at Length’s Short Takes on Long Poems

I want to write the long poem, but I’m not sure I can.

Lately, I’ve been working with a particular form I’m tempted to call the singsong skinny sonnet and dismiss as hokey, but I don’t want to be ungrateful to something that’s been goading me to write more poems quickly. In addition, there’s also a commonality in the material that triggers these poems: they mostly have a specific focus on a pop-cultural artifact I barely remember or misremember (unintentionally or intentionally). That intrigues me, as it wasn’t part of the design. Finally, it’s also forcing me to think/write in shorter lines, which I wasn’t wont to do before, despite how much I enjoy reading, say, Graham Foust.

I don’t know how I’ll arrange these in my thesis. I can put them one after the other and call it a series; that would be justifiable. However, there may also be an advantage to spreading them out across the collection. We’ll see. I’ll think about these after writing more poems, whether in this form or another, as well as the critical essay.

(One worry that I do have is how I’m beginning to doubt my abilities to write in the jagged irregular-lined free verse poem I used to be comfortable in. Never satisfied, c’est moi.)

Anyway: I’ve loved at Length ever since I first read Jee Leong Koh’s ghazal sequence Barthes tribute “A Lover’s Recourse” some time back. I hope to submit something with length and quality to them someday. In the meantime, I’m very pleased they asked FIFTY writers to offer “Short Takes on Long Poems.” This is research, scoping out the landscape. Except that I wonder if a long poem is a mountain, because one reads it vertically on the Web, or a horizon, because it stretches in my mind as I read it.

  1. Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 1 (Dana Levin on Anne Carson‘s “The Glass Essay“)
  2. Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 2 (David Caplan on T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)*
  3. Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 3 (Michael Collier on John Berryman’s “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”)**
  4. Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 4 (Darcie Dennigan on Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Three Cows and the Moon”)

Some brief comments:

  1. I could have sworn I’ve read Levin before, but nothing strikes me as strongly familiar. That said, I love “The Glass Essay,” and I’m glad they chose that over, say, the book-length works Carson usually likes writing.
  2. While Caplan’s first experience with this poem matches my own, it’s a little weird that this would be the Eliot poem discussed for this series of articles instead of, say, The Waste Land or Four Quartets.
  3. Choosing this over The Dream Songs works, partly because of my relative familiarity with Dream Songs over Bradstreet.
  4. I’ve never heard of Kelly before this, but I love Dennigan, so this is great reading.
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David Shapiro

I brought a few poetry collections to work today. Three of them (Spicer, Stevens, Palmer) are omnibus volumes, “meta-collections” gathering collections that were previously published as separate books. The Lauterbach is a selection culled across several volumes, none of which are represented in its entirety, with a possible exception being the 1997-2000 poems in the section entitled The Call, which were gathered here in If In Time for the first time, as far as I know.

Foreground: four books from the personal canon. Background: lots of other significant stuff.

While I already have my hands/head/heart full with these writers (hands…literally!), there’s another book I meant to bring today but forgot to grab before I left. It’s a single collection, the only one I have by David Shapiro, and it’s ironic to think and write about this absent book when its title is After A Lost Original.

I first found out about Shapiro when a Google search for either “Ezra Pound” or “John Berryman” led me to this piece about difficult poetry collections, with The Sonnets of Ted Berrigan (onetwothreefour!) now joining The Cantos and The Dream Songs. The comments were even more helpful by pointing to poets I was already familiarizing myself with (Hart Crane, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting) and Shapiro, who I only found out about through a comment that “nominated” A Burning Interior.  Another Google search, for Shapiro and his “difficult” collection this time, led me to a fantastic set of articles and interviews on Jacket.

I’m fond of quoting lines from After A Lost Original, such as the last two lines/sentences that end, um, “Sentences,” which I’ve always found heart-tugging in its evocation of a link between author and reader, one based on an experience not founded on understanding and knowledge:

The reader loses his way richly, but it is not certain that the reader loses.
Nevertheless, you found your way about, though I do not know you. (31)

I also like Shapiro’s “Prayer For My Son,” a response to (parody of, rewrite of) Yeats that offers advice like:

Be concealed
Like a conceptual tree
And when you need to be explicit, be (18)

and (cited here)

Forget what you have earned
Learn to know what you have not yet learned
Until you confuse the good
With the beautiful
Don’t seek out the wise, be wise
Never abandon the beloved
Just close your eyes
To the world and open your eyes. (ibid.)

In fact, and this is why I’m a bit irritated about not having my copy of After A Lost Original at hand, I like the lines Michael Leddy cites in his review, such as this one from “You Are The You” (the 8th poem in the Broken Objects, Discarded Landscape section):

To look up into your face
Is like looking into the devastated stars (33)

and, from the third stanza of “Dido To Aeneas” (4th in the same sequence):

I am a city and a statue and a wall and a revenge
It is a recent cut like an accident in a forest. (29)

and, from “The Mistranslation,” the third poem in the sequence entitled Voice:

The mountain hears bright shadows shine.
A mountain brightens; shadows shine.
I hear the mountains; bright shadows shine. (57)

I’m moved by how seemingly ordinary language in lines becme dramatized by a line break that turns a verb into an imperative (again, from “You Are The You”)

To whom does the you in your poem
Refer (33)

I wish I could say something more coherent about Shapiro’s collection, but I’ll just leave it to William Keckler who blogs about Shapiro’s After A Lost Original here and also includes “You Are The You,” the source of the last lines I’ve just quoted. And over here, Keckler has Shapiro’s “A Night Of Criticism,” another one I often plunder for lines to cite.

Here’s a PDF of Thomas Fink’s critical essay on Shapiro’s New And Selected Poems, which I’d go ahead and order if I wasn’t so fixated on buying each of Shapiro’s other collections, so as to get as much of his poems in my hands/head/heart.

I’ve linked to Joanna Fuhrman‘s interview with Shapiro before, but here it is again. I just enjoy reading it now and again. From its evocative title (“pluralist music” sounds like something that calls to me as an ideal to aspire for in my own writing) to so many gems and insights, it’s well worth reading again and again. If I had a hard copy of it, I’d be highlighting most of the text.

Finally, here are some aphorisms from Shapiro that dance around how he “makes it new — with stickers.” I’m not as skilled in that kind of papercraft, but here’s something to look at and think about:

Heavy meta mayhem!

My Rambling and Personal Context for Jack Spicer’s “A Lecture On Practical Aesthetics”

From Ann Lauterbach’s “Introduction” to The Night Sky:

…I have a desire for a practical aesthetics, wherein connections to the making or appreciation of forms have direct application to daily life, and daily life in turn inflects and conditions how to relate to the forms, artistic and otherwise, of the world. This shifting reciprocity is central to these writings. (4, italics hers)

I’ve read those words several times before, and based on what else I’ve been reading deeply these days, Lauterbach’s words resonate with, say, those of Michael Palmer from “Octavio Paz: Circulations Of The Song”:

The first stirrings of vanguardism…can be found in the theoretical matrices of German and English romantic theory, with its revolution of forms, its conflating of genres, its collapsing of life into art and art into life.”  (108-108, italics mine)

I also think of Wallace Stevens and the constant not-as-simple-as-it-seems dynamic of reality and imagination animating much of his work, and how it seems on one level to fit within the art-life scheme but, and I think this is important, not on others.

And then I think of Jack Spicer.

During the Vancouver lectures Spicer delivered shortly before he died, the poet was asked how Stevens fits into the notion of the serial poem Spicer discussed in detail in the second lecture. You can hear the question and answer on the audio clip embedded on this page, but here’s the quick answer: Spicer doesn’t really think “Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction” or “The Man With The Blue Guitar” conform to his ideal for the serial poem.

Spicer sounds a little unsure though, at least enough to somewhat concede a little and cite Transport to Summer (incidentally, the collection where “Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction” is found as the final poem) as coming close to what Stevens was trying to do in Harmonium. He’s unsure enough to say “I don’t know” before discussing instead what one may call the academic context of reception of Stevens (more on this later) and admitting that the term “serial poem” isn’t really very strong.

The first interesting point here is the emphasis on the book as the serial poem itself, which seems to me a play of scale (book = serial poem) similar to that found in a Symbolist like, say, Stephane Mallarme, whose “Crisis Of Verse” (PDF) ends with the following paragraph equating word with poem:

It’s an idea compelling enough to have been echoed in Hart Crane‘s “General Aims And Theories”:

(I’ve left out the part of “General Aims And Theories” that led to this sentence, but it’s worth reading for the explicit link Crane makes between the Romantic and the Symbolist when he mentions Blake and discusses matters in terms of innocence and experience.

The latter word, by the way, bears a rich set of etymological associations, one taken up by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, from which that footnote was taken, and by Lauterbach, who not only writes within what she calls a “poetics of experience” but also links that word with the experimental.)

Nowadays, Spicer’s book as serial poem idea no longer seems so radical if, instead of grounding it in the dictation from a Martian radio–a science fiction update of traditional occult sources of the poetic as may be found in, say, Williams Yeats and Blake–we instead think of it in  pragmatic terms. “The book as project,” for example, or what Natasha Sajé calls dynamic design and the structure of books. Also, the requirements of an MA thesis in creative writing.

So despite Spicer having it out with the Romantic tradition, when he offers the figure of the poet not as

a beautiful machine which manufactured the current for itself, did everything for itself—almost a perpetual motion machine of emotion until the poet’s heart broke or it was burned on the beach like Shelley’s—instead there was something from the Outside coming in

there seems to be a more complicated relationship going on between Spicer and Romanticism. (As an aside: I’m amused and shocked that Spicer would use as an example Shelley, who for Michael Palmer

represents a radical alterity, an alternative to the habitual discourses of power and mystification by which we are daily surrounded and with which we are bombarded. He represents a poetry of critique and renewal, rather than of passive re-presentation, a poetry which risks speaking to the central human and social occasions of its time, yet speaks from a decentered and largely invisible place. It exploits the margins to speak as it will, out of difference, rather than as it is always importuned and rewarded, out of sameness. (204)

But there’s something else going on here, and it has to do with the academic discourse framing Stevens in 1965. Right after Spicer tries to half-heartedly discuss the aesthetics of Stevens’s work by means of the serial-poem question, he says the following oftquoted remark, expressing with more conviction why he “distrusts” Stevens:

The awful thing I’ve noticed about Stevens that I’ve noticed is that everybody in English departments who hate poetry, which is just about everybody, loves Stevens. I liked Stevens a great deal more before I saw that. You get somebody you know very well just hates poetry, like some people hate baseball or French movies like I do. You know there’s just a real weird hatred. Well, they always like Stevens, all of these people. And the more they hate poetry as it is in the process, the more they like Stevens. So although Stevens moves me, I’ve gotten more and more distrustful of him.

As strange as it may be to connect Spicer and Louise Gluck, I can’t help but remember how she also feels a similar distance towards Stevens, assuming of course that distrust can be rightly considered distance and a lack of intimacy and nearness. I think it does, somewhat, and that’s where an interesting dynamic of agon takes place.

I found Aliki Barnstone’s essay on Hart Crane moving precisely because she struggles against Crane and herself: “My intent when I began this piece was to defend Crane, but as I reread, I found myself recoiling. I’d never written about a writer I wasn’t in love with, and now I’d fallen out of love with Hart, viscerally.”

Similarly, I like it when a struggle with Stevens takes place in poems by, say, John Berryman, Terrance Hayes, Cole Swensen, or Frank Bidart. (I guess, for the sake of consistency, I should also say that I like my bitter struggle with what seems to be a Bloomian preoccupation, despite some misgivings I may have about some of his critical judgments.)

And so, I go back to beginning, though I’ve digressed so much that I’ll have to talk about this in another entry.

That bit from Lauterbach at the very top? The “practical aesthetics” she italicized and which she links to her “poetics of experience”? That rang a bell with me when I read it recently, because just before I did, I read an early Jack Spicer poem where he struggles with Stevens from an aesthetic, rather than discursive, perspective. It’s an apostrophe to “Mr. Stevens” and the repetition of that address at several points in the poem sound to me like a snotty punk kid doing an “Officer Krupke” spiel.

The title of Spicer’s poem? “A Lecture On Practical Aesthetics.” Emphasis frigging mine. But I’ll write about this next time. This has gone on too long.

More Berryman

John Berryman envisioned his Dream Songs poems to wed “gravity of matter” and “gaiety of manner.” It’s apparently in his notebooks, but I only came across it when I read David Wojahn’s essay on Berryman. I originally just wanted to quote the passage, but this has become a surprising bit of self-examination of my own poetic project at this point in time.

Anyway, Wojahn didn’t write it though, as he quotes from Paul Mariani’s Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman. Mariani, of course, quotes from Berryman himself, and to further the cycle here I am quoting the entire passage Wojahn quoted from Mariani who quoted Berryman himself:

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John Berryman

In the process of getting to know John Berryman, I’ve read:

  1. this interview from The Paris Review, conducted a year before he died and published in an issue that contains an unrelated pleasant surprise: the print publication of one of my favorite Velvet Underground songs (listen and try fail to read along)
  2. David Wojahn’s highly-engaging memoir-cum-critical-essay “‘In All Them Time Henry Could Not Make Good’: Reintroducing John Berryman”
  3. the notes on Berryman and samples of his work on this entry from one of the best reasons I still have for entering the LiveJournal URL on my browser
  4. what seems to be the complete Dream Songs, from 77 Dream Songs to the beautifully-titled His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

I want to print out all of these, so I can highlight the parts that resonate so strongly with me. “Resonate” is a good word to use: I don’t claim to understand everything Berryman does, but just like with Hart Crane (another poet I’m also reading about these days), there’s something in the work and the life that sings to me.

One more thing (for now):

I’ve only just realized that Michael Robbins’s “Alien Vs. Predator” (one of my favorite contemporary poems) makes what seems a reference to Berryman’s characterization of Rilke as a jerk in “Dream Song 3: A Stimulant for an Old Beast.” I like Rilke’s work a lot, and he was instrumental in getting me interested in poetry, but I must confess I find it hilarious when poets call him a jerk.