Happy New Year! A lot of good work got done at our first workshop of the year. May it be a harbinger of a year of solid work.
Claudia Serea’s “In the alley by the schoolyard” is a free verse New Year’s poem written in tercets, that, like many of Claudia’s poems, uses the title as a part of the first sentence of the poem. The poem personifies the new year as a guy “swaggering down the street/ in its varsity jacket” that parks its “shiny car” under a “No Parking” sign. It has live language, and, true to Jim Klein’s other dictum, it was about “one thing,” a scene of bravado, and young energy. It would be interesting to discuss how tercets work, what energy they bring to a poem, and how Claudia marshals that energy.
Carole Stone brought an energetic free verse poem called “Hanging Out with the Dead.”
Shane Wagner bought an unnamed poem starting “There must be a perfect moment to take down a Christmas tree.” It is a momento mori poem, which translates from the Latin, as “remember death,” and such poems pursue the virtuous ends of reminding us that life is short. The human skull (cf. Hamlet) is a fine object to contemplate in that mode, but Shane picked the Christmas tree with its obvious ironic identification with the birth of the Christ child. The poem succeeds best when it diverts us from its morbidity with real world considerations such as suggesting that one might take the tree down “before the vacuum bag is full” which has elusive but compelling metaphorical possibilities. The on-the-nose ending – “There must be a perfect moment to die” – was a little too on-the-nose for some.
My little poem, “How I Want to Die” was also a momento mori poem, five lines long, and written in iambic pentameter, and featured a description of a cut tulip in a vase drooping as the poem’s professed method of passing away. It’s good to talk about these poems and their relation to the tradition that that they continue, and we should do it more.
Like Shane, Tom Benediktsson brought a Xmas poem, but “The Gift” was more like an Abbot and Costello routine than a momento mori; conceived as a dialogue about wrapping gifts and having the gift for wrapping gifts.
Frank Rubino’s “My Daughter Came For Thanksgiving” sets his fatherly response to the named event in which the daughter, banged up by life is seen in relation to the embedded simile of a dented car cruising on the highway in front of the speaker. The car is “viable” and so, for all the problems she’s had, is the daughter. The poem got a little lost when it tried to make the phrase “tried to change an accident,” into a refrain, but doubtless, Frank, who treats fatherhood the way Andy Warhol treats Marilyn Monroe, will be back with more.
Jennifer Poteet’s poem, “The Whole She-Bang” an astrophysical meditation about human’s place in the universe had a title that poked gentle fun at the “Big Bang.”
Elinor Mattern’s poem, “About Your Poem, ‘Traveling through the Dark’” is a poem about the experience of teaching the eponymous William Stafford poem to a class of poetry students, so it has a wonderful set of nested relationships at its heart: that poem, this poem, that poet, this poet, the impossible quandary at the heart of Stafford’s poem – how to address a dead car-struck deer with a fetal fawn inside. Elinor’s poem is a celebration of Stafford’s poem, which “guaranteed … a lively and engaged discussion with college students of the elements of literature.” The poem shouts out some of the poetic elements that make Stafford’s poem successful: possible metaphor, alliteration, vivid concrete nouns, strong verbs, sparing but specific adjectives, and words that “work double time.” However, Elinor’s poem steers clear of those virtues, preferring a prosaic, denotative approach, a downbeat spoken rhythm, and words that work single time. As a workshop, we steered clear of taking up those differences, all of which were on display in the poem itself, and steered clear, as well, of the opportunities that the poem, with such a strong baseline structure, has, to investigate any number of issues beyond its consoling message that “sometimes life just sucks.”
Ana Doina brought “What Freedom Is” one of her Eastern Block anecdotal reminiscences about the evils of communism.
Yana Kane shared the news that she’d been accepted to the FDU MFA program and planned to work on in the area of translation. Congratulations, Yana. Her poem, “Sabbath” followed a formula she’s used before, of quoting and then riffing on an epigraph. This time it was the phrase “look into the face of knowledge, call it a god” attributed to Tamara Zbrizher. Yana’s poem – two quatrains followed by two tercets, sought, as the title, “Sabbath” suggests, a moment of surcease in what she describes as a long-drawn-out war between “knowledge” and “uncertainty.” It imagines this surcease with the lovely albeit difficult to understand or reconcile image of “a field of snow/ receiving an abundance of snow.” But perhaps the most provocative element of the poem is the hint of a suggestion at the end of the last line that a season of peace would include “no separate name for anything that grows,” a concept that would reverse the Adamic prerogative of naming the world and ask us to seek peace without nomenclature. I could imagine a poem that told Zbrizer to screw off and pursued the fabulous unnamed world that barely made it into the poem.
Susanna Lee’s poem, like Yana’s, got awfully interesting at the last line. Before that, it was just a celebration of the legalization of pot, as exemplified by firing up a spliff on one’s morning walk, but at the end, out of nowhere, it proclaimed “The War on Drugs maimed; it will not be forgiven.” Yes, what about that?
Jan Castro brought a 13-line, free verse poem called “The Polish Rider* Take 3” an ekphrasis describing what “we” – viewers at large? – miss about a Rembrandt painting, photo included, a painting that was mentioned by Frank O’Hara in his love poem “Having a Coke with You”. Jan’s nonlove poem is arranged in roughly 10-syllable mostly non-metrical lines, other than the last two which are shorter, 6 and 8 syllables respectively. Notwithstanding all the deviations (no rhymes, no meter, no turn at line 9), it looks like a sonnet on the page. While O’Hara’s poem mentioned the Polish Rider as a means of saying that only the guy in that painting could rival his love as a worthy subject of gazing, Jan’s poem is focused on the elements of Rembrandt’s painting that “we miss” as we are dazzled by the “rider’s white horse…”
Hey, Workshoppers— It’s the night before New Year’s Eve (or, in Yiddish, Erev Erev New Year’s Eve); I’m hoping all of you are getting ready for a joyous new year and a 2022 that will outshine all previous years.
We had a fantastic workshop on Tuesday, and I’m happy to say that as a group, we’re doing a great job talking about poems, not just saying what we like and how we’d fix what we don’t but diving into the a priori questions—what is this piece of writing? What does it set out to do and how does it propose to do it? What promises does the poem make to the reader, and how are those promises kept or altered? What is happening in the poem? What poetic devices does it employ, and are they working? What is the form of the poem, not just old-fashioned forms like sonnets or villanelles, but the idiosyncratic (or nonce) forms of free verse? What register does the diction reside in? Is it old fashioned words or new? Or a combination of them, and how does the diction assist or fall away from the drive of the poem? Are there short lines? Long lines? Big stanzas, little stanzas? Why. Is it Narrative, Lyric, Dramatic or a combination? Given that the poem as a machine made of words exists to induce in the reader a poetic state of mind (Mallarme, WCW, Matt Zapruder), does it? I remember when we started as a group some people thought said that describing a poem was “boring” or “obvious,” but that’s not the mood now. What could be more relevant to a poet than to hear how people recognize what was intended, or how people saw things that the poet never even knew were there (answer: “nothing”) and what (spoiler alert, the answer again will be , “nothing”) could be more interesting than talking about how the poems of our cohort work, sharing what we know about how they work without necessarily EVER offering to edit the poem to conform to our own ideas of what a poem should sound like or be about or look like.
Every since I heard Sharon Olds talk about how, in her workshops, the poem was read aloud three different times (once without circulating the text) before the poem was discussed, I’ve been a fan of that approach. Every time the poem is read aloud, whether it is by the poet or by someone else, it presents another facet of itself. It might even be totally unfair to plop a poem down in front of someone, read it through just once and then start making comments. But once you’ve heard it through and go back and hear it again, the ways that the poem operates, the ways it prepared or didn’t prepare you for what came next, the subtle clues in line, diction, rhetoric, and music, all soo important to the overall project, come clearer. And if you’re the poet, listening to other people read the poem, with or without a copy of it to look at in front of you, you are going to hear how that reading is an interpretation, actually a critique, of the text, you’re going to hear what worked, and where the hiccups were, and where the reader got into the flow and where they didn’t. And what I love about multiple readings of that sort is that no one has to say one single word that isn’t already in the poem for the poet to start getting ideas about what could be done to improve it.
No clearer example of this phenomenon exists than the reading of my poem this week, “End of Year Party at Nutley Arts Press” by Ray Turco. He was trying his hardest to make sense of it, and present it to us with all of its (to me, fabulous) nuance and humor, but it just wasn’t there, so even before the “discussion” began, the discussion was well on its way. And what if two or three people read the poem, and it comes out differently from each of them? Without the “discussion” having begun, we’d know a great deal, but even more important, the poet (in this case me) would be well on their way to revisions. And this without any editorial comments.
All of this is happening nowadays in our workshop, and I’m very happy about it, and want to thank everyone in the group for their patience with the process and their acceptance of the method. So, thanks.
Ana Doina brought a plain spoken narrative piece “My father’s tomatoes,” about her father smuggling old world heirloom, tomato seeds (from his own father’s garden) into the United States as part of his immigration move. The story seemed to the workshoppers to have relevance for the lawlessness of the smuggle, the assimilation process of immigrants, or possibly as a pushback against GMO movement in agriculture. During the discussion, I was focusing on the question of how the poetic form can shove off from the prosaic in narrative, and raise a sail to some unseen wind.
Carole Stone brought a poem called “The Pianist” that discussed youthful ambitions to fix the world and what happens if you live long enough to conclude that not much has changed. I thought the lines “Every morning,/the world starts up again” were bold. The lines sound like renewal, but they are also a nuanced way of saying that we’ve learned nothing from the tragedies of the last century.
Jennifer Poteet‘s poem “Bird Says Goodbye to Bear” was a sort of allegory, Carole said, a riff on the story of the Goldilocks, without Goldilocks, that it had the sound of a children’s book, but plays with expectations about that form by introducing uncertainty as its central emotional position, which we see when the speaker (after turning into a bird from a bear) decides to leave the nest and Momma Bear asks “Will you come back” and the speaker says: “I didn’t know and couldn’t answer.” What a cold-assed way to end a poem that might be! But Jennifer presses forward to the parting hug, restoring some of the sweetness of the children’s story expectation.
Susanna Lee brought “Does the Christmas Tree Know Its Destination” which used personification of the tree as a means of conveying a critique of the Xmas tree industry, and the happiness anyway of having one of those sawed off conifers in one’s home.
Ray Turco‘s poem, “A String Quartet” was a bit of a seduction piece: guy brings girl (who has a dancer’s body) to a concert. We don’t know if he got lucky, but we as a workshop did just fine, talking about how the question at the heart of the seduction works—”What are the right chords/ to penetrate/ your dancer’s heart?” Cold-assed indeed.
Brendan McEntee‘s “Pie” with a subtitle “after “A Ghost Story (2017)” presented a narrative that suggested a woman coming home from a funeral gorging on a friend’s gift of a pie. The overall shape of the narrative remained a bit mysterious, but some of the description was so alarmingly sharp and focused that it effectively conveyed the “hands off” reverence that the poet took while witnessing a scene of great pain: “Barefoot, she slides to the floor,/ her back against the cabinet, and eats, holding the pie plate,/ carving through the middle, the thumb-pressed crust/ remains intact for a while. She eats, her fork/ Hitting the glass. She digs in, breaks the bottom crust.”
Don Zirilli brought a poem called “To My Niece Teaching English in Thailand,” whose title was a great setup to an angry, somewhat sardonic critique of America that the speaker was urging as a lesson plan on his niece.
Rob Goldstein‘s “Ahab, Between Voyages” did a great job of projecting an image of the unquiet mind of the doomed whaleboat captain when he was stuck on land.
And, finally, Tom Benediktsson brought a poem called “This Poem Is Trying to Look Normal but I’m Not Fooled” that takes place inside an MRI machine equipped with a television (showing a Godzilla movie) that the patient can watch while the bizarre space odyssey of being in one of those machines transpired.
Gotta go. But thanks again to everyone in the group and outside the group who receive my Field Notes. Thanks for listening to and putting up with me. And Happy New Year!
Jennifer Poteet‘s “Bird in a Box” compares good poems to skating, to eels, to electric current down the spine, to the thrill of being undressed by a first lover, to crashing a bike after learning to ride one, and the pounding of the heart in the chest after that crash, to a bird in a box. Then the poem screeches to a halt: Why? Because, it is revealed that the lover, the who one who unbuttoned of the speaker’s blouse, button by button, was a real person, one who, “after a third marriage” tells the speaker “the doctor gives him six months to live.” It is the boldest sort of strategy, in which the poem is pulled out of its conceit by reality and the crash of the bicycle morphs into a real life catastrophe. Bravo, Jen.
John J. Trause brought a movie commentary sort of poem called “Craning to See a Hotel Room” that mixed references to the movies “Psycho” and “Touch of Evil” to delve into the issues of exploitation and voyeurism.
The title of Frank Rubino‘s poem, “Days of rogation,” refers to meatless feast days in the Catholic calendar, and to a larger meditation on the modern meat industry, but at its best, it slides, meditatively, into a consideration of the unaccountable pain and solace of love: “no one/ will love my ear-wax, love my funny toe…./ no one / should be allowed in there, but here you are!/ One time you… showed me guyswith giant cocks and… I cried/ inside but …/I come from people with zucchini heads/ some of them… gnarled beautifully like mountain cedars…”
You can’t teach talent like that.
My poem, “Her Silver Rings in the Dish by the Bed” was a sonnet-length domestic love poem. Frank saw it as a sonnet. Yana said it changes the sonnet tradition by paying attention to an older woman. Frank liked the fact that it “starts with a thesis and proves it out,” somewhat metaphysically.
Susanna Lee‘s poem was also about domestic romance. It was called “Poem for the Rising of the Winter Solstice Moon.” It spoke in a “room of one’s own way” about maintaining private space in the home, but veered towards the sadness of isolation in life later in marriage, with couples sleeping apart and the speaker’s parents “gone.” Then, somewhat miraculously it slouched towards communion of a deeply mature sort, when the vibrant moon seen separately gave the couple something to talk about. Deft work.
Preeti Shah‘s poem, “My Name” was a purely lyrical piece in the form of a personal history. When she was young her “Name/ caught light the wet riggings/ of palak in some hesitant throat.” In India, it “comforted/ as Maa’s home dish…” In America, she comically compares it the Heimlich maneuver. And finally, in along lyrical passage, she conjures the feeling of her name in her own mouth as a beautiful meal “aching to be tasted/ by all tongues/ that still missed their homes.” Beautiful.
Speaking of foreign locales, Carole Stone‘s “Down Mexico Way” imagines the figure of Death in several disguises: as a guitar player, an American tourist, as a cyber researcher peeking at her “Facebook” page, and as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant, where her deceased parents show up and “light up cigarillos.”
Yana Kane‘s “The Doll House” takes dollhouses to task for their lifelessness, their obscuration of “any flaws:” for example the “mother in the kitchen” who is always and forever pulling “a blueberry pie from the oven.” And the father in the parlor, who “never tires of reading the same newspaper.” It was a creepy poem, for sure, something between Twilight Zone and Stepford Wives.
Raymond Turco‘s “Verona” creates a vibrant tonal sketch of the town with a curious allusion to an unproven theory that the name “Verona” is a bastardization of “Vera Roma” meaning “the one true Rome.”
JJT called Brendan‘s poem, “Waterfall in Winter” “high Romantic,” and “Tennysonian.” It depicts the hidden space behind a waterfall where a kind of shrine is maintained, literally maintained, as its “drooping lilies” are replaced —by the speaker—with “fresh ones” and the old ones are cast into the “crashing water.” Yet, when he leaves he swears he will never be back. Mysterious, and somber.
Janet Kolstein‘s “The White Bird” (not in the package) is either a dream, a surreal vision, or just another day on the Lower East Side. It presents a bird perched on the speaker’s shoulder that talks, shops for clothes, takes a bath in warm water, and is grabbed by barber who wakes up after sleeping on the street outside his shop. The speaker then pats the bird dry with a “paper towel, to avoid his getting chilled/ when he turns into a cat.” I’m voting for ‘just another day on the Lower East Side.’
Thank you all for coming; see you at the next workshop.
Not to burden you too much with my current Marianne Moore infatuation, but as I try to come to grips with just what made Modernism Modernism, I found this passage in the Linda Leavell biography that was amusing:
“Pound and Eliot had both gone on record as admirers of Moore’s poetry in 1918 and Eliot again in 1923. Williams had done so in 1925. And in 1935, with his review of “Selected Poems”, Wallace Stevens added himself to the roster. Eliot and Williams had no taste for each other’s work. Nor did Pound and Stevens. But all four modernists concurred that Moore was, as Stevens put it, “A Poet That Matters.” Whareas to Williams she represented all that was “new” in poetry, to Eliot she was an enduring member of the “tradition.” And whereas Pound praised her early resistance to romanticism, Stevens paid her his highest compliment by calling her a “romantic.” “Unless one is that,” he said, “one is not a poet at all.” Stevens’s review explained more precisely than anyone else had how the elements of her stanza—syllable count, rhyme, and indentation of lines—work to create a sense of rhythm. “Eliot’s praise for Moore’s highly complex and innovative technique—along with that of Stevens, R.P. Blackmur, and Morton Zabel—made her seem more than ever a poet’s poet. If even F.R. Leavis lacked sufficient intellect to appreciate such technique, was there any hope for the “lovers of poetry,” whose aversion to the “new and genuine” Eliot also disparaged?”
My question? What did F.R. Leavis do to piss off Linda Leavell?
Anyway, we had a fine workshop on Tuesday.
Brendan McEntee‘s poem “Resigned to Ghosts” is named for ghosts but it’s about haunting, and Frank said he loved the cadence in this meditation on loss, which had a lugubrious heaviness, a weariness you could hear right away in the first line: “Being haunted is nothing special.” I loved the way it moved from the expected repositories of sadness—the photos and the cookbooks in “the amassed mess of a parent’s estate” out into the world where he sees the haunting in the frozen food aisle of a supermarket: “in the men shuffling with wrinkled khakis and worn orthotic shoes/ they can’t bother to replace. During the day, it’s the widowers,/ picking through frozen dinners. Subsistence eating. Subsistence living.” What can be more convincingly moving than seeing ones own sadness mirrored and prefigured in the world outside. Crazily powerful stuff.
Preeti Shah was back (Hi Preeti) with a stunningly beautiful and heart rending poem called “Silenced” a compendium of sentences/statements/questions by inmates in a nursing home, everything from innocent requests for favors (“Take me to the café so I can buy a bag of Cheetos”) to indictments (“I hate this fucking place. Everyone is a sadist”) to abject despair (“My kids aren’t getting a cent/ My kids never visit/ My pet died.”). The poem never announces its method; there is no filler. The “speaker” of the poem never speaks; it is all given over to the utterances, which run one into the other, with the effect that the “speaker” of the poem is the whole population of the nursing home, and the poet’s job, done quietly and effectively, is to aggregate these utterances in ways that let their power build. Ultimately, you look back at the title, “Silenced” and ask yourself who was silenced? The elderly shut up where no one will hear them or the poet who heard and recorded what they said. I’ll shut up now. Just read it, and bring tissues.
Shane Wagner brought “Sound Sympathy” that takes place during a sonogram visit to the radiologist but is actually about the relationship between the patient and the technician performing the sonogram who is not permitted to tell the patient knows whether she sees blood clots, but finds a way to calm the patient’s anxiety without technically violating the prohibition on giving medical advice. Nicely done.
Tom Benediktsson‘s poem, “Supercuts” turns a trip to the barber into a flashback to the Bible story of Samson and Delilah.
Don Zirilli, perhaps inspired by my recent discussions of Miss Marianne Moore, brought “The Imaginary Gardener Kisses a Real Toad,” a continuation of Moore’s famous statement beginning her poem “Poetry,” “I, too, dislike it.”
Frank Rubino moved into a shorter form for his poem this week, “I wait for a song” that plays on the phrase “lucky strike” which is both a hope for success in life (“wait all my life for a lucky strike.”) and a cigarette name (taking him into a family history of brand preferences among his relatives). This yoking together of destinies could have been sterile, but in the last movement of this short poem, you feel the still inchoate yearning for the “more” that life desires: “& if you could strip off/ my leather jacket I wear,/ you’d find hair, and flesh, and luck—/ the good luck or the bad luck of only a man.” (I particularly loved the double possessive of “my leather jacket I wear”—which is awkward but emphatic).
Rob Goldstein and I both brought poems with Yiddish phrases stuck inside. His, “History is a Bucket of Musky Fear” is an abstracted dreamscape that illuminates its titular point with little bits of evidence from different sources: the January 6 attack on the Capitol and the fate of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany whose ships were turned away in many ports. His Yiddism? “goylemat maydlekh” (robot girls).
My poem, “Oh dear, Zev” was, as Don pointed out, an exhortation. It urged a guy named Zev to fall in love, told him there’s still time to go for the gusto, and told him that his friends would be there for him if he “fell” and couldn’t get up. My Yiddism? “cheder bucher” – or a boy who goes to religious school.
Janet K brought back her villanelle from last week, now called “Faded Tattoos” (not in the packet) back with many subtle improvements that made its consideration of stasis much more powerful.
Carole Stone brought a poem called “Why Do the Men Die First,” a continued exploration of grief, and maybe part of the grand elegy that Carole has been writing on the loss of a spouse. Tom Benediktsson pointed out that, in this poem made of couplets, the first line of each couplet was end-stopped while the second line of each couplet was enjambed to the first line of the succeeding couplet. That arrangement gives the reader a doubled sense of meaning, looking back to the previous line for sense momentarily as the couplet ends, but then seeing the first line of the next couplet as a confirmation that the poem has moved on. It’s an interesting technique, worth remembering.
On Sunday at 4:30 pm, I’ll be attending the Zoom graduation ceremony from the Brooklyn Poets Mentorship Program which has occupied all of 2021 for me. It’ll be the twelve of us being introduced by Jay Deshpande our fearless mentor, and reading a poem or two. It’ll be done by 5:30. You’re all welcome to attend. The event is free and open to the public, but all guests need to register to get the Zoom link: https://bit.ly/bpmpgrad. Like all good graduations, afterwards we’ll be going to Juniors for cheesecake.
Honestly, I’ve had my share of difficulties understanding how Modernism works, who the most modern Modernist is, what makes Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, TS Eliot, Marianne Moore, and HD all of a piece and what they are all a piece of, because Pound often seems like a cartoonish cheerleading mimic to me, and TS Eliot, like Pound, seems to relish in their high-brow translations restatements, and sarcastic renditions of classical western poetry (and classical Chinese) and erudition in a way that WCW almost never does, while Stevens (racism aside) is a musical genius of long rhapsodic stretches of intellectual supposition, and WCW for all we call him an “imagist” has plenty of late Victorian argumentation in his poems, while Crane is a bit of an impressionist, but now I’m reading Moore, and with Moore, I’m reading a biography of Moore by Linda Leavell called “Holding On Upside Down; The Life and Work of Marianne Moore” and along with those two, a collection of critical essays edited by Charles Tomlinson that includes, among other gems, an amazing Donald Hall interview of Moore from 1959, when, at the age of 72, she was at the pinnacle of her popularity, a popularity that celebrated her later, more accessible work, and not the stuff that stunned Eliot, got Pound’s heart pounding, and made both of them boosters for her career. And just to give you some perspective on that career, her first acceptances for publication were from Poetry magazine (by Harriet Monroe herself) on July 6, 1914, and it wasn’t till 10.5 years later, on December 27, 1924, that the first book she could call her own, Observations, was published. (A couple of her boosters, goaded by Pound, published a book of her work (called “Poems”) in 1921 without her permission). And even with her 1924 debut solidifying her reputation as one of the great Modernists, it wasn’t “until Ashbery pronounced ‘An Octopus’ the greatest of Moore’s poems in 1967 [that] it received … critical attention.” (Leavell, p. 219). But all that said, with Leavell’s help, I’m beginning to understand what makes Moore modern, important for writers today, and pleasurable. Like WCW, her poems were full of direct quotations from other media, newspapers, books, other poems, and her poems were always in conversation with ideas, other poets, historians, whole eras. In fact, “An Octopus”, her longest poem, which is about the glaciers on Mount Rainier in Washington State, is her undeclared response to Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” a poem of similar length, whose impact as a long modern poem can’t be overstated. But the difference is that her poem is about a living American place, a mountain and its 7 glaciers, and the things that lived on that mountain and among those glaciers, and the power they represent, and how different a mountain, with all its particularities, is from the “smoothness” the Greeks liked; Moore had a pragmatic view of a “real toad” in an “imaginary garden” (she called poetry an imaginary garden filled with real toads), a view includes direct quotes from travel catalogs about Mt Ranier, and the rules of the national park, which she fits into her ode; and this omnivorous view of how poems work was “an alternative to what she considered the ‘macabre’ failure of imagination in Eliot’s poem.” (Leavell, p216). But there’s more to Moore than collage. In the same poem she includes an aphoristic statement of her true love, which is accuracy: “Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus/ with its capacity for fact.” And for her, accuracy, goes well beyond lucidity. In that 1959 interview I mentioned, Donald Hall asked her “Do you have in your own work any favorites or unfavorites?” And Moore replied, “Indeed I do. I think the most difficult thing for me is to be satisfactorily lucid, yet have enough implication in it to suit myself. That’s a problem. And I don’t approve of my “enigmatics” or as somebody said, “the not ungreen grass.” I said to my mother one time, “How did you ever permit me to let this be printed?” And she said, “You didn’t ask my advice.”
Getting back to that ingredient of a good poem, “enough implication . . . to suit myself,” that ingredient is the hard-won openness, the attitude, the humor, the critique of what she has a distaste for, presented not with silence, but restraint. She wrote about her passions, and her passions were nature and intelligence, but you’ll never find her writing about or celebrating romantic love, or selling off pieces of her biography for emotional validation. Moore’s the more modern Modernist because she dares to stand before you without the scaffolding of the classics around her, because she dares to write with lucidity as well as implication. Let me get done with this bit of the Field Notes by quoting a line or two from her poem “Snakes, Mongooses, Snake Charmers, and the Like” in which she gets both accuracy and a stunning metaphor into her description of a snake rising out of a basket:
Thick, not heavy, it stands up from its traveling-basket, The essentially Greek, the plastic animal all of a piece from nose to tail; One is compelled to look at it as at the shadows of the Alps Imprisoning in their folds like flies in amber the rhythms of the skating rink.
To me, saying that the movements of a snake “imprison … the rhythms of the skating rink” is not only an amazing original metaphor of stunning observational perspicacity; it has great assonances, and the way that “alps” and “amber” provide an intermediate or intramural assonance, is just great, and as if that wasn’t enough, the way “snake” (the subject of the poem) and “skate” frame the whole. People think of Moore as a free verse or a syllabic poet, but she had a devastating ear for rhyme. In one of first mature poems, “Critics and Connoisseurs,” written in syllabics with no previously known meter, she locates half-rhymes in the middle of sentences, and on off-beats, so that “Certain Ming/ products” rhymes with “I have seen something” and “ambition without” rhymes with “stick north, south.” “and” rhymes with “stand,” Here’s how she described her process when Donald Hall asked her if she planned out her unusually shaped stanzas:
“Never, I never “plan” a stanza. Words cluster like chromosomes, determining the procedure. I may influence an arrangement or thin it, then try to have successive stanzas identical with the first… No, I never draw lines.” I make a rhyme conspicuous to me at a glance, by underlining with red, blue or other pencil — as many colors as I have rhymes to differentiate. However, if the phrases recur in too incoherent an architecture—as print—I notice that the words as a tune do not sound right.”
Moore never betrays or orphans her intelligence to capture an emotion. The emotion must survive the gantlet of her mind, thrive in the lucidity of her imagination.
Anyway, no more time for that today.
Janet Kolstein brought a brilliant villanelle called “Home Fires Burning Cold” (not attached) that uses as its two repeated lines: “An old home can take on the feel of a battered shoe” and “Silence and scruffy floors that all cry you.” It’s a rhymed free-verse that slides outside the lines of iambic pentameter, and varies slightly the traditional structure of a villanelle, but it has a strong rhythmic feel, and as the repeating lines return, they gain heft; while they seemed comforting at first, by the time of the last recurrence, they feel emotionally retrograde.
My poem, “Be Leaving Soon, Be Always on Your Way” like Janet’s, was a formal poem, written in a basically blank verse style (with some exceptions); it was an exhortation to action, to engage impatiently with life. It used the imperative “Be” as an anaphora; the poem was ordering the reader or the speaker ordering themselves, to get on with life when facing morbidity or mortality:
Be under doctor’s orders to slow down; Be “fuck that shit. I haven’t read the Bible yet, Or Dostoyevsky, Dante, Heller, Kant; Be “I haven’t seen Kanye; I haven’t seen Bron”; Be “I cant stop now;” be “sorry, gotta go,” Be off the clock, off balance, off the beaten path, Be better off, be off the hook, be off Your rocker, off the juice, be off the cuff, Be off to work, be dizzy, “sit;” “I’m fine, I need a minute.” “Get your feet up off the sofa! Sit up straight, stop mumbling, you eat too fast…
The workshop liked the energy of it; but sent it back for surgery on the first and second stanzas.
Claudia Serea‘s “Seagulls in the parking lot” was a rewrite that kept it’s central situation, a daughter talking to her father on the phone, while she’s in her office at work and he is in the hospital thinking he won’t make it. In this iteration, Claudia used her ruminations on the seagulls she could see through the window in her office as she spoke to her father as an extension of her anxiety about her dad: “Outside my window, the gulls cry,/ covering your voice when you respond.” The workshop loved the setting and acknowledged how hard it would be to train the seagulls to do what you want them to do.
Brendan McEntee brought a poem whose title did a ton of work: “Donating the Last of Your Clothes” A title like that or like Frank Rubino’s last week, with a title something like “She’s Coming for Thanksgiving and That’ll be Good” did so much work. You’re home free, off to the races with a start like that. Frank doubled down on that start with a first line that went “We’ll install locks.” Brendan’s strategy was different. After his centering title, he moved almost as far away from it as possible beginning with a small mystery: “It’s a Pilot roller-ball, blue, nothing special.” A mystery that is resolved slowly as we find out that the pen came from a jacket pocket “- the suede coral pink one—/ resting in the bottom of a bin/ of what I kept of your clothes,/ folded as you would have wanted,” allowing the emotion of the loss that we learned of in the title to find a home in “you.” Brendan’s subsequent strategy works a lot like Claudia’s. In Claudia’s poem, the gulls were carrying the emotional burden of the poem—the loss—anticipated—of the father; in Brendan’s, it’s the pen that becomes the repository of the poem’s emotional charge rather than the woman who died. Bravo to both of you, all three of you, for learning emotional ventriloquism.
Look, Susanna Lee did it too! She brought a “Where I’m From” poem (yes, it’s a subgenre) that sketched out a white typical middle class upbringing in the 1960s, referring to television shows, describing a household built on discipline by shouting out the brand names of things. “I’m from St. Patrick’s Day,/ from pink lemonade./” It was a nostalgic poem in the sense that it cherished the feelings associated with the things and people of youth, but what it’s really doing in a more obvious (Antiques Road Show?) way, is the same thing that Brendan, with his pen, and Claudia, with her birds, were doing—investing things with emotion. It’s the poet’s prestidigitation.
Yana Kane (who will be reading at the Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year Contest on Monday December 13 you should go, it’ll be great. You can buy a ticket at BrooklynPoets.org.) brought a poem called “Escape is Possible” a cheery poem considering the alternatives. The interesting device Yana employs is to describe the “escape” in a way that is rhetorically explicit but very impressionistic. To escape, for example, one “search[es] under the senses, / feel[s] the floor of your perception,/ the hidden trapdoor is there.” And this semi fantastical door leads to an ocean in one sinks to the bottom and then rises.
Carole Stone brought “Hugs” which is about seeking solace in poetry from the anguish of a dead spouse; it started with a great lyrical evocation of desolation in stanzas shaped like tercets:
The death live on the rooftop, Enter my bedroom, pull me form sleep. O, won’t you hold me,
Let me run through the streets Shouting, “Love me, love me,”…
However the poem turns away from the morbidity of death, seeks solace, which is a refuge from grief, in poetry, and more specifically, the book that holds Neruda’s poems, whose “spine [is] held together with tape.” This book, and poetry itself act like the trap door in Yana’s poem, that are held out as a possible escape.
Finally, this week, Don Zirilli brought a poem called “The German Christmas Market of New Jersey” which is an actual annual thing where he lives. It’s a poem about being deprived of singularity and thrust into an uncomfortable multiplicity, a condition here associated with being at a fair that is populated by people from another fair (“The crowd was from the state fair”) not just literally, but figuratively as well (“from every fair of every state.”). In this condition, the revival of the covid 19 pandemic, with masks, has a disorienting quality. The pandemic is “mysterious and new.” And the masks make everything double: “I put on a mask/ and now twice as many characters are played./ I’m different to everyone and everyone different.” Ultimately, for now, in Don’s poem everyone is learning a new lesson, but not everyone is getting the same lesson: “oh// was I supposed to get something? Maybe I did.”
Listen—There’s still time to register for Monday’s Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year Award contest featuring two of your favorite Red Wheelbarrow poets, Yana Kane and me. It’s a zoom event and you get your tickets through Eventbrite, and the tickets are not cheap, $25.00 because it’s a fundraiser for Brooklyn Poets. The event starts at 7 pm and the 12 poem of the month winners will read their poems, at the end of which, at about 8 pm, everyone in the audience can vote for poem of the month (via text message). Let’s start a friendly interstate rivalry by going into Brooklyn and taking the Poem of the Year Award back to New Jersey for a year. Come and support Yana and me—here’s the link to the signup/registration https://brooklynpoets.org/events/awards-gala/.
Further Field Notes of December 12, 2021
Continuing my reading of Marianne Moore, I found a collection of critical essays edited by Charles Tomlinson published by Prentice-Hall, Inc. in 1969, that has provided very good insight and information. I was particularly happy with Hugh Kenner’s essay “Meditation and Enactment” because I’ve loved Hugh Kenner since I read his grand piece of literary criticism called THE POUND ERA a lifetime ago. Such a strong, distilling and careful voice, it’s exciting just to be with him. But this morning I want to share a short excerpt from an essay by Henry Gifford (never heard of him before) called “Two Philologists” that dares to do the obviously necessary but fraught work of comparing Marianne Moore to Emily Dickinson. I’ll skip the intro and get right to this insight:
“And yet, given this all-important distinction between the two poets, their choice of language seems to unite them unexpectedly. Both are incontrovertibly American—or perhaps one should say American of a certain tone and temper which, like much else in the modern world, may be dissolving. They are individual, ironic, and above all fastidious. Their poetry is exact and curious like the domestic skills of the American woman in antebellum days. It has the elevation of old-fashioned erudite American talk—more careful in its vocabulary, more strenuously aiming at correctness and dignity than English talk of the same vintage. This is not to confuse the milieux of Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore; nor to insinuate that both poets stand at a distance from today in a charming lady-like quaintness. What distinguishes them is something very far from quaintness: a practical interest in the capacities of the English language both learned and colloquial, in its American variety.”
I’ll admit that the phrase in the excerpt that demanded repetition is “old-fashioned erudite American talk,” and the reason for me, that it demanded repetition, is that it captures something about perspective, propriety, restraint and approach that I have noticed and yet been unable to articulate so lucidly in both poets. The phrase “old-fashioned erudite American talk” reminds me of the way that my Aunt Ruth (who sent birthday cards with $15 ‘for books’ to all of her nieces and nephews) spoke, the way that my father’s friend, Frank Lowe (who owned a hammer factory in Brooklyn! and recited “The Ballad of Dangerous Dan McGrew” from memory at our dinner table) spoke, the way my father’s lawyer, Harold Robbins (who knew his Latin and used it to seem comic and erudite), spoke, the way formal letters were written, the way “to whom it may concern” was deployed at the beginning of a letter, or the way the word “one” was used to designate “a person.” And I thought, yes, there’s something that doesn’t saw the air in both Dickinson and Moore, that doesn’t need a shotgun to pop a balloon. And Gifford is correct, I think, when he notes that this sort of fastidious, correct, respectful way of observing the world and commenting on it is “dissolving” or has already dissolved.
Anyway, I thought it might be of interest to you. And read Hugh Kenner’s “The Pound Era,” and when you do, bring an extra pair of socks because they ones you’re wearing may get knocked off.
Stephen Sondheim died a little yesterday, and PBS Newshour played portions of a 2010 interview they did. If you write poems, you’ll be engrossed in this:
Sondheim: “If you think of a lyric as a little one act play, Then every line is a scene, And a quatrain becomes an entire act, Each line is a scene and you’ve got seven words in a line So let’s say each word is a speech…. Well, you know, if you’re writing a play and something’s wrong with a speech, you cut or change the speech, same way you’ve got to do it word by word. It is as focused as that.”
Interviewer: “and the greatest focus is on the words that rhyme. Sondheim writes lying down, the better for a quick nap when things aren’t going well, he says. He uses an old rhyming dictionary, a 1946 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus”
Sondheim: “Rhyme draws the ear’s attention to the word, so you don’t make the least important word in the line the rhyme word; And, also, a rhyme can take something that is not too strong and make it much stronger. If you tell a joke in rhyme, it’s twice as funny as it would be if you just told it in prose, if it was just a speech. The same words!
But the rhyme goes [hits fist on palm] does That to it, and that’s one of the uses of rhyme. It’s not only to focus the attention on a word but to strengthen what you’re saying.
Now sometimes you avoid a rhyme because you don’t want to draw the ear’s attention because you want to fool’em(!) because one of the things you want to do in a song and in a scene and in a play is surprise an audience.”
Interviewer: “And that surprise, Sondheim says, can come in very subtle ways, something happening between the ear and the brain, for example, he believes words that are spelled differently but sound alike, such as “suffer” and “rougher” engage the listener more than those spelled similarly: “rougher” and “tougher””
Sondheim: “I think we see words as they were on paper sometimes when you hear them. I don’t mean it’s an actually conscious thing, but I’m absolutely convinced that people essentially “see” what they’re “hearing.”
Now, this is me, Arthur: I think we poets [regardless of denomination] ignore Sondheim at our own peril, at risk to our work. This is a scientist, an experimental prosodist, a dentally intense marksman who could drill exacting wormholes through scalp, skull and skepticism using words alone, and change perceptions with his bare wit.
Now, to get to the matter at hand, we had an amazing workshop on Tuesday; great poems, great discussions, and both Shane Wagner and Susanna Lee back in the fold.
Shane Wagner‘s poem, “Heaven” considers life after death through the poetic lens of a Billy Collins poem that suggests heaven is what we imagine it to be, but when the speaker tries to play the Billy Collins game, he’s struck by how little his imagination matches his desire, which is to live the life he lives, and that part of the poem, beginning with an exceptionally long line, is where the poem, as far as I’m concerned, breaks out of its essayistic, armchair, pipe-smoking, patches-on-its-sleeves mode and becomes deeply, personally heartfelt. Here’s that line: “But I find it increasingly hard to imagine sharing my body with anyone except my wife.” The poem lingers on that bed, focusing on his wife’s handicraft of the quilt, and actually seeing her “mouth working an unconscious side business” while she worked. Some workshoppers, while appreciating where the poem went, said the poem needs the essayistic bit to set up the magic. To which I say that if you call your poem “heaven” and start it “but I find it increasingly hard to imagine sharing my body with anyone except my wife,” you have done what poetry alone can do. We will see what Shane thinks of that.
Don Z’s “Museum of the House Made From Doormats” is sketch poetry of great immediacy. He says he wrote it ten minutes before the workshop, possibly after watching an episode of “Little House on the Prairie,” giving it the freshness of mozzarella from a pork store, or of Michael Landon. The poem uses the image of a doormat to illuminate the vast experience of mortality, and of thresholds generally, which makes it something of a relative of Shane Wagner’s “Heaven.” So, I guess it’s true that thoughts of mortality can sharpen the mind.
David Briggs was back (Hi, David) with a poem called “B-movie love life” which had the clever device of tracking an actual love story by reference to cliched tropes of B-movies, and begins: “Remember when we were lost upriver,/ realizing the hole we’d stepped in/ was really a footprint?” and then, “Remember when we stole/ the Alpha Romeo/ for a joyride,/ but found it had a transmitter/ that led the henchmen/ right to our villa?”—continuing all the way to “Remember the baffled newscaster/ who narrated our last moments?” It was an exhilarating experience moving through those cinematic tropes standing in for the progress and decline of a love affair. I look at poem as a series of loose-fitting metaphors, in which the tenor (or thing described) is a love affair, and the vehicle (the metaphorical descriptor) is the movie tropes. For me, in this draft, the vehicle ran over the tenor, or just parked on it, and yet it wouldn’t take too much tweaking to change the focus so that each iteration of the movie substitution would deepen our involvement with the lovers and their disappointment.
And super-interestingly, Barbara Hall brought a poem called “And I don’t like pretzels….” about flipping channels on the tv, finding nothing, not even the pretzels she doesn’t like, to interest her except her own ruminations on history and American fuck-everything-up-ism; and at the moment the poem considers the end of the world, it does so only by summoning up sci-fi adventure movies, then, in despair, reaching for another pretzel (empty calories).
Frank Rubino brought “Solaris,” a fantastically ambitious poem that continues his knife-edge consideration of adult parenting. The poem, which distances itself from the subject by calling her “person P” is “interrupted” several times by a diagram of an Oxycontin molecule, a picture that you can’t read aloud when you read the poem, but is there, the whole time you read it, just as Oxycontin (an addictive opioid drug manufactured by the Sackler family’s company Perdu Pharma) is always there in the family, interrupting. The poem also uses an old Russian movie called “Solaris” as a backdrop as well as a title; the story of the movie, sketched in the seventh and eighth stanzas of the poem, involves the ghost-like apparition of “a man’s dead wife” in an orbiting space lab. The poem also starts with and seems to live in the aftermath of an argument with someone over how problems should be addressed, whether the speaker is failing to confront them or looking for a new way to do so. Over and over, the speaker says “I’ve been thinking about currents and what flows through me,” which may be less of a refrain and more of an anaphora, and each time the poem repeats this line, it delves into a different sort of current, of thought, of water. No one can doubt the seriousness of this endeavor, and if Frank can tame all of these elements, he will have one behemoth of a poem on his hands. Frankly, I said it to Shane—there’s no way he should let Billy Collins hijack his poem—and I’d say it too to Frank about Solaris: those Russian filmmakers of the same era as Kubrick may have given you a jump start, but you owe them nothing, and your poem is plenty on its own.
Janet Kolstein continued on the metaphysical roll she’s been on with a poem called “Beholder” considering beauty and the ugliness it can lead to.
Brendan McEntee brought “At the Run” a poem designed to suggest a narrative associated with two people by focusing exclusively on the movements of a dog in which they both had an interest in a dog run. It was intriguing but frustrating for some, who wanted a little more help from the poet. Big question that. We all want to be able to draw the portrait of a lady in a single sinuous line, but more difficult to know when the line provides sufficient information from which an inevitable conclusion can be drawn or withheld.
Carole Stone‘s poem “Sweet Dreams” has rhymes, no meter, but little snatches of rhyme that give the dreams of the title their sweet tilt, or diminish or heighten the anguish of the subject, getting old alone and being lonesome. Speaking of her deceased husband, the speaker says she wishes he could see her “in my Mexican straw hat/ sitting poolside./ I haven’t cried.”
Tom Benediktsson brought us a poem called “Killing God”—a free verse in five stanzas that doesn’t so much kill god, or depict the killing of god as much as it introduces us to the tripartite “people in my head” that have hilarious, incisive and very different ideas about what god (depicted as a cricket in a glue trap) is or how ‘he’ ought to be treated. The fact that this metaphysical/metareligious rumination takes place while the speaker is wearing a Speedo (over which his floppy belly flops) and holding a silver sushi knife only makes the portrait irrefutable and unforgettable.
My poem, “Julie Hirsch” is about finding the conditions necessary to begin an artistic project. It’s in the gross form of a Petrarchan sonnet, 14 lines, an octet that portrays the subject, followed by a sestet that turns somewhat to include the speaker’s appreciation of the teacher. The poem doesn’t rhyme and it is not in the form of iambic pentameters, but rather iambic hexameters except the final couplet, which are iambic septameters.
Last thing for today, and then I’ll shut up: please consider signing up for the Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year Award Smackdown on December 13 (a Monday) : https://brooklynpoets.org/events/awards-gala/ and supporting me in my effort to become the first two-time Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year winner for my poem “Unencumbered” (my previous win was in 2015 for “The Whales Off Manhattan Beach Breaching in Winter). I know it’s a bit of a commitment of time and money (for the ticket). All I can say is I’d appreciate it immensely and it’s going to be a great show. : https://brooklynpoets.org/events/awards-gala/.
If you missed our virtual, soft launch of The Red Wheelbarrow #14, here is the recording of the event. Arthur Russell emcees as poets from The Red Wheelbarrow read their poems from the book. Frank Rubino is the featured poet.
Under the direction of a new editorial team, The Red Wheelbarrow reaches its 14th annual collection of great poetry and prose, including the work of 62 poets, the most we’ve ever published. Inside, featured poet Frank Rubino offers great creative insights in the interview with The Red Wheelbarrow Poets that accompanies his poems. Alongside our core group, you’ll find new names of talented poets published in The Red Wheelbarrow for the first time who also became regulars at our online workshops and readings in the past year. Don’t miss Don Zirilli’s expressive doodles and his erudite essay on the chess of William Carlos Williams. All this exciting work is wrapped in a striking red cover showcasing Anton Yakovlev’s photograph of a wheelbarrow holding a castle.
Most importantly, we hope you’ll find great inspiration in these pages, proving that our beloved Red Wheelbarrow honors its impressive legacy while powering into the future.
It seems that this week’s workshop was all about costs and benefits of different formal and substantive choices in poems. We saw that the decision to use a formal device whether it’s a traditional one like assonance, anaphora or metaphor, or putting a poem in the form of a dialogue, or a newer formal device like adding footnotes to a poem, or changing the layout of the poem on the page can serve the poet’s purposes of identifying their work as “poetry” but also bring with them expectations that the poem can meet or fail to meet and exact costs and sacrifices the poet needs to be aware of and possibly manage.
Claudia Serea‘s poem, “The retouching team is working hard,” brought the political reality of the propaganda in the Communist regime of her native Romania to the fore, where making the political leader look good was a priority, and ironically adopting the perspective of a supporter of media manipulation. Her poem focused on photoshopping government portraits of leaders to make them look good. Ana Doina agreed with the political point, suggesting it’s not only Romania that promoted such hero augmentative strategies, but other Communist block and authoritarian controlled countries, including an endorsement of the technique Claudia’s poem mentioned of never showing a strongman with their hat in their hand. No one had anything to say about the prosody of the poem because (1) Claudia is just so damn good at what she does; and (2) when politics come in the door, prosody goes out the window. And it raises the question: how far can political irony take a poem?
Barbara Hall brought a poem called “Everything I do is stitched.” The poem, whose text relates to craft-work with fabric, has a principal text and a set of footnotes. For example, the first line of the poem says “Everything I do is stitched with color” and contains footnotes to the word “stitched” and the word “color.” The footnote to “stitched” is a four line definition of the word followed by a explanation of how the speaker threads a needle or uses a sewing machine when hand stitching becomes too difficult. The footnote to “color” provides a definition of the word and then is a friendly tone calls out the mnemonic device—Roy G. Biv—that is used to teach children the color spectrum. And so the short poem about craft continues annotating itself until the footnotes occupy almost half the page. This use of footnotes within the poem (as opposed by footnotes added by editors of an anthology) is a formal element of the prosody, no different fundamentally than any other manipulation that brings new voices or multiple voices into a poem, such as collage and erasure. The footnote, with its traditional textual role of explanation or amendment, brings with it expectations of authority and dignity that can be in dialogue with the principal text, reinforcing or subverting the message of the poem. The success or failure of the technique depends, like everything else, on how well it is done and for what purpose, how much tension —in this case—is created between text and what is literally subtext. Barbara’s footnotes provide definitions. Barbara uses the footnotes for the anodyne purpose of providing definitions, and historical background to her stitching practice. And on one level, the footnotes enact the process of stitching: attaching subtext to text, which is clever. But the concern, as with everything, is whether the device earns its place in the poem by delivering in meaning than it demands in effort. The footnote project calls a lot of attention to itself as a form and demands a lot of effort from the reader.
John J. Trause‘s poem “Magic Fingers” is a Trausian romp of the first order that —like Barbara’s poem—draws a lot of formal attention to itself, though not with footnotes, but foregrounded music; the poem is chockablock with assonance and near rhyme around the words beginning with haich or sounding like “hotel” and the gerund case “ing”—as in the lines “hoteling and motelling, modelling and hostelling,/ no telling what else,/ and retelling ….” Like others of John’s poems it borrows (sometimes frantically) from popular movie culture with references to Marilyn Monroe and Jean Seberg, and seems like it will function only on that playful level until it resolves in the final stanzas to a plaintive call for Olga Khokhlova, Pablo Picasso’s first wife, which is surprisingly effective at changing the lyric tone of the poem.
My poem, “Ode To The Place At the Northern End of Manhattan….” is, as advertised, a lyric song of praise to a place with nostalgic significance. When I wrote the poem a few years ago it was in a blocky left justified form, and it had several more sections than are shown here. Recently, I read of book called Crush by Richard Siken, who used what I’d call an exploded arrangement of the poem on the page that infused his work with a lot of energy, and I liked it. So I took the first section of the Ode and, with only minor editorial changes to the text, changed its layout to look a little like Siken’s “Scheherazade” and I liked it a lot. Personally, I think that making mechanical changes to form and layout, moving a poem into short lines, long lines, couplets, tercets, and quatrains, just changing the font or font size, all of these and many more are fantastic, ‘low cost’ tools of revision, literally allowing us to re-see the poem, see it newly, ways of making the poem new for the poet, bringing things that may have been buried in habit out into a more prominent place, where they can be seen, acknowledged, and raise questions. Shira Ehrlichman, the poet who wrote “Odes to Lithium” advocates this method of stimulated revision through initially mechanical changes the “laboratory of possibility.” I also advocate it. Raymond Carver famously said (or repeated) in his droll, low-key way: “A very few of us have true vision; the rest of us have revision.”
Ray Turco‘s poem “Spaesato” addresses the situation of a speaker who finds themselves “exist[ing] between languages,” Italian and English: “In Italy, I am American but different,/ In America, I am Italian but quirky and new.” The poem takes a leap towards the lyric expression of alienation that comes from this duality in the last lines: “I cling to myself, close to myself/ in the cold of the rain.”
Don Zirilli‘s poem, “The Trap,” comes out of a truly wonderful poetic tradition, the dialogue, which presents a moral or intellectual problem from two sides by putting itself in the form of a conversation. One of the loveliest parts of Don’s dialogue is that we don’t exactly know what the two voices are talking about, but more about their conversational relationship. Someone said it was like the dialogue in Waiting for Godot, and maybe so, but it is also a development that continues Don’s recent monologues in the voice of a stand-up comedian. Overheard conversations can be riveting, and this one often works on that level even with minimal ‘content.’
Oh my god Do you think anything will happen in August?
Do you think anything will happen in January?
Extremists love anniversaries
I guess everyone is sentimental
I’m not sure any of this is a good idea But what other choice do we have?
You might make it to a nice park trail But what if it’s already started
(and so on.) Don enhanced the mesmeric quality of such eavesdropping by having two people reading the poem as dialogue. It was a lot of fun and Don said it helped him towards future revision, which is the highest goal we have.
Ana Doina brought a poem called “Ubi patria – a prophecy before exile” which was a bit of a character study of the woman employed by the speaker of the poem to help with household work and, ultimately with packing the speaker’s belongings as the speaker prepares to go into exile. The employee is introduced as “Leana/ the gypsy we hired to paint our house,” and the poem spares no harshness in talking about Leana as a woman whom the state has “declared …. retarded” and “spayed” after she had seven pregnancies “and gave one healthy boy to each orphanage in a thousand mile radius. At least one member of the workshop was deeply disturbed by these locutions suggesting that a content warning may be appropriate when addressing topics of state brutality and cruelty, even if the views are not the views of the poet, but only the reported views of the state.
Frank Rubino‘s poem “On Chestnut Street” continues Frank’s recent commitment to experimenting with form, here, manipulated indenting of successive lines in stanzas one, two, and six and, in stanza four, working with and against an anaphoric repetition of “Love has me” alternating with one instance of “gore has me” — The poem also falls into a group of Frank’s poems that take place while the speaker is walking around Montclair, New Jersey, such as “Dayes and Monthes” sharing cultural references like the music in their headphones or, here, thoughts about Virgil’s Aeneid, and in particular, the scene in which Aeneas recognizes his mother by the color of her throat. Love is presented as a brutal thing (“love has me in its rock crevice,/ wedged between stone walls,/ chasing its sick porcupine” and a place of sadness and deception, but it is set unironically against an overt insistence that the speaker is “ecstatic with gratitude.”
We are all sorcerer apprentices, employing the poetic devices that we have admired elsewhere to achieve the purposes and discuss the matters that matter to us. As apprentices, we sometimes flood the workshop, but that’s okay, in fact, better than okay.
Don’t forget to come to the RWB Reading tomorrow at 7:00 pm. —Arthur Russell
Special shout out to Preeti Shah, a recent poem-of-the-month winner at Brooklyn Poets, but a first-timer for the RWB, who audited the workshop and promised to bring a poem sometime soon. We look forward to it.
Bridget Sprouls was back for a second week running and brought a poem of sadness and untethered regret called “Strange sad story,” having to do with a stray dog adopted or housed by the speaker of the poem and her partner. The backstory that Bridget shared with us at the workshop didn’t make it all the way into the poem, but the dismay, despair, and the sadness of the title are there in full, even in the description of the land where she lives.
Frank Rubino‘s poem, “There is a place where dreams are monitored” uses a wonderfully evocative piece of anaphora. Several lines begin “You’re looking at a man who…” So, a poem about identity illuminated by stories, one about how youthful moral failings (cheating on the SATs, skimming money) can, an adult man, dog; another about a family cat; another about financial losses, and a surprising one about being lectured by the cops. In a way, the poem mirrors the second thoughts and sorrow of Bridget’s poem – hers about losing a dog, his in part about losing a cat, but both of them churning over the facts, suggesting places where blame can land, and ruminating.
Raymond Turco brought a poem that Frank described as gnomic, called “We Are All Man,” that talks, very briefly, about the godly nature of man, and suggests that all speech names god. Tom thought it was a ‘modern affirmation.’
Janet K‘s poem “In His Body,” like, but very unlike Raymond’s addresses the man/god relation, though Janet comes at it from the point of view of the saggy elder body, and the desire to be youthful if not young in a poem that is filled with vivid language, starting with the repeated beginning of stanzas one and two with the word “Fancy” as a VERB! “Fancy switching a jelly belly for a six-pack ….. Fancy striding on a skeleton of bonded bone…” And the energy continues to flow in stanza three with the life affirming, healing grace of a television evangelist: “Yeah, baby./ Abandon the walker, ditch the cane.” Finally, in the fourth stanza, the man/god thing comes out a lot of latent music: “If you funded the fantasy of inimitability/ you could look in the mirror at one of the gods/ and run your hands over the firmness of youth….” The poem ends falling back into a bit of momento mori, considering how even a well-tuned body can and fail and fall, but holding on to what she calls the “fantasy of inimitability” by ending on the hopeful word, “Still.”
Shane Wagner‘s poem “Cedar Lane, to Woodlawn, to Long Hill” a poem set during a neighborhood walk along the path described in the title, that gets the question of violence by a zig-zag route, starting with a sock that bunches in the speaker’s heel, then goes back to the birth of his daughter, jumps forward to the a mature conversation about violence against women, then on to coded language used to describe other social ills, and ends with a boy pointing a finger gun at a dog and the speaker who points his own finger gun at the boy. Susanna Lee said that the violence becomes clearer as the poem goes on, but investing the finger gun in an innocent with such political potency comes with some liabilities.
Rob G brought a poem called “Soul Wrangling” which is a fractured narrative about a newly married couple, an actual honeymoon couple, going into the Arizona desert on their honeymoon to search for the bones of dismembered children described by a person with an “unraveled mind…gilded with common sophistry.” It’s an odd tale, and one that doesn’t fit easily into a poem that uses as much concision as Rob’s do.
My untitled poem beginning with “In emojis” distinguishes between the way sadness is depicted in emojis and how it appears on a real face, allowing the person who is crying to taste their own tears to “check the depth/ of your sorrow/ as they pass”. Susanna Lee suggested it was about how to disassociate from sorrow. Janet K said that the long skinny look of the poem on the page was like ‘water falling.’ Rob G suggested the title “Salinity.”
Susanna Lee‘s poem, “Permanent Waves” talked about hair, the speaker’s hair, the speaker’s mother’s hair, and the speaker’s sister’s hair, but more than that, it talked about distinguishing the speaker from a sister who “let mom dress her up,/ allowed her hair to be permed,/ dressed in itchy white lace gloves/ and pinchy, black patent leather shoes, wore and easter bonnet with an elastic ribbon snapped under her chin.” An immensely rich area to explore, but this poem stays away from the rawness of the emotion it strongly suggests, and may do itself a disservice thereby.
Tom Benediktsson‘s poem “Syzygy” was inspired by Jen Poteet’s poem about applying for a James Merrill fellowship from a few weeks ago. Tom’s poem starts with a startling, even amazing evocation of a painter who invites the speaker into “a snoring father,/ a dirty kitchen and a room full of art.” Such celerity! And the next two lines are even more tantalizing: “I bought an e-ray of his wife’s skull/ on which he’d painted a fish.” Unfortunately, for this reader, the poem does not develop along those amazing lines, but turns into a recollection of a trip to Merrill’s Stonington Connecticut, specifically a restaurant called “Noah’s,” and though the poem circles back to “some strange starving fish” it never regains its strange wonderfulness.
Just a great group of working poets working on their poems. (We miss you, Jim.)