Posts Tagged ‘Ezra Pound



07
Sep
15

Quick Notes on Charles Olson

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Charles Olson

Charles Olson (1910 – 1970) is an American poet, who is usually associated with the Black Mountain poets. He is influenced by Ezra Pound, whom he spent time with when Pound was in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, but he was also influenced by W. C. Williams, who was also influenced by Olson enough to include Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” in his The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. Olson’s first significant text was Call Me Ishmael (1947), his free flowing interpretation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. His primary texts include the highly influential essay “Projective Verse,” which I will focus on, and The Maximus Poems, a long poem spread across a thick book of 8.5″ x 11″ pages, where he maps Gloucester, Massachusetts, both geographically and temporarily. He uses Gloucester as a focal point from which to understand his universe. Its central character is Maximus, who according to David Perkins “is Olson, but also Olson composing poems” (502). Olson’s poetry explores the use of the page and the use of breath. He has an interest in the “primitive,” by which Olson means “‘primary, as how one finds anything, pick it up as one does new – fresh/first” (“Letter to Elaine Feinstein” 28). He is concerned with getting at the origins of things, before the habits of language interfere with their original uniqueness, that time when the Mayans “cut [hieroglyphs (words)] in stone, they [the hieroglyphs] retain the power of the objects of which they are images” (“Human Universe” 58).

On re-reading “Projective Verse” (1950) for the first time since the mid-90s, I realized I missed quite a bit of what Olson was getting at. He, of course, is concerned with the idea of breath in its relation to poetry, its lines, and its involvement with the body. This time, however, I noticed something more interesting, or at least, different. It begins with his use of scientific terminology (mainly terms from Newtonian physics and electromagnetics), such as “kinetics,” “energy,” “propelled,” “forces,” “principle,” “process,” “speed,” “particles,” “field,” and even in his letter to Elaine Feinstein (1959) he uses “vector” and a mathematical fraction to portray the double nature of the image. This creates the feel of Olson as scientist of poetry, which may be the essence of Projective Verse, which is the removing of the ego.

A scientist, at his/her best, is without ego when interacting with the physical world. The scientist’s prejudices and assumptions (ego) are withdrawn in the act of observation. For Olson, this act of observation is two-fold, and both folds lack ego (though not necessarily the self). Fold one involves poetic form and fold two involves “objectism,” which is different than “objectivism.”

Olson writes in “Projective Verse,” “It would do no harm, as an act of correction to both prose and verse as now written, if both rime and meter [. . .] were less in the forefront of the mind than the syllable” (18). This is similar to what I mentioned about form with Creeley. Form constrains perception and limits content. Here, Olson is saying a little more when he says, “were less in the forefront of the mind,” which I take to mean ego. The ego is bending, manipulating, encouraging in what it wants to see, as well as the clever truth it wants to present in its poem. The ego does this not only with the form but also with the “elements and minims of language [. . . the] logical” (18). So the ego uses all these forms, techniques, rhetorics, and literary devices to shape reality. But as Creeley says, “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.” Typically, we understand this to mean that content dictates form, and that is partially correct. However, there is the key word “extension.” Form extends from the content, which is the reality the poet is experiencing. Form is an extension of reality, and this reality has two modes of experience. One side is the ego-less or language-less experience, and the other is the experience of composition, and both find themselves in “objectism,” the second fold of Olson’s observational method, or as he might call it in “Human Universe,” a “threshold of reception” (60).

Olson says, “Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego [. . .] that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature [. . .] and those other creations of nature which we may [. . .] call objects. For man is himself an object” (“Projective Verse” 24). Now here’s the tricky part, Olson then says if man “sprawl”s himself across, he “shall find little to sing but himself” (25). That’s the ego interference, which seems counterintuitive. Also counterintuitive is that “if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participating in the larger force [nature], he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share” (25). In other words, he is advising the poet to keep her hands in her pockets, don’t touch anything with her assumptions and prejudices, and just observe. When one observes without ego-interference, nature will present its secrets in ways the poet could not experience or create with language constructs, logic, and preconceptions. This same idea holds true on the field of composition, which I take to mean to mean the page when it is being actively inscribed. Just as there shouldn’t be ego-interference in observing reality, there shouldn’t be ego interference in writing the poem, for “[f]rom the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION – he put himself in the open – he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself” (16). Even though the poem seems in the submissive position (“under hand”), the poem provides the track for composition, and the poet must listen to and follow where the poem wants to go. And the:

objects [in the poem . . .] must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold, and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself, through the poet and them, into being. (20)

In other words, I think, a tension is created when the poem moves from one object to the next, or as “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION” (17).

I’m not sure Olson achieves his goals. He may, and I may not be keen enough to notice it, but at least in “The Kingfishers” he gives directions on how to do it:

     When the attentions change / the jungle
     leaps in
                even the stones are split
                                                they rive     (169)

The poet needs to keep changing to immerse him/herself into the world different each time in order to experience the universe anew and fresh. In other words:

     What does not change / is the will to change    (167)

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Works Cited

Olson, Charles. Selected Writings. Ed. Robert Creeley. New York: New Directions, 1966. Print.

Perkins, David. “Charles Olson.” A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987. 497-505. Print.

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26
Jul
14

Swinburne, Four Syllables, and Learning to Listen to Write

The prompt for this essay was to write a 10-15 page paper about poems, stories, or novels that influenced my writing. Below is my response.

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Algernon Charles Swinburne

“Algernon Charles Swinburne” by painting George Frederic Watts 1867.

As I thought about what poems changed my work or writing, I had to ask myself in what capacity. In the capacity of expressing myself? in the capacity of using images? being concrete and clear? in the capacity of using the line? in using etymologies? in sounds? etc. Many poems of course came to mind, such as John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10, Edmund Spenser’s “One day I wrote her name upon the strand,” Gerard Manley Hopkins “The Windhover,” W. S. Merwin’s “The Mountain,” “The Unwritten,” “For the Anniversary of My Death,” and “The Last One.” Two essays also came to mind: Ezra Pound’s “A Retrospect,” which was really the start of everything for me, and Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse.” There were so many choices, but the more I thought about it the more I kept dwelling on Algernon Charles Swinburne and one of his poems. In fact, it was really just four syllables in this poem that I kept turning to for ten years during the 1990s. I believe these four syllables changed my writing more than any other poem. As a result, I will show how this happened and what I learned. In essence, I will show the growth of how my ears learned to listen. As a result, much of what follows will probably be common knowledge to anyone who’s been writing poems for some time, but it is still a sketch of how I learned prosody, or invented my own prosody.

I was introduced to Swinburne by way of Ezra Pound’s “Swinburne and His Biographers.” In this essay, Pound says:

Swinburne recognized poetry as an art, and as an art of verbal music. [. . .] No man who cares for his art can be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne, deaf to their splendor, deaf also to their bathos. [. . . ] The rhythm-building faculty was in Swinburne, and was perhaps the chief part of his genius. (292-93)

Before I found my way to that essay and to Swinburne, I had been living in and practicing Pound’s advice in “A Retrospect.” You are probably familiar with the three principles (“Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective;” “To use no word that does not contribute to the presentation;” and “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome”) as well as the motto “Go in fear of abstractions.” In the “Rhythm and Rhyme” section of the essay, Pound also points out:

Let him dissect the lyrics of Goethe coldly into their component sound values, syllables long and short, stressed and unstressed, into vowels and consonants.

It is not necessary that a poem should rely on its music, but if it does rely on its music that music must be such as will delight the expert. (5)

As a young writer, I of course wanted to “delight the expert,” as well as everybody else. However, I didn’t know how. Nor did I know what long and short syllables were. I only knew stressed and unstressed syllables, and not very well. And then, as I mentioned, I met Swinburne, and he, and especially one of his poems, drastically informed and changed how I wrote poems during the 1990s.

Swinburne’s poems will force anyone to hear stressed and unstressed syllables. One really can’t “be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne.” It’s unavoidable. It’s with him my decade-long research into meters (qualitative and quantitative) and forms began. Swinburne wrote in so many meters and forms, I felt required to do the same. I especially loved Sapphic meters, and he has two Sapphic-metered poems, but they are done with qualitative meters instead of quantitative meters. However, I didn’t know this yet. All I knew was to listen.

And so I listened to Swinburne and other poets and my own poems. It was a long training process, but the poem that may have taught me more about meter and rhythm and influenced my own writing is one of the chorus sections from his Greek-like play in verse Atalanta in Calydon. The chorus opens:

Before the Beginning of Years

And it continues for 46 more lines in a bouncy rhythm. The backbeat of the poem is iamb, anapest, and anapest, which Swinburne will play off of throughout the poem. However, there’s much more going on than that. Here’s a typical scansion of the opening line:

Before the Beginning of Years - Simple Scan

In this scansion, I use “u” to indicate an unstressed syllable and “/” to indicate a stressed syllable. That scansion is absolutely correct, or is it? There’s something more complicated going on in that first syllable. I didn’t realize it the first few times I read it, but eventually, sometime later, I heard it different.

I read the opening line over and over again. I read it loud, soft, fast, and slow to try and figure out what was happening with that first syllable. While the “be” in “before” is unstressed, it certainly has more stress than “the.” “How can that be?” I asked myself. I discovered a number of reasons for this.

Edmund SpenserThe first reason was breath. “Be” is the first syllable of the poem, as a result it receives the first exhale from the speaker’s mouth. It receives initial breath, which is more powerful than subsequent breaths in a poem, at least when it pertains to unstressed syllables. When reading a poem aloud, one can’t help but to burst into the poem on the opening syllable, even if it’s just a small burst. The breathing takes time to regulate, usually a syllable or two or three. What I learned from this is that the opening syllable to a poem can’t really be unstressed. Actually, where I first realized that the opening breath adds stress to an unstressed syllable was in the opening line of Edmund Spenser’s “Sonnet 75,” which begins, “One day I wrote her name upon the strand.” The “one,” while correctly scanned as an unstressed syllable, is more of a semi-stressed syllable. I read Spenser’s poem again and again, I compared “One” to “u” in “upon” and to “the,” which are obviously unstressed syllables, I thought about it, and then applied what I learned to Swinburne’s chorus. It held true there. It held true with many other poems, too. It held true with the poems I wrote. What I learned is that the opening syllable will almost always have a little more stress than the same syllable later in the poem, unless there is a deliberate metrical play being facilitated by the poet. This semi-stressed syllable realization while important was still not fully developed, especially in me and my poetry.

The idea that there was the special syllable intrigued me. I had assumed there were either stressed or unstressed syllables and nothing else. This is all I ever read in books or was taught. Even in the dictionary, there are only stressed and unstressed syllables, and the “Be” in “Before” is unstressed. But here’s a third syllable that is neither. “Is it just an aberration? Is it only true of opening syllables?” I asked myself. I eventually found two answers. The first was realizing that stressed and unstressed syllables are not absolute. They are relational, as hinted at before with the “u” in “upon” and the “the” in Spenser’s poem. While “be” in “before” will usually be unstressed, its unstress comes in relation to the other syllables around it. Since the “be” in “before” is always surrounded by the stressed “fore,” it will almost always sound unstressed. Still, it is more stressed than the “the” later in the Swinburne line. In fact, articles are almost always unstressed, especially when it follows the stressed “fore.” The next unstressed syllable that follows the unstressed “the” is also “be,” but this time in the word “beginning.” This “be” is also considered an unstressed syllable because of where it is in relation to the stressed “gin.” But when I listened closely, I heard it being more stressed than the preceding “the.” I didn’t hear the “be” in “beginning” as stressed or unstressed. It was in between. This time, however, it wasn’t because of initial expulsion of air. It was something else.

When I listened to the lines in this chorus, I heard rising rhythms. Of course, the rhythm will rise naturally with iambs and anapests, but there was more nuance in the rising in Swinburne’s chorus, and it occurs in the second syllable of the anapests. It turns out Swinburne wasn’t using a two-scored scansion system of syllables. He was using a three-scored scansion system. Here’s a different scansion of the opening line:

Before the Beginning of Years - Three Tier

In this scansion, I use “u” and “/” as I used them above, but here I use “u/” to indicate a semi-stressed syllable. When I scanned it by hand with a pencil in the 90s, I used a “u” with a slanted line through it. I was inventing my own scansion and scansion markings, and I would invent more. But back to this line. The rising rhythm is nuanced. It’s smooth. It glides up into each foot’s stressed syllable – unstressed to semi-stressed to stressed. But there’s even more to this rising.

Again, after reading this poem many more times, as well as reading other poems and writing my own poems that tried to imitate meters and rhythms, I heard this chorus’s opening line differently. This time I heard how the last syllable “years” is more stressed than the other syllables in the line. Here’s how I scanned it:

Before the Beginning of Years - Four Tier

Here I use “x” to indicate what I call a strong stress. My ear now heard four levels of stress and I had built my scansion system to include one more scansion symbol. My poet’s ears were really coming alive. Hearing the sounds wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know why it happened and how I could do it. While figuring it out, I reread Swinburne’s poem “Sapphics.” I liked the way the poem moved, but I didn’t know why it was called Sapphics. At the time, I had a little 4 ½” x 3 ¼” inch Collins Gem Latin Dictionary. (I still have it.) In it, in the prefatory materials, there is a seven-page “Metres” section about Latin meters and poetic forms. One of those was called “Sapphics,” after the poetic form Sappho used, which may have been created by Alcaeus of Mytilen (Sappho’s contemporary). But when the dictionary laid out the meter and format of the poem and gave a brief description of it, it didn’t use stressed and unstressed syllables. It used long and short syllables to represent the three hendecasyllabic lines (or “lesser Sapphics”) and the one adonic. I then remembered Pound mentioning “syllables long and short.” I realized some syllables have a longer pronunciation duration than other syllables. For instance, the “e” in the word “he” is longer than the “e” in the word “the.” I listened to that opening line again.

Before the Beginning of Years - Quantitative

The “–” below the line indicates a long syllable and the “u” below the line indicates a short syllable. My scansion system continued to grow as did my scansion markings as did my poet’s ears. The quantitative scansion system, I would later realize, is also relational, but the relationship has a wider scale. It works mainly with the whole line rather than what is nearby, as in qualitative scansion.

At this point you may be asking, “Why is the ‘Be’ in ‘Before’ longer than the ‘be’ in ‘beginning’?” That’s a good question. Outside of this poem, or if “before” and “beginning” are spoken as independent words, both “be”s would be the same length. In this opening line, however, I hear the “e” in “Be” in “Before” as a long “e.” It is as if the poem begins with a running start or as if the speaker is tuning his/her voice with the commencement of the poem. It might also be because of that initial expulsion of air. Nonetheless, pronouncing it as a short “e,” as in “beginning,” just doesn’t sound right. It’s seems out of key and out of tone, especially with the mood of the poem. One could argue that it is in fact a short syllable, and that is fine, as scansions can be debated. However, I heard and still hear it as a long syllable. The more important observation is the long syllable “years.”

I’m sure Swinburne was aware of long and short syllables, but he didn’t seem to consciously implement them. Even in his poem “Sapphics,” he translates the Greek quantitative meter into an Anglo qualitative meter. Pound will later write at least two Sapphic poems (“Apparuit” and “The Return,” though he disguises the form) where he plays quantitative meter against qualitative meter, and even later on, James Wright will Americanize Sapphics in “Erinna to Sappho,” using three iambic tetrameter lines and an iambic dimeter line. That, however, is another lesson. Back to Swinburne. No matter what Swinburne’s intentions were or were not, “years” is long and stressed. I thought this is how he made the syllable have more stress than a typically stressed syllable. I would later learn that a long syllable, and sometimes just a long vowel, can not only make a stressed syllable more stressed, but it can add stress to an unstressed syllable. In the opening to the chorus, the length of the syllable may also contribute to “Be” in “Before” being a semi-stressed word.

So what I had learned so far and practiced in writing by way of Swinburne? While there are stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry and they can be used as a backbeat to build a poem on, there’s more nuance to those syllables. There are at least four levels of stresses and they can be impacted by the length of the syllable. I learned that I can play stress and length off each other to create certain auditory effects. I would later learn that there’s even a fifth stress. It is more stressed than the strong stress I represented with an “x” in the above scansion. I picked this up from Robert Duncan, who somewhere wrote something like, “in each poem, there is one syllable that is more stressed than all the other syllables.” I found and find this to be often true. Though sometimes there are two syllables that are more stressed than all of the other syllables and sometimes there aren’t any outstandingly stressed syllables. I also learned that stresses are relational as well as the length of the syllable being relational. In addition, this chorus from Swinburne also aided me in realizing that rhythms can rise and fall, rhythms have their effects and can be used to create effects to please a listener’s ear and “delight the expert,” and they can also be used to affect meanings.

Writing in quantitative meters in English, however, is more a difficult endeavor and much more complicated than the four levels of stress. In the Romance languages, as I understand it, the lengths are more certain, just like our Anglo-American stresses. In Anglo-American, however, there are so many variable lengths of syllables it’s too difficult to scan effectively, but knowing when to use a long or short syllable is still useful in composing a music that “will delight the expert.” Further complications in quantitative syllables are compounded with schwas and diphthongs. How many syllables are in a diphthong? For instance, is “fire” one or two syllables? Or is it even more syllables as Robert Pinsky once pointed out when he was in the south and saw a woman running from her burning house yelling “fire” as a five-syllable word. This also became a learned lesson: context can dictate how a syllable is pronounced.

Additionally, after figuring out how a long syllable became a long syllable, which often occurs with a long vowel sound, I learned that vowels, especially long vowels, carry emotions. I thought the long vowel’s emotional effect had to do with duration and pitch. I learned some of this from Robert Bly, who I had thought had a tin ear, but would later realize he was using long vowels to create tones, which was his music. In “Educating the Rider and the Horse,” he briefly discusses it effects:

[The third type of sound a poem with a “wild animal” form is] the conscious intensity – not sequence – of pitches. Syllables that rose high, very high, in the Old Norse line the poets called “lifters.” We can hear them in Beowulf. Sometimes the lifters resemble the peak of a roof, sometimes the dragon prow of a Viking ship that rises and falls. Sounds pronounced naturally in the roof of the mouth, such as “ee,” drive the sound up; conviction drives it up; the beat as it arrives helps drive it up. This is mysterious, unquantifiable. (294)

Allen Ginsberg would do something similar as Bly, but his music came from the ups and downs of pitch. His poems, the lines in his poems (at least the ones I liked and read and studied) would often rise and fall in pitch. Bly would rely on a field of pitch (or a small range of pitches) for tonal effect, whereas Ginsberg would rely on mountains and valleys of pitch for movement and for physical effects. I eventually made up a hypothesis that in poetry the vowels in a word carry the emotions and the consonants carry the meaning, which I think is even more true the further back in English poetry history one listens.

During the 1990s, as mentioned, pretty much all I did was to write in as many meters (quantitative and qualitative) and forms as I could find, including free verse and projective verse. Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay was a major influence on how I wrote poetry. It taught me about breath and breathing, and informed, as a result, though indirectly, my understanding of long and short syllables. I would quote some of the poems I wrote, but I burned them all (all two boxes of them) in a bonfire fifteen years ago on July 3, 1999. It might be for the better because I couldn’t master aligning sound and sense, and to quote them would be embarrassing. Nonetheless, I could write meters very easily. And I could write a line or two that were clear, but writing a whole poem, especially with the complications I added (which I will note below), was more difficult than I could expect it to be. The poems I wrote had intricate meters and sounds, but the meaning of the poems were held together only in my head. They wouldn’t make much sense to other readers. Or the poems would be too abstract. Meters, I discovered, lend themselves to polysyllabic abstract words. At least that is true for me and even Swinburne. Swinburne in his later years fell into polysyllabic music, too. Still I kept at writing in meters and forms. I even tried to train myself to speak in sonnets, but I drift off topic.

Swinburne was not only an inspiration, but he also became a testing ground. If I discovered something in another poem, I would test it out in his poems, as I briefly illustrated above. I would also test it out in my own writings. I began with writing syllabics and used Swinburne’s poem “Syllabics” as a guide, as well as other poets. Once I got syllabics down, I moved on to iambs and then trochees and then to forms with those meters. Then I returned to syllabics and tried to incorporate other musically devices into it, like assonance, alliteration, and consonance. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Campion, Wallace Stevens, and Linda Bierds were vital in this musical development to “delight the expert.” Having figured out how to make those sounds, I then tried laying those sounds on top of iambs, and then atop other meters, and then into forms. This process restarted again with syllabics and then trying to incorporate etymologies into syllabic poems. I learned how to do this from Hopkins and Wallace Stevens. For instance, in one of Hopkins sonnets (I think it is the one that begins “Thou are indeed just, Lord, if I contend”), most of the words in the poem have etymological roots in feudal law, especially concerning lord and vassals, which I learned after half an afternoon with a dictionary in the Paddy Hill Library in Greece, NY. The poem was rooted by way of etymologies. Stevens did something similar, at times, especially with “Crispin” and “clipped” in “The Comedian as the Letter C.” I would even invent a school of poetry called “Skeatsism,” based on Rev. Walter W. Skeat’s An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language and my findings with Hopkins and Stevens. My writing/discovery process continued with the iambs, other meters, forms, and harmonies, etc. Swinburne was then also a motivator to go learn more. While Swinburne can teach a lot, he can’t teach everything, like long and short syllables, the emotions of vowels, and etymological rotisserie. Still there is one last lesson he had for me.

Besides not being able to write successful poems in meter and form, I also couldn’t master what call the ghost syllable. A ghost syllable is a syllable that has no representation in words or sounds. It is a syllable that is felt. It is a syllable that lingers like a ghost lingers after someone passes away. For example, I will return to the Swinburne chorus I’ve been writing about. Here are the opening four lines again, with scansion:

First Four Lines - Simple Scan

You can see and hear how Swinburne varies the rising rhythms in lines 3 and 4. If you listen even closer, you will hear two extra beats at the end of each those four lines. So it can be represented like this:

First Four Lines - Ghost Syllables

Those two extra stresses (“/   /”) at the end of each line are what I refer to as ghost syllables, and they move the poem forward. They create an extra tension between what is heard and unheard. They extend the line. I thought perhaps I might be hearing things. However, once in 2002 or 2003, I gave a poetry reading to a very receptive audience. Not too far into my reading of this chorus by Swinburne, the audience started supplying those ghosts beats at the ends of the lines by stomping their feet and slapping their tables. They picked up on the ghost syllable, and validated my reading. This effect is magical. Later on, I purchased The Fugs: The Fugs First Album. (The Fugs were an avant-garde rock band, and poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg are the most known members.) They did a musical rendition of the same chorus and called it the “Swinburne Stomp.” They heard and included the ghost beat, too. (Their rendition of the song has also influenced my reading of the poem, which is now more dramatic, especially at the end.) To this day, I still do not know how the ghost syllables work or how to do it. I wish I did, but I don’t. This among many things is what makes Swinburne a metrical genius from whom I learned so much about the music of poetry. Those two ghost syllables, the “Be” in “Before,” and “years” were the four syllables that affected me the most.

As a result, Swinburne prepared me for listening and listening with intent. He taught me prosody and how to talk about it. He prepared me for Gerard Manley Hopkins, especially “The Windhover,” which was another influential poem to my ears, as well as Edmund Spenser’s “One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon the Stand” (which maybe a perfect sonnet), and it prepared me John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10, “Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee.” It prepared me in such a way that I preferred to write musical poems over poems that made sense. That is, I became so obsessed in writing music to “delight the expert” that I forgot about everyone else, which means I forgot about clarity. The reader needs clarity. Writing poems with clarity would take me a whole other decade with W. S. Merwin to accomplish.

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Works Cited

Bly, Robert. “Educating the Rider and the Horse.” American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity. New York: Harper & Row Publishers: 1990. 289-96. Print.

Donne, John. “Holy Sonnet 10.” The Norton Anthology of English Language: Volume 1. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 1099. Print.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Thou are indeed just, Lord, if I contend.” Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. 67. Print.

Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions: 1968. 3-14. Print.

—. “Swinburne and His Biographers.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions: 1968. 290-294. Print.

Spenser, Edmund. “Sonnet 75.” The Norton Anthology of English Language: Volume 1. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 770. Print.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Atalanta in Calydon. Major Poems and Selected Prose. Eds. Jerome McCann and Charles L. Sligh. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 3-67. Print.

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Sapphics

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u u  – u

 

u = short syllable. – =long syllable.

The first three lines are the hendecasyllabic lines, or “lesser Sapphics.” The fourth and eleventh syllables are open syllables. Originally they were long, but now are variable.

The adonic is the fourth line.

A Sapphic poem usually consists of a number of these formally structured stanzas.

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To download a PDF of this essay, click Four Syllables.

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08
Feb
13

David Moody’s Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man & His Work: Volume I: The Young Genius 1885-1920 (2007)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 12, which was published circa November 2009.

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David Moody's – Ezra Pound PoetDavid Moody’s Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man & His Work: Volume I: The Young Genius 1885-1920 (Oxford University Press) is a long title for a book about the early years of Ezra Pound’s life, but the book is fantastic and it has so much detail. I don’t know how this was all accumulated, but it’s very insightful.

This might be my favorite Pound bio yet, though Humphrey Carpenter’s bio is wonderful, too. Halfway through Moody’s book, I was thinking, “I can’t wait for volume II.” If you want to know more about a young Pound, read Moody’s biography.//

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Moody, David A. Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man & His Work: Volume I: The Young Genius 1885-1920. NY: Oxford University Press, 2007.//

01
Feb
13

Andrew Kozma’s City of Regret (2007)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 11, which was published circa January 2009.

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Andrew Kozma's – City of RegretWho is Zone 3 Press? I didn’t know until I received review copies of their two newest books: Andrew Kozma’s City of Regret and Anne Couch’s Houses Fly Away [review to appear in few days]. So I emailed the press to find out who they are. They responded, “We’ve been publishing poetry books for a year and a half now, and we are hooked.” No wonder they are hooked; these last two books are wonderful. Welcome Zone 3 Press.

Now to the book. Or at least one word in this book. I want to see if I can talk about City of Regret by talking about “death” in the poem “That We May Find Ourselves at Death.” In the last line, “That time was death’s time. We had not known it”, death usurps time of its force and presence in the poem, but also metrically. In the first line, “death” is a stressed and long syllable, “When you are late for death, where do you go instead?” And in fact, “late” might even have slightly more stress than “death” in this line. The metrical tension is established; though the qualitative (stressed) meter for rest of the poem keeps pace with the tone. It’s in the quantitative (length) rhythms that the action happens; it’s where the vowels are working the tone – or as Ezra Pound says, “Pay attention to the tone leading of vowels.” The long vowels in this poem, and others in City of Regret, are creating the tone. So read the last line. Above the line is qualitative meter scansion and below the quantitative scansion (/=stress, X=heavy stress, — = long, and u = unstressed or short):

Kozma scansion


We can now see what we hear and how it works. The first half of the line has four long syllables and one short syllable. The second has one long syllable and four short syllables. The “known” is a long and stressed syllable and echoes in the ear when we hear “it” and after, which may be the point of the poem and the book: what is known and unknown?

Back to the last line’s “death.” You’ll have to read the whole poem to hear this, but this “death” is the strongest stressed syllable in the poem. It not only usurps the strength and significance of the preceding long and stressed “time,” but it overshadows the following shorter (though long) and unstressed “time,” as if time is cowering to death. How often, in all of the poems you have read, is “time” unstressed? Rarely. Because of this constant stressing of “time” through the history of poetry and the unstressing here, a decoupling, of sorts, is created between “death” and “time, ” which are often coupled and usually stressed. But a new coupling is made between “death” and “known,” where “known” becomes strong in the second half of the line because of the quick unstressed syllables surrounding it. Death is the unknown, but here they come together to hopefully answer the title, “That We May Find Ourselves at Death” – the poem in the ear suggests yes. We can/do find ourselves at death. The following poem confirms this. My point is shouldn’t every poem put meaning in the ear? The ear hears and understands the poem before any other part of the body, like Aristotelian energia. I say yes, and yes to City of Regret.//

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Kozma, Andrew. City of Regret. Clarksville, TN: Zone 3 Press, 2007.//

28
Jan
13

Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics ) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 10, which was published circa April 2007.

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Christian Wiman's – Ambition and SurvivalChristian Wiman’s voice is strong & powerful in Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Copper Canyon Press), and if I were younger, before I knew who I was, before I knew my writing ways & its limits & its strengths, this book would have influenced my writing, as much as Ezra Pound’s essays did. Instead, Wiman is just influencing my thinking.

An early challenge of this book, a challenge that is discussed throughout the book in various ways, is a response to form. Wiman notes the argument of the critics that since:

our experience of the world is chaotic and fragmented, and because we’ve lost our faith not only in those abstractions by means of which men and women of the past ordered their lives but also in language itself, it would be naive to think that we could have such order in our art. (p 94-5)

Wiman responds to this argument:

What I am interested in, and what I want to focus on here, is a kind of closure that compromises itself, a poetry whose order is contested, even undermined, by its consciousness of the disorder that it at once repels and recognizes. (p 95)

And what underlies Wiman’s response are two thoughts. One, Wiman wants us to confront our conventions & forms. From that I extrapolate, we are the new generation, and this is our obligation. Wiman is shouting for my generation.

The second thought and what underlies much the book is the conflict that many poets/artists have – the separation of art and life. Should there be a split? Wiman thinks not. He wants more life in poetry. More experience in poetry. But he doesn’t want a life that is lived for an experience to put into poetry. He realizes that we live in a universe of a large-order through which we flounder in our own chaos and there is an inability to express that perfectly. So, is the poem “more authentic if rough and unfinished,” as critics would suggest? It’s a theme that keeps me thinking throughout the book.

Another theme is silence – the silence between the finished poem & the beginning of writing the next poem, and how the poet handles that silence. Wiman is quick to realize that all of us poets don’t write a poem a day (& I wonder how many of us younger poets actually do write a poem a day). For those who don’t write every day, there is much silence to fill. Wiman tells us why some poets drink – drinking fills the horrible silence (or perhaps quiets the screaming anxieties of not writing, either way there is silence that needs to be dealt with). Wiman, however, suggests writing prose, which is not the same as writing poetry, but it does rid the silence and the prose will have lots of attachments to the poet’s poetry. This theme of silence is explored with more intimacy and details throughout the book, though not directly.

Now, I want to talk about that Poundian voice I mentioned earlier. It comes through loud and clear in “Fourteen Fragments in Lieu of a Review.” Here’s the opening fragment from what was supposed to be a review of an anthology of sonnets.

There isn’t much literature there couldn’t well be less of. A four-hundred-page anthology of sonnets? It takes a real aberration of will to read straight through such a thing. Another man might win an egg eating contest, with similar feelings, I would imagine, of mild shock, equivocal accomplishment  obliterated taste.

Before I get further into the Pound voice, I need to side track for a moment. Anyone who wants to learn about sonnets, what sonnets should do, how they should behave, and how they work in larger view than iambic pentameter, voltas, etc., needs to read this essay. It’s a damn fine discussion that won’t be heard in the classroom, and he presents arguments/ideas, again, that make me think. New arguments and ideas. Now, returning to the Pound voice. Yes, Wiman is like my generation’s Pound. Both worked for Poetry magazine. Pound as Poetry’s foreign correspondent and Wiman as Poetry’s editor. Both are smart & influential. However, Wiman doesn’t come across as authoritative as Pound, in tone that is. Wiman is authoritative, but his authority comes across different. His tone is like what Pascal says and that Wiman quotes, though not in reference to himself. “One must have deeper motives and judge everything accordingly, but go on talking like an ordinary person.” This is what I like about Wiman. He talks smart, but he also talks ordinary. Yeah, I could have drink in a bar with this guy and have a good time chatting, whether it be about poetry or something else.

There’s much more to be said about this book, but not the room to do it. So now I must end this celebratory review, and I have three ways to end it, but I don’t know which way to choose, so here are my three endings.

One. I’ll leave you with these three out-of-context quotes that underscore the themes of Ambition and Survival.

[A] poem that is not in some inexplicable way beyond the will of the poet, is not a poem. (p 123)

There are varying depths of this internalization, though varying degrees to which a poet will inhabit, bridge, endure, ignore, enact (the verb will vary depending on the poet) the separation between experience and form, process and product, life and art, and one can see a sort of rift in literary history between what I’ll call, for simplicity’s sake, poets of observation and poets of culmination. (p 134).

I’m increasingly convinced that there is a direct correlation between the quality of the poem and the the poet’s capacity for suffering. (p 136)

Two. Ambition and Survival is really a search for this: how “[m]ore and more I want an art that is tied to life more directly” (p 23).

Three. I recommend Ambition and Survival to two types of people. One, those who write poetry. Two, those who write poetry & who are two to three years out of college & who now have to create their own writing energies in the absence of the energies a college created and radiated out, & who, in the absence of energy, are starting to question the significance of poetry in their life or the need to write it.//

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Wiman, Christian. Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2007.//

20
Jan
13

Dan Gerber’s – A Primer on Parallel Lives (2007)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 10, which was published circa April 2007.

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Dan Gerber's – A Primer on Parallel LivesHoly cow, an American lyricist who’s accessible. What a rare find. And Dan Gerber is a damn good one in A Primer on Parallel Lives (Copper Canyon Press). He can even write narratives. What’s more, Gerber’s got a Spanish soul. A bloody, dusty, old Spanish soul. He’s got Machado, Lorca, and Jiménez all rolled up in him. And when he does the lyric, or the meditative, it speaks to the universe and to us. As for the Spanish soul, what do I mean by that? I mean: he risks the sentimental. He rubs right up against it, but, most important, the language is fresh, the images are new, and the language and images connect us humans and our souls. It’s a poetry that lets everyone in and excludes none. For example:

   Facing North

   Ninety billion galaxies in this one tiny universe –
   a billion seconds make thirty-two years.

   No matter how many ways we conceive it,
   this generous wedge called Ursa Major
   more than fills my sight.

   But now, as I turn to put out the lights
   and give my dog her bedtime cookie,
   my eyes become the handle of the great Milky Way,
   and carry it into the house.

Except for one line, this poem flirts with the sentimental, builds towards the sentimental, then yokes it all together in the final burst of the last line.

Gerber is also what I want to call a “vertical poet.” What do I mean by “vertical poet”? Well, let me divert my attentions for a moment. Vertical has nothing, or very little, to do with content or how the poem moves or with Li-Young Lee’s vertical moment. It has to do with staring while composing. From what I can tell of American poetry (and maybe English poetry in general), most of the older poets – over 50, over 100, six-feet under – wrote with pen or pencil on paper. They stared down at the page. Their eyes staring into the words/page (perhaps beyond). They hovered over what they wrote and revised. The back of their heads faced the universe, gods, and infinity. A conduit was established between the page, the poet’s mind/imagination, and the universe. Of course there are exceptions – Ezra Pound typing in a prison camp near Pisa, William Carlos Williams typing out those triple lines. Pound and Dr. Carlos (as Pound affectionately called W. C. Williams) faced the page and stared with a similar intensity as the pen/pencil poet. Poets like Ez and Dr. Carlos are horizontal poets. The former (the pen/pencil poets) are vertical poets.

Today in American poetry there seems to be more horizontal writers – and many of them write on the computer screen, as I am doing now. (Perhaps we should call them “neo-horizontal poets” as they use the screen instead of a piece of paper curling in front of them.) The neo-horizontal poet stares into the screen. The neo-horizontal poet tends to neglect the universe. And from what I’ve noticed, the lyric is dying (at least the comprehensible, non-ellipitcal lyric), and there is a predominance of the narrative, especially the narrative about the individual. There is nothing wrong with any of this, except the universe is being neglected and the lyric is disappearing. (The lyric is our oldest form of poetry, no?) With the neo-horizontal poets, there is more dedication to time instead of the obliteration of time. I mean, don’t all us poets want to obliterate time? When are we at our happiest? When we are writing. When we come out of our half-unconscious, mostly hypnagogic state, and realize that hours have gone by, when it only felt like 10, 20, or 30 minutes. The lyric poem best destroys time.

I’m not saying the vertical poet can’t be personal and narrative. They have been. But they are more often in both veins lyrical and narrative. (I’m including meditative poetry under lyrical poetry, by the way). But with the rise of the neo-horizontal poet has come the decline of the lyrical poem and the connection with the universe.

And as I said, Gerber is vertical. His poetry connects the universe. I’ll leave you this as an example:

   Six Miles Up

   The shadow of a hand brushes over the mountains,
   as if smoothing rumpled sheets.
   And now I see that the mountains are clouds.

   In my dreams,
   I search for what I won’t remember in the morning,
   but I do remember the searching.

   In Venice I ate cuttlefish, steamed
   in its own black ink,
   and now it’s coming out of my fingers.

   Across the aisle in a window seat,
   a man like me is
   reading a book in which words appear,
   tracing an indelible line
   through the invisible sky
   while the pilot’s skill keeps us flying.

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Gerber, Dan. A Primer on Parallel Lives. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2007.//

06
Jan
13

Gregory Orr’s Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved (2005)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 6/7, which was published circa mid-2006.

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Gregory Orr's – Concerning the BookThis book should be on every poet’s bedside like a bible. It’s a bible of poetry. It’s a bible of what poetry is, what love is, & how to live. And it’s beautiful. And it’s tones are so caring & sincere & helping – filled with care & love. And the poems are short, mostly a page long, for each poem is a burst of understanding & vision, but they move slow when I read them, but seem to have only taken a brief moment to have read when I’ve finished, & then a dizziness arrives wondering if I just read one poem or two or three poems. The poems obliterate time, & sing humanity & love. The book is a bible for poets because it reminds us of what poetry is & does, & shows us that there is no separation between persons, love, & poetry, for they are all in unison, all one – hence the title of Gregory Orr’s book Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved (Copper Canyon Press).

But instead of talking about the content, I’m going to talk about how Concerning makes the content work. The tone of the poems arrives early: from early lines in Concerning’s prefatory poem — “Resurrection of the body of the beloved, / Which is the world. / […] / That death not be oblivion.”; from lines in the opening poem —

   The beloved is dead. Limbs 
   And all the body’s 
   Miraculous parts 
   Scattered [...] 

   We must find them, gather 
   Them together, bring them 
   Into a single place [...] 

                           a book 
   Which is the body of the beloved, 
   Which is the world.

And in the third stanza from the following poem on page 10:

   The shape of the Book 
   Is the door to the grave, 
   Is the shape of the stone 
   Closed over us, so that 
   We may know terror 
   Is what we pass through 
   To reach hope, and courage 
   Is our necessary companion.

And a few more lines in the next poem beginning “When I open the Book” (p 11) & lines from the poem “Sadness is there, too” (p 13).

(Note: these poems do not have titles.) And the tones of sadness with hope are carried in waves throughout Concerning & ride the other tonal waves – harmonic tonalities, but I’ll get to that later.

So we’ve got our tonal bases, now. What else is in the poet’s bible for us poets to learn or be reminded of? We are reminded from where poems arise. We know they arise from our experiences, but when we write we call up other poems, or rather, what other poems do. (All poems talk to each other.) Consider these lines from this poem:

   When Sappho wrote: 
   “Whatever one loves most 
   Is beautiful,” [...] 

   Everything in the Book 
   Flows from that single poem 
   Or the countless others 
   That say the same thing 
   In other words, other ways. 
                                              (p 25)

A bit later in Concerning, in the poem starting “To feel, to feel, to feel,” consider the lines:

   Poem after poem, song 
   Upon song. And all 
   With the same chorus: 
   “Wake up, you’re alive.” 
                                        (p 45)

Isn’t this what all poems do? Don’t they all sing & confirm love, beauty, & life — humanity? Or better put:

   Which is to say: 
   Composing poems 
   And melodious songs 
   That celebrate the world. 
                                          (p 190)

We can continue with this thinking of what every poem does. Robert Bly said something like, “Every poem is an anti-war poem.” And in Ernesto Cardenal’s Cosmic Canticle, after about 100 pages of the beauty of the universe & its creation & its growth, Cardenal steps in to remind us that it is the responsibility of the Latin-American poet to write political poems, & then he does. Concerning realizes Bly & Cardenal. And there are a few political poems, but I just want to note one for what it does – it turns a war poem into a love poem.

   July sun on the green leaves 
   Of that chestnut tree, 
   Intense as when ancient armies 
   Beat their swords on their shields. 

   The beloved marches toward us, 
   Cannot be resisted. 
   Throw down our weapons 
   And beg for mercy. 
   This much love defeats us. 
                                             (p 105)

But there is more because what is said is being done with the harmony of the long E. The first stanza has 6 long Es, & all the lines in the stanza rhyme the long E. Also note that the first two lines create a setting of beauty with long-E words “green,” “leaves,” & “tree.” But it’s not beauty; it’s oppressive heat. So the poem provides a harmonic contrast in the next two lines of violence & war with “armies,” “beat,” & “shields.” Then the long E is dropped, like the weapons, until the last two lines with “mercy” & “defeat,” which harmonize but do not rhyme for the violence is defeated with love & mercy.

There is also a larger harmony in Concerning, reminiscent of Pound’s harmonic tonalities in The Cantos. Concerning’s large harmony rests in the B-words of “book,” “body,” & “beloved,” as they are repeated frequently throughout. But there’s more, & I’ll show it this way. Robert Duncan claimed in each poem there is one syllable that is more stressed than any other syllable in the poem. We can agree or not with Duncan, but the idea applies to Concerning because the words that resonate most in the book are the words that make the important theme in Concerning, which is the connection of book-body-beloved, so these words that receive the most stress throughout. I’ll illustrate with the poem beginning “In the spring swamp.”

   In the spring swamp 
   The red-winged blackbird 
   Perched on a cattail stalk: 
   Have you heard its song? 
   If you have, no need of heaven. 
   No need of divine resurrection. 

   It’s one of those birdsongs 
   That hold a spot in the Book, 
   Saving that space until 
   A human song comes along 
   Worthy to replace 
   All that wordless love. 
                                     (p 99)

You can hear how “Book” receives more stress than the other syllables. So one might think, “But this undermines the poem’s important message of love.” But the poem resolves this conflicted interest between the major theme of Concerning & the major theme of love in the poem. The poem does it like this. You can hear in this poem many stressed syllables, which are often next to each other for two syllables, like “spring swamp,” or three stressed syllables, like “cattail stalk” or “those birdsongs,” or even for four stressed syllables, like “red-winged blackbird.” All those heavily grouped syllables coupled with the rhythm push into the last line’s “All” & give it more stress than it might normally have & it definitely increases its duration, which will then be balanced by “love,” which has more accent because of rhythm & because of the long duration of the “v”. Plus, being at the end of the line, “love” reverberates off into eternity, or heaven – or so it feels. And by adding eternal duration & more stress to “love” (that clichéd word, in that clichéd position as the poem’s last word), the poem overcomes, & love overcomes the clichés & gains impact & profundity, & it resonates. And thus it emphasizes the theme without detracting from the “Book.” But I have a little more to say. This poem also does what it says. The poem’s rhythms & stresses have filled “love” with meaning, & thus, usurped its clichédness. And the usurping is like the human song replacing “All that wordless love.”

But wait, you’re saying, of course, “love” at the end of a poem is going to resonate with the V-sound. But consider this poem:

   Saying the word 
   Is seizing the world. 
   Not by the scruff, 
   Not roughly, 
   But still fervent, 
   Still the fierce hug of love. 
                                            (p 115)

In this poem, the short-U sounds in “scruff,” “roughly,” “hug,” & “love” usurp the clichéd meaning “love” like the stresses in the poem just mentioned. But here love is pronounced different. It is cut off short because the emphasis is on the short-U sound – it steals the resonance of the V-sound, pulls it back. And again the poem is doing what it says. The speaker seizes love – hugs, holds love in place – & keeps it from drifting away, just like the sound of “love” doesn’t drift off at the poem’s end. A better way of saying all this is:

   The heart uttering its hurt 
   And its happiness: syllables 
   Whose rhythm captures 
   The pulse of sorrow or joy, 
   The slow ache or throb of it. 
                                              (p 23)

Yes, the poems in Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved are “melodious songs / That celebrate the world.” At the same time, this book is really one long poem, & we learn to breathe, or gasp, at the end of each poem making up the whole big poem. The gasping is the book’s rhythm, it stresses the joy of each poem,

   And when joy 
   Arrives – hard 
   To read at all. 
   Blinking at Page-dazzle; 
   The words Breaking apart 
   Into letters, 
   Dancing there, 
   Unable to calm down. 
                          (p 73)

And I have been unable to calm down.//

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Orr, Gregory. Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.//

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You can read my other review here: Amazon Review. (Look for “Thomas Holmes ‘Redactions’.”)//




The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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