Posts Tagged ‘Sappho

09
Nov
16

Poetry Assignments: The Book (Online): Responses; or Calling All Poets (Dead & Alive); or Talking to Eternity

POETRY ASSIGNMENTS

Brian Warner's The Cave

“The Cave” by Brian Warner. Used with the permission of Brain Warner.

or 100 Jackhammers for the Poet with Writer’s Block;

or 100 Ways to Jumpstart the Engine;

or 100 Pencil Exercises;

or 100 Ways to Stimulate Your Next Wine, Cheese, & Poetry Night

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Table of Contents

Introduction

  1. Finding the First, Discovering the Middle, & Chasing the End
  2. Imaginary Worlds
  3. Science, the Universe, Time, & Other Evolutions
  4. Fun with Letters, Words, Language, & Languages
  5. Forms: Obscure, Updated, & Invented
  6. New School; or Double Vision; or WWI (Writing While Intoxicated) & Its Repercussions
  7. Miscellany; Trying to Relate the Unrelated; or These Gotta Go Some Place . . . So Here
  8. Stupid Money, Dumb Politicians, & Celebrating America
  9. Responses; or Calling All Poets (Dead & Alive); or Talking to Eternity
  10. It’s All About You

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Responses; or Calling All Poets (Dead & Alive); or Talking to Eternity

The Dr. Carlos Response Poem

Write a response to William Carlos Williams‘ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” There is enough information in this poem to piece together a story, i.e. the wheel barrow is glazed with rain water suggests it has recently rained. You may even want to fill in the spaces between the words or lines in the “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

(9-16-06 addendum) Notice how each stanza in the poem looks like the profile of a wheelbarrow. Thanks for sharing that observation, William Heyen.

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The Dr. Carlos Response Poem II: The Wrath of Flossie

Pretend you are Flossie Williams (Dr. Carlos’ wife) after having read the following note on the refrigerator door:

   This is just to say

   I have eaten
   the plums
   that were in
   the icebox

   and which
   you were probably
   saving
   for breakfast

   Forgive me
   they were delicious
   so sweet
   and so cold

a: The Dr. Carlos Response Poem III: City Talk

Yes, another response poem idea, but . . . Ok.

In Dr. Carlos’ Paterson, at times it seems the city of Paterson is trying to talk or is being talked for, though sometimes it is Dr. Paterson. So here’s the assignment: pretend you are a city writing a poem.

Other alternatives are to be a mountain or a lake, but something with a history & a story or stories to tell. I guess this means you are limited to narrative, but if you can break free of that, then most cool!

b: The Beatific Beatrice Response, or Dante? Who’s He?

From what I’ve learned, Dante & Beatrice met only four brief times, but Dante was horribly in love with Beatrice. And I think Beatrice didn’t pay him much mind after their visits.

With that in mind, we should explore how Beatrice felt after The Divine Comedy was finished & published. How would she have responded?

c: Beatrice Takes A Journey With Sappho, or Hell Hath No Fury Like a Beatrice with a Pen

Write a new Divine Comedy but from the point of view of Beatrice & using Sappho as her guide. Or maybe just write a canto for the Inferno, a canto for Purgatorio, & a canto for Paradisio.

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Sapphic Love

Bust of SapphoAs we know, we only have one complete & full poem/song of Sappho. The rest are all in fragments. Sometimes translators leave those blanks in their translation. This assignment, which I imagine has been done before, attempts to fill in those blanks – not all blanks to all her poems, but for just the blanks of one poem. For instance, consider fragment 24C:

   ]
   ]we live
   ]
   the opposite
   ]
   daring
   ]
   ]
   ]

or 24D

   ]
   ]
   ]
   ]
   ]
   ]in a thin voice
   ]


   Quoted lines from If Not, Winter by Anne Carson, copyright © 2002 by Anne Carson. 
   Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

So put words, lines, stanzas where the brackets are.

One may also just take a fragment like “I would not think to touch the sky with two arms” (fragment 52) & wrap a poem around it.

I imagine in your final draft, to tip your hat, you should italicize Sappho’s words.

Other poems with only fragments from poets like Anakeron or the iamb inventor Archilocos, etc. can be used in place of Sappho.

Good Sappho books are 7 Greeks by Guy Davenport (NY: New Directions, 1980), or If Not, Winter by Anne Carson (NY: Vintage, 2002). The former is awesome, & the latter is equally as impressive. Mary Barnard’s book, while also impressive & awesome, doesn’t leave the blanks.

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This One’s for the Ladies; or “Oh, Please. Enough With the Worms, Already. If That’s What You Want to Call It”; or “Andy, Andy, Andy. Will It Ever End With You?”

Andrew Marvell wrote a wonderful poem, among many others. But the one we are concerned with is “To His Coy Mistress,” which is quoted below.

Alas, then. You are to be the Coy Mistress & respond to Andy’s pleas. Using meter & rhyme might be nice, or you can contemporize the whole situation if you wish. That’s it.

   To His Coy Mistress

      Had we but World enough, and Time,
   This coyness Lady were no crime.
   We would sit down, and think which way
   To walk, and pass our long Loves Day.
   Thou by the Indian Ganges side
   Should’st Rubies find: I by the Tide
   Of Humber would complain. I would
   Love you ten years before the Flood:
   And you should if you please refuse
   Till the Conversion of the Jews.
   My vegetable Love should grow
   Vaster then Empires, and more slow.
   An hundred years should go to praise
   Thine Eyes, and on thy Forehead Gaze.
   Two hundred to adore each Breast:
   But thirty thousand to the rest.
   An Age at least to every part,
   And the last Age should show your Heart.
   For Lady you deserve this State;
   Nor would I love at lower rate.
      But at my back I alwaies hear
   Times winged Charriot hurrying near:
   And yonder all before us lye
   Desarts of vast Eternity.
   Thy Beauty shall no more be found;
   Nor, in thy marble Vault, shall sound
   My ecchoing Song: then Worms shall try
   That long preserv’d Virginity:
   And your quaint Honour turn to dust;
   And into ashes all my Lust.
   The Grave’s a fine and private place,
   But none I think do there embrace.
   Now therefore, while the youthful hew
   Sits on thy skin like morning dew
   And while thy willing Soul transpires
   At every pore with instant Fires,
   Now let us sport us while we may;
   And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
   Rather at once our Time devour,
   Than languish in his slow-chapt pow’r.
   Let us roll all our Strength, and all
   Our sweetness, up into one Ball:
   And tear our Pleasures with rough strife,
   Thorough the Iron gates of Life.
   Thus, though we cannot make our Sun
   Stand still, yet we will make him run.

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Dealing with Rejection

With my 99th literary-rejection letter just received, & number one hundred at hand [as of November 7, 2016, I am at 1085 rejection letters], I was reminded of Mike Dockins’ poem “Monsoon” about his one hundredth rejection letter, which then sparked this assignment.

Your assignment is to write a poem dealing with rejection, & if it deals with rejection letters from literary journals, all the better, & perhaps even more preferred.

Here’s Dockins’ poem, which first appeared in 5 AM & also appeared on Verse Daily on February 18, 2004:

   MONSOON

   Dear 100th rejection slip, I am learning to spell
   monsoon. I look forward to your square blue ocean:
   starfish and whales of polite sentences wriggling
   on harpoons, black tide awash with monsoon,
   my lamp a fiery moon rising on krilly semi-colons,
   maybe a sleek marine scribble. Soon, soon.
   I see the in the Arabian Sea, approach Panaji
   from the southwest. How kindergarten, how 1978,
   how monsoon. I am in love with your maps
   and hieroglyphs – how jejune. When you cry
   à la loon from my blustery mailbox I’m going
   to order a fat drink speckled with plankton,
   festooned with a paper umbrella bending in
   monsoon, tiny tsunamis crashing the salted rim.
   I might even kiss the postal clerk, Irishman
   that I am, monsoon I long to be. I’m a candle-boat
   on the anniversary of something terrible
   and beautiful, some atom balloon, adrift on
   a waveless lagoon, wailing monsoon monsoon.


   Used by permission of 5 A.M.

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On Second Thought

This one has a long tradition, & now it’s your turn. You are to write a response poem to one of your friend’s poems. You can pick up on a theme & say “Yes, & in addition to that . . .” or “No. It’s more like this . . .” or “What about this?” Etc. (Of course, phrase those utterances with a more poetic sensibility.) Most important, it’s gotta be a response to your buddy’s poem!

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Here, Let Me Try

This is in line with the above assignment, “On Second Thought.” This time, however, you will take one of your buddy’s poems & revise it for him/her.

Whether you keep the revisions for yourself (& be a kinda cool literary thief who won’t go to jail, but who may have to buy their buddy a bottle of wine if the poem comes out good – you know, a fine) or whether you return it (like Ez did with The Waste Land to Tom) is up to you.

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Laundry Time

This idea comes to me from Kat Smith after she heard W.S. Merwin read a poem at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA. It is also something that Lorca has done, & should provide for a good summer long exercise.

The assignment is a celebration of our clothes.

You are to write a poem about a particular piece of clothing you wear or someone else wears.

I plan on writing every time I go to the laundromat, so by the end of summer, & after all the laundry, I hope to have a series of clothing poems.

Ok. Go Sing, celebrate, & clean your clothes.

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The Wally Stevens Anecdote

[This assignment arose from a Michelle Bonczek idea, and is used with permission.]

It is simple. Here it is.

Write a poem with the title “Anecdote of Me Reading a Wallace Stevens Poem.” You can insert your name in place of “Me.” I imagine you can do it with any poet, but I imagine it is funnier with a Wally Stevens poem.

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Art Response Poem

Find a painting or a sculpture, one that isn’t too famous or popular, & write a poem about it, or a response to it, or let it evoke something. Perhaps even create a narrative about the scene. The Pre-Raphaelites might be most helpful for the latter.

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31
Oct
16

Poetry Assignments: The Book (Online): Forms: Obscure, Updated, & Invented

POETRY ASSIGNMENTS

Brian Warner's The Cave

“The Cave” by Brian Warner. Used with the permission of Brain Warner.

or 100 Jackhammers for the Poet with Writer’s Block;

or 100 Ways to Jumpstart the Engine;

or 100 Pencil Exercises;

or 100 Ways to Stimulate Your Next Wine, Cheese, & Poetry Night

//

Table of Contents

Introduction

  1. Finding the First, Discovering the Middle, & Chasing the End
  2. Imaginary Worlds
  3. Science, the Universe, Time, & Other Evolutions
  4. Fun with Letters, Words, Language, & Languages
  5. Forms: Obscure, Updated, & Invented
  6. New School; or Double Vision; or WWI (Writing While Intoxicated) & Its Repercussions
  7. Miscellany; Trying to Relate the Unrelated; or These Gotta Go Some Place . . . So Here
  8. Stupid Money, Dumb Politicians, & Celebrating America
  9. Responses; or Calling All Poets (Dead & Alive); or Talking to Eternity
  10. It’s All About You

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Double Abecedarian

This one is kind of like an acrostic, but cooler.

Here’s how it works: The first letter of each should read A-Z down the left side, & then the last letter of each line should read Z-A down the right side.

Or, in the case of “Dead Critics Society” by Mike Dockins, Z-A down the left side, & A-Z down the right.

The additional challenge is to make it look like a box, i.e. to aim for similar line-lengths.

Also, it will probably be important to pick a subject matter that calls for such a form. In this case, you could say it’s a poem of arts & letters. . . . Because a poet would have to ask herself, “Why use this form? For what purpose?”

Mike says: “This poem was a sarcastic reaction to the notion that all poems are about death, or, worse yet, must be about death. F*** that. Note: the word ‘Zooks!’ is from a poem by Robert Browning. Enjoy!”

   Dead Critics Society

   Zooks! What have I done with my anthologies? I’ll need a
   year of sleep after writing my millionth review (with aplomb).
   XX bottles of moonshine litter my bedside table like arsenic.
   Why no lilting iambics in contemporary poetry? Only dead,
   vermin-ridden prose riddled with autobiographical treacle.
   Under my bed, the skeleton of Browning. I use his broken-off
   tibias as walking sticks. For hundreds of scenic miles I drag
   sensitivity, & marvel. Content must be pounded into a rich
   risotto of form – evident rhyme scheme & equal stanzas. I
   quote Keats: “Gasp! I am dying!” Were he as prosperous as J.
   P. Morgan, he may not have suffered so. These days, a black-
   out of good taste, a dimming of metrical etiquette, a dismal
   nerve of postmodern surrealism, whatever that means. I’m
   mad! I raise one of Browning’s femurs in revolt! I’ve a notion,
   ladies & gentlemen, that our language has crumbled into
   kindling – a few tiny sparks, maybe, but no thick log to keep
   joy in prosody truly alive. Meantime, I’m just about up to Q
   in my encyclopedia of verse: Quixote, etc., but still I gather
   hives hunting hopelessly for my beloved poetry anthologies.
   God knows Browning would have understood – what a saint.
   Five finger bones claw the floor under my bed, searching. You
   entertain such a relic, you pay the price – each knuckle a shiv
   digging for inspiration in the floorboards, scraping shallow
   crosses into my skin as I slumber. I should lock him in a box!
   But then nothing would remind me of my own bones – O my
   awaiting death – the only theme suitable for a poetry buzz.

This first appeared in The Atlanta Review and then on Verse Daily on August 10, 2006.

Look for other ones by Mike Dockins. “The Fun Uncle” in the Indiana Review (Winter 2004), “Zarathustra Paints Town” in jubilat (nine), & “Timbuktu” in New Zoo Poetry Review (January 2007).

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The Clerihew

According to Jonathan Williams in his newest collection Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005):

The clerihew was invented in 1890 by Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who was a schoolboy of sixteen at St. Paul’s in London when the divine numen of Orpheus struck him. His best one seems to me:

   The digestion of Milton
   Was unequal to Stilton

   He was only feeling so-so
   When he wrote Il Penseroso.

Later Williams’ continues:

Frances Stillman’s The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary (1965) says this: “The clerihew is a humorous pseudo-biographical quatrain, rhymed as two couplets, with lines of uneven length, & often contains or implies a moral reflection of some kind. The name of the individual who is the subject of the quatrain usually supplies the first line.”

Here’s a couple of Williams’:

   Ezra Loomis Pound
   bought a lb

   of Idaho potatoes
   (the Hailey Comet always ate those).
 


   Hank D. Thoreau
   too seldom used eau

   de cologne,
   and always asked to live at Walden on his own



   Babe Ruth
   in all truth

   weren’t borned like you an’ me –
   he come down out of a tree.


   (Quoted poems by Jonathan Williams as they appear in Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems 
   (Copper Canyon P, 2005)© are used with permission of Copper Canyon Press.)

Ok go have fun. And if you like intelligent fun poets, read Jonathan Williams.

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“Double Sonnet for the Minimalist”

I think this was first created by Mona Van Duyn. I read about it in Emily Grosholz’s “Poetry and Science in America” in The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science, ed. Kurt Brown (University of Georgia Press, 2001). (The poems first appeared in Van Duyn’s Near Changes (Knopf, 1990).)

This sonnet has fourteen lines. It has the same construct as a sonnet with the meter & the rhymes & the volta & all. But this sonnet has dimeter lines. The lines tend to be iambic, but the base minimum is to have two stresses per line. After the first sonnet is made, a second sonnet is made in response. Hence, “Double Sonnet.” See Below:

   The spiral shell
   apes creamhorns of smog.
   Dalmation, quenelle
   or frosted hedgehog,
   yet is obsessed
   by a single thought
   that its inner guest
   is strictly taught.
   When the self that grew
   to follow its rule
   is gone, and it’s through,
   vacant, fanciful,

   its thought will find
   Fibonacci’s mind.

The response:

   That fragile slug,
   bloodless, unborn,
   till it knows the hug
   of love’s tutoring form,
   whose life, upstart
   in deep, is to learn
   to follow the art
   of turn and return,
   when dead, for the dense
   casts up no clue
   to the infinite sequence
   it submitted to.

   May its bright ghost reach
   the right heart’s beach.

   “The Spiral Shell” and “That Fragile Slug” from Near Changes by Mona Van Duyn, 
   copyright © 1990 by Mona Van Duyn. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, 
   a division of Random House, Inc.

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Tit for Tat & All That

This makes me think of a sestina, but it is not.

Let’s say we have stanzas with six lines each. The first line ends with a word. The second line ends with the same word but with one letter changed. The third line’s end word has another letter changed. Etc. See Below from the second stanza of John Hollander’s poem “Getting from Here to There” in Figurehead: And Other Poems (Knopf, 2000):

   One hears such stories with one’s eyes unwet:
   She woke up one day and found that the Tet
   Offensive had left her widowed with a tot
   Who broke her heart as if it were a toy.
   Luck, having given her one so-so try,
   Wrung out her life and left her bones to dry.


   Lines from “Getting from Here to There” from Figurehead by John hooander, copyright © 1999 by John 
   Hollander. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Now I imagine one could add a letter, as the title of the assignment suggests, and I don’t believe all stanzas need be six lines either.

Hollander’s poem has six six-line stanzas, a seven-line stanza, an eight-line stanza, a twelve-line stanza, & a thirteen-line stanza.

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Chain Link Poems

This will involve a series of poems, & the first one you use in the series may already have been written.

The last line of the first poem will become the first line of the second poem. The last line of the second poem will become the first line of the third poem, etc…. until you are done. I imagine the linking will create a continuity & forward momentum. A subtle tension might be created between the poems, as well.

For a real Joycean challenge, make the last line of the last poem be the first line of the first poem; thus creating a cyclical movement.

I got this idea from Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s “Lucifer’s Crown” in Never be the Horse (University of Akron Press, 1999). Hers, however, is a “Crown of Sonnets:” a series of seven sonnets that follow the above rules.

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The Glosa

I got this idea from Eleanor Rand Wilner’s poem “Αντíο, Cassandra” from The Girl with Bees in Her Hair (Copper Canyon Press, 2004).

The Glosa is comprised of four ten-line stanzas & begins with a four-line epigraph. The first line of the epigraph becomes the last line of the first stanza, the second line of the epigraph becomes the last line of the second stanza, the third line of the epigraph becomes the last line of the third stanza, & the fourth & last line of the epigraph becomes the last line of the fourth stanza, thus the poem. Also lines three, seven, & ten of each stanza are to rhyme. (Some say lines six, nine, & ten of each stanza are to rhyme. I say rhyming is not necessary, but to try anyway.)

Wilner, however, did it her own thing to the form. (Hmm . . . see poetry assignment “Make It New,” below). As she says in her endnote, “Since I can’t write if I know how something ends, I opened each stanza with the quoted lines, and reversed the form.” That is, the first line of the line epigraph became the first line of stanza one, the second line of the epigraph became the first line of stanza two, the third line of the epigraph became the first line of stanza three, & the fourth line of the epigraph became the first line of stanza four.

(Quoted passage by Eleanor Rand Wilner as it appears in the “Notes” of The Girl with Bees in Her Hair (Copper Canyon Press, 2004)© is used with permission of Copper Canyon Press.)

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Minute by Minute, Syllable by Syllable

I’m sure most of us saw this on Poetry Daily on December 11, 2004 [which is now inaccessible 😦 ].

The form is called the “minute,” & was “formulated by Verna Lee Hinegardner, former poet laureate of Arkansas.” It works like this:

“Poems in this form consist of sixty syllables in rhyming couplets with a syllabic line count of 8,4,4,4– 8,4,4,4– 8,4,4,4,” as explained by the description for Cathy Smith BowersA Book of Minutes (Iris Press, 2004).

More: “A Book of Minutes is structured like a Book of Hours, the medieval prayer book that was its age’s own version of today’s literary best-seller. The Book of Hours was arranged in sections corresponding to with the eight canonical hours of the day, beginning with Matins, moving all the way through to Vespers, and ending with Compline. A Book of Minutes retains the same eight sections, and is illustrated to suggest illumination.”

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The Gerald Stern Experiment

On February 10, 2005, Gerald Stern was in Spokane, WA, visiting Eastern Washington University’s Creative Writing Program. At the Q&A, he shared with us poems from one of his recently released, but not well-known, books: Not God After All (Autumn House Press, 2004).

Each poem is what Stern called a “petite narrative” or an “aphorism,” & he explained that each aphorism is composed of two lines of seven syllables each. I did not hear a connection between the poems, but I suspect they are connected in his mind associatively. In that regard, to me, from what I heard from what he read, they resemble the Sutras one uses to help remember The Upanishads.

Here a couple examples of Stern’s petite narratives.

   It’s not God after all,
   It’s the Chase Manhattan Bank.


   A fire I understand,
   but how do you make a flood?


   Don’t make God come too fast,
   be a bastard a while longer.


   (The Gerald Stern poems are from Not God After All copyright 2004 by Gerald Stern. 
   Reprinted by permission of the author and Autumn House Press.)

As part of the assignment, I am suggesting you just sit & write a bunch of these without being consciously involved except for the counting. Write & count. Write & count. Write & give me twenty!

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Addonizio & the Sonnenizio; or Love is Hell for Fucci

In Kim Addonizio’s latest collection of poems What Is this Thing Called Love (Norton, 2004) (which is a solid book, by the way), there is a form poem I have never come across called a sonnenizio, & I would like to share Addonizio’s discovery with everyone as the next poetry assignment.

Addonizio has a footnote explaining the form:

note: The Sonnenizio was invented in Florence in the thirteenth century by Vanni Fucci as an irreverent form whose subject was usually the impossibility of everlasting love. Dante retaliated by putting Fucci into the seventh chasm of the Inferno as a thief. Originally composed of hendecasyllabics, the sonnenizio gradually moved away from metrical constraints and began to tackle a wider variety of subject matter. The sonnenizio is fourteen lines long. It opens with a line from someone else’s sonnet, repeats a word from that line in each succeeding line of the poem, and closes with a rhymed couplet.

It seems this form has the feel, or sensibilities, of a sonnet meets a sestina. And it seems like some cadence or rhythm will or can be built upon this repeated word, too. Also, it seems a slight variation on the word is a good idea so that the reader’s ears aren’t then just wafting to hear the repeated word. Make surprises as Addonizio & her poem do in:

Sonnenizio on a Line from Drayton

Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part;
or kiss anyway, let’s start with that, with the kissing part,
because it’s better than the parting part, isn’t it –
we’re good at kissing, we like how that part goes:
we part our lips, our mouths get near and nearer,
then we’re close, my breasts, your chest, our bodies partway
to making love, so we might as well, part of me thinks –
the wrong part, I know, the bad part, but still
let’s pretend we’re at that party where we met
and scandalized everyone, remember that part? Hold me
like that again, unbutton my shirt, part of you
wants to I can tell, I’m touching that part and it says
yes, the ardent partisan, let it win you over,
it’s hopeless, come, we’ll kiss and part forever.

   “Sonnenizio On a Line From Drayton” and the “note”, from What is This Thing Called Love: Poems by Kim 
   Addonizio. Copyright© 2004 by Kim Addonizio. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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The Helen Humphreys’ Experiment

At Helen Humphreys’ reading on October 5th, 2005, at The Writers Forum at SUNY Brockport, Humphreys read a Sylvia Plath poem. She then read one of her poems, but this poem used all the words in the Plath poem she had just read – she just rearranged the order of the words to make a new poem. Humphreys said she does this because in her own poems she finds she often uses the same words in her poems. This experiment then allows her to break free of her word-choice confines.

The name of the poem she read I can’t recall, but it appears in Anthem (Brick Books, 1999).

Ok. Go & play in this new form; or, go in new & form this play.

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Erasure Poems

Mary Ruefle has come up with a new way to compose poems & to make a new art form, or at least new to me. In her newest book, A Little White Shadow (Wave Books, 2006), there are a collection of poems arrived at from a larger book with the same name. What Ruefle has done is to use a page of text from the larger book & then white out/paint out words to leave only a few words to make a poem.

What is interesting to me about these poems is that they involve active reading. Your eyes have to move around the page, which creates for extended line breaks, & it affects the breath. Not to mention the spaces between words that are on the same line – it’s a type of projective verse. Plus, if you get the book, you will also see textures from the white out/paint, not to mention how the aged, faded brown pages play with the lively, contemporary bright white paint. Here are two examples that are used with permission from Wave Books.

Mary Ruefle Page 9

Mary Ruefle “the dead” (page 9).

 

Mary Ruefle Page 28

Mary Ruefle “a heart” (page 28).

I’m not sure of the process behind this, but I imagine it is more than just saving words. I imagine you have to consider how it will look when complete, how to breathe & read your way through the final piece, & what the poem will actually be. [Ten years later, I realize/learn the erasure poem needs to have a conversation with the original text. 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.) Also see more here: https://thelinebreak.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/on-marjorie-perloffs-reinventing-the-lyric/]

Your assignment is to do this. Your assignment is to go to a used bookstore, buy a book, & try this out. I suggest first starting with Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man or H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. Until then you can visit this page & practice online: http://erasures.wavepoetry.com/

(The Mary Ruefle poems “the dead” and “a heart” as they appear in A Little White Shadow (Wave Books, 2006. Copyright 2006 by Mary Ruefle.) are used with permission of Wave Books. Please visit their website at: www.wavepoetry.com.)

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Make It New

I got this idea from Swinburne & Pound & James Wright. Sappho wrote her poems in a quantitative metric now called Sapphics. With ‘-’ representing a long syllable & ‘u’ a short syllable, it went like this:

   -u- -- uu- u --
   -u- -- uu- u --
   -u- -- uu- u --
         -u u--

Or, three hendecasyllabic lines & one adonic line. There also tends to be a caesura after the fifth syllable, and the fourth syllable in lines 1-3 is often free.

Swinburne then came around & realized quantity doesn’t work as good in English as it does in Greek, so in his poem “Sapphics,” he wrote in a qualitative meter, but with the same pattern as Sappho – but using a stressed syllable in place of a long syllable and an unstressed syllable in place of a short syllable.

Pound then came along & dabbled in Sapphics in “Apparuit,” where he tends to use both qualitative & quantitative meters simultaneously. But in the poem “The Return,” the meter is strictly quantitative, however! he hides the form by varying the line & stanza lengths. The meter is there, it is just camouflaged & jumbled.

James Wright then came along & said enough. He Americanized it in “Erinna to Sappho.” He used a qualitative meter more fitting to American rhythms, while keeping the spirit of Sappho’s meter.

Wright’s form is three lines of iambic tetrameter & one line of iambic dimeter. To scan it with “/” as stress & “u” as unstressed:

   u/u/u/u/
   u/u/u/u/
   u/u/u/u/
      u/u/

Ok. Make sense? Now go find a form & contemporize it!

//

Make it New (Number Two); or Make it American; or Repackaging – Making the Same Product Seem New & Improved

This is a variation of “Poetry Assignment: Make it New.” It arose from the following rapid-fire correspondence between Rob Carney & me, using three different email addresses. Here’s how much of the correspondence went:

Tom (from email address #1) [responding to a particular haiku in a series of Haiku and Tanka Rob sent him]: [. . .] “coming” in “coming in the wind” seems the wrong word to me. It sounds way too sexual, for some reason, and it just seems the wrong verb with the movement of snow. [. . .]

Rob (to Tom’s email address #2): yeah, I want a different verb for the snow in the soon-arriving future but arriving has 3! syllables! – fucking Japanese forms . . . the Japanese have one-syllable words for words like cascading or disappear or animal, they gotta, or how can they fit stuff into these shot-glasses?

Tom (from email address #2): Why not put a James Wrightian, Americana spin on the poem. 4-8-4 in iambs?

I say James Wright, not because he Americanized Haiku, but because he Americanized Sapphics. And you could do the same with Haiku.

Tom (from email address #1):

   A New York State of Mind

   The snow cascades
   in spring amid the yawping geese –
   rotate the tires.

4-8-4 in iambs (with an allusion to Whitman).

Aha! A new poetry assignment. Shit. This will be posted in 10 minutes.

Rob (to Tom’s email address #1): Dig it. Funnyclevercool.

[. . .]

Rob (later to Tom’s email address #1): Yes, of course. That’s fine. Oh, and I love that “rotate” doesn’t just command/resign to rotate/rotating the tires and also do an imagery thing BUT ALSO THIS: precedents were all iambs, then this first words actually, by going trochee on stuff, enacts the word “rotate”.

[. . .]

Rob (even later to Tom’s email address #1 and regarding the new poetry assignment):    [. . .] bonus points for ironic tone rather than reverence for Nature? or bonus points for making it funny too, a beautiful joke rather than a Zen koan like so many in Japanese are, meaning humor rather than riddle. Or bonus points for making great use of enjambment or fitting use of syncopation? [. . .]

Ok. There you go. Americanize the Haiku. Four syllables / eight syllables / four syllables in iambs, plus ironic tone &/or humor &/or great enjambments &/or syncopation.

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Concrete Poetry; or Gaudier-Brzeska with the Line; or Watch Out for that Stinger

The shape of a poem on the page is indeed a worthy consideration when writing a poem. For me, for instance, I will write a poem with pencil & paper, & I will write it over & over with all the revising until I think it is done. Then I type it into Word. I then stare at it. Fix the shape better so it works better with the content. (It’s so nice to have that uniform spacing, unlike my random scrunching & expanding scribblings with my pencil.) Then when I think it is done, I print it. And then revise some, & sculpt the shape some more. Then back to the screen. Then to printed copy, etc. until I think, or the poem tells me, it is done.

The shapes of my poems, good or bad, tend to be rectangular. But there are others who have sculpted lines to represent the shape of the object of the poem. As far as I know, the first person to do this was George Herbert, with poems like “The Altar” (where the shape of the poem looks like an altar) & “Easter Wings” (where the shape of the poem, when turned ninety degrees, looks like a butterfly). The concrete poem then had a resurgence in the 1950s & 1960s. And then recently in William Heyen’s poem “Scorpions,” which appears in The Rope (MAMMOTH Books, 2003). The poem is below.

William Heyen "Scorpions"

(William Heyen’s “Scorpion” is used with permission of the author and MAMMOTH Books.)

 

In this poem, the reading of the poem imitates the viewing of a scorpion. You look upon the scorpion’s body, then curl up his tail, then drop off the stinger, then back to his body & legs. So the poem, has the second line as the body (the first line read), the first line as the stinger (the second line read), & then the third line the feet (the third line read). And the stinger-line dangles with one word, just like the stinger dangles. The poem snaps your head around as a scorpion would snap its tail. Heyen has another concrete poem, “Wishbone Hull Requiem,” that appears in The Rope.

I think this assignment is a good investigation, or reinvestigation, into the study of the line & line breaks. I think it will make us turn our head & ears just enough to reconsider how the line can act, breathe, perform, seduce, & mimic. I think it will also make us consider & re-consider how the sculpted shape of the poem can contribute in new ways.

Ok. Go forth!

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Ghazals, Gazelles, & Jezebels; or Distracted from Distraction by Distraction

Ok, I’ve been reading a lot of Robert Bly, lately. The Night Abraham Called to the Stars & My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy. He’s writing Ghazals, and I’m staring at them. I’m noticing each stanza stands on its own, yet relates to the preceding stanza & the following stanza. And I notice each poem is complete, whole, despite the discreteness (though not really discrete). I stare again differently, but away from his poems & towards my generation of poets. I think, “This is a good form for my generation of poets. We are so easily distracted yet able to keep it whole. (Keep it real.) The sum of the distracted parts is greater than the whole” (with apologies to Creeley).

So, why not make this our generation’s form of poems. Our generation being 25-40. Born in 1966 (yea, you know the associations of that year & time period) to born in 1981 (when Regan became president). Why not make stanzas that are about one thing, then make the distracted associative leaps. Then at the end of the poem pull that draw string & yoke the poem into wholeness. Let’s call it Garbage Bag Ghazals. A place where we empty our thoughts, pull the draw string to close it up & contain it, haul it over our shoulder, walk it to the dumpster, hurl it into the dumpster, watch it explode on impact, & see what results. Watch the associations scatter & combine.

Let’s connect our distractions. Let’s write Garbage Bag Ghazals.

Oh, & to make it more interesting, let’s focus some of these poems on “grief.” I add this because, Bly says we (Americans) don’t know how to deal with grief, & because I’m not sure if I even know what grief is (other than “Good Grief,” ala Charlie Brown). I know sadness. I know burden. I know heaviness. I know sorrow. But I don’t think I know grief. Do you?

And now for a wonderful response to the assignment.

   Optic Nerve

   So the task swivels: look with your word-eye,
   keep a bright light on, see through the word eye. 

   On the bone planet, night time warps. Spooks morph
   delusional, bobbling a tight, weird eye. 

   At the rim shattered, junk started, speeding
   the labyrinth city – one hot-wired eye. 

   Air here so thin. Your chest wrenched by what
   can or cannot be cranks wide the worried eye. 

   Heed: ropes, riddled grapes, pikes. Drag your feet
   to the crossroads. Stamp out the wayward eye. 

   Afterburn. Blue mortar blast. Dying. Kin
   in the sights. Does it heal, the skewered eye? 

   Guts on hold, it shrinks, gelatinous; alights
   anywhere but here, that coward eye. 

   Ambling, misproportioned, poorly tethered
   from its mate; must we love the awkward eye? 

   Acid wash. A flaying grief. Tears just scratch
   the surface, grate salt on the raw red eye. 

   Hot tempered Damascus. Zealous blood gut-
   ters up the hilt. Quick! Unhorse that sword eye! 

   They give reasons. Justify. Explain. Not
   quell. Is it satisfied, our answered eye? 

   Though well-oiled; galvanized; springy; his stripes
   soft in the breeze; resist the bedward eye. 

   Tabloid: Dear Abby, What have we done? What
   do we do now? Yours, true, The Inward Eye.


   (Used with the permission of Abby Millager.)

By Abby Millager. (5-18-06, or so)

//

The Coop de Gras Experiment

[This one is brought to us by Linda Cooper! and used with her permission.]

Write six ten-line poems with no repeat nouns. Include internal rhymes within lines nine & ten. Do not think about content while writing the little vignettes. Afterward, look for a common theme & bring it to life! (Revise away the form if it doesn’t serve the poem). Go Forth!!

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The Switchback Poem

This is probably a new poem form!

While hiking in the Olympic National Park near the Heart O’ the Hills on “Switchback Trail,” which leads to the Lake Angeles Trail & the Klahhane Ridge & overlooks Port Angeles & British Columbia at the top, I noticed something on the way down. I noticed that my thoughts, when not diverted by throbbing thighs, were toward one thing – a dorsal-finned mountain, & then on the switchback, my thoughts turned toward another thing – two blackbirds flying, who at certain angles reflected white or red – & as I kept going down my thoughts went back & forth between the fin & the birds depending on the direction I was facing on “The Switchback Trail.”

The assignment is to write a poem which follows the movement of a switchback trail.

Write a poem that starts in one direction & then turns in another. That is, start off in direction A, for instance, & then change to direction B, & then to direction A & back to direction B & on & on. But only two thoughts can be had. Two thoughts that share no associations.

You could combine two unsuccessful poems for this assignment.

Here’s the form: I imagine each direction, switchback, should be a stanza long (as a line would be too abrupt). I imagine each stanza should be about the same length, but of course, variances will be had based on thoughts & because the switchback trail had switchbacks that tended to be of similar length but at times also varied in length. The length between two adjacent stanzas, however, should be of similar lengths (for instance, one stanza could be five lines & the next stanza six lines & the next five & the next four). In addition, the length of stanza one could be completely different than the last stanza if enough subtle movements are achieved. For example, stanza one could be three lines, but by the time the last stanza is reached & some clever writing is had, the last stanza could be ten lines.

Ok. I hope you get the idea.

Also, if your two thoughts come to a conclusion, if associations are finally achieved between the two disparate thoughts, then great. If not, then you had a helluva hike!

a: The Cigarette Cough of the Just Poet; or Joseph K Writes a Poem; or the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE / the HEART, by way of the DRAG, to the LINE (with apologies to Charles Olson); or Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

I was thinking about Creeley (who according to Olson in the essay (“Projective Verse,” which contains “the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE / the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE”) said, “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT”).

As I was saying, I was thinking about Creeley. I was thinking about his poems – their pace. I was remembering that back in ’93/’94 I was reading Creeley & smoking cigarettes. I was remembering that I would take a drag of a cigarette & read a poem & then exhale. I was remembering what I was thinking while reading Creeley: “Creeley must have been a smoker. That his poems, the length of the poem, coincide with the drag of a cigarette.”

Thus, this assignment. Write a poem that lasts the length of a drag of a cigarette. A poem that commences after the inhale & ends with the exhale.

And then write a series of poems that can be read to one cigarette. I don’t even know how many drags that is. Five, ten, twelve, twenty? Wait. . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . pufff. Ok. I get thirteen. Hm. So now you got to work the moon into the series, too. Thirteen moon phases in a year, right?

b: Unanswerable Questions; or What’s at the Edge of the Universe?; or What’s the Last Digit of Pi?; or How Does Venus de Milo Hitchhike?; or . . .

After writing that, I couldn’t help but think of a lollipop commercial from the late 70s. So, now you gotta write a poem that lasts as long as a Tootsie Pop “How many lick does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop” will be theme to that poem. Work an owl into the poem, too.

//

 

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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11
Apr
13

On John Berryman’s Syntax and Music and Other Observations

For my poetry workshop class at The University of Southern Mississippi with Rebecca Morgan Frank, one of the assignments was to read the collected poems of a poet. I chose John Berryman. At the end of the semester, we’re expected to write a 3-4 paper about our experiences with the collected poems. I, however, decided to also takes notes as I read so I’d remember things to to say. Below are 50+ double-spaced pages of notes. The notes are either something resembling an initial draft to essays or just long notes for potential essays. Hopefully, I will develop some of these notes into larger essays or perhaps they will make you look at/listen to Berryman in new ways. Perhaps, you will expand on one of my observations or disagree with what I have said. In the end, I just want to keep the Berryman discussion progressing.

I tried to write about what I observed in the poems, but, occasionally, I referenced other sources, which are noted. My not referencing other sources was not done out of arrogance, but rather to have my own intimate experience with Berryman. Plus, I thought it closer to the intent of the assignment.

In addition, all the Berryman books I refer to appear in The Collected Poems: 1937-1971, edited by Charles Thornbury, except for the Dream Songs, which appear in The Dream Songs. All other sources are noted as they appear and in the Works Cited section.

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John Berryman – Collected Poems 1937-1971    John Berryman – Dream Songs

I am choosing John Berryman: Collected Poems 1937-1971 and John Berryman’s Dream Songs as the poet to focus on for a few reasons. One, I have both books on my shelves. Two, I want a poet who writes in meter. At this time, I don’t know if he always wrote in meter, but I know he did often enough. I wanted to hear his meters because it’s not often I hear metrical poetry anymore, and this semester I want to explore the musical measure of the line. (I want to explore the possibility that iambic pentameter is really iambic tetrameter. Instead of five feet, there are four bars of stress laid on top of a back beat of iambic pentameter.) And I wanted someone who writes from the personal, as I think he does often enough. I want to learn how to do that because it’s a very rare occasion to find me in my poems and want to be able to put me in. Fourth, I want to refamiliarize myself with his poetry of which I haven’t read enough of. Fifth, my favorite poem is “Berryman” by W. S. Merwin (though “Berryman” isn’t my favorite Merwin poem), and so I want to get an even deeper appreciation of that poem. These are the main reasons.

– Wednesday, January 16, 2013.

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John Berryman – The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed [1948]

It’s good to know that Berryman order the poems in his books pretty much in the chronological order in which he wrote poems because I will be able to clearly see his growth. The opening poems in The Dispossessed move forward on syllabics and often on a four-beat measure, the grammar/syntax of the poems is fairly straight, and the image has balance between the concrete and abstract. That continues until section one’s penultimate poem, “The Ball Poem.” In this poem there is a lot syntactical variation, which I expect to see a lot more of as I travel through Berryman’s years of poems. Some variation is simple but effective, such as “As he stands rigid, trembling staring down / All his young days into the harbour.” Here “staring down” works in two ways: the boy is down to where his ball is, and the boy is staring down his history. We’ll see a more effective use of this with the word “Right” in “The Moon and the Night and the Man.” Other variations in “The Ball Poem” include: “I would not intrude on him, / A dime, another ball, is worthless” or the use of the unrestrictive phrase in “He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes, / The epistemology of loss [. . .].” This may not seem a grand variation, but it’s the first or one of the first variations of its kind in poems where the poems move forward with interruption, pause, or nonrestrictive phrases. I think “The Ball Poem” will end up being a pivotal poem to which other poems will be compared.

Later in the section, Berryman gets involved in the repetition of words. For instance, in “Farewell to Miles,” in the first stanza, he repeats “therefore” three times in lines 2-4, “man” three times in lines “1-4,” and “hard” three times in lines 6-8. This creates a cadence on top of the rhythm on top of the meter. There are three beats going on as a result. In addition, it creates the feeling of expectation and the feeling of loss. We expect to hear the word again and we do, and then we don’t. The expectation is lost. But then a new word arises. The beat is hope to loss. (A down beat of sorts.) Later in section three is the line break/syntax pivot effect of “Right” that I mentioned above: “A stupid well-intentioned man turned sharp / Right and abruptly he became an angel.” “Right” concludes the previous action turn sharp right, and begins the next action of “Right and abruptly he became an angel.” That is a very effective first word. Again, not a great invention, but for him at this stage in his poetry it is.

Section four’s opening poem is “Cantor Amor,” and it’s a wild crazy poem that’s a love poem and ars poetica among other things. Here, Berryman’s syntactical/stylistic variations arise again to more effect and are more complicated. Stanza two has some interesting but simple variations in the parenthetical in its first line (which is rare for Berryman so far) and then the simple inversion of “bless” and “You” in the stanza’s last line: “If (Unknown Majesty) I not confess / praise for the wrack the rock the live sailor / under the blue sea, – yet I may You bless.” Typically, the “You” would come last.  In the second line, he doesn’t use punctuation in the list “the wrack the rock the live sailor.”  I think the end of the K sound causes a natural pause, though brief, that it can act as a comma. Then hear how much emphasis gets laid on “live” as a result.  It’s a long and hard syllable. Merwin wrote a letter to me telling me he doesn’t use punctuation because “the mind doesn’t think in punctuation.” I don’t think that’s why Berryman is doing this, but it’s a new effect for him, but an effect I’ve worked with for years. I may not think in punctuation either, but my poems think better with punctuation. Also notice in this poem how for the first time in this collection of poems, the first letter of each line is not capitalized unless it begins a sentence. This poem like “The Ball Poem” may be another important that other of Berryman’s poem will end up talking to and evolving from.

But later is where the interesting stylistic variations occur.

   […] Also above her face
   serious or flushed, swayed her fire-gold
   not earthly hair, now moonless to unlace,

   resistless flame, now in a sun more cold
   great shells to whorl about each secret ear,
   mysterious histories, white shores, unfold.

   New musics! One the music that we hear,
   this is the music which the masters make
   out of their minds, profound solemn & clear.

   And then the other music, in whose sake
   all men perceive a gladness but we are drawn
   less for that joy than utterly to take

   our trial, naked in the music’s vision,
   the flowing ceremony of trouble and light,
   all Loves becoming, none to flag upon.

There’s a lot going on in those lines. First, from the bigger view, there are four sentences in these excerpted five stanzas. The first two stanzas each contain one, long complicated sentence. This provides an effect on the third stanza, which has two sentences. These short sentences want to emphasize the simplicity of the masters’ music. But like a master there are some subtle complications going on. For instance, the second sentence beginning “One the music …,” should actually be two sentences. The comma after “hear” should be a period. The comma plus the line break add up to a period, at least to the ear. It does not sound incorrect. It flows. It’s simple. It doesn’t interrupt. At the end of the stanza, is a list with no commas as occurred in stanza 2. In this case, one action flows into the next. “Profound solemn & clear” are not separate actions but three that work as one. So simplicity has subtle complications in it that work simply surrounded by more complicated sentences that emphasize the simplicity in the middle stanza. Also, there a lot of commas. More and more commas appear as I read Berryman. He’s using them to vary his language and his music. Between the commas is information that adds to the description as well. It becomes an accumulative force in language. I’m not quite sure how to hear it yet. That is, I’m not quite sure the musical effect.

A few poems later in “A Professor’s Song,” however, I can hear Berryman finally writing from his ear. He’s not counting syllables or stresses in this poem. He following sound like Jimi Hendrix follows sounds on his guitar. The poem opens interestingly, too, but I’m not sure why or how it is working. The first line is “(. . rabid or dog-dull.) Let me tell you how”. Berryman has been using the two periods with space in between as an ellipsis but I wonder if it is also a musical device like W. C. Williams later does.

In section five’s opening poem, “Rock-Study with Wanderer,” Berryman abandons the period at a sentence’s end in favor of a triple space, except for the two occurrences of the period-space-period ellipsis. This triple space, I think, also anticipates Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse.” So far Berryman has anticipated two future poetic devises – Projective Verse and the musical notation in Williams later poems. But in this poem the space-in-place-of-a-period creates a few effects. First, it affects how we read it and breathe the poem. It also acts like a line break as the pause seems as pronounced as a line break, but also because sometimes we don’t know if a sentence continues or begins. For instance in stanza two:

   The music & the lights did not go out
   Alas    Our foreign officers are gay
   Singers in the faery cities shiver & play
   Their exile dances through unrationed thought

“Our foreign offices are gay” acts as an independent sentence where “gay” is an object of are. “Singers in the faery cities shiver & play” also acts as an independent sentence. However, the two could be combined into one long sentence where “gay” would become a modifier for “Singers.” I think what makes this work is the lack of periods, the line break, and the capital letter at the beginning of the line. A better example is the penultimate stanza:

   Draw draw the curtain on a little life
   A filth a fairing    Wood is darkening
   Where birdcall hovered now I hear no thing
   I hours since came from my love my wife

“Wood is darkening” could be its own sentence as could be “Where birdcall hovered now I hear no thing,” or it could be one long sentence. In the end, all three coexist simultaneously. He’s already built on the double line-break meanings in “staring down” in “The Ball Poem” and in “Right” in “The Moon and the Night and the Man.” It’s simple in delivery and complicated in effect.

A little later in “The Long Home” he uses triple space again but not as a period but as a pause, a place to breathe, such as “He   is going where I come.” When there’s a breath pause like that and like at the beginning of a poem, it’s difficult for the word at the other end of the pause not to pick up a little more emphasis. Without the space, “is” is unstressed. With the space, “is” picks up a little stress because in the pause the breath is held and on pronouncing the “is” there’s an initial exhale which is slightly stronger than if there had not been the pause. So the “is” gains a little emphasis from the breath. And in this case, we get an etymological pun because “is” as Olson points out in “Projective Verse”: “comes from the Aryan root, as, to breathe” (18).

– Wednesday, January 16, 2013.

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John Berryman – Sonnets to Chris

Sonnets to Chris [1947, 1966]

Early into these sonnets, I notice Berryman doing three things: he’s trying to create rhythms that play against the iambic pentameter, he’s really straining syntax a lot, and a lot of that straining and music playing comes from the caesuras that are in the majority of lines. Through the first six sonnets I believe he’s taking Pound’s dictum, “Don’t sacrifice sound for sense.” Berryman has taken this to an extreme of sorts. He has good sounds and when he counters the iamb it’s to good effect, but sometimes he mangles the syntax to make a sound. It’s hard to quite know what he’s up to in meaning making. I’m not sure if I even catch a tonal meaning. Actually, Berryman so far seems atonal. But then we get to Sonnet 7. Here are the first three lines:

   I’ve found out why, that day, that suicide
   From the Empire State falling on someone’s car 
   Troubled you so; and why we quarrelled. War,

The third line is very effective. The first syllable because of the meter should be unstressed but here it is stressed with “Troub” in “troubled.” By breaking the meter, he introduces a musical tension which underscores “Troubled.” The next stressed syllable is “why.” One might want “so” to be stressed, and it is a little (a semi-stress (more on this throughout)), but relationally, it’s not as stressed as “Troub,” “why,” “quar,” or “War.” The line begins and ends on a stress. Three of the stressed syllable (or morphemes) suggest tension of some sort and are closely associated, at least to me: “Trouble,” “quarrel,” and “War.” Those three word all imply some sort of conflict. Notice how “quarrelled” slant rhymes with “War” (“quar” and “war”) and slant rhymes with “Troubled” (“ed” and “ed”). That’s a strong line. The line also has two caesuras, as does line one. Line one jerks forward. The line flows uninterrupted like a man falling from a building. There’s an impact when the faller hits the car and there is also a stress on “car.” The sentence and rhythm stop. The sentence then continues on the line with an altered rhythm that will correct itself. The syntactical arrangement of the first line has a parallels with the last line: “Did you bolt so, before it caught, our fire?” The last line is not as herky jerky as the first, but it has three spread out caesuras and the long I in “fire” recalls/rhymes with the long I “suicide” from line 1, as well as “cried” in line 4, “wide” in 5, “side” in 8, and “desire” in 11. But because of the way the line is carved out, the similar arrangements of line 1 and 14 make their rhymes more enhanced or louder to my ear. Line 5 also has three caesuras, but it ends on a spondee.

The more I read, the more I hear a longer rhythm from these caesuras or the stress that comes after. It’s almost like there’s a time unit before a caesura is entered. For instance, it’s like’s he hearing a pause everything 2 or 3 seconds, and when that moment arrives, it’s time for a pause. The pause is sometimes skipped over but it picks up again. I’m not sure if that is the correct duration, but it feels/sounds like there’s a duration between the pauses and sometimes it forces itself in, such as the beginning of Sonnet 13: “I lift – lift you five States “away” your glass.” I hear a pause after the first “lift” (as you would expect), and after away. I’m not sure if I hear a pause because of the long distant rhythm or because of syntax and grammar. “I” is the subject, “lift” is the verb, and “your glass” is the object. It could be better understood as: “From five States away, I lift your glass,” or something similar. And in fact, if we look at the larger part of the poem, listen to what happens:

   I lift – lift you five States away your glass,
   Wide of this bar you never graced, where none
   Ever I know came, where what work is done
   Even by these men I know not, where a brass
   Police-car sign peers in, wet strange cars pass,
   Soiled hangs the rag of day out over this town,
   A juke-box brains air where I drink alone,
   The spruce barkeep sports a toupee alas –

   My glass I lift at six o’clock, my darling,
   As you plotted . . Chinese couples shift in bed,
   We shared today not even filthy weather,
   Beasts in the hills their tigerish love are snarling,
   Suddenly they clash, I blow my short ash red,
   Grey eyes light! and we have our drink together.

Notice where the em dashes lay. The sentence is really, “I lift my glass.” And then there’s the pause after “My glass.” It’s all tangled up. It could be: “I lift my glass at six o’clock.” But the “I lift at six o’clock” parallels “lift you five States away,” and both phrases are followed by a pause before the line’s last two syllables. This poem is about their places in environments and toasting. The first stanza is about what immediately surrounds him and the second stanza is what surrounds them both on large scale, what surrounds them in the world. Really, the poem’s main sentence is something like: “I lift your glass, I lift my glass, and we have our drink together.” The main parts of the poem are about him or them and the rest is what is going on around him or them. What an interesting strategy.

As I continue to read these poems aloud, I feel like Ezra Pound. There’s a vibration in my throat and a determinacy in the pace. I feel like I should have a baton to conduct the notes. The sonnets stop hard like a Yeats poem. Often a poem will have a crescendo or decrescendo, especially in the last few syllables, but these poems don’t. They just keep on in the same, flat, straight, vibrating tone. The sonnets end hard with certainty. They stop. I expect more for a moment. But it stops. My throats continues to vibrate. When it stops, so does the poem. There’s almost a sophisticated British affectation to the aloud reading, at least that’s how I’ve translated when I read them. Rather, the sonnets translated my readings. Something un-American is going in the tone to say the least.

The following two lines (lines 5-6 from sonnet 47) really sum up what Berryman is up to:

   Double I sing, I must, you utraquist,
   Crumpling a syntax at a sudden need

“Utraquist” (yoo truh kwist), a Latin word,  means “each of two” or “equivalent,” according to Dictionary.com. Music and syntax are each of two and equivalent, but sometimes the syntax has to be altered to suit the musical needs.

I’ve tried to capture his rhythm and crumpling syntax in a sonnet I wrote titled “Measure in Time 5.1”.

– Wednesday, January 23, 2013

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John Berryman – Homage to Mistress Bradstreet
Homage to Mistress Bradstreet [1953]

            A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The above quote is the Second Amendment to the Constitution. It’s filled with crumpling syntax. It’s so crumpled that no one can rightly say what that sentence is intending to say. What is modifying what? What is the subject or subjects of the sentence? The predicate is certain: “shall not be infringed,” but the rest is uncertain. This type of crumpling also occurs in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The Second Amendment’s confusion may have arisen because multiple people were involved in writing it, but for Berryman, only one person is writing and the crumpling syntax is a choice. But what is the effect of this?

In stanza 3, there’s an interesting effect in how it opens with two passive sentences and then two active sentences.

   thy eyes look to me mild. Out of maize & air
   your body’s made, and moves. I summon, see,
   from the centuries it.
   I think you won’t stay.

Here, things are coming to order. The fourth sentence is clear and direct. The first two sentences are clear but passive. The third sentence is active, but a bit difficult to follow. It’s like my ear wants to hear: “From the centuries, I summon and see it.” It wants balance with the anticipation of how sentence two appears to start with a prepositional phrase. By the end of sentence of two we realize “Out of maize & air” is the object of the sentence and not the prepositional phrase we expect.

Then there are poems like stanza 31:

   – It is Spring’s New England. Pussy willows wedge
   up in the wet. Milky crestings, fringed
   yellow, in heaven, eyed
   by the melting hand-in-hand or mere
   desirers single, heavy-footed, rapt,
   make surge poor human hearts. Venus is trapt –
   the hefty pike shifts, sheer –
   in Orion blazing. Warblings, odours, nudge to an edge –

I like the opening. It’s not the ordinary: “It is Spring in New England.” The apostrophe es makes Spring possessive and, to my mind, causal. I read it almost like this is the effects of Spring in or on New England. The next sentence is straightforward. The third, sentence, starts to read like the Second Amendment. By the time I get to “in heaven” or just after, I’m not sure what is a modifier and what is a predicate. I’m not sure what is happening. I move along through the images, but confusingly. I can hold together “fringed in yellow” and “in heaven” and “eyed” may be the predicate to “Milky crestings,” but are the “Milky crestings” in heaven or are they fringed yellow there. Are the Milky crestings like yellow-fringed, fallen angels or are they still in heaven? And what follows is even more confusing: “by the melting hand-in-hand.” What is melting? Actually, what are milky crestings? Can they melt?

I don’t think the crumpling syntax is sign of a weak writer trying to rhyme, either. Berryman was doing these things in earlier poems. The structure of the poems does recall Gerard Manley Hopkins “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” though the rhyme scheme is a bit different. There are even some places where he sounds Hopkinesque:

   [29]

   faintings black, rigour, chilling, brown
   parching, back, brain burning, the grey pocks
   itch, a manic stench
   of pustules snapping, pain floods the palm,
   sleepless, or a red shaft with a dreadful start
   rides at the chapel, like a slipping heart.
   My soul strains in one qualm
   ah but this is not to save me but to throw me down.

Listen to all those gerunds accumulating momentum and cadence and that are draped with the multiple harmonies from the many consonant sounds. Even the tone is Hopkinsesque. This could have been written by Hopkins. That’s one thing I’ve notice about Berryman so far, he likes to use consonants as a harmonic device more often than vowels. He likes hard consonants more than long vowels. He must have terrific headaches.

And then I wonder if Berryman is trying to mimic a Puritanical grammar, an Anne Bradstreet grammar. Is he trying to recreate the confusion of the times?

I’m going to leave this book alone for a while, and see what he does next. I assume he is building to something larger, something closer to the way he mind works or perceives or thinks or aches.

– Monday, January 28, 2013

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John Berryman – His Thoughts Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt

from His Thoughts Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt (1958)

            According to John Thompson in “Poetry Chronicle,” “His Thought Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt is a pamphlet containing twelve poems printed in funny type on hand made paper toweling” (108). However, the whole book His Thoughts Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt is not in this collection. “The Black Book” I, II, and III are excerpted. I assume editor Charles Thornbury has chosen a selection that is representative enough of this book. I wonder why he didn’t include the whole book? Anyway, let’s look and listen to what we Thornbury gave us.

The book opens with a six-line poem epigraph. Lines 2 and 3 rhyme and lines 4 and 6 rhyme. Already, Berryman is inverting expected word orders: “Careful Henry nothing said aloud,” where we would expect “Careful Henry said nothing aloud.” Berryman also uses variant spellings for word, such as “de” for “the,” “dropt” for “dropped” (which is something Robert Duncan does quite often because that “ed” does sound like a T (I wonder who came to it first?)), “buckt” for I don’t know what (maybe “bucked”?), “Parm me” for “Pardon me,” and “Orright” for, I assume, “Alright.” So I can see/hear that I’m going to be involved in some syntactical play, perhaps something that is mimic a colloquial speech pattern, which I assume from those variant spellings which may be suggestion regional diction. Thompson says:

These minor oddities are becoming to Berryman’s small, surface crankinesses, his ampersands and his spelling: & The Plane Buckt. Beneath these, there is a deep and stubborn individuality. Berryman’s style in most of these short poems is something like that of his Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, harsh, wry, broken, a speech that seems all fragments or symbolist dissociation, but in the end coheres strongly. (108)

(The poem that opens the book later becomes the second stanza to Dream Song 5.)

Having now read “His Thought Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt,” I have to disagree with Thompson. These poems are not like Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The opening poems’ forms recall Homage, but that’s about as close as it comes for me. In reading this, I feel the epigraph is misplaced. I don’t get the connection between it and the poems. And the language of the poems is fairly straightforward, especially for Berryman. I don’t hear or see much experimenting going on here. He actually seems less involved in these poems than the previous books. He doesn’t seem as focused or as concentrated. It’s almost like regular syntax and/or filling the rhyme is leading him instead of he leading them. What’s new is “his ampersand and his spelling,” as Thompson noted, but spelling variants are few.

– Wednesday, February 06, 2013

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Of Poetry and Power: Poems Occasioned by the Presidency and Death of John F. Kennedy
Formal Elegy [1964]

This is about a three-page poem of 10 sections. It appeared in the anthology Of Poetry and Power: Poems Occasioned by the Presidency and Death of John F. Kennedy. The tone of the first section is judgmental with hints of anger. There are some syntactical parallelisms: “A hurdle of water, and o these waters are cold”; “Murder on murder on murder, where I stagger, / whiten the good land where we have held out”; “& fear & crazed mercy”; and

   Ruby, with his mad claim
   he shot to spare the Lady’s testifying,
   probably is sincere.
   No doubt, in his still cell, his mind sits pure.

                                                                     [My bold]

The technique in the opening of section V is interesting:

   Some in their places are constrained to weep.
   Stunned, more, though.

The S sounds push this forward or hold these two lines together. The first line’s syntax is contorted a bit. It sounds like he’s bending the arrangement of words so he can get “weep” at the end so he can later rhyme it, which he does two lines later. It’s “in their places” where the awkwardness occurs. To what effect of even having those three words create? I think it adds to the rhythm. Those three words extend the line. If you read the line, “Some are constrained to sleep,” the line works fine, but the following line won’t. The following line (“Stunned, more, though”) needs the longer previous line in order to work. The second line can’t succeed with out the lengthier preceding line­. It’s like “in their places” locates the people who are weeping because of JFK’s assassination and it limits the number of weepers. Part of that limit comes as residue from “constrained.” It could almost be read, “A few people are only able to cry.” Because of that, “more” becomes successful. It plays off “some” and the limited few. The “Stunned, more, though” is a syntactical arrangement that mimics the stun. Weeping is long. It’s a process. Being stunned though is like fragmented or jarring or disconnected thoughts. “Stunned, more, though” reflects that with the comma and the three long, stressed monosyllabic words. There are more people who are stunned than weeping, and, in fact, the language maybe also be suggesting that those that are weeping are also stunned. I also wonder if “Stunned, more, though” is reflecting the gasping and the short phrases that accompany sobbing. On top of it all, it sounds right when it’s read. It’s not jarring, but it is new. It sounds like it just came out natural for Berryman. In fact, that line (“Stunned, more, though”) might be the most Berrymanesque line in this poem, or least as I am expecting it at this point.

– Wednesday, February 06, 2013

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John Berryman – Dream Songs

Dream Songs (1964, 1968)

John Berryman – 77 Dream Songs

            77 Dream Songs was released in 1965, and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest was released in 1968 and concludes The Dream Songs. There are 385 Dream Songs in total, so I plan to read about 77 per week. I’m not sure if this an aggressive pace with everything else I have to do, but I’ll see what happens. I’ll read:

  • Sections I-III (Dream Songs 1-77)
  • Sections IV-V (Dream Songs 78-145)
  • Dream Songs 146-223
  • Dream Songs 224-278 (146-278 make up section VI),
  • Section VII (Dream Songs 279-385)

Dream Song 1 starts with a solid trochaic rhythm with the extra stress (catalexis) at the end of the line, which is the same meter as the beginning of William Blake’s “The Tyger.” Knowing how Berryman works and plays so far, suggests that he is letting the reader know that this will be the back beat off which he play his rhythms because after that the rhythm varies. In stanza two there are four sentences. the first and last sentences have non-restrictive clauses. The first, “like a woolen lover,” is not set off by commas, while the second, “pried open for all the world to see,” is set off by commas. Both of those sentences also rhyme: “side,” “pried,” and “survived,” which suggests those sentences have some connection.

With the first non-restrictive clause, there is a natural caesura after “world” and preceding the non-restrictive clause, and there is an imposed one after the non-restrictive with the line break after “lover.” Berryman must have heard those pauses and omitted commas. He must have decided those notations (commas) weren’t needed for the poem’s musical score. I wonder if that is how/why he uses commas. For him, commas aren’t necessarily being used grammatically but as notations of where to pause or breathe. He often uses the stress mark over a syllable to indicate where he hears a stress where one might normally hear less than a stress, so perhaps he’s doing something similar with commas.

With the second non-restrictive clause, Berryman uses commas on either side. Here he must or else the reader would be confused as to how to read the sentence. This non-restrictive clause is also interesting because it pries open the sentence like Henry is being pried open. It pries apart Henry and his verb, “survived.”

In the second Dream Song, “Big Buttons, Cornets: the advance,” the speech becomes colloquial or imitating an uneducated speaker. The first sentence comes across in standard diction and grammar, but sentence two uses the incorrect verb tense: “Henry are baffled.” At this point, the reader must be thinking the speaker is uneducated or has split personalities, like Golem in Lord of the Rings. The next sentence has alternate spelling for “everybody” – “ev’ybody” – and the sentence starts in what I think is called a declarative, “Have ev’ybody head for Maine,” but on the line turn, it morphs into a question.

   [. . .] Have ev’body head for Maine,
   utility-man take a train.

Is “utility-man take a train?” a sentence fragment? I’m not sure how I’m supposed to read that. The rest of this poem continues to fall into a language of an uneducated, Southern speaker. Or maybe it’s just some bizarre dialect.

Here’s what Richard Ellman has to say about 77 Dream Songs:

The poem the, whatever its cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, and sometimes in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses himself as Mr. Bones and variants thereof. (911)

So the speaker does kind of have a split personality. As for Mr. Bones, in the same preface to the John Berryman section in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (second edition), Ellman notes, “Mr. Bones is name from the minstrel show circuit” (911).

So far I’ve notice that Berryman works with stressed syllables and he enjoys consonants more than long vowels. Then I read Dream Song 8, and I can hear that he also works on a quantitative level of rhythm, too, and in an interesting way. Here’s the first stanza (– = long, / = stressed, x=hard stress, u/=semi-stressed, u = short or unstressed, u– = middle length, and // = caesura):

Dream Song 8 scansion

What results is a tension in syllabic length on either side of the caesura. In line one, the first half is shorter in duration than the other side of the caesura. The length underscores the emotional tone of the content. The first side is ordinary weather talk and is mostly short. The long I in “fine” tries to bring in some emotion to the bland word. The second half of the line is more alive and interesting. It’s not ordinary and there are long syllables and four long vowels.

A similar thing occurs in line two, but not to the same extreme, but the spondee “backhand” lengthens those syllables and brings some action to that side of the line.

In line three, there are three long syllables corresponding with three stressed syllables. “[H]alved” is interesting word choice here, and I think it means they cut his hair. A pattern is also developing with “his,” which is short and unstressed in this first stanza. Line three also ends the sentence dramatically with long syllables, the halving, and the oddly colored hair. The V and its sound in “halved” also harmonizes with the V in line four’s “loves” and line five’s “voices.”

In line four, there are two caesuras. In the fist third, there are longer syllables than the other two thirds. The long syllables dramatize the action and “his loves.” The second third is all short syllables and undermines “his loves.” As I read it, “his interests” is more of a non-restrictive clause adding definition to “his loves.” So the line moves from excitement in action to boredom and more abstractions.

The point of this scansion is to point out the rolling motion Berryman creates which emphasizes the schizophrenic nature of the speaker. I picture the speaker sitting in bed and maybe tied up, and he’s swaying back and forth and talking to himself. On the lean forwards are the short-syllable measures, and the on the sway backs are the long-syllable measures. And in case we don’t hear it, Berryman gives a clue after the short (both line length and syllable length) line 15, when he says in line 16, “They flung long silent speeches. (Off the hook!)” Surely this character is in a mental-care hospital of sorts, but the care is more of a torture.

This motion then gets played again in Dream Song 14, “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” This first half of line one, “Life, friends, is boring,” has three long syllable, and two of those are enhanced by the commas. The first half of the line is slow like ennui and has a low pitch. It’s a deep sound. The second half of the line is much quicker, despite it having more long vowel sounds than the first half. The pitch of the second half of the line is higher. The line slows and falls, then speeds up and rises. The next line is dominated with long syllables amid the dramatic if not clichéd imagery: “After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns.” The third line (“we ourselves flash and yearn”) has two halves to my ear, which puts a slight caesura after “ourselves.” The first half is quick and the second half is long. The juxtaposition of lengths dramatizes the ironic juxtaposition of “we ourselves” with “flash and yearn.” The irony is made more apparent because the mother says “Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no // Inner Resources.” It’s the admitting that you are bored that is indicative of lacking “Inner Resources,” whereas boredom more likely might come from lacking “Inner Resources.” Or maybe the boredom comes from having “Inner Resources” and with no place to put them or to use them. The speaker can’t even use his inner resources with people or literature or even great literature. He lacks enthusiasm that a mere dog has.

It should also be noted that the poem’s first three sentences are written in standard grammatical English. The first sentence is brief and definitive. The second sentence is a long compound sentence, but it doesn’t have any of the Berryman syntactical variations. The third sentence, too, lacks Berryman’s “crumpling syntax.” Then sentence four arrives, “Peoples bore me.” There’s a grammar slip, a dialect shift, an identity slip. It’s no longer “friends,” which suggests a close relationship (though in its irony it suggests distance) but it’s “Peoples,” and a distant relationship – a distant as far as he from the dog, and emphasizing how is absent from life.

I’m reading quite a number of these poems aloud. Aloud I read, and when I read, a rhythm I hear infectious to me. Those last sentences are play at mimicry. However, I have been reading aloud. When I do, I fall into his voice. I start with my voice and it takes a few lines, but then I fall into his voice, which is deeper than mine and which vibrates a lot in the throat. Berryman’s poems emanate from the Adam’s Apple. Ripples of vibrating consonants fill the throat and make it hum like some Hindu mantra repeated over and over without change in inflection. A drone. It’s like repeating the V in “have” or “over” over and over. The lips get their vibrations, too. I mentioned this earlier in Sonnets to Chris, and I forgot I mentioned it, but it’s still there, especially at a line’s end where it vibrates and extra beat or so. A good place to hear this is in Dream Song 66, among others. By analogy, you could think of the repetitious sounds in the movie Inception, and you’d have an idea of what I mean.

Dream Song 75 seems like reflection on the books, or book, he wrote. Henry wrote a book with the possibility of revealing himself and exposing himself. But “No harm resulted from this.” The great luminaries in writing (“Neither the menstruating     stars (nor man) was moved”) were not impressed, but the critics (“Bare dogs drew closed for a second look”) gave it some attention. Here, Berryman’s irony continues as “friendly operations” most likely means the dogs/critics pissed and shat on his writings. Nonetheless, it was receiving some attention so something good must be happening, else why would one respond to it. Without a response by the critics, surely means the book sucks. But I wonder if any of that matters. The lines “thing made by savage & thoughtful / surviving Henry / began to strike the passers from despair” implies that if Henry writes out his despair, he’ll impact his readers out of their despair. Exhilaration follows as he stands on the shoulders of his predecessors.

I just mentioned Inception, a movie about invading another person’s dreams and understanding the logic of the dreamer’s dreams. Once understood, the person’s dreams can be influenced to affect the dreamer in the dreaming and, most importantly, in the waking state. Berryman wrote The Dream Songs with similar understanding, I assume, else why call them dreams? The poems are hard to follow. They are difficult to make conscious sense of, but a sense is felt, at least a sense of movement. The poems are definitely not haphazardly put together, and neither is a dream. I think the jerkiness of the poems, the “crumpling syntax,” is a the distortion a dream can take. Dreams have their own language and syntax and so do these poems. Sometimes a poem is more clear and readily understood by the conscious mind than another poem, but the accumulation of poems, the overwhelmingness of them all leads to a larger understanding – Henry is in crazy despair with occasional bouts of joy, a “bark rejoiced.”

– Monday, February 11, 2013

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John Berryman – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

(Dream Songs 78-145)

The poems in The Dream Songs have a structure. There tends to be three six-lined stanzas. The stanza’s rhythmic structure often has five or four beats in lines 1, 2, 4, and 5, and lines 3 and 6 tend to have a three-beat measure. In addition to the rhythmical structure, there’s a movement structure, at times. The first stanza at times describes a personal or a Henry experience. The second stanza often goes beyond the personal or Henry and occasionally it is done metaphorically or with a metaphor or analogy or comparison of sorts. And the third stanza realizes the other world actually does exist even though the realization comes about in a disappointing manner. It’s as if the realization comes against the personal will or Henry’s will because neither want that other, non-personal world to exist. The realization only enhances his pain as he realizes his pain is more personal and less universal than he expects/wants/hopes/assumes. I plan to read the upcoming Dream Songs with that in mind as to prove or disprove this hypothesis.

Dream Song 79, “Op. post. no. 2,” provides a good example.

   Whence flew the litter whereon he was laid?
   Of what heroic stuff was warlock Henry made?
   and questions of that sort
   perplexed the bulging cosmos, O in short
   was sandalwood in good supply when he
   flared out of history

   & the obituary in The New York Times
   into the world of generosity
   creating the air where are
   & can be, only, heroes? Statues & rhymes
   signal his fiery Passage, a mountainous sea,
   the occlusion of a star:

   anything afterward, of high, lament,
   let too his giant faults appear, as sent
   together with his virtues down
   and let this day be his, throughout the town,
   region & cosmos, lest he freeze our blood
   with terrible returns.

The poem’s first stanza is involved with a personal Henry experience. It’s Henry-centric. In the second stanza, it leaps to an outside world via “The New York Times,” which ends the line with three stresses, and the metaphor(s) arises in the last three lines. In the third stanza, through the “high lament” is the disappointing realization of this outer world, and it’s moreso disappointing because “his giant faults appear.” His despair is unto himself and is not universal even though the final lines imply he wants it to go beyond himself:

   and let this day be his, throughout the town,
   region & cosmos, lest he freeze our blood
   with terrible returns.

Sometimes the order gets reversed, such as Dream Song 88, “Op. posth. no. 11”:

   In slack times visit I the violent dead
   and pick their awful brains. Most seem to feel
   nothing is secret more
   to my disdain I find, when we who fled
   cherish the knowings of both worlds, conceal
   more, beat on the floor,

   where Bhain is stagnant, dear of Henry’s friends,
   yellow with cancer, paper-thin, & bent
   even in hospital bed
   racked with high hope, on whom death lay hands
   in weeks, or Yeats in the London spring half-spent,
   only the grand gift in his head

   going for him, a seated ruin of a man
   courteous to a junior, like one of the boarders,
   or Dylan, with more to say
   now there’s no hurry, and we’re all a clan.
   You’d think off here one would be free from orders.
   I didn’t hear a single       word. I obeyed.

In this poem two outer worlds (the dead and “Most”) interact with his world, and he wants neither to exist. In fact, in this instance, both don’t want the third outer world of the dead to exist. He actually aligns himself with those others in “we.” The second world then recalls others, such as Bhain and Yeats, who is the metaphorical vehicle. And in the last stanza, especially, the last line, the poem turns to the personal/Henry experience: “I didn’t hear a single    word. I obeyed.”

It’s interesting to note that this string of poems is titled “Op. posth. no. #,” which is short for “Opus Posthumous Number #,” which implies a body of work after the author’s demise. Work left over that the author/musician didn’t complete/publish in his lifetime. Should the reader assume the poems are incomplete?

This latter installment of Dream Songs is much easier to follow. The syntax is much more normalized. I’m starting to miss the irregularities and inventions. I can often hear him trying to invent, but it’s only through the content which is trying to overcome linguistic invention. The invention of content is successful and to be applauded, but based on what preceded, despair is soon to follow. Dream Song 103 is a terrific poem, but the syntax is more regular:

   I consider a song will be a humming-bird
   swift, down-light, missile-metal-hard, & strange
   as the world of anti-matter
   where they are wondering: does time run backward –
   which the poet thought was true; Scarlatti-supple;
   but can Henry write it?

   Wreckt, in deep danger, he shook once his head,
   returning to meditation. And word had sped
   all from the farthest West
   that Henry was desired: can he get free
   of the hanging menace, & this all, and go?
   He doesn’t think so.

   Therefore he stakes and he will sing no more,
   much less a song as fast as said, as light,
   so deep, so flexing. He broods.
   He may, rehearsing, here of his bad year
   at the very end, in squalor, ill, outside.
   – Happy New Year, Mr Bones.

The second line is an example of content invention overcoming syntactical play, as is much of the poem.

– Tuesday, February 12, 2013

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John Berryman – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

(Dream Songs 146-223)

The language, syntax, and music are becoming very commonplace. For the most part, I hear him writing to fit a rhyme and to please his ear, or a meter he hears. There’s not much play musically, though. The rhythm and rhyme are generally predictable, unlike in his previous books. The syntax is very ordinary as is the language. This can be expected, I assume. How many poets can write in the same form for 385 poems without losing some imagination? I think even Berryman picks up on this. For instance, in Dream Song 175, he writes: “Blank prose took hold of Henry’s soul / considering all the deaths & considering. There is a little life upstairs.” The deaths he refers to are a number of poets who recently died – “First he [god] seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now Delmore. / In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath” (Dream Song 153). Ted I think is Theodore Roethke, I don’t know who Richard is, Randall is Randall Jarrell, and Delmore is Delmore Schwartz, who many of these early poems in section VI are about. Back to Dream Song 175. There are two things to notice in those quoted lines. One, the use of long vowels. Berryman, so far, has been a consonant man. His daring and crumpling come from his consonants, especially his use of plosive consonants which mirror his gashing comma use. Pound tells of to “pay attention to the tone leading of vowels.” Here, I think it’s especially important. Here I think Berryman is relying on the long vowels to create an emotional atmosphere, whereas before he would have done that through rhythm and syntactic variation. No matter the reason, he’s relying on vowels instead of consonants. The second thing to notice is the period at the end of the second quoted line, which is line 5 in the poem. Here it does try to evoke some syntactic creativity by ending on “considering” with the reader’s ear expecting an object for the verb, but one does not come. However, an earlier Berryman would have used the line break to his advantage. He most likely would have a put a comma there to act as a pivot to carry “considering” over to the next line that it could exist without an object on the line break and then pick up one on the line turn. He could have created two effects from the price of one line break. Or maybe he wouldn’t have even used a comma, but the daring here is less effective than a younger Berryman.

Berryman also realizes his lack of invention a few poems earlier in Dream Song 166, which opens: “I have strained everything except my ears, / he marveled to himself: and they’re too dull.” Then he concludes the poem “Only his ears sat with his theme / in the splices of his pride.” To a degree, this acknowledges what was just noted above: he’s writing by ear and sound. I do read “splices of his pride” as a play on words about his comma splices and other original uses of the comma, and the music has replaced that. If only the music were more interesting. It sounds too much a metronome, though not a metrical metronome, but a Berryman metronome, which was gone from wild to tame.

This is true up to Dream Song 175. Maybe those deaths really did affect him because by Dream Song 177, man, he’s blazing and continues to do so for the most part.

In Dream Song 194, I noticed something about his use of accent marks. Here is the first stanza:

   If all must hurt at once, let yet more hurt now,
   so I’ll be ready, Dr. God. Púsh on me.
   Give it to Henry harder.
   There lives content: one area, taking a bow,
   unbothered, whére I can’t remember, lovely,
   somewhere down there,

Berryman added accent marks over “Push” and “where.” He wanted them stressed, which I’ve noticed before, and which he probably borrowed from Hopkins. But if you read the lines without the accent marks, those words are already stressed. One could make a debate for “where” not being stressed, but only if the argument included over stressing the following “I.” Maybe, that’s Berryman letting us know to not read it like as I guess one could. Nonetheless, what I wanted to note and point out were the effects. When you draw attention to a stress like, whether Berryman wants to stress what is normally unstressed, to stress it even more, or to ensure the reader reads –the line correctly, one thing happens – there’s a pause. It’s so unnatural to pronounce what should be unstressed as stressed syllable or to add extra stress that the body, voice, mind has to stop. Maybe the stop occurs to readjust, but there’s a pause, a caesura, an unnatural caesura. The rhythm stops. In the case of “Push,” maybe he wants the reader to actually push when they read “Push,” and then in the pause the reader collects him/herself and pushes on to “on me.” Maybe Berryman is trying to orchestrate content and sound here. Or maybe he just likes creating unnatural pauses. Maybe he’s trying to crumple music like he crumples syntax. Hopkins, if I remember correctly, put accents over words that would be accented anyway. Maybe I’m on to something here. Maybe not. But there is a pause.

– Wednesday, February 20, 2013

           

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John Berryman – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

(Dream Songs 224-278)

For these following Dream Songs, I will look at the use of plosive consonants. Plosive consonants are consonants explode from the mouth after a blockage of air by the tongue against the teeth (dental or alveolar plosives), tongue against the soft part of the palate or against the back roof of the mouth (velar plosives), or by the lips (bilabial plosives). Dental plosives arrive with D and T, such as “dawn” and “time”; velar plosives arrive with G and K, such as “gaggle” and “ache”; and bilabial plosives arrive with B and P, such as “bed” and “pillow.” I know this is simplified, but it’s a starting point for what I want to listen to.

Dream Song 224 provides a good demonstration of this, especially in stanza 2:

   Dry, ripe with pain, busy with loss, let’s guess
   Gone. Gone them wine-meetings, gone green grasses
   of the picnics of rising youth.
   Gone all, slowly. Stately, not as the tongue
   worries the loose tooth, wits as strong as young,
   only the albino body failing.

As you can hear and feel in your mouth, there are an abundance of plosives in this stanza. In fact in stands in contrast to stanza one, which is dominated by non-plosive consonants at the beginning of words, such as approximants (“Lonely,” “leaned,” “living,” “friend,” “friend”), fricatives (“his,” “his,” “it’s,” “sang,” “thoughts,” “snow,” “sound,” “them,” and “though”), voiceless fricatives in “Henry” and “hymn.” There are some plosives at the beginning of words, such as “great,” “Abbey,” “Pound,” and “bowed,” but most plosive sounds arrive at the end of words, such as “friend,” “leaned,” “burning,” “hymned,” “living,” “rang,” “sound,” “Pound,” “bowed,” “hard,” “old,” “sang,” and “word.”

Here’s the first stanza:

   Lonely in his great age, Henry’s old friend
   leaned on his burning cane while hís old friend
   was hymned out of living.
   The Abbey rang with sound. Pound white as snow
   bowed to them with his thoughts – it’s hard to know them though
   for the old man sang no word

The more I listen to this poem the more complicated it becomes. There are a lot of interesting sounds. The first line has harmonies with L, long A, long O, G, en, and long E sounds. There are two spondees, which both come before a pause. The spondee pattern is repeated in the next line, too, except one spondee bridges a pause/caesura: “cane while.” In lines 3-5,the ow sound is harmonized four times (“out,” “sound,” “Pound,” and “bowed”), but the persistence of the O sounds continues in “snow,” “to,” “thoughts,” “to,” “know,” “though,” “old,” and “no.” Those are a variety of O sounds but they all arise from the O. This stanza relies on these longer vowels and shorter consonant sounds.

The second stanza relies on shorter vowels and longer consonant sounds. By longer consonant sounds is meant plosive sounds. Plosives, to my ear, lengthen a syllable. These two stanza work in opposite directions to the same end. The first stanza is slowed by the spondees, longer vowels, and plosives at the ends of words, and the last line of the stanza is brought to a crawl with the five stressed words, “old man sang no word.” The second stanza is slowed by the spondees, the plosives at the beginning of words, and the increased use of punctuation with commas and periods. There’s even a hint that Berryman is aware of the plosiveness of this stanza when he writes, “not as the tongue / worries the loose tooth.”

The title to this poem is “Eighty.” It’s one of the few Dream Songs with a title. I’m reading this poem now as a poem about Ezra Pound who would have been 80 around the time of this poem, and at this time rarely said a word; hence, “for the old man sang no word.” Maybe  Berryman is mimicking Pound’s growth of sounds from a younger Pound working with vowels to an older Pound working off consonants and spondees. The first stanza is filled with tone leading vowels, and the second is filled with alliterative plosives.

The fricatives then return alliteratively in the final stanza with “Where,” “what,” “white,” “while,” and “white,” here,” and “hue.” There are also a number of es sounds. It’s like this stanza is mellowing out in its old age. It’s almost like the last stanza is wheezing or whimpering in its old age.

Stanza one is passionate with its long vowels, the second stanza is more cerebral with consonant, and the last stanza is filled with wheezing old age.

As I proceed into Dream Songs, I’m not finding what I expected, which was a heavy reliance on plosives. What I am hearing, though, is a heavy use of consonants, in general, at least in relation to long vowels.  I’m also notice the intricate uses of consonant harmonies.

–        Wednesday, February 27, 2013

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John Berryman – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

(Dream Songs 279-285)

            I’m reading Berryman with a very stuffed up nose, which is like trying to drink wine with a very stuffed up nose – the experience is okay, but it’s not complete. I can’t hear the sounds correctly, and so the poems lose some energy and meaning.

The beginning of Dream Song 314 appears to be in passive in voice, at least lines 2-4:

   Penniless, ill, abroad, Henry lay skew
   to Henry’s American fate, which was to be well,
   have money in the bank
   & be at home.

However, the lines are not passive, but why not? Wouldn’t the sentiment be more effective, or is the intent to have “American fate” play an active role in Henry’s life? I think that is the intention. The opening could easily be: “Henry being penniless, ill, and abroad, Henry lay skew.” But if that is case Henry is an active participant in being penniless, ill, and abroad. He’s also active in changing the course of plans (“lay skew”). The American fate is acting on Henry, but not syntactically. Henry still does the acting. The choices he makes or the desires he wants are not of his choice, but the syntax makes it seems as if he deliberately has the desires for health, wealth, and being at home.

To add to the complexity, the rhyming pattern is also playing a role in how the poem is shaped, which is being shaped against its will. The poem opens “Penniless, ill, abroad,” but the definition of “American fate” is “to be well, / have money in the bank, / & be at home.” The order of conditions changes from money, health, and location to health, money, and location. The second arrangement of condition has been altered to meet the rhyme scheme. This switch must be deliberate and for cause. Or the opening condition could be rearranged: “Ill, penniless, abroad,” but then there’s three unstresses in a row, which is not a condition that is desired by a poet who earlier wrote in Dream Song 297, “I perfect my metres / until no mosquito can get through.” (And if no mosquito can get through, not only is the meter tight, but no blood will be lost, either.) So the line could be rearranged: “Abroad, penniless, ill,” which is must closer to the current situation, and it’s not an unfamiliar meter to these Dream Songs.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of forced deliberateness going on in these lines in Dream Song 314, and maybe that’s the point. Henry is acting a certain way because he has no money, is sick, and is far from home, and he’s also acting a certain way because of “American fate.” All of that mirrors how the poet ordered the Henry’s conditions of state, which was organized not by poet, but by the meter and rhyme he heard. I think often is the case when Berryman writes to the rhyme in compromise to a tighter image or focus, which is fine, I suppose. “Never sacrifice sound for sense” says Ezra Pound, and if a good effect is had in sound without losing too much sense, then Berryman has succeeded, but has the poem? Maybe “his mind was not in it. His mind was elsewhere / in an area where the soul not talks but sings” (Dream Song 352). Maybe the last lines of Dream Song 314 have the answer: “Were there any other gods he could defy, / he wondered, or re-arrange?” Maybe this is why he re-arranges at the beginning while talking about fate.

Maybe the issue is even bigger than that. Maybe the issue is on another level about wishing the fate of death would act on him so he didn’t have keep pushing on. I say this because of what he says in two poems. In Dream Song 324 “An Elegy for W.C.W, the lovely man,” Berryman writes, “if envy was a Henry trademark, he would envy you, / especially the being through.” Berryman is saying he wants to be dead like Williams. In the next stanza, however, he writes, “Too many journeys lie for him ahead, / too many galleys & page proofs to be read.” Here he gives he is reason to live, but he does it in a passive voice. I hear those lines as if Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh were reading them. There’s so much despair in those lines. Hope is undermined by the passive voice. But when it comes to the wants of dying, he says in the active voice, “he would like to lie down / in your sweet silence,” where “your” is Williams. These are the types of effects I was thinking about with American fate.

The other poem is Dream Song 331 in its last stanza:

   Yeats listened once, he found it did him good,
   he died in full stride, a good way to go,
   making them wonder what’s missing,
   a strangeness in the final notes, never to be resolved

I think this is echoing Berryman’s desire to die before all his creativity and talent fade, as often happens in later years with writers and artists. He wants to go out while people still think he’s great, so they can wonder forever what other great poems he would have written or so, as he says in line 3, so “nobody will be ashamed of me.” He’s very concerned about what people think of him and his poems. So I wonder also if he is tiring of writing poems, or trying to get the music to work out, as is hinted at in “a strangeness in the final notes, never to be resolved.” Is Berryman tired of getting all his poems resolved, especially the music of them? Is he tired of trying to satisfy and audience and critics? Is his ego his downfall? Is Henry his ego? That can’t be as Helen Vendler points out:

Henry, the Id, has a great deal to say: he is petulant, complaining, greedy, lustful, and polymorphously perverse; he is also capable of childlike joy and disintegrative rage. Henry’s life has been blasted, as he tells us, by the suicide of his father when he was a boy; he is driven by a random avidity, often sexual, which he indulges shamelessly until the unnamed Conscience reproaches him.

Maybe he’s just tired of writing in general and looking to resolve poems and their musics. Maybe he thinks, “The only happy people in the world / are those who do not have    to write long poems” (Dream Song 354). Whatever it is, these Dreams Songs in the last section are certainly taking a turn toward the desperate and suicidal.

– Wednesday, March 13, 2013

 

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John Berryman – Love & Fame

Love & Fame [1971]

I expect something new to happen with this book. While much of The Dream Songs was good and some seem half-assed, there wasn’t much innovation that I noticed. Berryman is still only doing much of what he was doing in The Dispossessed and Sonnets to Chris, which is still just “crumpling syntax” and in now obvious ways while his metric is becoming flabby, which is to say without restraint. The music is just him pushing forward in authority and syntax and not in sound and rhythm.

This request of change is very selfish of me. It’s hard for any writer to change or to discover something new twice or thrice, but I hope. Plus, I’ve concerns after reading what Hayden Carruth said “Love, Art, and Money,” a review of Love & Fame. The review opens: “John Berryman’s new book of poems is in some respects, as the advance rumors have warned us, a departure from earlier work; but not after all, as we come to look at it, much of a departure. […] these are changes in degree only.” (437). Carruth concludes that Berryman’s poems are still just “language twisted and posed” (438), which I agree with.

One of the reasons I chose to read Berryman was to learn to write about the personal. What I’m learning in this book, which often makes me think of Allen Ginsberg in his honesties, is that Berryman, like Ginsberg, is unconcerned. He’s let down his pride, but unlike Ginsberg, his kept up his fists. Berryman is going to tell you his truth, but he’s not going to let anyone fuck with it. He’s wearied of the critics, though I think he still seeks their approval. Maybe what I really want to say is best seen/heard in “Images of Elspeth”:

In this poem about a lost love and muse, he is sentimental but tough or grounded in reality.

   O when I grunted, over lines and her,
   my Muse a nymphet & my girl with men
   older, of money, continually,
   lawyers & so, myself a flat-broke Junior.

That’s the opening stanza. The first line creates the parallel between writing and muse. The implication here is that he is having sex with a poem he writes (“lines”) in a similar fashion with a woman/muse (“her”). The image also shows he is domineering. He is “over” the poem like he would be on top of woman during sex. He’s in the dominant position. One could even read that he grunts when alone as “over lines and her” are set off by commas and because of what happens in the next three lines.

First, we realize the “Muse” is a nymph who is not loyal to Berryman. (One might want to say “not loyal to the speaker” but the details in these poems are so intimate and protective (he uses initials instead of names, for instance), the speaker and Berryman are the same. Plus, as Carruth notes, “he [Berryman] is writing with candor about his own explicit autobiography; he is writing in simpler, more accessible language than that of earlier poems.” (437).) The muse is nymph. She’s there to get him going sexually and poetically. He’s not good enough for her anyway, since she can be better off with men with money. He is distanced from her.

Second, we realize this is an incomplete sentence. The subordinate clause “when I grunted,” is not completed. The subject of the sentence is “I” and, maybe, the object of the sentence is “myself” or “flat-broke Junior,” which are one in the same, but where’s the predicate pulling them together. There’s only one verb in this whole sentence/stanza – “grunted,” but it’s in the subordinate clause.  He is distant from action or completion.

He is alone with her memories. Even in the next stanza when he was first with her, she wouldn’t let him see the naked pictures he took of her:

   But the one who made me wild
   was who she let take naked photographs
   never she showed me but she was proud of.
   Unnerving: dire.

He’s even distanced from her when he’s with her. And when he’s real distant , when he’s with other loves, she’s still in there confusing him:

   My love confused confused with after loves
   not over time did I outgrow.
   Solemn, alone Muse grew taller.
   Rejection slips developed signatures,

(I want to read the second “confused” as “confussed.” I want the oo sound to become an uh sound.) In her absence, she becomes an even greater influence – she “grew taller.” She grew like she was becoming a good or a grand statue worthy to be praised. And the next line, “Rejection slips developed signatures.” That’s a terrific line. It suggests a few things. First, it suggests he is sending out poems to journals. It then suggests that his poems were receiving the rejection form letter. They were no good. It also underscores that he is nobody and is alone. If the rejection can’t address the author, then the author is anonymous. These lines also show that as she grew taller, his poetry got better. How do we know? Because even though he was still getting rejected, he wasn’t receiving rejection form letters. Someone signed the letter. The rejection has become more intimate. When that happens, the writer feels like he/she has been read. Berryman must be gaining some confidence and not feeling so alone. He might be feeling like he is somebody. And the next two lines tell us this:

   many thought Berryman was under weigh,
   he wasn’t sure himself.

(Here “under weigh” means “getting going.” I point that out in case some, like me, thought it was “under way.”)

Eventually, his muse gets married and he almost does. And in the almost marrying a new muse, he becomes domestic and develops “a sense of humor” which is “fatal to bardic pretension.” By the end he still wants his original muse. In the end of this poem that so far has been 7 four-line stanzas, there is one isolated line: “wishing I could lay my hands somewhere on those snapshots.”

Berryman has exposed an inner sentimentality while acknowledging the harsh realities. He lowered his pride to show his vulnerability. He lets the world and possible future lovers/wives know that they will be second to Elspeth: Muse and His Poetry. He’s saying, “I’m sentimental, but don’t fuck with it because that’s who I am. If you want to love me, you’ll have to contend.” (No wonder his wife “feels ‘inadequate’” (“Of Suicide”).)

I may have imposed on this poem, but I think it’s okay. I think the poem invites that. As Carruth says:

Some readers may say that these matters of substance have no ultimate importance aesthetically and should not concern the critic, whose job is to examine, not the experience but how the experience is turned into poetry. I do not agree. A critic has moral as well as aesthetic obligations, and certainly a journalist-reviewer, as distinct from a critic has a duty, to report the substance of books which he has seen before they are available to the public. (437)

In addition, I think many of us, especially us poets, have an Elspeth. And in learning to write personal poems, I need to negotiate my experiences into his poems to see how my possible personal poems might appear. I’ve learned I need to let down my ego to reveal inner truths that might be unsettling once out in the world, but at the same I’ve also got to let the reader know to not fuck with those personal issues and just accept them, which is probably just good advice in the everyday world, too.

At the same time though, maybe he needs some more pride to gauge what is interesting in his life. Despite him saying “I am not writing an autobiography-in-verse” (“Message”), it certainly seems that way. Many of these poems have uninteresting content, such as concerns about grades he got in school. Uninteresting content can be fine, maybe, but only if it finds something out about the self or is written well. Many of these poems just seem written. I had this feeling in Dream Songs, too. I can’t recall if I mentioned it, but a lot of the middle Dream Songs seemed like they were being written because he had a contract to fulfill. There are so many uninteresting rhymes and even the crumpling syntax can’t save them.

Fame has certainly affected his poetry which has affected Love & Fame, and I think he realizes it to at the end of “Monkhood”:

   Will I ever write properly, with passion & exactness,
   of the damned strange demeanours of my flagrant heart?
   & be anyone anywhere undertaken?
   One more unanswerable question.

– Sunday, March 24, 2013

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John Berryman – Delusions etc of John Berryman

Delusions etc of John Berryman [1972]

I’m only seven pages in and I don’t recognize Berryman’s style in here. Maybe it’s my two week absence from reading him, but he’s new. He’s up to something new, even occasionally borrowing old and/or old religious wording, such as “Thou hard” (“Matins”), “Behold, thou art taken in thy mischief” (“Matins”), “Thanks be to God” (“Prime”), “Now hear this programme for    my remnant of today” (“Sext”), etc. But in “Nones” (the seventh poem) he starts to sound like Jim Morrison in “The End” or “Spanish Caravan”: “you are afraid are my brothers – veterans of fear – / pray with me now in the hour of the living”; “I was alone with You again: ‘the iron did swim.’ / It has been proved to me again & again”; “I am olding & ignorant, and the work is great, / daylight is long, will ever I be done”; “Flimsy between cloth, what may I attain, / who slither in my garments there’s not enough me”; etc. Provocative statements are made and they sound cool, but connecting them is the issue. There’s an internal associative leaping going on within the mind as if a secret message is underneath the words for him and him alone or his god. The images and lines draw me in, but I don’t know what I’m drawn into. When I read them aloud as if singing a Jim Morrison song, I’m in. my body gets it. When I step back to read to see where my body’s been, then I’m not quite sure. It’s like a religious experience. Is Berryman trying to find god?

The title to the opening poems of this collection are: “Lauds,” “Matins,” “Prime,” “Interstitial Office” (where “office” means “canonical hour”), “Terce,” “Sext,” “Nones,” “Vespers,” and “Compline.” Where do these names come from? According to Wikipedia: “Already well-established by the ninth century in the West, these canonical offices consisted of eight daily prayer events: Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, and the Night Office.” And according to New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia: “The name Prime (prima hora) belongs with those of Terce, Sext, None, to the short offices recited at the different hours of the day, called by these names among the Romans, that is, prima towards 6 a.m.; tertia, towards 9 a.m.; sexta, towards noon; nona towards 3 p.m. At first Prime was termed matitutina (hora), morning hour; later, in order to distinguish it from the nocturnal hours of Matins and Lauds, and to include it among hours of the day, it was called prima. The name is first met with in the Rule of St. Benedict. In the Bangor Antiphonary it is called secunda.”

So it seems that Berryman is turning to religion, which explains his turn in style, tone, and language. A language that now moves more conventionally.

This book, I learned, was written before his suicide, but released after.

In the next section, Berryman appears more Berrymanesque, or at least less religious. But he does evoke the old with “Washington in Love” and “Beethoven Triumphant,” and in “Your Birthday in Wisconsin You Are 140” and “In Memoriam (1914-1953)” he evokes a neo-Sapphic stanza, or at least poems that try to be. I call them neo-Sapphic because the shape is the same, but there’s an extra line. I think he wanted to do so, too, as the first two lines of “Your Birthday in Wisconsin You Are 140” begin with hendecasyllabic lines.

Your Birthday in Wisconsin You Are 140 scansion

(where x=extra stressed and u/=semi-stressed) and a Sapphic meter for a hendecasyllabic line in qualitative metrics is:

   / u /   *   / u u /   u / /

(where * is a free syllable)

He’s trying here, but he’s tired and overwhelmed. He’s losing his ear and discipline, as noted in Love & Fame. In “In Memoriam (1914-1953),” he Americanizes the Sapphic meter into lines of trochees and ending on a stress and maintains the traditional Sapphic stanza shape of four lines. He builds the poem on falling meters but catches a rise at the end of the line and reinforces the rise on the line turn, and this is true for the first two stanzas, then the variations begin. He establishes his meter for us, sets the background rhythm, and then improvises off of it after he collapses. In section two of the poem the variations become more apparent, but in section three he tries to recover the original falling meter of the first two stanzas, and eventually he does (almost) in the penultimate stanza, where the poem turns into a song.

Perhaps the delusion in this book is that he does not know how to complete what he starts. And that could be true of his poetry as a whole. Berryman, through his career, gives us syntactical rearrangements, a sharp ear early on but flat in later years, he introduces how a poet can introspect while using a persona to camouflage his ego. He shows how one can write about the self, which he does. But in Delusions etc of John Berryman, he can’t concentrate or stay focused. He drifts in form, structure, music, image movement, but in all of that drifting, he is most true to himself, I think. He’s guard seems down. It seems less like he is trying to impress an audience, critic, or benefactor. He’s writing for himself. The drifting is him drifting from an impression of himself to himself.

   “The bamboo of the Ten Halls,” went on Ch’en
   “of my time, are excellently made.
   I cannot find so well
   ensorcelled those of later of former time.
   Let us apply the highest praise, pure wind,
   to those surpassing masters; –
   having done things, a thing, along that line myself.”

                                                                           (“Scholars at the Orchid Pavilion” 4)

– Sunday, April 7, 2013

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Works Cited

Berryman, John. The Collected Poems: 1937-1971. Ed. Charles Thornbury. New York: Noonday Press, 1991. Print.

—. The Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988. Print.

Cabrol, Fernand. “Prime.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. New Advent. Kevin Knight. 7 Apr. 2013. Web. 7 Apr. 2013. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12424a.htm>.

“Canonical hours.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 7 Apr. 2013.

Carruth, Hayden. “Love, Art, & Money.” The Nation 211.14 (1970) 437-38. Ebscohost. Web. PDF. 24 Mar. 2013. <http://web.ebscohost.com>.

Ellman, Richard. The Norton Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Second Edition). New York: Norton, 1988. 911. Print.

Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” Selected Writings. New York: New Directions, 1966. 15-30. Print.

Thompson, John. “A Poetry Chronicle.” Poetry (Vol. 95, No. 2.) November 1959. Pages 107-116. PDF. 06 Feb 2013.

“Utraquist.” Origin. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com. 2013. Web. 23 Jan. 2013.

Vendler, Helen. “from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition.” Modern American Poetry: On The Dream Songs. n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2013. <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/berryman/dreamsongs.htm>.

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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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