fish…  ;->

Still, if you disagree with all the above, I’m always open to education and correction.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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Couple of good poems in the New Yorker this week — Joshua Mehigan, whom we have seen here before, gives us “Joe Pipe,” using the slow revelation of detail to surprise, intrigue, and draw us through the poem.  “The black cowboy hat / with buffalo nickel trim…”  An alluring start: what is buffalo nickel trim?  Turns out he’s describing a man, who at first we think might be elegant as he sits on the park bench  with his black boot resting on his delicate knee, but then he “raised to his ear again / the dumb radio / with the hole in the back / where the batteries should’ve been…” and with that elision, a dropping into casual language, we realize something is not quite right with Joe Pipe.  This is an an affecting and sensitive poem, and so well strung together we are barely aware it all rhymes, just the little bit extra you expect from a fine New Yorker poem.

Again and again I have been impressed with D. Nurske, and his poem “The Pearl” is no exception, right from the start.  “She lost an earring — who knew / our bed could be so vast?”  In my view, the skilled use of phrases with multiple meanings is what gives great poems their power, and so it is with this one.  I am constantly amazed at the number of poets who either do not recognize that basic truth of poetry, or simply choose not to use the tool.  It may be they never learned to write poems with such meanings.  Is the skill not taught in school?  Having not gone to school for poetry, I can’t answer that, but the list of even renowned poets who don’t use the technique leaves me thinking some school of poetry somewhere must have decided that such a technique is a base trick, unworthy of true poets, and so many editors just don’t buy such poems.  Sort of like how Rust Hill damaged serious American fiction by proclaiming stories don’t need plots.  The possibility flabbergasts.  It is the Holy Grail for me as a poet to write poems that deliver such emotional and spiritual kicks — I use the trick every chance I get.

Anyway, Nurske then gives us a sort of Whitmanesque listing of what else she finds in the bed while hunting for the earring, and ends with another line that can be read multiple ways, giving the poem a final, huge kick, making it worthy of the New Yorker, and proving my contention about how powerful the technique is. <grin>

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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In the February 2013 issue of Asimov’s (don’t know why they like to count a month ahead) Ruth Berman’s “How Many” is a fun little derivation from the phrase how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  “Well, it depends. / Self expression, / Room for one’s plenty.”  Then she reviews what happens with two angels, all the different dances one might see in that case, then keeps increasing the number, eight, nine, reaching ten “Chagalling overhead / To make up the minyan, /The angel with the fiddle.”  Kind of a cerulean square dance, I guess.  ;->  I liked it.

Bruce Boston outdoes himself this month, with “Curse of the Procrustean’s Wife,” turning the old Greek Procrustean myth into a modern fable of emotional abuse.  “She was once a woman / of moderate size…with moderate / needs and desires.”  It develops in a compact, powerful manner: “the longer / she stays by his side, / as he delimits her needs and defines her…”  The abuse, of course, increases, and the result, at the end, is devastating.  A great poem.

Finally, Robert Frazier gives us “7:17 AM, June 30, 1908, Central Siberia,” which title gives the time and location of a meteor (?) striking the earth.  He distributes eyewitness quotes to lay the groundwork: “the sky split in two” “fire appeared high and wide” then discusses how investigators, decades later, could not find the spot, and speculate on why this might be: “‘no crate site revealed’ by the aerial survey of 1938.”  Meteor?  Spacecraft?  You be the judge.  Kind of an interesting review of what-ifs and what-might-bes.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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