The Spoils: October 2012

  1. A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (I’ve never really read this straight through, but this was cheap, and I liked the idea of having an old battered copy–it’s the eighteenth printing: I wonder how old this actual copy is)
  2. The Annotated Milton: Complete English Poems (my thesis adviser is big on Milton, and I’ve been meaning to get into Milton as well, given how important a figure he is; I just hope there aren’t too many other errors in this one, especially one as big  as “When I consider how my life is spent…” OH MAN)
  3. The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers (not just the first novel I bought in ages but also the first one I read and finished in around that time: my self-justification, apart from how it’s a cracking good story, was that I was doing research for my thesis since Keats, Byron and the Shelleys are in it)
  4. Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works (yes, at last I’ve bought this! I’ve mentioned Hopkins several times here, so I just want to link to commentaries on “The Windhover”: Mlinko’s study guide, pieces by Kwame Dawes and Carol Rumens, and this attempt at memorizing it)
  5. Shoulder Season by Ange Mlinko (reviews of the collection, poems by Mlinko, a critical essay on language acquisition, a conversation between her and Michael Robbins)

In some ways, especially with the first two, I feel like my October purchases have to do with poets I should have studied in school but didn’t.

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Poetic Discursiveness and Lineated Prose: Some Questions

Though his discussions of J.V. Cunningham’s “Epigram #1” from Doctor Drink and Frank Bidart’s “Golden State” in the essay aren’t bad, I find Robert Pinsky’s “Two Examples of Poetic Discursiveness” rather unconvincing on a conceptual level. I’m not sure I can do better and perhaps the problem’s with me when I fail to understand how he proceeds

  • from identifying the contradictory senses of “discursive” in how it “describes speech of writing which is wandering and disorganized” but “can also mean ‘explanatory’–pointed, organized around a setting-forth of material (133)”
  • to reconciling those opposites by referring to the figure of “motion over terrain…going through or going over one’s subject” (to which he adds, “Such a method tends to be inclusive; it tends to be the opposite of intuitive,” which confuses me partly because I’m not too clear about the relationship he makes between “inclusive” and “intuitive”)

And I can’t quite articulate why I’m so bugged when the preceding discussion finally leads him to describe “poetic discursiveness” as:

It is speech, organized by its meaning, avoiding the distances and complications of irony on one side and the ecstatic fusion of speaker, meaning and subject on the other. The idea is to have all the virtues of prose, in addition to those qualities and degrees of precision which can be called poetic (ibid).

When I think about it, perhaps this is rooted in differences between Pinsky’s poetic and mine. The promise I see when he asserts, “Much of the work of the so-called ‘New York poets’ could be described as mock-discursive (134)” is defused when he follows that with: “Moreover, much of the memorable writing by these poets seems to emerge when there is the least amount of ‘mock’ statement, the largest element of open discourse (ibid.).”

And I guess I also had some problems of expectation. I thought Pinsky would look at something that would illuminate, say, Zukofsky having been “moved by the fact” of how Stevens’s “music thruout has not been impaired by having philosophized (97).” I also thought Pinsky might address the common problem of poems that seem more like “lineated prose,” but that doesn’t happen either.

Now if I could do it, that is, if I could go through the subject matter of poetic discursivity, to, as it were, discourse on discursivity, I’d like to look into:

  1. John Ashbery’s “Definition of Blue”
  2. portions of Frank Bidart’s “Advice to the Players” and the whole of “Young Marx” (both found near the bottom of this page)
  3. Matthea Harvey’s “I Would Have Stayed,” which lineates the sentence from Giorgio Vasari that begins with “The vinedresser of the Belvedere having found a very strange lizard…”
  4. Butterflies, Lineated,” where Jeffrey Robinson lineates a phrase from one of Keats’s letters, with other examples of such “found poems” here

I’m one of those willing to quote “without irony” from the Ashbery poem, so I think I’m missing something when I read it, as I do, with a straight face. The same goes for the prose portions of Bidart’s “Advice to the Players. “Young Marx,” however, apart from “attribution of source” at the end, does gain something from the lineation, as does Harvey’s poem and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Robinson’s lineation of Keats.

So, once again, lineation, and what it does to syntax, especially the syntax of prose. It’s also a matter of diction as well, I suppose. The result is some kind of “discursive transformation,” I guess, but what kind? And more importantly for people who write poems, how?

Lines from Mark Levine

I’ve been coming across Mark Levine lately, mostly because I’ve been reading this book (which I pretty much bought because of his poem “John Keats”) but also coincidentally, because the latest issue of Poetry magazine has three of his poems, all entitled “Unemployment” (1, 2, 3). I read those poems at the right moment; for some reason, they just made emotional sense to me and even got me writing a poem that I knew I’ve been wanting to write for some time now.

I found a review of his early collection Debt. It was extremely critical of the book, though strangely, the lines singled out as problematic by the critic (who I like a lot, actually) seem to me interesting, in one way or another. I decided to put them here for my reference, even if I don’t have access to the complete poems from which they were taken.

From “Morning Song”:

Here I am ringing all the alarm bells!
Here I am lighting the ovens!
Here I am waking the guests, here passing out numbers!
Look, I’ve armed the corpses–they’re angry, Boss,
they don’t feel like talking.”

From “Intervention”:

“The head, properly speaking, is an ornament, the icing
on God’s rotting biscuit.” Don’t look now, Partners

in this Poem, but I think we have said the wrong thing.
The Government has stolen my mask, and my skin

is a fiercely decorated, flaming banner.”

From “Inside”:

“The noises coming from his room like wounded birds
turn out to be wounded birds.”

From “Poem for the Left Hand”:

“I’m all that’s left
behind, half of me. I shall not want”

From “The Message”:

“He found me.
It’s so dark I can hear his finger
pointing at me. Which is my cue”

From “Double Agents”:

They knock on my door in whiteface speaking for God.

Go away, I say, I’m in bed
with my mother, I can’t be disturbed. She denies it.

The Spoils: May 2012

Slowing down, slowing down, this blog is slowing down. I have a Tumblr account, so why do I keep reblogging here? (Answer: Because there are a lot of good entries being posted on WordPress by other people.)

So May saw me double the purchases I made in April; instead of one book last month, I bought two. In a couple of months, my book acquisitions will make a huge comeback, but I’d like to uphold quality over quantity once again:

My Not-Quite-Blunden Nearly-But-Not-Complete Edition

To be honest, that Keats is just a “placeholder” until I can get a more definitive and complete edition. (I’m considering the Stillinger.)

Here’s my other book purchase for May:

This is my third book by Muldoon. The first one I bought was the Oxford lectures collected as The End of the Poem, and the second was Madoc: A Mystery. I’m not sure I like Muldoon as much as I do Ciaran Carson, but I do love what little I’ve read of Muldoon. He’s definitely someone I’m interested in exploring further.

Tony Harrison

Browsing through a copy of his Selected Poems at a bookstore the other evening, my attention was drawn to one of the poems in Tony Harrison‘s sequence The School Of Eloquence. The title caught my eye, the opening lines my ear. I started reading the poem under my breath and became so entranced I took pictures of the two pages that held “The Rhubarbarians.” Here’s how it begins:

Those glottals glugged like poured pop, each
rebarbative syllable, remembrancer, raise
‘mob’ rhubarb-rhubarb to a tribune’s speech
crossing the crackle as the hayricks blaze.

Unfortunately, the poem seems to be unavailable online, but these ones are:

“Long Distance II” is the only poem of his on the Academy Of American Poets (Harrison’s English, by the way, Leeds-born); he has none on the Poetry Foundation’s site, despite a rather lengthy biographical essay. It’s a surprisingly “clear” piece, as opposed to “The Rhubarbarians” and some of Harrison’s other poems.

His Poetry Archive page hosts four poems, including audio clips of Harrison reading them. He’s quite good, as are these poems themselves:

“Timer” deals with a dead mother, just like “Long Distance II,” but this one is a little more disturbing. It’s grim subject matter, but I strangely find it darkly comic somehow, and that adds to the effect of the poem on me. Also, the use of dialogue here, unlike the strictly monological speaker of “Long Distance II,” certainly adds layers.

“National Trust” pushes the darkness and the comedy further and adds a dose of social critique, at least on the surface, in the situation it presents of bottomless pits that are measured by lowering people into them. Harrison feels a scholar would do better than a prisoner in that regard! Something else going on here, however, adds to the poem’s depth (pun intended, unfortunately): several words in the poem refer to speaking (“hush-hush,” “dumb,” “holler,” “silenced,” “tongueless”) and there’s even a bit of Cornish (one of the dead Celtic languages, if I remember right). It certainly bears further scrutiny though I feel I must look up the references, even while the poem is enjoyable as it is.

“Initial Illumination” is the longest piece and it seems denser, even before taking its length into account. The image of the cormorant is a constant, though I’m not yet sure I fully understand the image. The poem  begins with two saints (monks?) I’m unfamiliar with: “Eadfrith the Saxon scribe/illuminator” and “Bilfrith the anchorite.” It ends in the present day, excoriating “the word of God much bandied by George Bush / whose word illuminated the midnight sky” with bombs, presumably. There’s a direct didacticism in the latter part of the poem that’s not so bad given the historical depth provided:

Now with the noonday headlights in Kuwait
and the burial of the blackened in Baghdad
let them remember, all those who celebrate,
that their good news is someone else’s bad

I was struck by something Michael Lista wrote in his review of Michael Robbins‘ Alien vs. Predator:

A typical Robbins poem (if there even is such a thing) borrows from Frederick Seidel the moral terror that formal rigour and rhyme can inspire. [emphasis mine]

It was an intriguing statement to make, but I wasn’t quite sure I understood what Lista was trying to say. That bit from “Initial Illumination” is helping clarify things though. There’s something almost simplistic about what those lines are trying to say, but the use of perfect rhyme to express it does lend it force. I don’t know if THAT’S an example of “moral terror,” but it certainly lends a certain type of “moral authority” to make that kind of statement.

“Book Ends” book-ends the Poetry Archive selection, dealing as it does with the same dead-mother situation as “Timer” (and “Long Distance II”), but focusing more on the lack of communication between the husband and the son left behind. Again, I’m not sure I fully get it, but I think there’s something being said here about class (education and socio-economic strata). “The ‘scholar’ me, you, worn out on poor pay,” the son-speaker tells his father, and it ends with

Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.

There’s a nice little bit in the poem, referring I’m imagining to the father’s habit of staring in silence at what seems to be a coal-fuelled grate heater, and the kitchen implied in the oven that “appears” when the poem begins with “Baked the day she suddenly dropped dead”:

Not as good for staring in, blue gas,
too regular each bud, each yellow spike.

This PDF contains three Harrison poems, “Timer” being one of them. The last poem, “Punchline” has a son speaking to a dead father. It’s a pretty striking piece. The first verse sets the social situation of limited options for “the Northern working class”:

No! Revolution never crossed your mind!
For the kids who never made it through the schools
the Northern working class escaped the grind
as boxers or comedians, or won the pools.

The second verse reveals the father “not lucky, no physique, too shy to joke” and so buying instead a second-hand ukelele, in the hopes of “escaping the grind.”  Unfortunately, hopes were dashed, only two chords were ever learned, and the father’s dreams of escape became a secret emblematized as a plectrum hidden awayin a “secret condom drawer.” When the son-speaker sees another old man playing a ukelele badly in the street at the end of the poem, on the very day he missed his father’s cremation, he simply holds on to his pocket change and looks away. Ah, the bitterness!

The other poem in that poem is a longer piece called Them and [uz].” I like this one for the way it alludes to “cockney Keats” through my favorite Keats poem (“Ode To A Nightingale”):

gob full of pebbles outshouting seas —

4 words only of mi ‘art aches and … ‘Mine’s broken,
you barbarian, T.W.!’ He was nicely spoken.
‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’

Poor kid. He gets his chance for payback though, with, well, Occupy Poetry:

So right, ye buggers, then! We’ll occupy
your lousy leasehold Poetry.

It’s hilarious, and apparently, I have more of his works to read. In The Harvill Book Of Twentieth-Century Poetry In English (reviewed here, with others), I have five Harrison poems. There’s “Timer” and “National Trust” but also an 8-part sequence called “Art And Extinction.” There are also two poems from “The School Of Eloquence”: one is called “On Not Being Milton,” which I should discuss with my adviser as he’s really into Milton, and a quatrain called “Heredity”:

How you became a poet’s a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry–
one was a stammerer, the other dumb.

In The Norton Anthology Of Modern And Contemporary Poetry, there’s are more poems from The School Of Eloquence: the complete “Book Ends” (it’s apparently a two-part poem like “The Rhubarbarians”), “Turns,” “Marked With D.,” “Self Justification,” “History Classes,” and once again, “Timer,” “Heredity,” and “On Not Being Milton.”

But the crux is a poetic sequence called v. that apparently generated a lot of controversy when a televised reading of the profanity-laden poem was aired twenty-five years ago. I haven’t started reading it, but apparently, the poem starts with the poet at the graveside of his parents and will involve the miners’ strikes during the Thatcher years, etc. Something to look forward to, indeed.

For now, though, an essay on Deleuze and Guattari explaining the rhizome through Harrison’s poem, and the rollicking “A Kumquat For John Keats.” WOW.

The Spoils: February 2012

I didn’t realize I forgot to post the list of books I bought last month. Seven more books bought in February brings the year’s total so far to twelve. Still a “very good number,” I think; I’m still adding to my shelves but “responsibly,” with minimal spree spending.

  1. My Vocabulary Did This To MeThe Collected Poetry Of Jack Spicer
  2. Necessary Stranger by Graham Foust (click click click)
  3. A Mouth In California by Graham Foust
  4. Trance Archive: New And Selected Poems by Andrew Joron
  5. Madoc: A Mystery by Paul Muldoon
  6. The Waste Land And Other Poems by John Beer
  7. The Errancy by Jorie Graham

This month, I think I’ll be buying several Oxford’s World Classics, including but not limited to the “Major Works” volumes of HopkinsKeats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Rhythms Of Richard Cureton, Shapes Of Keats

I met with my thesis adviser today, and in one of the moments during consultation when we were talking about music, meter, and rhythm, he told me to look up Richard Cureton. His wasn’t a name I heard before, unlike some others mentioned (Philip Hobsbaum and Derek Attridge, for instance), so I looked up Cureton online and found this:

“Cureton’s may be the most convincing and comprehensive treatment we have of rhythm in English verse.”

a set of abstracts of books he may have already written:

and his paper “Rhythm and Linguistic Form: Toward a Temporal Theory of Poetic Language.” It’s got charts and tables (I like those a lot), so I hope it makes sense to me, and also to my thesis.
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On an unrelated note: although “To Autumn” isn’t my personal favorite of Keats’s 1819 odes, it’s hard to deny its mastery. The PoemShape blog I recently discovered and am really enjoying has entries on the poem’s form and imagery. (There’s also a discussion of “Bright Star” that makes me wish there were more of Keats’s sonnets there.)
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EDIT: Oh-ho! The Spring 1996 issue of Poetics Today (“Metrics Today II”) hosts a discussion between Cureton and Attridge. I took a quick look and failed to understand a thing. Still, a slower and more careful reading should be more helpful, I hope.