Poem: I See It Feelingly

My poem “I See It Feelingly” appears in the new issue of _Wordgathering_:

http://www.wordgathering.com/issue32/poetry/white.html

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Book Report

Here are a few interesting books I’ve read recently but didn’t get around to blogging about:

Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety by Daniel Smith.
A fascinating tour of a mind plagued and sometimes crippled by anxiety. To his credit, Smith does not hide the fact that severe anxiety can drive people to act selfishly, and also make them really irritating.

Pandemonium, After Party and We’re All Perfectly Fine by Daryl Gregory.
In one of these, our heroine busts out of a mental hospital and teams up with her girlfriend to track down the maker of a drug that induces religious belief; in another, a therapist organizes group therapy for victims of demonic visitation. In the other other one, our hero investigates demonic possession by what appear to be characters from children’s stories, with the help of an alternate-reality version of Sinead O’Connor.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.
A fragmentary spaceship-mind occupies a zombie body and plots to assassinate the many clones of the dictator who created her. Kind of a standard sci-fi plot these days, but fun.

Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty.
Lots of awesome historical stuff—did you know that the standard considered minimally acceptable by Jane Austen characters (500 to 1000 pounds a year) placed them in the top 0.5%? That in 1900, 10% of all income in Britain consisted of clipping coupons from overseas investments? Of course Piketty’s main point is that the relative egalitarianism of the postwar period may just have been an aberration and that we seem to be heading back to a society dominated by inherited wealth.
Sadly, when he gets political, he gets cranky and annoying. He maintains, astonishingly, that no-one in the old days thought that rich people had more money because they deserved it. He might want to look up ‘noble,’ ‘gentle,’ and ‘villain’ in the dictionary.

A Landing on the Sun by Michael Frayn.
British civil servants gone wild. Quite funny and pretty gripping, considering that you kind of know how it ends from the start.

First Peoples in a New World by David Meltzer.
Lots of cool stuff about Ice Age life in the Americas. Not a literary masterpiece, but I’m thankful to read a serious account not written by some nutjob with an axe to grind.

Biscuit Joint by David Kirby.
Musings about stuff like being offered a senior coffee and whether you say the t in Turandot.

Selected Poems by Li Po.
A great classic of Chinese literature, lots of poems about getting drunk and looking at the moon, hiking in the mountains and looking at the moon, and occasional mentions of the fact that his world was shattering into a devastating civil war.

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Why Would You Lie Bout Something Dumb Like That?

I was not expecting Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, by Tom Robbins, to contain frequent disquisitions on topics from biology. I would have been less surprised to find them if I had read his Wikipedia bio first, for it claims that his work is characterized by “scenes extrapolated from carefully-researched bizarre facts.” Here are some of the ‘facts’ in question, from the first few pages of Cowgirls:

The brain, that pound and a half of chicken-colored goo,…that slimy organ to which is attributed such intricate and mysterious powers—it is the sellfsame brain that does the attributing–…

 

I admit that I have several qualms about this passage. TR I have not included most of the insults TR throws at the brain—does this not seem ungrateful in a man who mmakes his living selling books? Does he sell a lot of books to gastropods? I also would recommend steering clear of pretentious words like selfsame if you can’t handle basic subject-verb agreement.

But mostly what irks me is the pound and a half. Human brains, whether anatomically modern or Neanderthal, weigh upwards of 3 pounds. I have not “carefully researched” the matter, but I think we were last at the pound and a half level a couple of million years ago, somewhere in our homo habilis heyday. I understand that Robbins has some kind of grievance against the brain, but lying about its weight? Isn’t that a bit petty?

Here is TR’s take on microbiology:

One thing is certain, however: because amoebae reproduce by division, endlessly, passing everything on, yet giving up nothing, the first amoebae [sic] that ever lived is still alive. Whether four billion years old, or merely three hundred, he, she, is with us today. Where? …

There follows a long list of possible locations for this first amoeba.. Will it make things better or worse if I try to disentangle the chain of logic that led to this? My best guess is that TR is mistaking persistence of genes for persistence of the individual, that is, he confuses cloning with immortality. Even so, he must know that evolution happens…or is he a creationist? That would explain a lot. Surely his research has exposed him to the concept of mutation, if not to the fact that bacteria sometimes engage in DNA-swapping (asexual organisms have got to get their freak on somehow). So again, he must know that what he is saying isn’t true.

And finally, there is a fugue on the subject of rectal temperatures, most of which I will spare you. Here is a sample:

The normal rectal temperature of a bumblebee is calculated to be 110.8, although so far, no-one has succeeded in taking the rectal temperature of a bumblebee. That doesn’t mean that it can’t or won’t be done—scientific research marches on.

I do not know whether bumblebees have rectums, but I am reasonably confident that they are cold-blooded creatures without any stable temperature in any part of their bodies. I am also confident that Tom Robbins knows this. The key to why he schooses to lie about these kinds of things is, I suppose, to be found in the last bit,–for some reason, biologists, people who like to find out stuff about plants and animals and bacteria and then tell other people what they’ve learned, irritate the hell out of Tom Robbins.

It’s true that the whole book does not consist only of these strange jokes. There is also a young woman who is a really successful hitch-hiker because she has enormous, floppy thumbs. Yes, I’m pretty sure that is supposed to be funny, and no, I don’t get it either. I was even around, sort of, when the book was published in 1976; I was just a kid, but shouldn’t I have some clue about the culture that TR is coming from? I know some once-cool writers of the period around 1970 have faded from view (remember Richard Brautigan?), but I wonder if I would find them all so vapid now…I’m scared to revisit old faves like Breakfast of Champions or The Sot-Weed Factor, in case they’ve turned to crap while I wasn’t looking.

Anyway, I’ve decided to see whether I can experience any of the joy that Robbins apparently finds in telling pointless falsehoods. Here goes:

Tom Robbins, that pound and a half of chicken-colored goo…

Tom Robbins reproduces by division, endlessly…

The normal rectal temperature of Tom Robbins is calculated to be 110.8.

Hmmm, that does feel kinda good.

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Geting away with rhyme

It takes a certain amount of guts, these days, even to submit a rhymed poem to a journal, especially if it’s not a villanelle (those seem to have been grandfathered into contemporary poetry). I, too, often find recent rhymed poems precious or silly, though it alarms me a bit when I see that a magazine has explicitly forbidden them—how do they know what might turn up when they least expect it?

Once in a while, a writer is able to hit the right tone and harness rhyme for that essential job of poetry, letting us compass and comprehend loss and, in particular, the big D—no, not Dallas, I mean Death. For me, Dan Albergotti’s “Inside” is such a poem:

http://www.memorious.org/?id=527

 

(The next poem, “Wilderness,” is also very much worth reading.)

 

The poem moves from the concrete to the abstract, from the natural to the personal. It sets up an expectation of obvious meanings and oppositions and then plays with and distorts them; the regularity of the form, including the internal-rhyme links, helps to disguise how the poem has wandered into deeper and more twisty relationships:

In the soil, the growing seed. In the tree, the lark.

In the child, the weight of years. In the steel, the rust.

In my head, the unsaid words. In the diamond, coal.

This is at once a familiar and an unnerving trope: we are used to the notion of a jewel hiddden or potentially present in the dross, but not the other way round.

Finally, the poem turns, turning the concept of blood vessel inside out, turning from a timeless catalogue of noun phrases to the recognition, of an irretrievable past in the verb, and turning back on itself: the poem is the wake, the trace of the poet’s mother and of his grief:

In my blood, your vessel ran. In these lines, its wake.

Well, that was a good day at the poetry smithy, don’t you think? So far I have not found a way to incorporate into my own work any overt form beyond what turns up without my consciously willing it.

Reading Albergotti’s collection, Millennial Teeth, you get a strong impression of the “rapture of distress” (Auden’s phrase) that so often lends force and a feeling of authenticity to poetry. This is clearly important to his work, and yet the reader may start to wonder how many of his wounds are self-inflicted. He is deeply troubled by overt racism, militarism, and Christianity, yet he chooses to live in rural South Carolina. Obviously he didn’t choose his family; still, by middle age, many people have found ways to live with even extremely suboptimal family backgrounds. The events touched on in “Wilderness,” Albergotti’s failure to answer his mother’s phone calls or, when he did answer, to comfort her adequately, his failure to rescue his sister from the family home or from her mental illness or the brain damage she suffered as a newborn—these genuine sources of deep regret appear over and over in what strikes me as a strangely unprocessed form. a psychologist friend says that she kept wondering whether he couldn’t profit from therapy, something she doesn’t usually think about when reading poems.

Perhaps he would benefit from a dose of Frontier Psychiatry:

 

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The isle is full of noises that bring delight and hurt not

I’ve been thinking about found poetry because of a class I’m taking—this link points to some resources for producing found poetry, though that really makes it more like manufactured poetry:

http://www.foundpoetryreview.com/resources/online-tools/

I once subscribed to an e-mail group that included some well-known poets and some anonymous spectators like me. One list-member linked to a site that he had helped develop, which generated on the visitor’s computer a brand-new cento consisting of lines from three different poets. The three sources included a living British avant-garde poet whom I’d never heard of but whose fans considered him to be the cat’s meow. His friends and fans on the list responded hysterically to this affront, outraged by what they (quite wrongly, I believe) regarded as a copyright violation, but much more by the lack of reverence for Mr. X’s work and stature. If they could, I think they would have called in drone strikes on the web host. I am tempted to say that any form of expression (the site’s creators didn’t claim it was art) that can so enrage a bunch of pompous prigs has got to have value.

Such playful experiments are probably immune to the perils attendant on the visual art industry, as described in the Ian Wallace essay on found art: when you cash the 7-figure check from Sotheby’s or MoMA, your critique of modern capitalist culture really does become merda d’artista. No risk of that ever happening to a poet…still, there is the danger of institutionalizing subversion, as you can see from the ponderous pronouncements in the standard endorsed by the Found Poetry Review, for example that the “merely decorative or entertaining” should be avoided. Aren’t you glad to know that the Experimental Art Earnestness Police are protecting us from fun? I know I am.

I cannot say that a true found poem has ever really stuck to me. The closest thing has probably been some quasi-found poetry in the work of Anne Carson. Her book of Sappho translations, If Not, Winter, is in a sense, an instance of aggressive erasure; the title phrase, for example, appears almost by itself on a page, with a few other scraps of language in a sea of whitespace. The difference is that the erasure was performed not by Carson but by that notorious critical tandem, Time and Ignorance. The papyri on which the poems were written were torn up and put to various uses (some as strips of funereal wrapping), so that even some of the bigger fragments may consist of a strip containing the middle of each line, or conversely the middle of every line may be missing. This ancient process of fragmentation produces a modernist effect that must be part of what attracted Carson to her career as a classical scholar.

There is also her pastiche, “A Fragment of Ibykos Translated Six Ways””

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n21/anne-carson/a-fragment-of-ibykos-translated-six-ways

The found text here has been rather aggressively manipulated (this is especially clear to me from the mangled names of London Underground stations), both to place it within the “on the one hand…on the other hand…nay, rather” frame and to lend surprise and significance to the text. For me to find a poem worth re-reading, it probably has to derive its form either from history or from conscious effort, rather than a purely mechanical tool or engine. But I suppose that a counterexample could change my opinion.

So far, I’ve been looking at the reader’s experience of poems that have found text or randomization as organizing principles; they can also be seen as sources for the writer, whether or not the ultimate product is deemed to lie within the found poetry genre. I mentioned in an earlier post that nowadays the very act of framing can turn ordinary into poetic language, but though I recognize this as a sociological fact, I feel that it has grown a little tired as an artistic statement.

Still, the idea that poetry might be found anywhere in language helps to keep us observant, just as the idea that any object or landscape might be the seed of a poem helps us keep our eyes open. It is one of the key theses of modern poetry that poems are not made out of poetical words and phrases any more than they are written about poetical scenes or topics. Found text can also serve to shake the kaleidoscope, to skip our minds out of the grooves etched by culture and habit and introduce excitement and surprise instead of cliche or even logic.

In my own attempts at poetry, I have often used scraps and fragments of existing language, but have never gone looking for found text per se. Rather, I find it natural to assemble the detritus of my mental world, the beer bottles and bicycle wheels and used condoms that wash up on the shore of my stream of consciousness, and hope to make them part of something rich and strange…a little Watts Tower, or a little Car-henge.

Here is an example; if, in the words of the Earnestness Police, you find it merely decorative and entertaining, that would not be the worst thing ever:

Ghost in the Machine

The blind man’s second-best friend,

Paul the text-to-speech voice,

dogging the heels of the words I type

(I type), though you may hear

a trace of deadpan disapproval in

the impassioned “O O O” of a song lyric.

 

Still, his mask has cracks.

A Facebook status may provoke

“What are you doing?” “Where are you?”

or sometimes “Friends disabled

friends.” On shutdown there is “Help!”

or the still sadder “Un-named button.”

 

The carbon-based among us stick, I think,

more closely to our lines,

letting our Un-named Buttons stay un-named.

But pay attention and you will hear it:

Help.

What are you doing?

 

PS: Here is the essay on the history of the found object in art by Ian Wallace, which I referred to above:

http://www.artspace.com/magazine/art_101/the-history-of-the-found-object-in-art

 

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When I Make My Road Trip Movie

My essay “When I Make My Road Trip Movie” is in the current issue of _Eclectica_:

http://www.eclectica.org/v18n4/white.html

 

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Richard Howard takes on Ducal shrinkage

In the movie This Is Spinal Tap, the band is searching for a stage concept that will live up to the mythopoeic grandiosity of their Jurassic rock sound. They hit upon the idea of an 18-foot-high replica of Stonehenge, but some confusion between the symbols ‘ and “ results in dolmens a foot and a half tall, the tiny dancers they hire to prance about this microlith do not, to say the least, set the proper tone.

This is roughly the transformation that the Duke of Ferrara undergoes between Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and Richard Howard’s “Nikolaus Mardruz to His Master Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol, 1565.” Here are the poems:

http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/my-last-duchess

http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/nikolaus-mardruz-his-master-ferdinand-count-tyrol-1565

 

Even more than a novel or a play, a dramatic monologue revolves around the control of information, usually accomplished through point of view. Lacking the props of context, the reader must use clues of tone and inference to puzzle out a meaning that is often quite different from what the speaker intends. In “My Last Duchess,” we gradually realize that the Duke is not merely pompous and self-regarding, not merely an annoying prick, but almost certainly a murderer; the progression is rendered even more disturbing because we are inserted into the position of an emissary negotiating a marriage, and are thus implicated in the fate of the Duke’s next Duchess. The poem has aged well, I think, because Browning can still rely on (most of) us to share his fear and loathing of domestic tyrants, a species with which he had some personal acquaintance.

Part of the fun of Howard’s re-telling is, of course, figuring out that that’s what it is; I’m afraid I may have lessened that fun by my presentation, but it would be a shame to read the Howard poem without having read the Browning. From the beginning, with the swans and towers reflected upside-down in the lake, we are warned to expect inversions and reversals, and the trompe-l’oeil curtain that flips over to reveal the portrait carries this forward, as well as illustrating the kind of petty power trips the Duke is willing to stoop to.

We are now at an extra remove from the Duke, in the position of the Count to whom Mardruz’s letter is addressed, and whom we can imagine as sharing his general world-view, even if he may perhaps find his underling a bit cheeky and verbose. Instead of the earnest, upright Protestant gentleman who is shocked and horrified by the evil Duke, we have the witty, urbane ambassador who seems to regard His Grace’s appalling morals as principally (or ducally) another example of his unspeakable taste. We are not asked to be any fonder of the Duke than we are in “My Last Duchess,” but we are asked to see him as contemptible and easily manipulated, the way a legate from imperial London or Paris might look down on a small-time dictator.

Howard gives Mardruzhis own style, with a good deal of syntactic suspense and lots of semantic inversions (“by his own lights, or, perhaps more properly / said, by his own tenebrosity”) to go with the elaboraate syllabic meter:

The years are her

ally in such an arbitrament,

and with confidence

My Lord can assure

the new Duchess (assuming her Duke

abides by these stipulations and his own

propensity for

accumulating

“semblances”) the long devotion (so long as

he lasts ) of her last Duke… Or more likely,

if I guess aright

your daughter’s intent,

of that young lordling I might make so

bold as to designate her next Duke, as well…

 

In other words, they can rig the contract so that the “old reprobate” won’t dare harm the new Duchess for fear of losing the dowry, and she need only wait for him to pop off so that she can marry her boyfriend and make him her next Duke.

The ornate and rather fussy style may be specific to Mardruz, but I can’t help seeing in his amused and cosmopolitan self-assurance a good deal of Richard Howard. Here is Edmund White’s description of his first encounter with Howard—at the time, White was an unpublished novelist and Howard had agreed to look at his manuscript (this was to be the big break in White’s career). But rather than arranging lunch or some similar mundane appointment, Howard instructed him to be waiting, MS in hand, on the corner of 13th Street and ith Avenue at exactly 2:00 PM:

At the appointed time I was standing on the corner…with the manuscript in hand. I was wearing sawed-off blue-jean shorts and a maroon T-shirt. My hair was freshly washed and combed, but I wished I’d slept better and didn’t have such dark circles under my eyes. Suddenly I saw him whirling up the street at a fast clip in a cape, his bald head gleaming. He sized me up with a head-to-toe survey and a cocked eyebrow.

Style, energy, cocked eyebrow…I think Nikolaus Mardruz would approve.

So, how might this serve as a model or caution for a writer of poems? I mentioned above the use of gradual revelation to create a drama of discovery where there may not be a drama of action, and this is surely something that any writer can profit from who wishes to keep an audience attentive. There is also a sense of discovery as we thread our way through the twisty corridors of Mardruz’ syntax, though this may start to feel claustrophobic.

The meter too is interesting, an elaborate syllabic pattern that provides an abstract matrix within which the poem develops; given modern sensibilities, the lack of palpable rhythmic pulse may be considered an advantage, since iambic or trochaic meter strikes readers as retro. But by the same token, it lacks visceral, audible power.

I am greatly drawn to Howard’s brilliance and his evident pleasure in creation, but I am not sure that I can claim for him what Lorca calls duende, what the rest of us call soul. My own poems are usually about me, and the ones that have gotten the strongest response are those that have the greatest emotional authenticity and intensity, so that for me, the biggest challenge in writing dramatic monologue is not being clever (much as I love clever) but inhabiting the speaker with as much sure-footedness as I inhabit the poem-character version of myself. And then I just have to wait for that big arsenic lobster to fall on my head.

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