Friday, December 25, 2009
Why is the Color of Snow?
Let's ask a poet with no way of knowing.
Someone who can give us an answer,
another duplicity to help double the world.
What kind of poetry is all question, anyway?
Each question leads to an iceburn,
a snownova, a single bed spinning in space.
Poet, Decide! I am lonely with questions.
What is snow? What isn't?
Do you see how it is for me.
Melt yourself to make yourself more clear
for the next observer.
I could barely see you anyway.
A blizzard I understand better,
the secrets of many revealed as one,
becoming another on my only head.
It's true that snow takes on gold from sunset
and red from rearlights. But that's occasional.
What is constant is white,
or is that only sight, a reflection of eyewhites
and light? Because snow reflects only itself,
self upon self upon self,
is a blanket used for smothering, for sleeping.
For not seeing the naked, flawed body.
Concealing it from the lover curious, ever curious!
Who won't stop looking.
White for privacy.
Millions of privacies to bless us with snow.
Don't we melt it?
Aren't we human dark with sugar hot to melt it?
Anyway, the question—
if a dream is a construction then what
is not a construction? If a bank of snow
is an obstruction, then what is not a bank of snow?
A winter vault of valuable crystals
convertible for use only by a zen
sun laughing at us.
Oh Materialists! Thinking matter matters.
If we dream of snow, of banks and blankets
to keep our treasure safe forever,
what world is made, that made us that we keep
making and making to replace the dreaming at last.
To stop the terrible dreaming.
From Human Dark with Sugar (Copper Canyon Press 2008)
Friday, December 18, 2009
American poet Timothy Steele’s analogy for the wonderful asymmetrical properties of metrical verse recalls an earlier famous remark by Robert Frost: “Writing free verse,” he wrote, “is like playing tennis with the net down.” Both comments underscore a commitment to the practice of metered poetry, while reminding us of the frustrations Steele and many other poets and readers have had with the more dominant, open forms of poetry in this and the last century. A widely acknowledged authority on metrical poetry and author of Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing, Steele offered comments on both metrical and open form poetry during my interview with him in early December.
DK: You’ve said you prefer to be called a “metrical poet” as opposed to a New Formalist. Why is that? Form is more than meter, isn’t it?
TS: Yes. That’s the problem. Form has many different meanings. The OED devotes six columns to definitions of it. Even the loosest free verse has form in the sense of “shape,” “manner,” or “distinctive character.” What I love—and hope we poets will preserve—is meter, the art of rhythmically organized writing.
Besides, as I said on another occasion, the only real New Formalist in English is Geoffrey Chaucer. And I believe that our modern obsession with technical novelty is misguided, based as it is on a confusion of the methods of literature with those of the physical sciences. Whereas science often advances by refinements of apparatus, literature mostly stays new and vital not by technical innovation but by our responding feelingly and intelligently to the ever-changing moral, social, and political conditions in which we live.
DK: An awful lot of really good “free” or open form poetry has been written in the past 100 years. Why does formal poetry continue to be your principal source of satisfaction as a poet and a reader?
TS: Meter supports and encourages memory. It gives the ear and mind a special purchase on language. Against the bass line of meter, one can hear the shadings of the individual voice more clearly than one might otherwise. Also, no other form of writing offers such an engaging blend of order and flexibility. On the one hand, you have the regular measure; on the other, you have, playing across the measure, a wealth of different sentence types, with all their interesting irregularities of phrasing and thought.
Perhaps most important, meter is an instrument of discovery. Working with it (and with related devices like rhyme and stanza) forces you to be more thoughtful than you might normally be. Attempting to secure a cadence or locate a rhyme, you find yourself trying different ways of saying things, and often you come up with something better than you had originally. Meter is almost like a good-natured but tough-minded friend: Being other than you, it is not swayed, as you are, by your impulses and inspirations; and it encourages you to test their soundness and see if you can enrich them with reflection and effort.
DK: Do you enjoy reading very much open form poetry yourself?
TK: Some of it. The intellectually charged imagist poems of Wallace Stevens—“The Snow Man,” for instance, or “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”—plus some of his humorous work like “Ploughing on Sunday.” Also, William Carlos Williams, especially the poems in his Sour Grapes and Spring and All period. Thom Gunn wrote some wonderfully sinuous satirical free-verse poems, including “As Expected,” “The Cherry Tree,” and “Convergence.” And there are other particular poems in vers libre that I’ve much admired, such as Gary Snyder’s “Piute Creek” and Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song.”
That said, the sheer volume of free verse published in recent decades presents a serious problem. It’s impossible to digest all of it. And one grows reluctant to devote inordinate amounts of time to it when so many people are so prolifically practicing it, while a valuable alternative tradition suffers neglect and misunderstanding.
DK: What are the specific deficiencies in contemporary free verse that you think might be rectified by the application of specific metrical or formal principles?
TS: A greater attention to rhythmical organization might encourage free verse poets to go deeper into their subjects. This relates to the matter we just touched on. When I started reading widely in contemporary poetry as a student, I noticed that many of the leading free-form poets would publish a new book every two or three years, and you’d sort of have to comb through the books to find the several good poems or passages. In contrast, fine metrical poets like Richard Wilbur, Louise Bogan, Edgar Bowers, Philip Larkin, and X. J. Kennedy published less; yet when you read their books, the poems were consistently thought through, featured a wide tonal variety, and offered many striking and just observations of the world. They weren’t simply writing Poetry with a capital “P”; they were also writing arresting and appealing individual poems. Though working with meters and rhymes evidently slowed down their output, the result was, at least for me, much more enjoyable.
DK: There seems to be a rise in the number of poets writing in traditional form? Are more poets taking the trouble to understand the traditions behind metrical poetry or is there something else that accounts for the increase in formal poetry?
TS: A century ago, free verse introduced a breath of fresh air into poetry; but the stale Victorian-Edwardian diction, subjects, and attitudes that prompted the modernist revolt have long since passed away. Free verse has become official art and has ramified into increasingly scattered and fragmented modes. Poets are realizing that we can’t keep recycling the spirit of 1912. And it’s probably only natural that some poets are rediscovering meter and availing themselves of its perennial advantages and pleasures.
DK: You take issue with Eliot and others who believe, in your words, that “skilful versification involves departure from a norm rather than variation within it", for example, using and, at the same time, withdrawing from iambic pentameter as a kind of a foil within a poem to create a new metric. Since then, people like H.T. Kirby-Smith have gone further by suggesting that this habit of withdrawing from an established prosody to create a new one is a feature of all historic revolutionary poetry. Why does this notion continue to have such appeal?
TS: In cynical moments, I suspect it is because it allows us poets to parade our shortcomings as virtues. We adopt rules and then not only break them at our convenience but also boast that these violations are masterstrokes of technique.
As for withdrawing from meter, that practice doesn’t result in a new metric. It results in “parasitic meter,” to quote a phrase J. V. Cunningham coins in his fine essay, “How Shall the Poem Be Written.” Parasitic meter is not a self-sufficient form but, in Cunningham’s words, “presupposes a meter by law which it uses, alludes to, traduces, returns to.” Moreover, as Cunningham notes, “To perceive it one must have firmly in mind the prior tradition from which it departs and to which it returns.” And when a literary community loses hold of the prior tradition, as has happened to a great extent in the last couple of generations, people no longer hear what poets working in this mode are doing. One of the ironies of Pound’s and Eliot’s work is that they so successfully undermined traditional metric that relatively few readers today appreciate the ways their own free verse alludes to and plays off of meter.
Also, this whole idea of prosodic revolution needs re-examining. Revolutions in style can, do, and should occur periodically in any healthy literary culture. But metrical revolutions are rare. Indeed, they aren’t properly revolutions, but evolutions. We can’t will them into being by a manifesto. They involve the kinds of gradual linguistic change that occurred, for instance, in late antiquity when stress supplanted length as the salient feature of European speech or when, in the Middle Ages, the inflectional system of Old English broke down, chiefly under the influence of Norman French, and gave way to a grammar based more on word order than word ending. To create a new meter, you need to create a whole new language or fundamentally modify the phonetic or grammatical structure of an existing one.
DK: Some years ago Charles Hartman singled out lineation as one of the organizing principles of a new prosody for free verse to compete with form. "When rhythm renounces the support of abstractions or independent systems (e.g. meter)," he wrote, "the basic principle of the line emerges and takes control" of the poem. Many agree with him. Do you?
TS: I read Mr. Hartman’s book with interest, though it seemed to me that he was suggesting that typography might serve as a basis for verse. That is, you take away poetry’s rhythmical organization, but you still lineate it in the fashion that scribes and printers have historically employed when dealing with verse. Since the delight I derive from poems involves the experience of rhythm and of hearing the ways in which interesting phrases and sentences are laid across the measures of lines and stanzas, that idea doesn’t appeal to me. But a free-verse poet might be more drawn to it and might find it a rewarding and adequate ground for practice.
DK: Hartman was trying, of course, to counter the charge of “formlessness” levelled against free verse. Is a prosodic system for free or open form possible at all?
TS: Here, again, we should distinguish terms carefully. Free verse can reasonably claim form by various means, such as Mr. Hartman’s principle of typographic lineation or D. H. Lawrence’s concept of plasmatic shape or energy. However, prosody is, to cite the OED’s definition, “the science of versification; that part of the study of language which deals with the forms of metrical composition.” So strictly speaking, no, a prosodic system is not possible for free or open form.
Saying this makes certain people indignant, and some have rather angrily written or told me that free verse does have its own prosody. But they tend to be vague on specifics. And it seems to me self-contradictory to adopt a mode of composition free of meter and then turn around and contend that it constitutes a metrical or prosodic system.
DK: Eliot hoped for a period of stability after an annoying flurry of chaotic poetic experimentation in the early years of modernism. Hasn’t the same level of experimentation continued to this day?
TS: As I noted in Missing Measures, modernists like Eliot, Williams, and Pound anticipated or hoped that the triumph of their experimental methods would be followed by a period of clarification and consolidation. They hoped a new metric would emerge and prove itself as coherent, shareable, and adaptable as the old had been. However, as they came to recognize and candidly lament, the experimentation simply continued, though it no longer had the purpose or energy it originally did.
DK: You paraphrase Wordsworth by saying “poetry should not dwell in a private lexicon” and that poets, above all else “write for readers”. But isn’t that precisely the problem today, i.e. poets employing a private idiom which the reader is at pains to translate? Who are poets writing for?
TS: Prior to the romantic period, poets saw their art primarily as a means of engaging and illuminating the external world. Since the romantic period, poets have more inclined to the view that their art should express their inner feelings. Further, influenced by the prestige of modern science, many modern poets have felt that poetry should be “difficult” in the way that modern science is.
On the face of it, these two tendencies—the self-expressive and the attempt-to-be-scientifically-difficult—are at odds with each other. But neither is very reader-friendly, and together they’ve sort of driven a wedge between poetry and its audience. Today, many poets, regardless of their particular style or school, appreciate this problem and recognize that we must correct or mitigate it. This doesn’t mean dumbing down poetry. It does, however, require an effort to meet the reader halfway—to speak clearly and offer accessible insight even when our subjects are complex and resistant to easy articulation.
In my own case, when I write a poem I have in mind, first and foremost, my wife, my extended family, my friends, and a community of fellow poets I particularly admire. If I eventually publish the poem, I hope it reaches a wider audience. It’s always cheering when people somewhere contact me to say they’ve liked a poem they’ve seen in one of my collections or have heard Garrison Keillor read on his Writers Almanac. (I’m less cheered when students email me questions in the wake of being assigned the task of analyzing a poem of mine that’s appeared in an anthology. Though grateful to be noticed, I want my verse to produce pleasure, not homework!)
DK: Finally, how have your views changed since writing Missing Measures and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing? Anything about them that gives you pause? Would you change or add anything?
TS: Because All the Fun is principally descriptive, and because I did the best I could to survey accurately the topic of meter and versification, I don’t think I’d change much there. I might use different examples in a few places, but probably nothing more than that.
Were I writing Missing Measures today, I might state more often and forcibly that I’m not implying that “free verse isn’t poetry.” I’m sufficiently Aristotelian to believe that all literature that imaginatively represents our experience is poetry—novels, stories, plays in prose or verse, prose poems, free verse, and metrical verse. I remain convinced, however, that to jettison meter would be catastrophic for poetry. It would diminish the entire art, including free verse since free verse needs something to be free from. Preserving meter is still the best way of insuring a genuine and vital diversity of poetic styles.
Timothy Steele is the author of five books of poetry, among them, Sapphics Against Anger and Other Poems (Random House, 1986) and more recently Toward the Winter Solstice: New Poems (Swallow Press, 2006). Garrison Keillor reads three of his poems in our "Great Poems" section in the right hand column.
Timothy Steele photo by Barian
Friday, December 11, 2009
For many years, I've read and reread Elizabeth Bishop's poems and prose, as well as biographies and critical studies of her life and work. So, when "Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell" was published last year, I spent a vacation week deep in those 30 years of letters. Between Bishop's characteristic reticence, her "immense, glistening, sibilant loneliness," and Lowell's combination of New England uprightness and brutal manic episodes, the letters of these long-time friends were often most moving for what was left unsaid between them.
After the suicide of her lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, the corrosive effect of Bishop's drinking became more apparent in her letters (she was good at covering, but she'd begun to break bones in falls during blackouts). I read the last third of the book with a mounting sense of dread, as both her own and Lowell's lives seemed to spiral downward with an awful, accelerating inevitability.
One particular surprise to me in the letters was that Bishop had lived in San Francisco in 1968, my current home, just months after Lota's death. Like many periods of Bishop's life, this one was notable for her feelings of limbo--she was, typically, between jobs, loves, and homes. But she and a young friend "found a rather funny but comfortable flat on Pacific Avenue--a steam laundry (almost silent) on one side--a body painting place (for CARS, that is!) across the street and also the Cancer Society." Her letters describe the place as a "...pea green wooden early 20th-cent. building--4 bay windows—2 fireplaces--I really like it, and right near Polk Street..."
1599 Pacific Avenue is just a few miles from where I live. I typed the address into Google Earth's search engine, and Google placed 1599 right on a traffic island in the middle of Pacific and Polk--a busy intersection. So, I wrote the number down, and drove across town. After circling what should have been her block, I concluded that the apartment must have been torn down, since there seemed to be no building with that number. When I got home, I saw that I'd transposed the numbers. No matter, I'd go back another day. And I did, on a day when I was running an errand in that part of town. This time, though, I forgot the slip of paper with her corrected address on my desk.
I'm not going back. I am still grateful for the new collection of letters and I hope, one day, to visit the house in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where she spent her early years. But 1599 Pacific Avenue, whether or not it's still standing in the shifting San Francisco light, is now outside my frame of reference. I got the message. Instead, I'm going back to her poems, where Bishop continues, as James Merrill observed, her "lifelong impersonations of an ordinary woman," and where, in her own words, "All the untidy activity continues,/awful but cheerful."
For a beautiful poem by Elizabeth Bishop see the "Great Poems" link in the right hand column. Also, Julie Bruck's "This Morning, After an Execution at San Quentin". Bruck is currently working on a manuscript of poems to be published in 2010.
Next week: an interview with one of North America's foremost authorities on metrical poetry, American poet Timothy Steele.
Friday, December 4, 2009
(From T.S. Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent)
No art form suffers more in the collision between the private and public worlds than poetry. Fiction writers conceal themselves behind characters and plot (with relative degrees of success); sculptors and painters make objects that are literally at arm’s length or longer; classical composers work in a highly abstract, wordless art form that largely overshadows the personality of their creator. All participate in the emotion of creation and performance, but none, regardless of what Mr. Eliot had to say about the matter, are as much in the foreground as poets. By the very nature of their art, poets are expected at some level to reveal something about themselves.
For those of us who attended last Friday’s readings by John Barton, Michael Kenyon and Chris Hutchinson at St. Michael’s University School in Victoria, it all came down to how much should be exposed and how much left at home. John Barton, for one, seemed content with the conventional boundaries that typically exist between poets and their readers, while at the same time offering an intriguing rumination on the poet’s presence in a poem partly captured here and appropriately titled “Persona”:
No question of
speaking, my friend
my stranger, the dis
location between what I
say and what you
sited in some
invisible wilderness best
left on its own
to explore us, who remain
so much more than
the sum of the usual
open to the night. (30)
Barton has a tremendous gift for image and for creating captivating transitions across lines and stanzas. A case in point: the opening lines from “Aquarium” - At night, under the river, there are rooms, doors opening and closing/ In the chill arrhythmic currents, all of us floating. (46) He also has a wonderful sense of fun, as when he riffs off a typo in a badly translated French menu - while simultaneously poking fun at Allen Ginsberg:
"smocked salmon” a la carte...
-an epiphany perhaps, but not
the food of love, instead a net full
of this year’s declining catch
stood atwirl on their tailfins
the best of the their generation lined up
and looking quite fetching in frilled
aprons with bibs smocked
by my mother...(47)
From “Saumon Fumé” (Hymn, Brick Books, 2009)
Chris Hutchinson’s overly symmetrical use of identically shaped adjectives tends to dull his rhythms from line to line. That said, I think he tackles questions about relationships with great courage and displays enormous imagination:
I’d rather reflect the sleep
of twenty castle-shaped clouds-
quiet as an unplanted garden,
a belief saddening
In the saddest of times,
clutching the wine cup without
letting a single telltale drop
insinuate itself like
a crystal of aluminum oxide
slipping down the peacock’s
effulgent throat. (39)
From “Mining Sapphire” (Other People’s Lives, Brick Books, 2009)
Michael Kenyon is an able poet, too, though he did himself no favours by using his account of personal betrayal to introduce a poem that provided neither context for his admission, nor a sense of contrition or redemption afterwards. Chris Hutchinson’s failure was of the opposite kind and unrelated to his poetry, i.e. a failure to disclose his physician’s diagnosis of the cold and fever he contracted before taking to the podium. Absent that information, and judging by comments afterward, I had to wonder how much it depleted his book sales among those reluctant to shake his hand or touch his book (Still, I bought his book and am here to tell the tale: a very fine poet).
None of these poets comes even close to being a confessional poet. But they do write very personally. The trick is not how much or too little is revealed - sometimes even the tiniest detail will unleash a flood of feeling and association - but whether what is revealed resonates in a meaningful way with the reader. Poetry that is transpersonal, that crosses the boundary between the poet and reader to deliver that shock of recognition that comes from truthful experience truthfully told, unleashed with power and sensitivity, is the kind of poetry we relish the first time we experience it, and return to time and again.
A truthful poet who historically has kept a cool rein on most things, including her persona, is Margaret Atwood. I’ve just finished re-reading several poems from Morning in the Burned House. A good place to end this week’s post:
You’re sad because you’re sad.
It’s psychic. It’s the age. It’s chemical.
Go see a shrink or take a pill.
or hug your sadness like an eyeless doll
You need to sleep. (4)
From “A Sad Child” (Morning in the Burned House, Houghton Mifflin, 1995).
Quick note: I'll be stepping aside next week to allow Montreal’s Julie Bruck (now residing in San Francisco) to tell a personal anecdote about Elizabeth Bishop and to comment on Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, which was published last year. Give her a read. You won’t be disappointed.
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