Posts Tagged ‘W. S. Merwin

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

//

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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04
Nov
16

Poetry Assignments: The Book (Online): Miscellany; or Trying to Relate the Unrelated; or These Gotta Go Some Place . . . So Here

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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Miscellany; or Trying to Relate the Unrelated; or These Gotta Go Some Place . . . So Here

Bridge Building, or Setting up House

I’m sure all of us have many strong, individual poems. And I’m sure many of these poems have relationships with each other, and I imagine many have no relation one another. And I imagine these unrelated poems would like to be collected & find a home in a book or a chapbook, but their inability to relate with each other keeps them in their own little poetic studio apartments.

Ok. Here’s the assignment: Get those poems out of their apartments. Gather those unrelated poems & make bridges between the poems by writing poems that can find/make relationships. Do this for as many of the poems as you can. Let your poems make friends with each other. Let them share their talents & let them split the mortgage.

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The Overlooked

I guess this would be considered a personae piece.

You will take on the voice of a character in a story who is one of the following: someone we are told is there but not talked about (a scenery character), someone who is mentioned in passing, or someone who is known to be there but not mentioned. Then give that person a voice. For instance, I did the voice of one of the crew members that was sailing with Odysseus when they encountered the Sirens. There are plenty of others. For instance, one of the spear-carrying warriors fighting with Lucifer in Paradise Lost.

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Dream Poems

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

Write a poem about a dream a famous person (real or fictional) may have had.

It can even be done without allusions!

a: First Things First . . . Second, Third, Fourth, . . .; Indices Are So Useful; or Amateurs Borrow. The Great Ones Steal, Part Two

This idea came from reading the index of first lines in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry and realizing the string of first lines sounded like a long poem.

Then, when I was at AWP, I stopped at the Nightboat Books table, & picked up one of their recent releases The Truant Lover, which is a fine book by the way – it has an Emersonian structure about it.

Within The Truant Lover there is the poetry assignment that I am assigning, but that Juliet Patterson got to first. Here’s the poem, which is used with Nightboat Books’ permission:

   Index of First Lines 

   A slash of blue
   Asphalt/colorless
   Again the cry that
   But she is/a stranger yet
   By the time you read this
   Coming late, as always
   Darling,
   Dear
   Dear/I could/send you
   Dear/I would/have liked
   Dear friend/I regret to inform you
   For love we all go
   I’ll send my/own two answers
   Many times loneliness
   No words/ripple like
   Oh,
   The things of which we want
   The proof of those we knew before
   There is another loneliness
   We meet no stranger, but our self
   We had not expected it
   When I hoped/I feared/When I feared/I dared –
   where we/owe but/a little
   You must let me/go first

(What’s good about Patterson’s poem is that it actually works within the context of the book, as you will discover when you read it.)

Here’s the assignment: go find a poetry book with an index of first lines, like a Norton Anthology, or the new Migration by Merwin, or The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats (Volume 1), or whatever. Then string together the first lines to make a poem. Or, as it seems Patterson did, use the second line to push the poem forward a bit. You can even make a series of poems. And remember, you can also just use this as a “trigger” to begin a poem. When you’re done with the first lines, you can stare & revise until something else arises.

b: Making New Use of Your Bookcase

Your bookcases are lined with books, & for the most part, the spines of the books face out so you can read the titles.

Here’s the assignment. Use the title of the books, as you did with the index of first lines, to string together a poem.

Ok, go forth line by line, or title by title.

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Eavesdropping

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

You need to be in a coffee shop or bar or diner or restaurant & be writing a poem. The moment you get stuck or pause in your writing is the moment you listen in on a conversation. The first phrase you hear will then have to be worked into the poem within a few lines.

Should you get stuck or pause again, repeat the process.

A variant of this can be done at home & with no one around. Instead of listening when you pause, you can flip through a dictionary, randomly stop on a word, & then bring that word into the poem within a few lines.

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The Boring & the Mundane

This is your assignment: watch a pot of water boil, or coffee brew, or a bathtub fill with water. Look at a crack in the sidewalk. Put your ear on your front lawn & listen. Put your ear to a tree. Put your nose over a clean drinking glass & smell. Lick the back of a book you hate or your favorite book. Touch an iron rail.

Observe something ordinary – but observe. Later, reflect.

Maybe even watch your computer reboot.

That is all. Except maybe do it when you are completely bored out of your skull, or when you have far too much energy.

Go forth!

a: For the Slackers; or Pound, Merwin, Hemingway, & You; or the Art of Discipline

Some of you are already performing this assignment, & you are therefore excused from it. The rest of you, including myself, must do this. It is imperative to get yourself writing consistently.

In the recent issue of Poets & Writers [I think it’s the July/August 2005 issue] there is an article about & an interview with W.S. Merwin. We learn that Merwin once visited Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. One piece of advice Pound gave to Merwin: write seventy-five lines of poetry every day. That’s your assignment – write seventy-five lines per day for at least one month.

If that seems too many lines per day, or not enough, then adjust to your personality. (I will be writing one page per day – approximately forty lines per day). But you must write enough to form a sustained amount of time for mediation.

b: No Cop Outs

Already some of you are finding excuses out of this assignment. “Oh, I’m going away this weekend. I won’t have time to write.” In that case, I refer you to Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, as I have read, wrote 250 words per day. If he was to go fishing on Saturday, he wouldn’t wimp out on writing. On Friday, he’d write 500 words to compensate for his lost day of writing – thus keeping up his 250-words-per-day average. So, if you are going away for the weekend, on Friday write 225 lines – seventy-five for Friday, seventy-five for Saturday, & seventy-five for Sunday.

c: The Cop Out to the Cop Out

Someone, probably me, is already planning this one: “Oh, I managed to write one hundred lines of poetry yesterday, so I only have to write fifty lines today, & then my average will still be seventy-five lines per day.” No. No back-ended compensation. Future compensation is ok because you are planning & anticipating. You are making up for a period of time when you know you cannot write. With backwards compensation, you are just slacking. There will be no slacking. If you have time to write, write your seventy-five lines.

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OK Pardner

This one came from Renée Roehl’s kid, Dario, & his writing class.

Start a poem with “Ok Pardner, this is it.” Partner can be used in place of pardner should you choose. This seems to provide for a strong, exciting opening.

One might also want to refer themselves to Ed Dorn’s book-long poem Gunslinger. One might also want to refer themselves to Chris Howell’s poem “The Holdup” as it first appeared in Third Coast Spring 2003 (quoted in full below).

   The Holdup

   Give me your money, he said.

   We don’t have money, they replied,
   we have eggs.

   Oh, very well, he sighed, give me your eggs.

   We don’t have complete eggs, they said, only
   the shells.

   Well, then, give me your shells, quickly
   before I become tense.

   The shells we have are broken, they said,
   we will give you the pieces.


   (“The Holdup” is used with the permission of Christopher Howell and Third Coast.)

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Overcoming Scriptophobia

ScriptophobiaThis one comes to us by way of Aimee Nezhukumatathil. As I understand it, she looks up information about a phobia, & then she takes on the voice of the phobia or the voice of someone with the phobia & writes a poem with that voice. The poem she read at AWP 2004 was about the fear of poetry (metrophobia). The poem appears in her book Miracle Fruit (Tupelo Press, 2003). But make sure to not make of the fun of the person with the phobia and try to create a three-dimensional character, a character who has the phobia but is not defined by or limited to just the phobia. You can be playful and have fun, just don’t make fun of the character, because there is at least one person out there suffering with the phobia you choose.

A place where one can start to look for theses phobias is: http://www.phobialist.com/.

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The Rainbow Connection

Compose a poem with the phrase “choking on a rainbow.” This is a phrase that comes from a satire article in The Onion about a young poet. Variants can include “eating a rainbow” or “cooking a rainbow” or whatever. You know?!

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The Reader’s Digest Experiment

Write a poem titled “An Abridged Version for the Modern Reader.” I found this sentence on the title page of a Stendhal book published by Reader’s Digest that I found in an antique mall in the-middle-of-nowhere, Washington.

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28
Oct
16

Poetry Assignments: The Book (Online): Fun with Letters, Words, Language, & Languages

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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Fun with Letters, Words, Language, & Languages

New Meanings

Take a poem you have written (preferably a dead poem, a poem you have given up on), find a word within the poem (a pivot word/an important word), change its meaning, & make that the title. For example, in the following Emily Dickinson poem:

   Faith is a fine invention
   when gentlemen can see,
   but microscopes are prudent
   in an emergency.

I will choose “microscopes” & make it mean “love.” The title of the poem will be something like – “If Microscopes Meant Love” or “Read Love for Microscopes.”

It’s a bit of a language thing, but hopefully it will bring to life a dead poem, at which point you should chase that life & play with the poem until it sings anew!

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The “Dialouges” Experiment

This one is a result of Thom Caraway’s fine eyes & ears. “Dialouges” is pronounced (die ya loogz). The word doesn’t exist. The poem is to make this word exist. If you can work Plato into the poem, then even better.

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The Bernadette Mayer Experiment

I am stealing this from Bernadette Mayer’s essay “Experiments” [here’s a version of the essay: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/library/Mayer-Bernadette_Experiments.html] in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. pp 80-83.).

“Using phrases relating to one subject or idea, write about another (this is pushing metaphor and simile as far as you can), for example, steal science terms or philosophical language & write about snow or boredom.”

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The Tod Marshall Project

I’m stealing this from Tod Marshall, or making a variant of a Tod Marshall experiment.

In this assignment: describe an abstraction to a noun.

For instance, Marshall has a poem called, “Describe Custody to an Omelet,” which I think is in his new book, Dare Say (University of Georgia Press, 2002).

(9-2-06 addendum): I heard Tod Marshall read some of these poems at a reading with Nance Van Winckel in Sandpoint, ID. It was a late-afternoon reading that was done by candlelight, after the town lost electricity. I wrote the assignment before reading Dare Say. The poems do not appear in Dare Say, but appear in a forthcoming manuscript of Tod Marshall. Nonetheless, Dare Say is a kick ass book, & the assignment is still a good one.

(11-16-06 addendum): Here are some examples. With permission of Tod Marshall.

   Describe Entertainment Tonight to HDT

   I went to the woods because I wished to live celebrities,
   to suck the Mia Farrow out of life, to know Katie and Tom,
   Bennifer and Brangelina, to chat with Hugh Jackman and Jessica Simpson,
   to feel the inner turmoil of Mariah Carey and the desperate plight of Bobby Brown,
   to corner life and find its meanness, to eat woodchucks and wildness,
   to plant beans and catch pickerel, to read and walk and deliberate,
   but mainly to live celebrities.
   How soon arguing with Tom Cruise becomes tedious,
   how awful in my small cabin to listen to the musings
   of Kid Rock, to bump my head continually
   against Pamela Anderson’s boobs.
   How tiresome Ben and Jennifer and their brat.
   The deep pathos I feel for Lindsay Lohan’s emaciated frame
   fades when she leaves prescription bottles in my bean rows,
   when she and Paris drunkenly drive a Range Rover through the garden
   and let that fish-bait nipper of a dog
   yip at the stoic deer. Can I say it again? Arguing with Tom Cruise
   is like chewing bricks, listening to another speech on the merits of slavery,
   on the necessity of this or that war,
   taking ice picks, slamming them into your temples,
   and wiggling them around until you hear the metal clicking.
   Next time I walk to Concord I’ll have a few things to say about quiet desperation,
   and I think that I’ll bring Ralph Waldo
   a copy of Glitter, the unrated version of Dukes of Hazzard,
   dvd season three of American Idol,
   a year’s subscription to People, and Ashton Kuchar arm in arm with Demi Moore
   to prove my case about the stars
   and how hard people work not to see them.
 
 
 
 
 

   Describe Haiku to the Labyrinth

   Autumn,
   a woman loves
   a great white bull.

                               (old stone pond)

   Winter, nothing blooms.
   But in the maze
   mushrooms erupt on rotting bodies.

                               (frog jumps)

   Spring means forgive.
   The string wound
   in a ball,  the gate.

                               (sound of water)

   Summer.
   Lupine  and pearly everlasting:
   be lost.

//

a: Crackbrains, Cranberry Trees, & Everything in Between; or a Slice of the Lexicon

You will need a dictionary for this. (My favorite, without exception, is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. (Third & fourth editions, especially [or http://The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language Fifth Edition].))

In most dictionaries, a header on each page contains two words: one word indicates the first word alphabetically listed on the page that will be defined, & the other word indicates the last word alphabetically listed on the page that will be defined.

Your assignment: randomly flip to a page in a dictionary & use the two words in the header as starting points & ending points of your poem. Between those words, use all the words listed on the randomly-turned-to page. I suspect a few interesting things will occur as a result: the poem will have harmony, the poem most likely will have meaningful connections on an etymological level, not to mention the imagination that will be riding those two elements, & a few other surprises.

This poem, however, does not have to begin & end with the header words, but they should be near the beginning & end. For instance, with “crackbrain” & “cranberry tree”:

   Fernando Pessoa was not a crackbrain
   for not obeying his mother’s crack downs
   . . .
   he ate too many raw cranberries
   from the cranberry tree in back
   & the savory sourness
   puckered his mind
   til it split into two –
   the poet & his critic.

Ok. Get cracking.

The Criticb: The critic, or “It stinks!”

Thinking of Pessoa – who actually did write poems under one name, & then criticized them under another name, but who had multiple personalities. . . . After completing your poem, you are to write at least a one-page literary criticism of the poem. And to make it fun, pretend you are someone else. Perhaps write in the voice of Marjorie Perloff, or I.A. Richards, or Derrida, or Robert Bly, or Jay Sherman, or even John Lovitz (ug). Ok.

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A rose is a rose is a symbol is a something Moses supposes erroneously; or putting the BIG back in ambiguous; or no more hijacking/taming the language

In the last three or so years of my writing poems, my main focus has been clarity: Make certain the poem is understandable, at least on the surface level. Well, I think I have basically achieved that clarity . . . but along the away sacrifices were made. I became a reductionist with the language. That is, I ended up reducing words: One word has one meaning & can be in only one syntactical position.

(Saussure says something like: Language is like a game of chess & each word is like a chess piece – each word has certain roles, can only do certain things, & can only move in certain directions. And the rules of chess are like the grammar/syntax of language.)

That type of thinking, which on the other hand deconstructionists rightly or wrongly will say is fine thinking/presentation, limits the magic/power of the word. Almost all words have either more than one meaning or associations or innuendos or homonyms, etc, & the metaphor relies on the magic of the word: however deconstructionists don’t trust the metaphor:

“Derrida equates metaphor with usury, saying in effect, that it ‘promises more than it delivers’ while exacting a terrible, hidden, bankrupting interest on the ability of language to pay off, to signify without succumbing to ‘epistemological ambivalence.’ This is metaphor as loan shark.” (From Peter Sharpe’s new book The Ground of Our Beseeching (Susquehanna University Press, 2005). A great study on metaphor in contemporary American poetry.)

I’m not picking on the deconstructionists or those who use the language as I have, but it is in thinking about the subtleties of the word/metaphor, in part, where poetry can be fun.

So despite what Gertrude “Gerty, Gert, Gewürztraminer” Stein thinks, we are going to loosen up the language. We are going to make poetry fun again. We are going to purposely write as ambiguously as we can. And by ambiguous, I mean multi-meaning – plurisignative. I mean a phrase/sentence/metaphor suggesting more than one idea/thing/moment at the same time, & as a result, we are going to make so many associations & suggestions & hints with our ambiguities that we are going to connect everything in the universe, or as much as we can, into one poem.

“A diminishment of reality takes place when our experience is negotiated without ambiguity. . . . This ambiguity [in poetry] permits the spectator to insert details of his or her own, niches of perception left undetermined or open by the artist” (Tess Gallagher, quoted from William Heyen’s essay “Ambiguity” in Pig Notes & Dumb Music.) Heyen continues, “(Hemingway and others, of course, have spoken of the writer’s need to have a feeling for what to leave out.)” [Quote from “Ambiguity” by William Heyen published in Pigs Notes & Dumb Music by BOA Editions, Ltd., in 1998 © and used with permission.]

“The poet, no less than the scientist, works on the assumption that inert and live things and relations hold enough interest to keep him alive as part of nature.” – Louis Zukofsky

We are going to make metaphors that breach time – that connect the past, present, & future. We are going to create time!

You can even be fragmentary if you want to suspend time, like Franz Wright does in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard.

So what do I mean by all of this? Here’s a good example of what I mean by ambiguity, in part. We will continue with Franz Wright & move to a poem of his from Ill Lit: New and Selected Poems (Oberlin College Press, 1998).

   The Forties

   and in the desert cold men invented the star

What could this poem be about. With the title, I’m led right away to the 1940s & quickly after to the nuclear bomb. “the star” is the nuclear bomb. It was created & detonated for the first time in the desert in the 1940s. So we got that going.

But let’s consider more. Since there is no punctuation in the poem, we kind of have to figure out where some punctuation could be. So let’s put a comma after “desert”. How does the poem read now? Well, according to history, the a-bomb was exploded in the early morning, so the men who dropped the bomb could have been physically cold. But also, & here is where the ambiguity & metaphor works, the men could have been cold in another manner – as in cold, heartless men, since so much destruction, death, & a “cold war” will be created after WWII concludes with the dropping of the bombs on Japan.

Now let’s remove that comma & reposition it after “cold”. In this case we get more of a creation myth story – men invent the star, but most important to this poem, & this assignment, it still ties back to the nuclear bomb. The star is a star is a nuclear bomb.

With the underlying creation myth, & with the desert & with the star, & with the men, there are some religious undertones to the poem, too, perhaps. And with the title, “The Forties,” & religion & forty days & forty nights, how far off from another creation story are we? It echoes of the birth of Jesus a bit. Perhaps that it is stitch. But if you read the poem in low, deep-toned voice, like the voice of god, then it comes across better, maybe.

Also with the creation myth in our minds or not, by starting the poem “and” we are instantly put into epic mode – in media res. (Think of Pound’s The Cantos, Homer’s Odyssey, H.G. Wells The Outline of History, etc.). Then with no period at the end of the poem, we are lead to think of a continuing story. This poem is a pivotal moment between what was & what will be – it divides history in to what was before the cold war & the cold war that follows. (Does “cold” act as foreshadowing, also?)

Also note the power of these nine words. Four words are small & almost inconsequential. And there are only five big words that our minds can grab on to.

So, what I’m suggesting is: Be vague, be subtle, be suggestive, be inclusive & exclusive. Be a metaphor.

I think this assignment can also be done on an ambiguous tonal level, too. Can it be done on a melodic level, too? Let’s try & find that out, also!

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Etymological Rotisserie

This idea came to me from reading Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, & most recently Natasha Sajé. First go back in time & find an Indo-European root word. (They are all in the back of the American Heritage Dictionary). List all its derivative words, & then try to get all those words into one poem.

For instance, kailo-, which means “whole, uninjured, of good omen.” Its derivatives (words that came from it) are: whole, hale (as in “free from infirmity or illness”), wholesome, hail (as in “to salute or greet”), wassail, health, heal, holy, halibut, halidom, holiday, hollyhock, hallow, Allhallowmass, & Halloween.

Those are the words to try & work into the poem. Not all have to be in, but give it a go.

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Leaping

This one comes to my attention from Laura Stott. We do not know the original creator.

Use the words below to write a poem that makes leaps (kinda like Deep Image poetry). You do not have to move straight across from the first Noun to first Verb to the first Other, but use the nouns in the order as they come & fill in the spaces. When you are inclined to use a verb, pick the first verb & do likewise with the “Other” words. Force yourself to make jolting connections in a similar fashion as a deep image poem. Think “emotive imagination” & make what leaps you have to create an experience through your intuitive self. The following words come from W.S. Merwin’s poem “For the Anniversary of My Death” in The Lice (Atheneum, 1971), which can be found in The Second Four Books of Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1993).

Nouns Verbs Other
Year Knowing Without
Day Passed Last
Fires Wave Tireless
Silence Will Lightless
Traveler Surprised Strange
Beam Love Shamelessness
Star Writing Three
Garment Hearing Cease
Earth Sing
Woman Falling
Men Bowing
Today
Rain
Wren

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Vowels & Consonants; or Vowel Movements

I suddenly just awoke from a really deep, deep sleep after several days of very light sleep. It was so deep that it took my mind a second or two to figure out where it was, & it took my body, especially my limbs, at least seven seconds to make the journey back to this more physical/conscious world.

After a few more moments, I said to my self “I am so tired.” (As I look at that phrase now, it seems so short compared to how it sounded.) But what I realized, or was reminded of, was my hypothesis I’ve been carrying around for some time now. My probably, improvable hypothesis which states:

In the poetry of the English Language, vowels carry the emotion & the consonants carry the meaning. (And it’s usually the long vowels that provide the emotional content & schwa’s act more as consonants.)

Using the above example, “I am so tired,” I can elaborate. Each word has a long vowel, & because I was so tired, the “a” in “am” was dragged out quite some way to make it sound & act long, & the “o” in “so” was the longest vowel & “so” the longest syllable. (Yes, sometimes & usually, the content dictates how to read syllables.) Each syllable in that phrase was dragged out to emphasize my tiredness. But what made the sentence move forward was the turn of the consonants. Those consonants provided the meaning to the emotion. The consonants framed, or gave the vowels a context in which to work – in which the emotions could gather/find meanings.

Ok. Here’s the assignment. Write two poems about the same thing. In one, be heavy handed with vowels. In the other, be heavy handed with consonants. Then compare & contrast to see if any of what I said above may be true. You could also translate, or replace, an English poem’s words by substituting more vowel induced words in one case or more consonant induced words in another.

Poets to read that might be helpful in this assignment: maybe Campion for vowels, & an Old English alliterative poet for consonants.

If anyone discovers anything fascinating, or has their own ideas, please share.

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Tonal Dialectic

This one invaded me last night/this early morning (Thursday, December 18, 2003, around 4:30 a.m.) as I couldn’t sleep, & I started thinking about my recent poems & what I may try to do with my new poems to better reflect my thought/emotional processes. Also, I’m doing it because I came up with a cool phrase/coined a cool phrase in those wee hours, & now, I want to give the phrase some context.

I’ll start like this, I guess. In metrical poetry, a poem moves forward in part because of the stressed & unstressed syllables, or the long & short syllables, or both. (It also moves forward by tone, images, rhythm, line breaks, narrative momentum, etc., but mainly the syllables.) There’s an interplay and a tension between the stressed and unstressed syllables.

Ok. Here’s the assignment: do that with tone!

I thought of the term “tonal dialectic,” & I think it works in a similar manner as metrical movement. Shifts in tone. A tension can be made there. Meanings can surface!

So perhaps stanza one is in tone A, & stanza two is in tone B, & stanza three resolves them with tone C. Perhaps even more stanzas & tones. Or tone changes with lines, or whatever you see/hear fit.

So the assignment is to write a poem with different tones rubbing against each other to create something! But hopefully the tones will work in a progressive nature, not an arbitrary one.

It’s a bit abstract, I suppose, & I have no advice except to read Donald Hall. His poems ride on tones, as I hear them. Or listen to Schoenberg.

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Tonal Dialectic, part two – Using a Separate Language

I just finished reading David Budbill’s wonderful new collection of poems While We’ve Still Got Feet (Copper Canyon Press, 2005).

In this book, Budbill is basically reflecting on life/living. In part this is how he does it: because he’s an American but seemingly deeply influenced by ancient Asian poets, Budbill writes poems that have an ancient Asian tone about them but with a contemporary American linear language.

So what I mean is that the tone of the poems is similar to the tone you would expect to find, for instance, in a Muso Soseki poem or a Li Po poem or in The Kokinshu. And then he uses American language, because that is probably what he grew up with & how he thinks, to push the poems forward. For example:

   Gama Sennin

   Gut hangin’ out
   Stick on shoulder.
   Toad up on me
   head.

   Singin’ me songs
   on Red Dust Road,
   headed toward
   dead.

You can see the American language in “hangin’,” “Singin’,” & in the use of “me” instead of “my.” And the tone comes through, in part, I think, from the images & the last three lines & the title.

There is also this:

   Ryōkan Says

   With what can I
   compare this life?
                Weeds floating on water. 

   And there you are with your
   dreams of immortality         
                through poetry. 

   Pretty pompous – 
   don’t you think? – for a
                weed floating on water?


   (Quoted poems are by David Budbill as they appear in While We’ve Still Got Feet (Copper Canyon P, 
   2005)©, and they are used with permission of Copper Canyon Press.)

There he begins with a one of Ryōkan’s poem then responds to it.

So here’s the general dialectic of the poems. He rubs the tone (thesis, if you will) up with the language (antithesis) to synthesize a resulting poem, or understanding of life, love, ego, politics, poetry, etc. (Please note my reductionary “dialectic” description of these poems is very insulting to the poems, & I’m only using it to generate a poetry assignment. However, the tone/language is genuine & impressive.)

Your assignment is to write a poem with a very certain tone but in a language that is quite different than the tone. So perhaps you may want to write a poem in an Allen Ginsberg tone but while writing with the language (words/grammar) of Alexander Pope. Or this might be fun: write a poem with scientific language but in a religious tone. Or whatever you can come up with. And the poem should be a reflective poem, though not necessarily meditative or lyrical.

a: Tonal Dialectic, part three – Is the tone; or Tone the Is; or Is “Is” the Tone or Does Tone Tone the Is?

So I was watching the news – zoning in & out of it – and a commercial came on. Now I’m mostly zoned out until the end with its written, printed slogan on the screen:

   ACE
   The Helpful Place

(I dig how John Madden’s voice balances the helpful tone, but I didn’t realize until just now.) What I did realize when watching the ad was the line break, or what the line break has inside of it. It has the verb of the sentence. It has “is”. I thought that odd because if I remember my commercials well, they tend to have a subject & predicate, the objects, subjects, & verbs are not implied, & the verbs tend to be emphasized – but I could be remembering wrong. But nonetheless.

I then drifted to this thought. Can’t we, as writers of poems, do the same? Use the line break to carry the implied. I mean we do, but how often? How does it affect the tone?

Consider these lines from Margaret Atwood’s “Manet’s Olympia”:

   Above the head of the (clothed) maid
   is an invisible voice balloon: Slut.

Couldn’t it have read:

   Above the head of the (clothed) maid
   an invisible voice balloon: Slut.

And some us may even have put an em dash after maid.

But the poem could have done the line break with no “is” or em dash. But, really, it couldn’t. Not in these poems from Morning in the Burned House (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995 (first Canadian edition, which precedes the first English Edition (London: Virago, 1995) & the first American edition (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995))). Not at this point in the book. No, at this point, these poems are too sassy, up front, blunt. And I’m not sure if it is because of the poem’s tone or because of the uses of “is” within the poem.

In later sections, the use of “is” becomes less frequent, but the sassiness & bluntness are still there, but not as up front as later poems. And in those poems the tense changes & wavers between future & past tenses (or future perfect & past perfect, or whatever those terms are that I can’t remember but intuit).

So I wonder: Is the verb responsible for the tone, or the tone responsible for the verb? Is it that age old question: which came first: the tone or the verb? Ug.

So what we will do to find out is:

  1. Write a poem that uses “is” a lot. Make sure “is” happens at a line’s end or a line’s beginning.
  2. Rewrite that same poem, but replace each “is” with an empty space, unless the “is” happens to not be at the line’s end or the line’s beginning.
  3. Rewrite the same poem with different verbs. Replace each “is” with “would have” or “would be” or “had been” or “was” or “could be” or “could have been,” etc.

Now as I look back at those lines, that colon is doing a lot of work, too. The colon replaces something like “that reads” or “containing the word,” or something like that. So now:

b: Colonial Imperialism of Words; or Colonizing Ellipticism

Let’s explore how we can use the colon to replace words in a manner similar to the previous assignment, part a. But instead of finding a relationship with tone, we will find a relationship with ellipticism.

How far can we push that colon before we lose/distance our reader? How much information can be stored in a colon? Find the brevity inclusive/exclusive breaking point of the colon.

Is this what Alice Fulton & others are trying to do when they use “::”?

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Call & Response; or The Line of In-Between; or Silent Echo; or I Always Forget the Title of a Poem by Line Three, Except in this Poem

I have just had my first encounter with Ray Gonzalez. Oh, man! This guy is good. There is one poem, “Emerge,” I find myself returning to for two reasons: one, it’s a kick ass poem (& there are other kick ass poems, too – & by kick ass, I mean, they kick you so hard in amazement, you fall on your ass, even when you’re sitting down, Oi!); two, he does something unique. I’ll explain after you read the poem, which is from Consideration of the Guitar: New and Selected Poems (BOA Editions, 2005).

   Emerge

   As if the sacred is the only way
   and desire is fortune spilled across the desert
   where no one has stepped in years.

   As if the fever lifted from rage could change
   the world and stir the holy water
   tinged with blood.

   As if the fallen song was a great mystery
   and its rhyme came from the unfed mouths
   of those who promised they would not weep.

   As if the willow tree was a warning of green
   and falling things resisting the broken ground.

   As if listing the very heart of truth was outlawed
   by a summer afternoon impossible to breathe.

   As if each thing accomplished was taken away
   by those who don’t speak, but rearrange
   the candle to ward off the starving spirit.

   As if music in the fingers was played in time
   to hear the heron rise, its flapping wings
   changing the river into a pond.

   As if a thousand rocks left one stone to emerge
   through the decaying monument where no
   one said anything as the mountain arrived.

   As if the one thing we believe was finally
   played on a guitar carved from the wood
   of our father’s crib.

   As if the darkness is the beloved teacher
   and its tool the mightiest reason
   to go there together, unafraid.

   As if the sacred is the only way
   and the difficulties are lined up on the shelf
   decorating the hallway into the interior

   where the names we are called
   are the names of those who emerge.


   (“Emerge” by Ray Gonzalez published in Consideration of the Guitar: New and Selected Poems by BOA 
   Editions, Ltd., in 2005 © and used with permission.)

So this is how I hear the poem when I read it in my head. I hear “Emerge” between each stanza, except before the last stanza. It’s like in between each stanza is a brief meditation on “Emerge” – emerge is like what . . . . It’s a calling in the empty space between the stanzas. The next stanza is the response. There’s no real silence in this poem, that is, when you read it in your head.

But Gonzalez was smart enough to not put “Emerge” between each stanza, for to read the poem aloud with “Emerge” between each stanza, doesn’t seem to work. “Emerge” would steal too much energy. “Emerge” would dominate the poem. The poem would be overly dramatic. No, “Emerge” needs to be silent, but understood – understood to be there between the stanzas. And I think this poem succeeds in doing that.

Now, your assignment is to succeed. Create a call-&-response poem with the title intuitively understood to be heard between the stanzas. If you can manage to pull it off, actually put the title word, or words, between the stanza so they are read aloud, then, please, do so.

And then, or prior to writing the poem, wonder what type of poem this would be successful in. A contemplative poem, meditative poem. Could a narrative poem work with this? – I think it could. Maybe even lyrical.

But alas, go forth. Talk to yourself. Talk to the poem. Let the poem talk . . . & respond.

NB: The first section of this book: Consideration of the Guitar: New Poems reads as its own book. So really, you are getting a book & then a book of selected poems. How often do you get that?

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The Miguel de Cervantes Experiment

“The Prologue” begins Don Quixote, & it offers some good advice on writing, especially on the use of allusions.

The next section is called “To the Book of Don Quixote of La Mancha,” which is filled with poems to & about Don Quixote, Rocinante, & Pedro Panza. The first poem, “Urganda the Unrecognized,” is in a form called versos de cabo rato. The footnote explains the form as follows:

This comical form is called versos de cabo rato (translated: “lines with unfinished endings”). The dropped syllable is the one after the line’s last word’s stressed syllable.

I will quote the beginning:

   ON SANCHO

   I am the esquire Sancho Pan--
   Who served Don Quixote of La Man--;
   But from his service I retreat--,
   Resolved to pass my life discreet--;
   For Villadiego, called the Si--,
   Maintained that only in reti--
   Was found the secret of well-be--,
   According to the “Celesti--:”
   A book divine, except for sin--
   By speech too plain, in my opin--


   Translated by John Ormsby. Quoted from Project GutenbergTM License. 
   http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?pageno=33&fk_files=84486

Have fun!

a: Linear Palindrome

This one is for Dan Morris.

This assignment is based on Natasha Trethewey’s poem, “Myth”, which appeared on the Poetry Daily website on Saturday, January 22, 2005. I have given a name to this form as I do not know what else to call it. Since Poetry Daily’s archive doesn’t go back far enough [I shake my fist at them and ask why not?], you can read it here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/55930You can also read it in Pushcart Prize XXXI: Best of the Small Presses, 2007. [It also appears in Native Guard (Mariner, 2006).]

As you can see, this poem reads as a palindrome but on a line basis, not a character basis. That is, line one & line eighteen (the last line) are the same, lines two & seventeen are the same . . . & lines nine & ten (the middle lines) are the same. The poem thus reads the same backwards as forwards, not to mention it travels the same ground, but in reverse direction – thus, a new perspective on the same event.

Your assignment then is to write a linear palindrome. To be fair, I think the poem should be at least eight lines long. I think fourteen is a good length. If you go fourteen lines, then why not try to make it a rhyming sonnet, & if you can, write it in iambic pentameter & try to get a volta in there. If you do that, then you will be a linguistic genius.

Thinking of linguistic geniuses. . . . The longest palindrome I know is by Georges Perec. (To read it, go here: http://home.arcor.de/jean_luc/Deutsch/Palindrome/perec.htm.) Georges Perec, who likes to make crossword puzzles for fun, is the author of Life: A User’s Manual, which is a brilliant & wonderful novel whose structure is based on how a knight moves on a chess board. This novel was translated from the French to the English by David Bellos. Perec also wrote A Void, a novel in which the letter “e” is not used. It was amazingly translated by Gilbert Adair from the French to the English without using the letter “e”. Perec has a sequel novel, W, or the Memory of Childhood. This novel only uses one vowel, the letter “e”. And this too was amazingly translated from the English to the French by Bellos. It’s a crazy novel to read because you can just see how much struggle goes into saying the simplest thing, & how new events must arise & intercede between the beginning of a simple action & its conclusion, such as getting a book off a shelf.

I am thus inspired to have three sub-assignments:

b: “A Dan acts Niagara war against Canada”, or
“A Dan, a clan, a canal – Canada!” or “Poor Dan is in a droop”

Still tippin’ my hat to D.Mo.

You are to write a palindrome, but on a character level.

c: A, I, O, U, & always Y

You are to dust off an old, failing poem, & revise it so it no longer contains the letter “e”.

d: E, E, E, E, E, & E

Using the same poem from the first sub-assignment, revise it but use only the letter “e” as the poem’s only vowel.

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Lost in Translation, or Perdu dans la traduction, or For Shits & Giggles, or Pour des merdes et rit nerveusement

It’s spring break for many of us, so this one is for fun. So please have fun!

Type in a poem into a translator (like world.altavista.com/ or babblefish.com/babblefish/language.htm or  https://translate.google.com/), & choose, for instance, the “English to Spanish.” Then, take what it has translated & translate it BACK to English, & watch the hilarity ensue.

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Translation

I heard about this one somewhere. Translate an English poem from English to English. I imagine this can done on a word-to-word basis or a line-to-line basis, or the music/melody could just be carried over, or the syntax could be carried over. Whatever you think translation means.

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29
Aug
15

Quick Notes on Ted Hughes

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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Ted HughesTed Hughes (1930-1998) was an English poet, but he surrounded himself with the American Confessional poets of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath (who was his wife). Despite engaging with the Confessional poets, he was not a Confessional poet, though he did try to find outlets to explore who he was.

One of the first things I notice and latch onto as I read through Ted Hughes Selected Poems 1957-1994 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) is the use of the “I,” or the lack of it. Hughes is an observer of the world he is situated in. He is both empathetic and sympathetic to it, as he is trying to understand his surroundings. In his early poetry, there is a certain amount of joy and awe, but later the joy will disappear, at least for a short while. Early on, Hughes uses the “I” sparingly, and when he does, it is usually not a stand-in for himself, but, instead, he inhabits another form. For instance, in “The Man Seeking Experience Enquires His Way of a Drop of Water” (from his first collection of poems The Hawk in the Rain (1957)), he allegorically uses a drop of rain as a stand-in for himself, so that with the last line “Blundered the world-shouldering monstrous ‘I’,” that is the rain drop giving the “plain lesson how / Experience has worn or made you anew,” and it speaks for itself, and allegorically for Hughes. The rain drop is announcing its existence, much like I think Hughes is trying to do throughout his poems, but he can’t quite plant himself into the poems.

In his observations, he creates a mythic world, or at least creates a world with a frame in which he can center himself to focus on what’s around him. He is trying to find the “Blood [that] is the belly of logic” (“An Otter,” Lupercal, 38). As said above, the “I” Hughes uses is not him, but the embodiment the “I” uses generates more sympathy for what he is looking at or experiencing. “Wodwo,” in Wodwo  (1967), is good example of what I mean.

     Wodwo

     What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
     Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
     I enter water. What am I to split
     The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
     Of the river above me upside down very clear
     What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find
     this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
     interior and make it my own? Do these weeds
     know me and name me to each other have they
     seen me before do I fit in their world? I seem
     separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
     out of nothing casually I’ve no threads
     fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
     I seem to have been given the freedom
     of this place what am I then? And picking
     bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me
     no pleasure and it’s no use so why do I do it
     me and doing that have coincided very queerly
     But what shall I be called am I the first
     have I an owner what shape am I what
     shape am I am I huge if I go
     to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
     till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me
     for the moment if I sit still how everything
     stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
     but there’s all this what is it roots
     roots roots roots and here’s the water
     again very queer but I’ll go on looking

A “wodow” is a wild-man, a half-man and half-animal spirit type entity, like a faun or satyr. This poem is an ars poetica, of sorts, as Hughes is exploring the use of “I” and trying to represent himself and/or locate himself in the world and in his poetry. On an ars poetica level, “What am I to split” indicates the split between Hughes and the subject he is writing about. Hughes wants, seemingly, to write about himself but he has to dislocate from himself and embody another, much like the lines, “Why do I find / this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret / interior and make it my own?” That seems to be at the heart of most of Hughes poetry until about 1989 in Moortown Diary.

In his next collection Crow (1970), Hughes embodies a crow, and in this collection there is a sudden shift in tone. The tone of the poems, the accumulation of images in the poems is very Merwinesque. Despite the tone changing, Hughes is still trying to center himself in the world, but his observations are mediated throw a crow, who is seemingly godlike and/or omnipotent, which adds to the mythmaking feel. The mythmaking is so Merwinesque, I often feel like I am reading Merwin and not Hughes, and many of the long poems, especially “The Contender,” sound and move just like Merwin’s “The Last One.”

Hughes continues his observations and world creating with a sort of celebratory tone and feel until Moortown Diary (1989) and Earth-Numb (1979). In Moortown Diary, a harshness develops, as Hughes observes the less beautiful and exposes an unsympathetic nature. In Earth-Numb he experiences the harshness of life and towns and cities. In these collections, it is as if “Pain was pulled down over his eyes like a fool’s hat. / [. . .] He could not understand what had happened. / Or what he had become” (“The Beacon: A God,” Earth-Numb, 208-9). These poems are hung with pain.

By 1986, in Flowers and Insects, he continues with his empathetic observations, but they are less cynical and more prosy. Another turn in his poetry occurs in Wolfwatching (1989), which is unlike any of his other poems, as he explores the suffering of war, especially though his father and his Uncle Walt.

In the end, I don’t know how to generalize Hughes or what poets to group him with, but he is an impersonal poet trying to become personal. I would gather to say he was influenced by the New Critics because of this impersonality, but he’s not allusive or stylistically/technically as tight as one might expect from a New Critic poet, though early on he makes good use of anapests, which almost give his poem a sense of play or fun. Early on at times, too, he feels like D. H. Lawrence in his observations and sympathies, and I think of Lawrence’s poem “Snake,” in particular. Also, early on his poems can be surreal or dreamlike.

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26
Jul
14

Swinburne, Four Syllables, and Learning to Listen to Write

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

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Algernon Charles Swinburne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before the Beginning of Years

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

Before the Beginning of Years - Simple Scan

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

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

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

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

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

Before the Beginning of Years - Three Tier

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

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

Before the Beginning of Years - Four Tier

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

Before the Beginning of Years - Quantitative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Four Lines - Simple Scan

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

First Four Lines - Ghost Syllables

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

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

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Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sapphics

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u u  – u

 

u = short syllable. – =long syllable.

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

The adonic is the fourth line.

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

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

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22
Jun
14

On Stuart Kestenbaum’s Only Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For instance, the conclusion of “Crows”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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