Posts Tagged ‘Surreal

19
Mar
17

On Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet

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

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Knowing Knott: Essays on an American PoetMy first encounter with Bill Knott was reading a review copy of The Unsubscriber (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) in a yurt in or nearby Newport, OR. I was dazzled and amazed at his wildness and technique. Next to the collection’s third poem, “Neckognition,” I wrote:

He has mystical line breaks. They do what we try to make them do. Give them a split-end quality. One line is appearance A, the next line changes appearance A into B and into C, until you’re left with A+B+C=an action or event of fluidity. He’s stopped time into discrete parts, but by the stanza’s end, the fluidity of the act is realized. See stanza one. Harmonies in the last stanza.

Here’s the poem:

     In love the head turns
     the face until it’s gone
     into another’s where
     it is further torn

     from its own mirror
     and grows even more
     erased and lost and though
     the former still yearns

     to be his/be hers
     it sees these lovers
     over your shoulder show

     whatever disappears
     can also go as verse
     whose shape’s nape-known now.

This is also a sonnet-variant. I fell in love instantly with this master of forms, language, style, Surrealism, and freedom to explore unlike any other poet, at least any poet I’m aware of, since Gerard Manley Hopkins.

In Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet (Tiger Bark Press, 2017), there are essays from 16 other poets and friends of Knott, who also write about their love for him. The essays are short, and vary in length from three pages to 35 pages, although most tend to be around five to six pages. The essays are mostly filled with anecdotes that portray the complexities of Knott’s personality, his generosity, and self-sabotage at success. There is also some analysis of his poetry in Michael Waters’ essay “What Had Made Us So Whole: ‘The Sculpture’ by Bill Knott” and in Stuart Dischell’s “On Human Stilts,” but mostly the essays are sketches of Knott as complicated human being. The book also includes six color images of his art, as Knott “was as serious about his painting as his poetry” (113), as Robert Fanning notes in “May Eagles Guard Your Grave.”

In Thomas Lux’s essay “Bill Knott: Can My Voice Save My Throat,” Lux asks, “do you think Knott’s self-deprecation, his self-denigration, his self-abnegation, might have anything to do with his childhood?” (84). In the 83 pages prior to this, I was realizing much of Knott’s actions are the classic traits of someone who suffers from abandonment trauma. According to some of the authors with varying degrees of detail, when Knott was young, his mother died giving birth (though Knott “always suspected she might have died during an (then illegal) abortion” (91), then a few years later, his father sent him and his sister to an orphanage because he couldn’t take care of them, and then the father committed suicide. I believe this contributes to what Jonathan Galassi in “(Not) Publishing Bill Knott” identifies as Knott’s “serious self-esteem issues.” For instance, as Star Black in her essay “Loving Bill” points out, Knott:

[s]omehow felt betrayed by his own accomplishments and connections, as if to be a self-published outsider was not quite satisfying, yet to be an insider was fraudulent. Making a decision and then reversing the same decision after he made it was one of his traits. (44)

There are consistent stories throughout the anthology about him pushing away his success (and sometimes pushing away others before they could push him away) as if he wasn’t worthy of it or them, a classic defense move by someone who suffers from the trauma of abandonment.

Perhaps this is why he started to self-publish numerous chapbooks in small print runs, sometimes even only one copy. Knott published at least 11 books of poems with publishers such as “Random House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the University of Pittsburg Press, Sun Press, and the American Poets Continuum Series at BOA Editions” (Dischell 71), but he was so prolific and printed so many self-published chapbooks that probably no one knows how many books he really released, maybe not even Timothy Liu or John Skoyles who tried to collect everything Knott published.

Knott was a poet’s poet. He was a master of the craft and was always revising, and was even known to put “errata slips into books of his in bookstores” (Lux 85). Despite his constant revisions, Knott’s poems arrive to the reader with the energies and wildness of a first or second draft, which to me is a major accomplishment.

Knowing Knott is a pleasure to read, and can be read in one sitting because it is so engaging and only 114 pages of essays (126 total pages), and it’s very inspirational, too. Prior to reading this collection of essays, I thought Bill Knott was a semi-obscure poet, as not many poets I have met who are my age or younger know of him. After reading this book, I realize how important he was to the generation of poets before me and the generation before them. According to Robert Fanning in Knowing Knott’s last essay, Thomas Lux declared “Bill Knott our greatest living poet. ‘Bill Knott has more talent in his pinky finger [. . .] than Any Poet of his Generation” (115). I believe this book, in some degree, is a calling to future generations of poets to not overlook this poet whose “art lies, in part, in living inside the language, and lies, in part, in viewing it from the perspective of enduring outsider” (Waters 13), and whose poetry is so “hard-core surrealist” that, according to Lux, “If Bill were French and born a few years generations earlier, he would have kicked André Breton out of the [Surrealists] group for being counterrevolutionary” (80). I believe after reading Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet that Knott can teach poets how to be unique, wild, energy driven, as he fully embraced and triumphed in the many forms of poetry, and perhaps more importantly, Knott’s actions will inspire us to be generous members in the poetry community, as he was consistently helping poets with their poetry or helping them financially. In the words of Skoyles, “When we lost Bill, we lost a person with an uncompromising integrity and an enormous compassion for the underdog. [. . .] When we lost Bill, we lost what could be called the conscience of poetry” (97). Knowing Knott will keep reminding us of this and Bill Knott.

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Huff, Steven, ed. Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet. Rochester, NY: Tiger Bark Press, 2017. Print.

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26
Sep
15

Quick Notes on Charles Simic

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

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Charles SimicCharles Simic (May 9, 1938) was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and immigrated to the United States in 1954, and he is considered an American poet. He lived through World War II, where his town was bombed, and was even bombed by the American poet Richard Hugo. According to Simic in an interview with Grace Cavalieri:

Charles Simic: So, I met – bumped into [Richard] Hugo in San Francisco in a restaurant, and we were talking, and he said, “What did you do this summer?” And this is 1972, and this is the first time I went back to Belgrade, and I said, “Well, I went back to Belgrade.” “Ah,” he says, “Belgrade!” And he started describing Belgrade. He says, “Here’s the Danube; here’s the Sava River, here’s the main train station, here’s this bridge, that bridge.” So I had no idea how he knew. So I said, “You’ve been there. You’ve visited Belgrade.” And he said, “No, never in my life. I used to bomb it two, three times a week.” So then I just exclaimed – blurted out, I said, “I was down there!” And he was very upset. He was very, very upset.
Grace Cavalieri: Of course. It’s one of those amazing little things. And you became friends.
CS: Yeah. I mean, I understood it was wartime; bombs fall on your head.
GC: But there he is looking at you.
CS: He wrote me a poem, he was apologetic. It troubled him a great deal. (14-15)

Simic is the author of many collections of poems, including The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems (1989), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, the author of a number of books of essays, and he has translated French, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, and Slovenian poetry.

When I read Grace Cavalieri’s interview with Charles Simic, two surprising things were pointed out. Surprise one, Cavalieri doesn’t “feel comfortable when people talk about [Simic’s] poetry as ‘surreal’” (12). To which Simic replied, “When you’re young, you get a label” (12), and he, too, didn’t think he was surrealist, which led to surprise two. Simic said he’s “a hard realist” (12). I had not read Simic in well over 10 years, but I remembered him being surreal, and so I assumed, like most poets, he didn’t want to be labelled or nailed down to any one particular aesthetic. Then today I read his Selected Early Poems (George Braziller, 1999). I, too, recognize that he isn’t a surrealist.

When I think of surrealism, I think of some surreal thing that invades and takes over a poem. The object/subject asserts its presence and its logic, like in a dream when the images invade your mind against your will and you watch. With Simic, however, he creates situations. He, along with language, controls how things will behave in his poems. Simic, among a number of techniques: creates situations; mythologizes or animates objects; manifests abstractions; or through his hyper-attention to the real, he brings forth what might be overlooked, and in that presentation, the object might appear surreal, when in fact it is just Simic looking at it a new. Simic is visionary in that he envisions his own realities.

“The Chicken Without a Head” (Selected Poems 74-77) is an example of where he creates a situation and mythologizes it. The poem opens with him imagining old realities when “the earth was still flat,” “When there were 13 signs in the zodiac,” and when “The chicken without a head was hatched.” The latter premise he uses as his scenario for which to follow with his imagination and creativity to make the rest of the poem. And in this poem, he creates the world, the possibility of a world, with a living “chicken without a head.” So it doesn’t come to him like an uncontrollable surreal dream. No, Simic, with all his fantastic imagery, is in control, and he reminds us twice. First in the middle of section 2, when he writes, “No, I’m lying,” which confirms to the reader that he is making up this story and that it is not a surreal projection from the unconscious of which he has no control. The second time is at the end of section 4, where he again reminds us of the lie when he writes, “I swear it by the yolk in my hair / There’s no such thing as a chicken without a head.” What Simic does do is to push the headless-chicken scenario as far as he can. He does a similar thing in “Brooms” (45-48), too. The initial scenario is that “Only brooms / Know the devil / Still exists,” and then what follows is something like his journalistic or documentary account of the history of the broom. It’s the realist’s approach to the mythologies of the broom, some of which come from “dream books” and some of which he imagines. In this poem, too, is an example of hyper-attention to the real presenting a seemingly surreal-like image. In lines 4-5, he writes, “That the snow grows whiter / After a crow has flown over it.” That’s a real perception that most of us have encountered, or have encountered something similar. When you look at the snow, it looks white, but when contrasted with black, it suddenly becomes whiter, especially after the juxtaposing black is removed. So it seems surreal, but it’s an optical illusion grounded in the real, but more on this later.

Sometimes Simic will animate an object, which in turn creates a surreal-like scenario. For instance, in “My Shoes,” the poem opens with a unique re-visioning of a pair of shoes:

     Shoes, secret face of my inner life: 
     Two gaping toothless mouths, 
     Two partly decomposed animal skins 
     Smelling of mice nests.

Then he begins to mythologize their existence by projecting his dead brother and sister into the shoes, and then says:

     I want to proclaim the religion
     I have devised for your perfect humility
     And the strange church I am building
     With you as the altar.

He has made the shoes the center of a religion, his religion, for they are “The only true likeness of myself,” Simic’s self. Sometimes, however, Simic will just animate objects to see what they can do in his imagination, such as “Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand” (21-22), “Fork” (23) where he also gives it a mythic origin, “Spoon” (24), etc.

On other occasions he will similarly manifest an abstraction, as in “Dismantling Silence” (20). In this poem, he takes the abstract idea of silence and gives it a body. It takes on a dream-like presence as it manifested with ears, which are quickly cut off, and then in the brilliant image “With a sharp whistle slit its belly open.” By continually adding human or animal like features to the “silence,” he is able to bring it to life while at the same dismantle it. He makes us it hear it by seeing it.

In yet other poems, Simic will create a seemingly surreal-like scenario because of his hyper-attention to the real. For instance, “Summer Morning”:

     I love to stay in bed
     All morning,
     Covers thrown off, naked,
     Eyes closed, listening.

     Outside they are opening
     Their primers
     In the little school
     Of the cornfield.

     There's a smell of damp hay,
     Of horses, laziness,
     Summer sky and eternal life.

     I know all the dark places
     Where the sun hasn’t reached yet,
     Where the last cricket
     Has just hushed; anthills
     Where it sounds like it's raining;
     Slumbering spiders spinning wedding dresses.

     I pass over the farmhouses
     Where the little mouths open to suck,
     Barnyards where a man, naked to the waist,
     Washes his face and shoulders with a hose,
     Where the dishes begin to rattle in the kitchen.

     The good tree with its voice
     Of a mountain stream
     Knows my steps.
     It, too, hushes.

     I stop and listen:
     Somewhere close by
     A stone cracks a knuckle,
     Another rolls over in its sleep.

     I hear a butterfly stirring
     Inside a caterpillar,
     I hear the dust talking
     Of last night’s storm.

     Further ahead, someone
     Even more silent
     Passes over the grass
     Without bending it.

     And all of a sudden!
     In the midst of that quiet,
     It seems possible
     To live simply on this earth.

Here, there are a number of occasions where the speaker is just acutely aware of his surroundings that are out of the normal range of perception. For instance, normal senses would not be able to see schoolchildren “opening / Their primers,” or far off smell the “damp hay, / Of horses, laziness,” or far away hear “Where the dishes begin to rattle in the kitchen,” or more importantly, “hear a butterfly stirring / Inside a caterpillar” or hear someone pass “over the grass / Without bending it.” These are all real images but ones that could only be seen with his acute awareness, a hyperawareness, and because of that, their presentation, especially the butterfly, seems surreal-like. In a few places, he enhances his hyperaware perception by decorating it with surreal images of his making, such as “Slumbering spiders spinning wedding dresses,” or “A stone cracks a knuckle.” And so we have a speaker so attuned to his environment that it overwhelms him like the end of a James Wright poem, “And all of a sudden! / [. . .] It seems possible / To live simply on this earth.” That closing epiphany along with being situated in a real environment that slowly overcomes him, turns this into Deep Image poem, perhaps the only one in this selection. I note this because Simic if often considered a Deep Image poet, but Simic has too much humor and too much of his own creating of reality to be a Deep Image poet. Simic creates situations, whereas Deep Image poets re-create situations with a sincere tone. One can also find hyper-awareness of the real creating a surreal-like scenario in “Solitude” (66), where the speaker notes that no one can hear a crumb hit the floor, but he knows the ants can, and when they do, they put on “Their Quaker hats” to come and collect the crumb.

Simic is often animating or mythologizing an object or subject. He is in control, especially in his hyper-awareness of the real. There is at least one poem, however, where he is not. It’s one of the few poems where the subject of the poem gets its own voice, and this happens in “What the White Had to Say” (90-91). Right from the start, White speaks and tells Simic, “Because I’m nothing you can name, / I knew you long before you knew me.” Simic is confronted with something he can’t control or animate for the White will “not answer to your [Simic’s] hocus-pocus.” The White will animate Simic. The White takes on the qualities of fear and anxiety, and it’s so powerful, that even Simic’s “shadow / [. . .] has not stirred on the wall.” To me this means either there is so much white and so much brightness, that a shadow cannot be cast (which in Jungian terms might mean there’s so much self-conscious awareness in that fear/anxiety state, that the unconscious (the self) cannot be projected). Or it might just mean that there is a shadow, but Simic is scared stiff and can’t move, thus his shadow can’t move. Simic is paralyzed in his inability to animate or create.

There are also a few ars poetica poems that can help shed light on what I am getting at overall. One is “Description” (111-113), which begins:

     That which brings it
     about. The cause.

     The sweet old temptation
     to find an equivalent

     for the ineffable

This describes the process of creation of a Simic poem, as I see it. There’s the inspiration or scenario or subject/object that has yet to be seen in a unique way, and Simic will find a way to represent those unseen qualities by finding equivalent language and images, which often appear surreal. Then there’s the ars poetic “Elementary Cosmogony” (42), which is even closer to describing Simic’s poetic process.

     How to the invisible
     I hired myself to learn
     Whatever trade it might
     Consent to teach me.

     How the invisible
     Came out for a walk
     On a certain evening
     Casting the shadow of a man.

     How I followed behind
     Dragging my body
     Which is my tool box,
     Which is my music box,

     For a long apprenticeship
     That has as its last
     And seventh rule:
     The submission to chance.

Here we see Simic treating the writing of poetry like a “trade,” and he even has “toolbox” (the tools of his writing craft) and a “music box” (a poem is musical). As part of his trade, he will observe the invisible (“the ineffable” from the previous poem) like a scientist or investigator, “How I followed behind / Dragging my body.” He’s staying close to that invisible realm, or what others might consider invisible, but Simic has hyper-awareness and is able to track the invisible. This doesn’t come easy though, as it is “a long apprenticeship.” Even though I’ve been noting that Simic likes to control his renderings, he’s not immune to letting “chance” enter his poems. A good poet likes to be surprised, and often that surprise arrives luckily, unconsciously, from some place else, from the chance of language and imagination, and Simic has learned to allow for this.

I bought this book well over ten years ago. On the title page, under “Selected Early Poems,” I wrote, “He sleeps in the mind.” I don’t know why I wrote it, or what it means, but it feels right somehow.

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Works Cited

Cavalieri, Grace. “Interview with Charles Simic.” Paterson Literary Review 37 (2009): 9-22. Literary Reference Center. Web. 24 Sept. 2015. PDF.

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25
Sep
15

Quick Notes on Mark Strand

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

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Mark StrandMark Strand (1934 – 2014) was born in Canada, but he is considered an American poet. In 1990, he his collection of poems Blizzard of One won the Pulitzer Prize.

I picked up on four themes while reading through Mark Strand Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991). The selections begin with poems from his first book Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964) and ends with The Late Hour (1978), plus some New Poems from 1980. What I picked up on is that Strand is concerned with living a life that can be reflected on without regret, the idea of time (especially the present), the intersection of the surreal and the real, and the “I” of existence.

The concerns with living an unfulfilled life are most present in Sleeping with One Eye Open and then in The Story of Our Lives (1973). In “When the Vacation is Over for Good” (Sleeping with One Eye Open), Strand uses vacation as a metaphor for life, and when one is on vacation, one sometimes acts as if “There was nothing to do,” which is a waste of a vacation and a life, especially when the unforeseen “weather turned” and then one really couldn’t do anything. And eventually the vacation is over and the vacationer is left wondering “why it is / We are dying,” the closing lines to the poem. “Violent Storm” (which is the next poem in the Selected Poems) comes to a similar conclusion after a dialectical movement between dream/fantasy imagery with the imagery of the real. And it ends, “Already now the lights / That shared our wakefulness are dimming / And the dark brushes against our eyes.” Strand will throughout his poems give examples of how to be active, especially in the present.

For Strand, the present “is a place / you’ve never been” (“Black Maps,” Darker, 1970), it is “emptiness,” and it is something to inhabit, if it can be inhabited. For instance, Strand has what I call “temporal loop” poems. These are poems you read and feel like you are moving through time, but by the end, you are where you started, and you not sure if any time has passed. This occurs in “The Tunnel” (Sleeping with One Eye Open), where the speaker sees a man “standing in front” of his “house / for days.” The speaker tries to get him to leave, but the stranger will not. The speaker then tries to protect himself and escape to his neighbor’s house by digging a tunnel. Eventually, he comes “out in front of a house,” and he gets the sensation that:

     I feel I’m being watched
     and sometimes I hear
     a man’s voice
     but nothing is done and I have been waiting for days.

The speaker and the man at the door are the same, despite the shift in time and place. Or there is the psychological thriller in “The Mailman”:

     It is midnight.
     He comes up the walk
     and knocks at the door.
     I rush to greet him.
     He stands there weeping,
     shaking a letter at me.
     He tells me it contains
     terrible personal news.
     He falls to his knees.
     “Forgive me! Forgive me!” he pleads.

     I ask him inside.
     He wipes his eyes.
     His dark blue suit
     is like an inkstain
     on my crimson couch.
     Helpless, nervous, small,
     he curls up like a ball
     and sleeps while I compose
     more letters to myself
     in the same vein:

     “You shall live
     by inflicting pain.
     You shall forgive.”

This poem is from Reasons for Moving (1968). This looping idea and uncertainty of presence in the present will really come into full being in “The Untelling,” the nine-page poem from The Story of Our Lives, but more on that later. The poems that play with time and try to define the present are also poems that blend the perceived with the misperceived and how the misperceived becomes real, much like he does with the surreal and real imagery he uses.

The intersection of the surreal and real is introduced in the title of his first collection: Sleeping with One Eye Open, so as to suggest the real (one eye open) and dream world (sleeping and surreal) coexist. Often the poems move in a dialectical movement between the real and surreal, such as in “Violent Storm” (Sleeping with One Eye Open) or in “The Man in the Tree” (Reasons for Moving, 1968). Often after alternating between surreal and real imagery, there is a moment of analysis, but eventually, the reader (or the speaker, maybe) are left wondering what is real or surreal, or how is the surreal successfully posing as the real, or how the surreal became real? For example, in “What to Think Of” (Reasons for Moving), the poem opens:

     Think of the jungle,
     The green steam rising.

     It is yours.
     You are the Prince of Paraguay.

The poem begins by asserting the imagination and the reality it can create, and it’s so real, one can own it like a prince. And as a prince, as the poem shows, the people worship you (the imaginer) and the “air” you inhabited as prince. In fact, you as prince are “almost a god.” The imagined realm, however, can come alive without your consent. It’s something you can’t fully colonize. Soon the “bats / Rushing out of their caves,” and the “coral snakes,” “crimson birds,” and “tons and tons of morpho butterflies” arrive “Like the cold confetti of paradise.” In this case, the reality is harsh, because the imaginer tried to rule over it like a prince. This poem is also a poem about how to inhabit a place.

Inhabiting a place, especially the place of “I,” is a significant theme in Strand’s poems, where things are often being filled or emptied and where there is liminal imagery like doors, windows, and horizons. Much of Strand’s poetry is concerned with what I is or can be. There is the concern with the physical I, such as in “Keeping Things Whole”:

     In a field
     I am the absence
     of field.
     This is
     always the case.
     Wherever I am
     I am what is missing.

     When I walk
     I part the air
     and always
     the air moves in
     to fill the spaces
     where my body’s been.

     We all have reasons
     for moving.
     I move
     to keep things whole.

He is not a field, but he inhabits the space that is the absence of the field. He fills the void of wherever wherever is not. He is presence where once there was absence. He’s always walking into what is missing and his presence is erased by the moving air filling his spaces when he leaves. And so he moves to keep things whole. However, as I read more of Strand, I find the physical I that fills spaces to be only a container of the life of I. The body is not the I but is a storage unit for the life of I. This sounds confusing, so let me give an example.

     The Remains

     I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
     I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
     At night I turn back the clocks;
     I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

     What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
     I say my own name. I say goodbye.
     The words follow each other downwind.
     I love my wife but send her away.

     My parents rise out of their thrones
     into the milky rooms of clouds. How can I sing?
     Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
     I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

This poem is from Darker (1970). By the end of the first two lines, it’s as if he is without ego (how he interacts with “others”), without an id (as he has emptied himself of possessions and thus desire), and when he leaves his shoes, it’s like he’s walked out of himself. He tries to find himself through memories and through language, but those are all fleeting ways to make a self. He realizes he, but not his body, is his “change,” his growth, his experiences through time. And if he empties the shell of the body, his life still remains, in a way similar to a photograph. It’s the living that matters, not the body or appearance or presence of body. It’s what one does while inhabiting the body. It’s the body moving through the moments of time, for in each moment “There is the sleep of one moment / inside the next” (“The Sleep,” Darker, 1970) and each moment keeps birthing another moment until the final moment, which is death, which is “like another skin which I shall never be found, / out of which I shall never appear” (“The Sleep”). Death is another space into which one grows, as he says in “My Life,” “I grow into my death” (Darker, 1970). But if one doesn’t live that life in the body, then there will be regret.

Perhaps the one poem that brings all four of these themes together is “Elegy for My Father” (The Story of Our Lives, 1973), which has six sections. The first section is titled “The Empty Body.” This section along with section three, “Your Dying,” speak harshly to and about his dead father, who did not inhabit the one body he was given, as the opening lines indicate: “The hands were yours, the arms were yours, / But you were not there,” or later where he more clearly states it, “The body was yours, but you were not there.” According to the speaker, the father found pleasure in not filling his body with life experiences because, among many things, he “went to work let the cold enter your clothes. / [. . .] But nothing could stop you” from dying, and “You went on with your dying.” Slowly, I start to realize, or conjecture, that his father is the cause for Strand’s themes of living, the presence of I, and inhabiting the present. In section four, “Your Shadow,” real and surreal imagery enter the poem in the form of the father’s shadow, which in Jungian psychology is the unconscious part of the personality and everything that one cannot directly know about him- or herself. It is repressed substance, whether good or bad. In this case, it is the father’s will to live, for the shadow, after the father dies, is excited and “rejoiced among the ruins” of the dead host. The shadow is free and feels it can finally live. The shadow makes it presence known to the speaker as the speaker recounts what happened, “It sat on my shoulders. / Your shadow is yours. I told it so. I said it was yours. / I have carried it with me too long. I give it back.” (Where “yours” is his father.) Which to me seems like the speaker is saying something like, “I’ve been living enough and trying to fill both our lives (his and his father’s). Stop projecting on me. You had your opportunity to live, and now it’s past.” In the last section, “The New Year,” he tells his dead father in the winter of the new year, “Nobody knows you. You are the neighbor of nothing.” His father failed to fill the empty body with something.

Later in Strand’s writing, the surreal imagery occurs less often, and he also starts considering how language can fill the I or the present. In “The Untelling,” for example, the poem narrates how a character is trying to write and narrate and existence through writing, which continually fails in whole, but it does minutely affect his surroundings, or so we think until we arrive at the end of the poem, which is really the beginning of the poem again. We have entered another temporal loop, but his one is more of a narrative loop driven by language, which leaves the reader wondering, again, about perceptions and misperceptions and how they affect each other. This time, however, unlike the surreal-real interactions of his earlier poetry, it is the interaction of language with the real.

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19
Sep
15

Quick Notes on James Wright

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

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James WrightJames Wright (1927 – 1980) is an American poet, and often associated with the Deep Image poets of Robert Bly. He studied under John Crowe Ransom as an undergrad from 1948 to 1952 at Kenyon College, and later with Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington “in the spring of 1954” (Elkins 33). His early work in The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959) was formal and influenced by such poets as Edgar Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost. In that formalism, he even re-invented Sapphics or Americanized it into three lines of iambic tetrameter and one line of iambic dimeter. I love that he did that. In those early books. The poetry was filled with despair and nature, as he says about The Green Wall in an interview with Peter Stitt:

I tried to begin with the fall of man and acknowledge that the fall of man was a good thing, the felix culpa, the happy guilt. And then I tried to weave my way in and out through nature poems and people suffering in nature because they were conscious. That was the idea. I don’t think that that book is structurally very coherent, but that was the idea of it. You know, I left out about forty poems from that book.

Wright then started working on translations, which, as some people say, translated him. And, in part, they did, but so did his time with Robert Bly, who told him “poetry is a possibility, that, although all poetry is formal, there are many forms, just as there are many forms of feeling” (Stitt). In 1963, James Wright’s most successful book appeared, The Branch Will Not Break.

This was unlike his earlier poetry as it was not formal and it was filled with joy and delight. As Wright says, “At the center of that book is my rediscovery of the abounding delight of the body that I had forgotten about” (Stitt). It might also be the most successful book of Deep Image poetry (of the Robert Bly camp of Deep Image poetry) that has been written. His concerns with formalism, or the turning toward free verse, however, may be hinted at earlier in the poem from Saint Judas “The Morality of Poetry,” as Ralph J. Mills pointed out (Kalaidjian 103). For in this poem, Wright near the end writes:

     Woman or bird, she plumes the ashening sound,
     Flaunting to nothingness the rules I made.
     Scattering cinders, widening, over the sand
     Her cold epistle falls. To plumb the fall
     Of silver on ripple, evening ripple on wave,
     Quick celebration where she lives for light,
     I let all measures die. My voice is gone,
     My words to you unfinished, where they lie
     Common and bare as stone in diamond veins.
     Where the sea moves the word moves, where the sea
     Subsides, the slow word fades with lunar tides.
     Now still alive, my skeletal words gone bare,
     Lapsing like dead gulls' brittle wings and drowned,
     In a mindless dance, beneath the darkening air,
     I send you shoreward echoes of my voice.   (61)

Nonetheless, Wright arrived at free verse, mid-western speech, Jungian unconscious imagery, and an ability to express joy. Part of this new writing arose from translating Georg Trakl, who, according to Wright, “writes in parallelisms, only he leaves out the intermediary, rationalistic explanations of the relations between one image and another” (Stitt). This leaving out of the explanation is what Bly calls “leaping.” For Bly, “leaping” is the leaping that occurs as the content or the mind reading/writing/experiencing the content leaps from conscious experiencing to unconscious experiencing, and the leaping is quick. There’s also the leaping that occurs with epiphany, which is a common experience in The Branch Will Not Break. The well-known example is at the end of “A Blessing” with the famous last lines: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” This epiphany is physical, psychic, and figurative. But what is interesting about this are at least these two things. First, the surreal like quality that he could step out of his body as well as blossom. There are better examples of surrealism elsewhere (though Wright is adamant he is not surrealist), but that type of surreal thinking does exist. The second thing of note is that Wright is often in the physical world objectively observing it. It’s almost Imagistic in that objectivism and with the use of juxtaposing two images to create an effect. But with Wright the effect becomes deliberately personal, subjective, and emotional. With an Imagist, the juxtaposition is an objective witnessing, and maybe creates a subjective understanding, but it’s so distant. For instance, in Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” where is Pound in that poem? Maybe we feel him between lines two and three. There’s an objective representation of the subjective (if there is a subject), but with Wright, he inserts himself into that space. He inhabits the “leap.” His psyche is in that place that Trakl does not explain. This is one of the strong effects of Wright’s Deep Image poetry.

Another example of this is “The Jewel”:

     There is this cave
     In the air behind my body
     That nobody is going to touch:
     A cloister, a silence
     Closing around a blossom of fire.
     When I stand upright in the wind,
     My bones turn to dark emeralds.   (122)

The poem opens as if in a dream and ends in the surrealistic image of his bones transforming into “dark emeralds.” Again, this is a physical, psychic, and figurative epiphany, but here, more than in “A Blessing,” the epiphany is more suggestive. It’s like a Symbolist image of suggestion. We can probably intuitively understand the transformation, but it’s an unconscious understanding, that later our conscious minds can maybe grapple with. The important part is that we realize an important transformation has happened, and maybe that’s the most important thing with many of these poems and Deep Image poems.

In “In Memory of a Spanish Poet,” Wright kind of outlines for us the process of a Deep Image poem. The poem begins with the following epigraph: “Take leave of the sun, and of the wheat, for me. – Miguel Hernández, written in prison, 1942.” Then the poem:

     I see you strangling
     Under the black ripples of whitewashed walls.
     Your hands turn yellow in the ruins of the sun.
     I dream of your slow voice, flying,
     Planting the dark waters of the spirit
     With lutes and seeds.

     Here, in the American Midwest,
     Those seeds fly out of the field and across the strange heaven of my skull.
     They scatter out of their wings a quiet farewell,
     A greeting to my new country.

     Now twilight gathers,
     A long sundown.
     Silos creep away toward the west.  (130)

The Spanish poets were very influential to the Deep Image poets, and here we have Wright having a vision of Hernández in jail deteriorating but his voice escapes and plants seeds in the Midwest. The images are mostly surreal, and the surreality mixes with the real, such as “ruins of the sun,” “voice, flying,” “dark waters of the spirit,” “strange heaven of my skull,” and these juxtapositions are highly suggestive, like a Symbolist poem. Through it all, we see the transformation of Wright, through whom the surreality is mediated before it also transforms the American landscape, which in the end expresses death, as in seen in the final images of the last stanza. Here, the poet transforms the land.

Sometimes the transformation is more subtle or impressionistic, such as in “Arriving in the Country Again,” where Wright feels a sense of ease in the environment he inhabits. But there is transformation, which often comes “From the other world” (“Milkweed” 143-44).

After The Branch Will Not Break is the book Shall We Gather at the River (1963), and here he returns to the subject of his first two books: death, despair, and loneliness, and to the anti-heroes of “misfits, mental patients, murderers, drunks, prisoners, prostitutes, fugitives, and exiles” (Kalaidjian 102). “In these poems,” as I quote from the notes I wrote in my book, “he is more of a passive observer with less surreal imagery. He’s an observer of transformation, but he does not transform. Thus, lending more to his lonely and depressed state. In The Branch, he often transforms and/or has epiphanies – his transformations are within, but, at times, stimulated from the external. If these are deep image poems in Shall We Gather at the River, which they probably are not as they lack surreal imagery and personal transformation, it is the deep image of the external.”

This book is followed by Two Citizens, which Wright describes by saying, it

begins with a curse on America. There are some savage poems about Ohio, my home, in that book, poems that I could not have written if I hadn’t found Annie [his wife who introduced him to Europe]. She gave me the strength to come to terms with things which I loved and hated at the same time. And in the middle of that book, between the curse and the final expression of grief, there is a whole long sequence of love poems. I’ve never written any book I’ve detested so much. No matter what anybody thinks about it, I know this book is final. God damn me if I ever write another.

He does write one more book of poems titled To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977).

//

Works Cited

Elkins, Andrew. The Poetry of James Wright. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1991. Print.

Kalaidjian, Walter. “Many of Our Waters: The Poetry of James Wright.” boundary 2 9.2 (Winter 1981): 101-121. JSTOR. Database. 17 Sep 2015. PDF.

Stitt, Peter. “James Wright, The Art of Poetry No. 19.Paris Review 16 (January 1975). Paris Review. N.d. Web. 18 Sep 2015.

Wright, James. Above the River: The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990. Print.

//

21
Jul
13

Surreal LangPo

All summer I’ve been reading Deep Image poetry and about Deep Image poetry. I’ve focused my concentrations on Robert Bly, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, Robert Kelly, and Jerome Rothenberg. I also read Louis Simpson, who is a fine poet, but in the end, is not a Deep Image poet. I excluded many other fine Deep Image poets as I needed to contain my study, at least in the short-term. I decided to study this poetry and these poets because I wanted to come to an understanding with them and with Deep Image poetry. Over the last 20 or so years, I’ve gone back and forth on them – for instance: Bly is okay,  Bly sucks, Bly is awesome, Bly has a tin ear, Bly’s music is tonal, Bly is innovative, Bly is boring, etc.. The older I get the more I like Deep Image poetry, but still I have some concerns: is the language hard enough? is the music interesting enough? is there music? why are there so many stock words like, “snow,” “teeth,” “shadow,” etc.? why the heavy use of “of,” “of the,” and preposition+”the,” etc?

Each of these poets has a different take on Deep Image poetry, especially those poets in the Bly Deep-Image camp and the poets in the Kelly/Rothenberg Deep-Image camp. One thing that is true of all them is that Deep Image has roots in the Surreal. Deep Image poetry, like Surrealism, tries to include the irrational, the unreasonable, and the unconscious in order to create a poem that speaks to the whole of a person, instead of, for instance, just the conscious, rational side of the person. Surrealism also tries to transform what language can do and/or should do, as does Language Poetry but in a different way.

The Sixities Trobar 2

This leads me to the point of what I want to talk about here. The last few days I’ve been writing in a manner or approach that is new to me, though I’m sure others have tried the same approach. (I hope that by writing about it I don’t jinx myself out of continuing this approach.) What I’ve been doing is trying automatic writing (a writing strategy of the Surrealists where, essentially, the person just writes without thinking or stopping to correct a typo or correcting anything) while at the same time trying to avoid meaning making. Avoiding meaning making is the challenge. It’s more than just putting random words together. It’s putting random words together so that someone can’t make sense of them, which is difficult because the human mind likes to make meanings, associations, narratives, etc., in order to understand and/or interpret. So I tried to write so that another person couldn’t impose a meaning, structure, narrative, associations, etc. on top of the poem. That’s what I tried in the first draft. I aimed for meaninglessness. I aimed to put out words that no longer had the linguistic, cultural, and economic impositions of meanings.

Surrealist Manifesto The Language Book (Poetics of the New)

I, however, am a meaning making person. So after the first draft, which looks like something translated from another language through Google’s translator but even less sensical, I begin my own translation. I translate what I have into something that makes sense for the reader and myself.  I try to create a narrative or associations or sensible stanzas of sentences. However, since the origin of the poems is from such an irrational and shaky area, the sentences end up disoriented or disorienting, which is the ideal.

In the end, the poem escapes the predetermined and expected order of perception and language. The poem makes new meanings, new perceptions, and new syntactical arrangements that don’t evade the conscious mind or the unconscious mind – the poem speaks to both. The poem shakes the reader out of the ordinary, I hope/think. The poem because of how it is written and how the final draft appears also speaks to the whole of the person.

This new approach is what I call Surreal LangPo. (I can’t find evidence of this term being used before, so I hope I’m the first.)

One more guideline/rule: the poet must avoid the Surrealist genitive “of.” That is, try to avoid creating possessive constructions that use “of.”

I hope I’ve provided enough guidance to help you approach perceiving, language, and writing poems in a new way. I’d like to give examples, but I’m reluctant. If I put the poems here, then I might influence you too much. I think these general guidelines will allow you to discover a more personal approach to Surreal LangPo.//




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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