Posts Tagged ‘lyric

26
Jul
17

On Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric

 

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Jonathan Culler – Theory of the LyricIn Theory of the Lyric (Harvard University Press, 2015), Jonathan Culler does not attempt to provide a definition of what the lyric poem is. Instead he gives us new ways to approach the lyric poem, as Culler believed previous methods were ineffective or lacking. For instance, in the past, some scholars and teachers of poetry have tried to reconstruct the poet’s/speaker’s experiences or motives for writing the poem, even though the poem does not benefit from or need those reconstructions, especially since it doesn’t address what the poem and its language are doing; or the New Critics approach – “[Culler] was no longer oriented by the New Critical assumptions that poems exist to be interpreted. It [his chapter on the apostrophe in particular but the book in general] sought, rather, to explore the most unsettling and intriguing aspects of lyric language and the different sorts of seductive effects that lyric may have” (viii). Culler throughout suggests the reader address the lyric poem as an experience, and he provides many ways to do that. Because of this, perhaps, Culler uses accessible language (as opposed to high-academic or obfuscating language that we often encounter when reading literary criticism). Even with the accessible language, my reading was fully engaged and slowed as I wrote plentiful amounts of marginalia and would often to pause longer than normal to contemplate what he wrote or to re-read his poem examples to see how poem worked with his ideas. The book is a concentrated study of the “Western lyric tradition” (3) from the ancient Greeks to Modern poetry, and on one occasion, contemporary hip hop.

One way to approach a lyric poem, according to Culler, is to realize that it is an event, a repeatable speech act. The lyric is performative to a degree and not constative. The lyric poem seeks to make something happen and is not designed to be read for signs of character or plot. The sensual pleasures of the lyric poem – rhythms, harmonies, line breaks, memorable lines, etc. – are often what attract the reader to the poem in first place, as opposed to a hermeneutic reading for meaning. In other words, “The meaning of a poem, he [Amittai Aviram] claims, allegorically represents ‘aspects of the power of the poem’s own rhythm to bring about a physical response, to engage the readers [sic] or listener’s body and thus to disrupt the orderly process of meaning’” (165). This evokes what Robert Frost said, those who read poems with their eyes are barbarians; you must learn to read with your ears.

The articulation or enunciation of the lyric poem creates a timeless present and underlines the poem’s lyric nowness. The lyric exists outside of time, it doesn’t move chronologically, and it exists in the eternal now – the event of its reading. “The fundamental characteristic of the lyric,” claims Culler, “is not the description and interpretation of a past event but the iterative and iterable performance of an event in the lyric present, in the special ‘now,’ of lyric articulation. . . . Fiction is about what happens next; lyric is about what happens now.” (226). The poem is its own event.

This lyrically event, according to Culler, with its sensual pleasures might be especially important in times of prosaic complacency, reasoning, argumentation, and political oppression. As Merleau-Ponty says, the lyric poem resists “the prose of the world” (304). Similar to Surrealism, the lyric poem with its sensual pleasures releases the mind from prose’s abstract thinking and “perception of the world” (304). This becomes important in building a community, especially when coupled with the lyric I. The lyric I or “the subject is constituted as the subject of this sensory experience, which is available to any wanderer” or reader (323). In other words, the lyric I, while a seemingly personal subject and thus in opposition to the masses, becomes a voice for the masses, the powerless, the voiceless and unheard ones overwhelmed by power and ideology. Because of its sensual pleasures, its non-prosaic thinking, the lyric poem can “generate a community that it addresses, to assert social values, to participate in a restructuring of the sensuous and affective domain of life” (330), of which Culler gives plentiful examples. The lyric is communal and political.

While it might seem that Culler is defining what a lyric poem is, I contend he is showing what the lyric poem does, and what it does is usually overlooked in criticism and the teaching of lyric poetry. The lyric poem in its doing uses iterable musical events as an antidote to the blind allegiance to facts and signification. It makes “a new organization of experience presuming the centrality of unrealized amorous passion, which has animated the lyric and popular song” since the time of Petrarch (315). While there are a variety of themes and forms of lyric poems at any given time, it’s the experience of the lyric poem that is missing from the critical discussions of lyric poetry, and this is one Culler’s main concerns.

Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric is much more exhaustive than exploring the lyric poem as event and social force. It also examines its non-mimetic properties, explores aspects of the genre through history, reflects on theories of the lyric, provides a good study on rhythm and meter and the social meaning of meter, has a fascinating chapter on the apostrophe, delivers a well thought out study of the sonnet through time, and a concluding chapter on “Lyric and Society.” I recommend this book to every teacher of poetry, as it gives a few pedagogical approaches to teaching poetry, especially by way of rhythm:

A greater foregrounding of rhythm as central to lyric might enable the teaching of poetry to regain some of the ground lost in recent years and also might lead to a different set of poetics. One could thus imagine an approach more connected with evaluation, which has not been central to literary studies recently: What works and what doesn’t? What engages our attention, our corps de jouissance – to use Barthes’s term – and what does not? For such a poetics an important part of the teaching of poetry would be accustoming students to hearing and experiencing the rhythms of traditional verse – they have a surprisingly hard time hearing iambic pentameter without the practice of recitation, for instance, though they fare much better with four-beat rhythms. (173)

And I recommend it for every poet, as it’s a cross between a craft book (in a certain way) and a critical approach, but written by someone with a firm understanding of what poets are up to by way of the ear to the heart to the mind. //

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Culler, Jonathan. Theory of the Lyric. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. Print.

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22
Jun
14

On Stuart Kestenbaum’s Only Now

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose. //

Stuart Kestenbaum – Only Now Many of the poems in Stuart Kestenbaum’s Only Now (Deerbrook Editions, 2014) feel like poems Gregory Orr would write if he wrote narrative poems (some of the meditative and lyrical poems also feel like Gregory Orr poems), a number of the poems have the mythical feel of a Merwin myth-like poem, and some have the intimacy of a Jack Gilbert poem. These styles, among others, are what one would need to successfully write a carpe diem book of poems, and neo-romantic book of poems, at that.

I don’t normally like drawing comparisons to other writers when a reviewing a book of poems, but this time it seems like a good idea to present a feel for the book. In addition, while the opening poem, “Prayer While Downshifting,” is a fine poem, it is acting more as a deliberate lense for the book. By placing this poem at the opening, Kestenbaum is attempting to focus the reader’s mood or reading in a deliberate direction. However, this poem would be better off if it appeared further on in the book, as it needs to built in to or up to. As an opening poem, it’s too heavy handed in its allegory and symbol building, and I want everyone who gets to this book to know that what follows the opening poem is very moving – emotionally and intellectually. In addition, I think (and wonder) if it is better for an author to let the reader discover meanings on their own instead of directing them down a certain path. Or better still, for the author and reader to discover together. More inclusiveness. More of a we-book, where meanings have “to happen because we’ve / made a framework for it. It’s the framework that gives the meaning” (“Big World”). Further, “because meaning is a wild animal that surprises you” (“Prayer for Real”), the reader will want to experience the surprise of discovering meaning, which is what this book does. It surprises. It’s inclusive. It’s a book for author and reader, for you and me, for we.

Maybe it would be better if the book opened with the second poem, “Rocky Coast,” which begins 350 million years in the past, and then in two words, flashes forward 350 million years to today. (Has there ever been a lengthier flash forward?) And this flash forward takes us into an everyday we are familiar with – it takes us into Dunkin’ Donuts. It delivers us into fantasies of hope, revenge, and escape while the “fallen world” is everywhere outside the Dunkin’ Donuts. The next poem, “Getting There,” turns inward even more. It balances the safety of Dunkin’ Donuts with the neo-romantic notion that “deep inside us” are the answers to:

     Where is the place we are always asking about.
     It’s the country we remember in our dreams.
     Where is where we’ll find what we need to know

     whatever that is, whatever we thought it was
     going to be.

Notice how these are shared questions (we all have them), but it’s the turning inward where we find our own answers and meanings. The slow accumulation of poems in Only Now is like a manual of examples and experiences we are all aware of, and the poems about them are in Only Now for us to meditate on, to turn inward on, to equip us with living in the only now we have, and to help us prepare for our eventual demise.

For instance, the conclusion of “Crows”:

         before we began to speak we could feel the world
     inside our bodies and it moved us as we moved with it.
     Perhaps this is our mother tongue, the language of our cells,
     the diction of our hearts and lungs. There, don’t say
     anything for a while, don’t even think in words,
     think in whatever is beyond the thought of words,
     the nameless world that you try so hard to forget
     by naming everything. Take away the caws from the sky,
     take away the rumble from the ice and while you’re at it
     take away the hiss of today’s headlines, like air leaking
     out of the world. See what’s left after that and listen to it.

Again, there is the turning inward for answers, meanings, and, perhaps more importantly, the turning to pure experience – the experience of events before the interference of language. In this wordless realm, we might even get closer to how a god lives and experiences time and the world, as we eventually will. In “Wild God,” we experience god in the Garden of Eden “when the earth was new and animals hadn’t been named yet.” We see god creating and rearranging the earth and then relaxing and admiring his work. Similar to “Rocky Coast,” there is a lengthy flash forward, but this time the experience is not imagistic – like being in a Dunkin’ Donuts – it’s in the experience of time as a god experiences time. When I read this poem the first time, I felt a shift in time, but I wasn’t sure how it happened. It was seamless and flowed naturally. After I paid closer attention to the tenses in the poem, I saw how in half a line the tense shifted from past to present, and the poem moved from millions of years ago to today almost instantaneously, in the blink of a god’s eye. Kestenbaum used syntax and not words to approximate the experience of time for a god. He didn’t explain or even show. He made an experience and made it feel real. In addition, this instantaneous passage of time also seems to suggest that the past resides in the present, or that the distance between past and present is not so far apart, such as for the 93-year old Dora on her deathbed in “The Passage,” who is dying in the present but living in the memories of her past.

Overall, Only Now creates the feeling that living and dying is a juggling act:

     Whether we spend our time
     fearing death or not, listening
     for its footsteps or plugging

     our ears, we all end up
     where we began, just dust
     combined with the weight
 
     of what we carried in the world. (“Scattered”)

It’s a juggling act of living in the now and with the past that made us into who we are now, while at the same time preparing for death, or even avoiding thinking about death like “young minds [who] can’t imagine not existing anymore” (“Back Then”). Stuart Kestenbaum through tight, interlocking poems gives experiences for how to live “As if the Tree of Life / is inside us” (“Breath”) within the precious time we have in our Only Now that is our only life. This is a book of poems I can’t recommend enough for the collective that is we.//

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Kestenbaum, Stuart. Only Now. Cumberland: Deerbrook Editions, 2014.//

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.//

04
May
12

On Marjorie Perloff’s “Reinventing the Lyric”

Marjorie PerloffWhenever I see a new essay from Marjorie Perloff, I get so excited. I think the younger kids call this excitement getting “geeked out.” I geek out to Perloff.

I thoroughly enjoy Perloff’s observations on poetry. She’s so astute that I wonder if she’s a poet. I’ve never seen her poetry, but perhaps I haven’t looked in the right places. Her book The Dance of the Intellect was one of those great books of criticism that significantly affected me. It’s brilliant. Another book that significantly impacted me was a book of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s essays on poetry that I used to read a lot as an undergrad. I felt like stealing if from the SUNY Oneonta Milne Library since it became so important to me and since no one else had ever checked it out since the 1970s. I felt I could ethically and morally appropriate it from the library. Who would know? And who would give the book more love than me? Other important books of criticism to me are Ezra Pound’s The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (which I own), Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (which I own), and Roy Harvey Pearce’s The Continuity of American Poetry (which I own), especially the stuff about T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Those books are huge in my literary growth, and Perloff’s books (which I own) are a big deal in my life. (And now it probably sounds like I’m going to undermine or attack her, but I’m not. If you’re expecting an attack, it won’t happen.)

Her newest essay, “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric,” appears in the Boston Review. In this essay (which you should read else this essay might feel wobbly to you), it’s like Perloff is a curator or tour guide in The Contemporary American Museum (Lyric Branch). In this branch of the museum, she walks around and points out things and comments on them. She starts by pointing to the general gist of today’s poetry:

The poems you will read in American Poetry Review or similar publications will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain . . . .

The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American PoetryThat seems about right to me. Perloff then moves into Rita Dove‘s new anthology from Penguin Books: Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. Now, we can all quibble with any anthology of poetry, as Jonas Mekas did: http://jonasmekasfilms.com/diary/?p=1447#. (You really should watch this. It’s delightful.) But in this case, Perloff makes valid and legitimate points:

[. . .] but what about the copyright issue Dove raises at the close of her introduction? Evidently, she wanted to include Allen Ginsberg (Howl gets a prominent mention) and Sylvia Plath, but the reproduction costs were prohibitive. [. . .] Clearly concerned about the omission of these important poets, Dove asks her readers to “cut me some slack” and reminds us that Ginsberg and Plath are readily available “in your local public library.”

[. . .]

But if the anthology is to have any sort of validity as a textbook or a selection for the general reader, this copyright caveat is unacceptable, and the fault is primarily the publisher’s. How could a leading publisher such as Penguin fail to get publication rights for materials so central to a book’s purpose? [. . .]

Indeed, what Penguin’s editorial team seems to be saying is that the value of Dove’s anthology’s depends [. . .] on the prestige of its editor.

That’s true, and it makes me feel really sad for Dove. She probably entered this whole arrangement with the idea that she would put together a significant anthology of poetry. She was going to be the poet, not critic, who was going to frame a whole century’s worth of poetry for later generations to read. This was going to be huge and important to her and us. But she was manipulated by the big bad publisher of profits. I mean, if the publisher was really concerned with creating an anthology, those little costs wouldn’t matter. Those costs can be recouped. But Penguin was going on the cheap and quick. And as a result, Dove’s reputation suffers and Penguin’s profits go up. (Bah. I don’t even like Penguin anyway. I don’t even like the cheap paper they use and the layout of their books is hasty and difficult on the eye. This anthology should have been left to a place like Copper Canyon, Graywolf, BOA, or someone with the love of poetry in them instead of profits. But I digress. I want to get some important items.)

What is the state of the lyric? I think it has almost vanished from the poetry scene, which is why there was the “What Happened to the Lyric” issue 12 of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics, which quickly sold out but I’ve made it available online here: http://issuu.com/thelinebreak/docs/redactions_issue_12. First, however, I think we need a definition of lyric poetry. A lot of people think a lyric poem is poem that is musical or sounds good. That is partially right, but it’s not a full definition. All poetry should be musical or sound good, which is something Perloff notes is often missing in today’s poetry. But a lyric poem is more. Before I get to my definition of it, let’s get to the definition of narrative poem and then the definitions of the three other types of poetry. A narrative poem is a poem that moves through time, and it usually moves in a linear, causal fashion. It progresses through time much like a typical story. A lyric poem, however, stands outside of time or is a moment in time. Meditative poetry is similar to lyric poetry, but the poem is inside the poet’s mind and can often be philosophical. And then there’s dramatic poetry, which is like a poetry play or play written as poetry, such as William Butler Yeats’ “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” or Robert Frost’s “The Witch of Coös.” With that in mind, what’s the most prevalent type of poetry in contemporary American poetry? That’s right – narrative poetry. When Perloff says, “the free-verse lyric paradigm (observation – triggering memory – insight) ubiquitous in the Dove anthology” (and elsewhere), I think she means “narrative” instead of “lyric.” If that’s the case, I completely agree with her, especially if she adds “first-person” before narrative. I’ve been noticing this for years. The implication of this is that we need something new. But what is the new thing we need?

Mary Ruelfe poem from _A Little White Shadow_ (Wave Books, 2006)One of Perloff’s suggestions is Erasure poetry. In Erasure poetry, you take a big chunk of text, such as a novel or long poem, and then begin erasing words from the text or using Wite Out to paint over words. The words that remain then make for a poem. But you can’t just use any text, as some poets do. No, you need a significant text, and then by erasing words, you find something like a secret meaning to the poem or text your are erasing from or “discover something like poetry hidden within [a] book.” John Cage did this with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, but he added a twist. With the unerased words, he made an anagram: ALLEN GINSBERG. (See Perloff’s essay for the example.) As a result:

Without deploying a single word of his own, Cage subtly turns the language of Howl against itself so as to make a plea for restraint and quietude as alternatives to the violence at the heart of Ginsberg’s poem.

So the text you choose is important. Cage’s poem won’t make much sense or will lose most of its experience and meaning if you don’t know he is erasing from Howl. The same will hold true for Srikanth Reddy’s book Voyager, which is an erasure poem from Kurt Waldheim’s In the Eye of the StormVoyager, according to Perloff, is “one of the few really notable political poems of recent years.” However, its politics can only exist if you know the primary text or the author of the primary text. Who is Kurt Waldheim? If you know, awesome! I didn’t, so boo. Even Perloff had to point out who he was. Waldheim was:

Secretary-general of the United Nations from 1972 to 1981 and president of Austria from 1986 to 1992, Waldheim was exposed, in the mid-’80s, as having served in the Nazi Wehrmacht during World War II and quite possibly having committed major war crimes. The president, who had carefully covered his tracks for years, continued to claim he was innocent, and many of his fellow Austrians defended him, even when the evidence became overwhelming. His political and diplomatic success – he was allowed to finish out his term as president – has become a symbol for the hypocrisy and mendacity of the postwar era in an Austria that had strongly supported Hitler in the war years, before it received occupied-nation status in 1945. Avoiding the fate of its Iron Curtain neighbors Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Austria quickly became a prosperous nation.

If you don’t know this information, you lose out on the majority of the meanings and experiences of the poem or poems. This will be the effect of an Erasure poem. The text the poet erases from matters, but if the reader doesn’t know the text, then the resulting poem will fail. And knowing the original text really isn’t enough either. One will have to have read the original text “to get the poem” that arrived from erasing. Erasure poetry, then becomes not only elliptical but exclusive, just like it’s actions in making the poem. It excludes certain words to create a meaning, and it excludes readers not familiar with the original text. (This also assumes that you wouldn’t just erase from some random book or chunk of text, because then what would be the point? You might as well randomly pick words from a dictionary. The text that is being erased from matters.)

Additionally, Erasure poetry has the same feel as an acrostic poem that our Puritan ancestors wrote.

“The Puritan elegist might well believe that in a man’s name God had inserted evidence of his nature and his fate” (Pearce, 31).

As fun as an acrostic is to write, we know the above Purtian elegist’s belief is not true. The secret evidence of a person’s nature or fate can’t be extracted from the person’s name even if laid out as an acrostic. And as fun as it is to create an Erasure poem, as much fun as refrigerator poetry, this is no way to find a new meaning in a text or in an author. It’s just play. And there’s nothing wrong with play. And poetry should be play, but it should be a play that resonates. Play that resonates and impacts. Erasure poetry doesn’t resonate or impact, unless the reader is “in the know” of the primary text, and even then how much can it resonate or impact? So I don’t think this is the new direction lyric poetry should take.

But it’s this other idea of borrowing or appropriation that is intriguing. This is when the poet, such as Susan Howe in That This, “combines cited material with her own prose and verse.” (I think Cid Corman was the first, or one of the first, to do this.) I assume that somewhere in Howe’s book there is a “Works Cited” page that indicates where each cited text came from. If not, then she’s appropriating, which has ethical dilemmas . . . but maybe not. (That Swinburne book should be mine!) But for now let’s assume all the works Howe borrows from are cited. This borrowing of other texts seems like a terrific idea to me. I mean, who isn’t just an amalgam of every person they’ve met, every book they’ve read, every song they’ve heard, every movie or concert or play or football game they’ve seen, etc. For instance, I once read so much Emerson with so much intensity that I can no longer separate him from me. I often don’t know if the thoughts I have are mine or if they were originally his. We have become one. So why not use fragments from other texts we have read to help us better express what needs to be expressed? Especially if it follows the associative path of how the poet thinks, as did Howe when reflecting on her husband’s passing when she cites Sarah Edwards (Jonathan Edwards wife):

“O My Very Dear Child. What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud.” On April 3, 1758, Sarah Edwards wrote this in a letter to her daughter Esther Edwards Burr when she heard of Jonathan’s sudden death in Princeton. For Sarah all works of God are a kind of language or voice to instruct us in things pertaining to calling and confusion. I love to read her husband’s analogies, metaphors, and similes.

What’s wrong with including this if it gets the poet closer to how he or she feels? The mind flows in its own thoughts and is invaded by the thoughts of others and others’ experiences. And if you are believer in Philip Whalen’s “Poetry is a graph of the mind moving,” as I am, then this borrowing seems an appropriate fit, a natural form of expression. Or does it? I’ll get back to this.

What if Howe didn’t cite where the borrowed text came from, which often seems to be the case, though not necessarily with Howe? I’m thinking of Flarf poetry and poets here, at least as I understand Flarf poetry. In this case, the poet appropriates the text and makes it his or hers. Those poets appropriate much in the manner that I wanted to appropriate that Swinburne book from SUNY Oneonta’s Milne Library. That book meant a lot to me, and it didn’t seem relevant to anyone else, at least since the 70s. So why shouldn’t I have it? It’s part of me. I should just steal it. Aha. “Appropriate” is just camouflage for “steal.” And it’s not good stealing like the stealing T. S. Eliot meant. It’s theft of words that aren’t yours, even if they appropriately express what you feel or want to say. But then, if it appropriately expresses what you feel and want to say, then are our your thoughts and feelings original? Original enough for a poem? A new poem? A new lyric poem?

This ties back to Howe borrowing from Sarah Edwards. Is Howe really expressing her grief by borrowing another person’s words? Isn’t the job of a poet to get closer to their own bone of experience? Or is Howe using other text as a trigger and much in the same manner that Perloff and I are bored of: “the free-verse lyric paradigm (observation—triggering memory—insight).” Howe’s observation is the painful passing of her husband, which triggers a memory of Sarah Edward’s words, which then leads to insight. Now, this doesn’t seem so bad does it? Especially if it helps the poet deal with and express his or her grief, which is really the important thing, at least and especially for Howe. The only difference with Howe’s presentation is the memory is of text instead of a physical experience.

So where are we now? What are the differences? What newness has the lyric poem experienced? How is using your own past experiences to lead to an insight better/different/less effective than borrowing from a text? How is bricolage different from the tapestry of your experiences? I don’t see the differences or how one method is more successful than the other.

Still it would be nice to find a new lyrical pattern to weave to help us get closer to the bone of experience we want to express. But I wonder what that pattern is. I’ve been searching now for at least five years. If anyone knows, please share.

Perloff, I’m so glad you wrote this essay. I hope these reinvention attempts continue. I hope every poet also continues to reinvent. Let’s make it new. Let’s get closer to the bone of experience.

//

Works Cited

Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poety. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1987.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric.” Boston Review. Boston Review, May/June 2012. Web. 3 May 2012. <http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.3/marjorie_perloff_poetry_lyric_reinvention.php>.

//

18
Jun
11

On Joanne Diaz’s The Lessons

A version of this may appear in an upcoming issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

What immediately turned me on to Joanne Diaz‘s The Lessons (Silverfish Review Press, 2011) was when I read the opening poem “Granada” on Verse Daily on June 3. I fell in love with the poem. I tweeted and made a Facebook post that read something like, “This #poem explodes at the end. What a terrific poem” Here it is:

   Granada 

   To be so far from oxtail stew, sardines
   in garlic sauce, blood oranges in pails
   along the avenida, midday heat
   wetting necks and wrists; to be so stuck
   in stone-thick ice and clouds and recall
   the pomegranate we shared, its hardened peel,
   the translucent membrane gently parting
   seed from luscious crimson seed, albedo
   soft beneath bald rind, acid juice
   running down our fingers, knuckles, palms,
   the mild chap of our lips from mist and flesh;
   so far away from that, and still
   the tangy thought of pomegranates
   crowning coats-of-arms and fortress gates
   like beating hearts prepared to detonate
   their countless seeds across Granada,
   ancient town of strangled rivers
   and nameless bones in every desert hill...
   In Spain, said Lorca, the dead are more alive
   than any other place on earth. Imagine, then,
   the excavation of his unmarked grave
   like the quick pull on a grenade's pin,
   and the sound that secrets make
   as they return from that other world
   of teeth and blood and fire.

Joanne Diaz – The LessonsThe poems in The Lessons are juicy. I love the way the poems feel in my mouth. I enjoy all the details in the poems. Who says you can’t write poems with details anymore? Well, you can, and Diaz shows us how.

But there’s more than detail to these poems. There is wonderful leaping and yoking together of different images and events. For instance, the poem “Violin” is a poem about the life of a violin from when it was both “horse and tree” to the sounds it makes and how it “almost pulls itself / apart, longing for what it was”. The poem does this for nine unrhymed couplets. The poem could end after the ninth couplet, and it would be a fine poem, but then there’s the leap the poem makes from the ninth couplet to the tenth. The leap does what good poems often do – it uses the particular to illuminate something in humanity. Here are the last two couplets to show what you I mean:

   [. . . ] A violin almost pulls itself
   apart, longing for what it was, not unlike

   my father as he stood by the open mailbox
   reading my brother's first letter home.

And there’s a whole other story in that last couplet. Where is his son? At war? In the Peace Corps? Working abroad as a doctor in some small underprivileged village somewhere? And then the mind after the poem is done is trying to build more of a story into that last couplet. But the important thing is the violin and father relationship. The yoking of the two. The use of the violin to understand the father. The violin helps us understand what it’s like for the father to get that first letter. And this feeling is communicated well and well before it’s understood.

There’s something else going on in that leap, too. The poem leaps from being lyrical to being narrative. (By narrative I mean a poem that moves through time and that has causality. By lyrical I mean a poem that exists without time or is a vertical moment in time or is a deliberate focus on an item or a thing. W. C. Williams and George Oppen are often lyrical.)

This jump from lyrical to narrative in a poem happens a number of times in The Lessons. For instance, “Love Poem”:

   Love Poem

   I was the warmth that lifted
   from your pilled sheets, the glow
   of Sebastian in the picture book
   of saints, the moon gliding
   through the window beside your bed.

   I was the clock in your kitchen
   waiting to catch you in my gears.
   In the TV, I was the blue tube
   that saw your sadness run as silt
   down a mountain. I was the rush
   in the vein of every oak leaf
   that crowded your window.

   I was the drift of you before your edges
   twisted into a man. The swing
   of your loose pant cuff. The joint
   in the threshold; the rusted cart
   behind the house. You sensed

   a visitor, but how can I say
   that I was the one who curled
   the wallpaper and held the model
   airplane in its place? That it was I
   late at night, running in the current
   of your clock radio, searching
   the seashell of your ear?

In this poem, you see all these vertical moments in time – “I was . . .” . In the the last stanza, we get a bit of narrative:

   [. . .] That it was I
   late at night, running in the current
   of your clock radio, searching
   the seashell of your ear?

The leaps are my favorite occasions in The Lessons. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered that type of leaping before or at least noticed it before, but this time I did. I really enjoy its effects.

The Lessons is Joanne Diaz’s first book. It won the 2009 Gerald Cable Book Award. As a I said, The Lessons is juicy with details – like a good Spanish Tempranillo. It’s juicy in every lyric, narrative, and lyric-leaping-to-narrative poem. In fact, this would be a good book to use in a creative writing poetry workshop, you know, to show and teach students how to use details and how effective details are in creating emotions and engagement and in stimulating the imagination.

Often during The Lessons I feel like Ms. Griffin in Diaz’s poem “The Griffin.” When Ms. Griffin reads George Herbert’s poem “The Collar,” “she nearly left the prison of her body.” I don’t think I left the prison of my body, but I certainly forgot it existed. And that’s a lesson – good poetry is a momentary stay against confusion, and there are many momentary stays in Joanne Diaz’s first collection of poems, The Lessons.

.

.

.

NB

I wish to thank Silverfish Review Press for providing such a detailed and narrative filled colophon about the Jenson typeface. I wish more publishers would do this.//




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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