Monday, December 31, 2007

7 Things You Should Know About Being a Poet

Deborah Ager, taking off from a list by Aaron Mccullough in an interview in the Michigan Daily, offers her own 7 Things You Should Know About Being a Poet, with a challenge to come up with one's own list. Hers is worth checking out, and here's my response to the challenge. I've somewhat cheated, fudging on "you" -- some of my items are are directed to you the fledgling poet, some to you the general non-reader who's had the misfortune to be introduced to a poet at the office Christmas party:

1. There are things that pay worse.

2. Staying on the economics, it's a bizarre way of making a living, in that your entire product is a loss leader. You give it away to magazines that won't pay you anything, in order tio generate ancillary revenues -- teacthing jobs, grants and reading fees if you're lucky.

3. You can play the guitar in C and get by, but if you really care about what you're doing, you need to learn to play in every key. If you really care about poetry, you need to learn to write in form, and you need to learn how to break away from it.

4. Don't say anything that the reader will know without your saying it.

5. The question "what do you write about?" isn't a stupid question, but the answer has to be longer than anyone really wants to hear.

6. Just because you hate about 80% of the poems you read, it doesn't mean that you hate poetry.

7. We all begin to write poetry for the same reason: we have something to say. We have thoughts we want to express to the world, and we have feelings we want to share with the world.

So we start writing, and before long (if we’re lucky), but eventually (guaranteed), we will realize something. And this should be every poet's mantra, never to be forgottenr:

All your thoughts are shallow, and all your feelings are banal.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

We Are the Answer

Yes, in this month's issue of LocumLife, the magazine for locum tenens physicians, we are the winner of...

but wait. You're wondering what locum tenens physicians are?

Well, I was, so I looked it up.

Locum Tenens is temporary employment for physicians. It's usually a temporary position where you're filling until the position can be filled permanently.

Locum Tenens has only existed for about 30 years, but the number of physicians who take advantage of it is steadily increasing.

So locum tenens physicians are like the adjuncts of the medical world. Well, not quite. They get more respect than adjuncts. Which is, I realize, not saying a lot. The guy who cleans up after the elephants at the circus gets more respect than adjuncts, and he's in show business.

They also get paid more than adjuncts, which is not saying much, because panhandlers get paid more than adjuncts. But they get paid a lot more -- from $400 a day for your average Johnny-come-locum, up to $1500 a day for a radiologist or anesthesiologist.

And they probably don't have to put up with all that steamy sex that those doctors stuck in one hospital do, like on Gray's Anatomy.

Anyway, what does this have to do with our little poetry cum education cum world class sculpture blog?

Well, for these locum tenens physicians, who travel a lot, Locumlife magazine has a feature called "Destination: Anyone's Guess." They show a picture of a wonderful place to visit, and you have to identify the name of the attraction, its city and state. For example, this month's picture is of a picturesque oceanfront, and the clue is it's a prestigious military school in a mid-Atlantic state, whose alumni include John McCain, Jimmy Carter and David Robinson.

And we are the winning answer to last month's competition. Naval Academy...Opus 40...all the most prestigious sites.

Monday, December 10, 2007

For the Christmas Season

For the Christmas season, here's a song I wrote with John Hall, of Orleans and now the Honorable, one of the good guys in Congress:

I Wish I could Have Been There

That's Keith Whitley singing backup harmonies to John on the chorus.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Naked Blogger

What to make of this? Best not to wonder about it too much. I was looking at my stat keeper this morning, for no particularly good reason, and discovered that someone had surfed into my blog after doing a search for "Wendy Jones nude."

Wendy Jones -- Wendell Jones -- was a close friend of my youth, tragically dead while we were still barely more than youths. His father, also Wendell Jones, a wonderful artist who also died too young, in the 1950s. I had written about Wendy Jones, Senior, and his studies for the San Francisco Post Office mural, the last great mural competiton of the WPA, on the same blog page where I'd also written about some of my nude paintings. So that can't have satisfied our searcher much.

The only Google hit ahead of me was the Victoria and Albert Museum, and an entry about potter/transvestite/documentarian Grayson Perry, and his biographer Wendy Jones. This Wendy Jones, in the bio, quotes Peery telling an anecdote of his youth:

We used to spend many hours snogging and fondling – nothing more – to Roy Orbison on a velour sofa. One night one of the kids came downstairs while we were lying there in the nude. Years later I found out from the parents, ‘Yes, he remembered that.’

Next, a blogger named Paul Katcher who has a note on a Wendy the Snapple Lady doll, and "andruw jones nude" -- Your source for naked center fielders!

This last comes from Katcher having the same unhealthy interest that I do -- wondering what odd combinations of search terms bring people to his list. Funny stuff, as he comments on each search term. Woner what he'll have to say about "Wendy Jones nude."

So I don't know if any of these sites helped our searcher much, but there's a valuable lesson to be learned for all of us: if you put the word "nude" in your blog, you're going to get a lot of extraneous hits. I also got one for "40 nude wives."

So what am I going to label this post? Nudes? I think not. I like trouble, but not that much.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Film Noir -- The Lineup

Names to Watch Out For

What names can you not give a character without creating a distracting reference?

Hitler and Stalin, obviously. You might get away with Churchill, probably with Patton, certainly with Montgomery, probably with Rommel. Not with Goebbels or Himmler. Goering maybe, if you spelled it Gehring. Eichmann perhaps -- it's not that uncommon a name.

Not with Roosevelt, although in one of those Ogden Nash prose poems that so influence Russel Edson, though no one but me remembers them and makes that claim -- anyway, in this Nash poem there's a butler named Roosevelt. The protagonist asks him if he's any relation to the Roosevelt, and he replies that all Roosevelts are the Roosevelt. Not with Vanderbilt or Rockefeller, possibly with Astor.

Moving back to presidents, you could certainly use Kennedy or Johnson or Carter, maybe not Nixon, although it's nearly as common a name. Ford -- if his name raised irrelevant associations, they'd be to the car, not the president. Reagan and Bush and Clinton -- maybe not now, but in a few years they'll be OK.

McVeigh, no way.'s a common enough name that maybe you could, but of you gave the character a first and middle name, you'd be sunk. And certainly, you could not give a character the first and middle names of Lee Harvey.

I can't think of any 20th century poet whose name you couldn't use, either because they're too common -- Williams, Stevens, even Pound or Eliot (although if you used them both you'd be sunk) or because they're too obscure. Maybe Plath would be a problem.

The only 19th Century American writer you'd have trouble with is Longfellow -- at least the only one who occurs to me. Twain isn't really a name. could slip that one by.

Starkweather? Gacy?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Film Noir

Something new I've been fooling with -- sequences of film noir drawings, made by watching a movie on DVD or TiVo, pausing it when I see an image that strikes me, and making a sketch, using my direct-to-computer printmaking technique. I'm not so much trying to tell the story of the movie as to create a coherent and striking group of images. Here's the first group, simply titled "Film Noir" because at the time I did them, I didn't know I was going to be doing more, and now I can't remember what movie they came from (might have been The Big Heat):

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Who New?

An exchange between me and my old pal Bob Berner:

Me (Not super-original, but it was a throwaway line in a longer correspondence)
I think somewhere around our generation, the pantheon of influence shifted from Pound and Eliot to Stevens and Williams.

Bob (the good part)
Yeah, and even though Williams was still publishing when we were in our early 20s the influence was already in the process of shifting from Stevens and Williams into two streams,one coming from Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti and the Beats, the other from Lowell and Berryman and Ann Sexton. By the mid-60s you could say that the Tate-Ransom-Winters school was dead and that nobody wanted to write like Eliot, but a whole lot of people wanted to write like Lowell and another whole lot like the Beats.

So who's the model now? Certainly not Pinsky or Paul Muldoon or a ton of other leading lights we could name. By my lights, somebody starting out could do a hell of a lot worse than to look to Marvin Bell or to Phil Levine or to Lawson Inada or to Vern Rutsala or to Tad Richards to see how it's done.

Pax et Peredelkino,

Bob is loyal to a fault to his old classmates at Iowa, and I don't know that I belong on that list (all the others, old classmates except for Levine, certainly do). But I like his analysis. So who is the model now? Who for the generation that was young in the 70s, when the Beat/Academic wars were over, and Lowell and Ginsberg playing on the same team? And who for the 21st Century poets? Bernstein? Simic? The other Tate? Who?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

That Was Now

After a certain age you get to be afraid of your own taste. It's not that you can't bring yourself to turn on the radio, or download from iTunes, or check out today's music channels on XM or Sirius, it's more that you're afraid you'll get it wrong.

I suddenly realized that I was a victim of this fear. I had started an email family game: Battle of the Decades. It worked like this: I would go to XM Online, and copy and paste the "Now Playing" list for the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Whatever happened to be playing at that moment. Then we each had to vote row which decade had the best song of the moment.

A good game, a good email connector for a far-flung, music-loving family. But, my 27-year-old niece asked, what about the 90s?

The 90s? Did anyone care about the music that came out of the 90s? Well, Alex seemed to. Hard to imagine...she was a Richards, wasn't she? But I added the 90s, and sure enough, the songs began garnering votes, and not only from Alex (The Notorious B.I.G. over Chuck Berry?) but sometimes from her sister and even her cousins--my own daughters--all older than she.

And from me? As Commissioner of Battle of the Decades, I figured it was my duty to listen to at least samples of the songs I didn't know. And sometimes--like if the 50s Channel was playing Connie Francis and the 60s had Brian Hyland and the 70s had The Carpenters--the 90s Channel might turn out to be my choice too.

That was when the fear set in. Suppose I really liked someone on the 90s, and I voted for it, and it turned out to be the 90s version of Brian Hyland?

I'm serious. How could I be sure I could distinguish, in 1997 or 2007, between the hip and the unhip?

I who once was the arbiter of hip. I, who knew that Big Joe Turner was the real thing and Paul Anka wasn't, that Miles was hip and the Dukes of Dixieland were frat-boy pap. Well, that one would have been too easy. I, who knew just how far you could go in digging Cannonball Adderley and still be on the cutting edge of hip. I, who knew why "We don't want to think we're Listening to Lacy -- it's gotta be Bird, Pres, Shearing or Count Basie." And knew why Shearing had made the list, and why he no longer belonged there.

Worse, maybe I did know what was cool and I didn't care. That started to happen around the mid-80s, after The Clash and Springsteen. After that...I knew who Metallica and Van Halen were, but they didn't sound hip to me -- they sounded like kid stuff. Paul Anka with more noise. I watched Ozzy Osbourne on TV, dripping eye makeup, singng that he was going to take me to hell, and I knew that his chances of offering a credible guided tour of that zone were on a par with those of any State Farm agent.

And then, of course, the great generation-divider, as sure as rock and roll in my youth -- hip-hop.

So I accepted who I was. As Jesse Winchester once wrote,

Someday I'll be an old gray grandpa,
All the pretty girls'll call me sir
Now they're asking me how things are
Then they'll ask me how things were

And sure enough, the pretty girls in my English class were writing in their evaluation, "He's like the grandfather I never had."

That was now; this is then.

And that was fine. I knew what it meant to see the Alan Freed holiday show at the Times Square Paramount, with Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Moonglows, and Buddy Holly and the Crickets, or the Coasters and Frankie Lymon at the Apollo, or Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry at the Five Spot. And I'm fine with being the human archive who can tell about what it was all like. turn on XM, find something I like, only to discover that she or he is the 21st Century equivalent of Air Supply...? I'm not sure I want to take the risk.

Anyone want to listen to some Big Al Sears?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Revision, and Remembering to Take One's Own Advice

Spent the last couple of days wrestling with an abominable last line to a poem. And what I was doing was substituting one quality adjective-abstract noun combination after another. They all sucked. I kept thinking the elusive mot juste was out there, just dancing in front of me, if I could only find it.

Then it hit me. I would never let a student get away with this. My cardinal rule: never define an abstraction with an abstraction. Everything I've said about tired words and working words. I would tell the student, "find an image." So that's what I did. I don't know if it's the right image yet, but it's the right direction.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Opus 40 on Wikipedia

This was more of an adventure than I expected it to be -- certainly more than I would have hoped for.

There was a Wiki entry on Opus 40, and it was pretty good, with a couple of errors. But also,the entry was pretty short, and there was a lot more that could be said, so Iended up pretty much rewriting the whole piece. That was the easy part. I posted it to Wikipedia, and it was promptly rejected, for violation of the original sources and conflict of interest guidelines. Conflict of interest because of being related to Harvey, and Original Source because I didn't reference already published material, which is apparently a no-no. And one that makes sense in most cases, but not in this one. As I wrote, disputing the decision,

  • If my information on Opus 40 is unsourced, then all information on Opus is unsourced, because I am the original source of all of it. If you'll check the link that's up there now, to the New York Times article, you'll see that it is entirely based on an interview with me.
This did not impress my censor, who responded,

Did you read the original research and conflict of interest guidelines?

I followed it up with:

Yes, but in this case they don't make sense. You'll allow the Opus 40 website, which I wrote, to be used as a source, and you'll allow the New York Times article, which is entirely based on an interview with me and quotes me extensively, as a source, but you won't allow me to correct errors that those secondary sources made?

And yes, I am a descendant of Harvey Fite, but this has not stopped every other piece of literature written about Opus 40, from the sources you've quoted to numerous other newpaper and magazine articles, and chapters from various books, from using me as a wource. I know more about the subject than anyone eise.

By this time, the guy had lost interest in me, and didn't respond at all. So I decided that I would post my new bio of Harvey on the Opus 40 website, so that I could then refer to it, and I'd get Peter Jones, who has the creds as a professor of fine art, to submit it.

I got as far as rewriting the Opus 40 website, but then Wikipedia did an about face, thanks to an online friend who does a lot of stuff for them, and posted my entry, which you can read there now. In posting it to the website, I expanded it a little more, and I think it's pretty good now. You can judge for yourself.

Arnold Shaw on Wikipedia

Actually, he wasn't. But he is now. Arnold Shaw, whom I've written about previously, great music historian, no Wiki entry. So I wrote and posted one, and it can be read there now.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Belle and Ginger

It’s not hard to slip into thinking of Donald Justice – his generosity, his vast knowledge, the deep impression he made on all who were lucky enough to be his students; and mostly, his poetry.

I slipped into thinking about Don this past couple of weeks, teaching a unit on poetry in the 1950s. I’m doing the poetry culture wars of that era. Right now we’re on the Hall-Pack-Simpson New Poets of England and America anthology, hugely influential in those days of my youth, hugely forgotten today – out of print. I had to tell my students to order used copies from Amazon or Bookfinder, another Internet boon to teaching. Next we’ll move on to Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, the angry counter-anthology that flung the barbaric yawp of the Beats into the faces of the American poetry-consuming public, not that there’s ever been one. The Donald Allen anthology is still in print, and monstrously expensive, at 20 bucks a pop, which would seem to indicate that this particular culture war was won by the Beats, and it probably was, when Robert Lowell, poster boy for the Academics, crossed over to the other side. Actually, that signaled a truce more than a surrender – a cessation of hostilities.

And hostilities they were. Here’s Kenneth Koch, from his long poem “Fresh Air”:

Where are young poets in America, they are trembling in publishing houses and universities,
Above all they are/ trembling in universities, they are bathing the library steps with their spit, They are gargling out innocuous (to whom?) poems about maple trees and their children,
Sometimes they brave a subject like the Villa d’Este or a lighthouse in Rhode Island,
Oh what worms they are! They wish to perfect their form.

On the other side…certainly one would never find Donald Justice engaged in a similar diatribe, but when I once mentioned to him that I had sent a group of poems to Evergreen Review, his response was a raised eyebrow. This was maybe 1964…I suspect the same response would not have been forthcoming a few years later.

My assignment in teaching an anthology of poems is generally something like this:

When I get a new anthology of poetry, I don’t sit down and read it cover to cover. I’ll skim through it first, letting my attention stop where it will, where my eye is caught by a phrase, a line, an image…whatever.

So that’s what I want you do. Graze through the anthology, and bring into class a poem that you like, and be prepared to talk about what you respond to in it.

I first did this a few years ago with an anthology of World War II poets, and I loved the response I got. I also love that I never know what I’m going to be discussing – there’s no predicting or controlling what students will bring in. Interestingly, in both sections, more than one student chose Donald Hall, and more than one chose Vassar Miller.

None, this time through, for Donald Justice. But I went back to the work in that early anthology, and I was particularly glad to re-make the acquaintance of this poem:

Beyond the Hunting Woods

I speak of that great house
Beyond the hunting woods,
Turreted and towered
In nineteenth-century style,
Where fireflies by the hundreds
Leap in the long grass,
Odor of jessamine
And roses, canker-bit,
Recalling famous times
When dame and maiden sipped
Sassafras or wild
Elderberry wine,
While far in the hunting woods
Men after their red hounds
Pursued the mythic beast.

I ask it of a stranger,
In all that great house finding
Not any living thing,
Or of the wind and the weather,
What charm was in that wine
That they should vanish so,
Ladies in their stiff
Bone and clean of limb,
And over the hunting woods
What mist had made them wild
That gentlemen should lose
Not only the beast in view
But Belle and Ginger too,
Nor home from the hunting woods
Ever, ever come?

In the middle of writing this entry, I wandered over to Joe Duemer’s Sharp Sand blog, and his current entry in which he discusses revisiting James Wright’s “A Blessing,” which the years have not treated kindly. What seemed powerful and insightful now seems drenched in sentimentality.

Justice starts off his poem with the emotional distance and detachment of a form-perfecting worm, and tells us of a time historically, socially and emotionally distant, but at some point we realize that we have been pulled into it. Wright gives us, much too soon, the eyes of those two Indian ponies darkening with kindness. Justice gives us the lost dogs, Belle and Ginger, only at the end of the poem – two named creatures, the only ones in the poem, and what risks sentimentality more than the sad end of a beloved dog? But we’ve gotten there incrementally. The jessamine and roses give way to ladies clean of limb, and all vanish. The ravenous red hounds of the hunt become Belle and Ginger, and they vanish too. And so much emotion, so much loss, makes its way through that quiet, modulated voice.

Thank you, Don, once again, for everything, and most of all for your art. Thank you not for the first time, and not for the last.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Thursday, October 11, 2007

It Turns Out I'm a Genius After All

A while back, I was introduced to the hay(na)ku, a recently minted verse form, which is sort of a condensed haiku -- three lines, of one, two, and then three words. It came up as a topic of discussion on NewPo, and I contributed -- not slaving over it, I confess, a hay(na)ku of my own:

I didn't give a lot more thought to it, but it seems to have entered, to some small degree, the canon of the hay(na)ku, and it's been included in Bob Grumman's new book, From Haiku to Lyriku (Runaway Spoon Press, along with a critical exigesis of the poem by Mr. Grumman.

Bob Grumman is a strange bird and a tireless proselytizer for the kind of poetry that makes most people, even po-biz types, scratch their heads. The thing of it is, he's a wonderfully acute critic, and his essays on his cockamamie theories make for consistently challenging and thought-provoking fare (my favorite, and one that I regularly assign to my creative writing students, is his essay on MNMLST Poetry).

So I was delighted to find myself, and my hay(na)ku, the subject of such scrutiny, if a little nonplussed. Bob has posted a version of this critique before, on his blog, but somehow seeing it between covers, along with Robert Creeley, Jack Kerouac, Richard Kostelanetz and other notables, gives it a new levelof reality. Well, I guess true genius will out, sometimes in the most unexpected places. Or to look at it another way...what if this becomes my one canonized poem, the only thing people will remember me for?

Well, here it is, excerpted from Bob Grumman's book, which I am now reading from start to finish, with much delight.

I've not come across many comic as opposed to gently humorous senryu, either. One such is Tad Richards's hay(na)ku:

this shit
and the horse

Brace yourself, for I'm going to spend a lot of time on this, most of it clattering rather far afield. That's because the thing immediately awakened my taxonomical instinct (which, as is widely known, is a very light sleeper). I suddenly had to know what to call it. Since it is clearly both verbal and lineated—which makes it in any level of my taxonomy a poem—how can I believe it could be something other than a work of literature? Well, the work is totally advocaturical, in my jargon, in that it does nothing on the surface but tell the reader what to do. The question is really, how can we consider it literature, or, specifically, a poem?

A question mine enemies would ask at this juncture is why I don't just junk my taxonomy on the grounds that it must be worthless if it has any problem with an obvious poem like Richards's piece. My taxonomy covers too much territory well for me to junk just because it is not perfect, however. No taxonomy, as I keep saying over and over, can be perfect. There will always be objects right at the border between some pair of its pigeon-holes that cannot readily be assigned to either.

I do think the piece a poem. First of all, it is presented as one. This needn't make it a poem, but is evidence it is. Second, and much more important, it provides pleasure (aside from any moral pleasure its message might give an engagent). It does this by (a) excellently enacting a clearly defined poetic form; (b) being a vivid snapshot of its persona, as opposed to (or on top of) being an expression of a point of view; and (c) entertaining us as a boffo joke.

Phrased thus, "Fuck this shit and the horse," Richards's text would be simple advocature, or verbal propaganda, telling us what to do with "this shit," according to my taxonomy. By lineating his text, Richards increases its qualifications as a poem, but doesn't by itself make it one. Advertising text, a form of advocature, is often lineated, and addresses on envelopes, a form of I call "informrature" for words used mainly only to inform, always are; this doesn't make these things poems.

That Richards's text fastidiously follows the rules for being a rigorously defined poetic form, the hay(na)ku (a special form which consists of three lines the first of which has just one word, the second of which has two, and the third three), further increases its qualifications as a poem. Again, that's not enough to make it certainly a poem, for advertising jingles and didactic verse can also follow such rules. (Here, I'm distinguishing literary poems, or serious poems, from texts that could also be called poems, and are, but are clearly significantly different from literary poems.)

What finally makes Richards's text, in my view, a (literary) poem is my subjective opinion that it does more in the way of entertaining the engagent than in advocating some morally correct course of action. What is being advocated is silly and too general to be taken seriously as advocature. On the other hand, it is quite entertaining as mechanism for revealing the character of its persona. He seems to be stuck in a bad situation ("this shit"), but capable of a certain amount of reflection: he condemns his present situation— then realizes that the horse, too, deserves to be condemned. (It's the horse "she came in on," I've been informed, by the way.) For me, at any rate, the poem has brought an enjoyable character to life.

Then there are the jokes carried off. The first (for me) is the jump from the generality of "this shit," which could be all existence," to some specific horse. Related to that is the

pun of "fuck" as both "do evil to" and "have sexual intercourse with." The first meaning holds for the first two lines, but the second, absurdly, becomes a factor in the third. (Of course, those whose consciousnesses have been raised to the proper height, as mine never will be, will be unlikely to laugh when visualizing a man's making it with a horse.) The involvement of the horse is ridiculous, too, at first, but then makes a kind of sense since horseshit is a common kind of shit, which could make the horse the creator of the shit.

A second joke is involved: the use of the formal verse form to package the coarsest of messages. A satire on the verse form--even on any verse form is thus there.

To return to the text's adhering to a strict form, it always amazes me how pleasurable it is when a text does that. I contend that observing a display of mastery encourages us in the belief that Man can Overcome Existence. Poetry should do a lot more, but succeeding in obeying the rules for a strict form without being predictable, as this piece does, is an Important Value. Note, by the way, that Richards's text is not just one word, two words, three words, but one syllable, two syllables, three syllables. All sharply Anglo-Saxon.

There, now. Aren't you sorry you weren't the first to recognize its profundity?

Newest Richards Family Writer

Thumbs up to my niece, Alex Richards and her debut young adult novel, Back Talk. The characters are vivid and believable. Gemma, the ingenue from Idaho, new to New York and working as an intern at a TV talk show, is just the right balance of naive and hip. Her roomates, celebrity-money Dana and old-money America, are distinctly drawn and complementary to each other and Gemma. I think I especially liked America, understated and from a totally different world than either of the others.

The villains, twins with claws, were wonderful, and their comeuppance was brilliantly plotted and completely satisfactory. The whole plot involving a teenage prostitute whom Gemma finds for the talk show, then befriends, was excellent, and Gemma makes a significant personal odyssey.

There's a lot more sex and booze and drugs than in Nancy Drew.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Hot Asphalt, Crushed Stone, Craft and Creativity

A friend asked me "what happens when you begin to construct a verse and at what juncture in the process do your muses merge with your craft to produce a poem"?

Well, Sookie doesn't like the idea of merging with anything unless there's oral sex in it for her, and she won't be lumped together with any other muses, but I managed to bat out a response to the question without telling her, and let's hope she doesn't find out.

Here's what I said.

I don't know if there's any one answer to that, so maybe I can start with a few small answers.

You have to find a way in to the heart of the poem, and you don't know before you start what that way will be. My friend, the poet Marvin Bell, has said, "Writing poetry is not a way of saying what one already has the words for, but a way of saying what one didn't know one knew." And it's even more elusive than that. It's not about finding the words to say what one already knows, either.

Another friend, Patti Marshock, wrote a wonderful essay on one process of finding your way in. If you're interested, it's here.

Sometimes to find a way in, I'll reshape the poem. I'll change long lines to short lines, or vice versa. I'll impose rhyme and meter on the words, or I'll take them away, and try the poem in free verse.

I've talked to other poets who do this too. Donald Finkel told me of trying to write a poem about an experience a student had related to him, of being struck by lightning. He couldn't make it work, although he knew there was something there. Finally, he tried doing two things he never did, and would never have recommended to anyone. He had tried the poem in the first and third person; now he cast it in the second. He had tried it in the present and past tense, now he tried the future ("You will...") And that was the way in. "You" gave him the distance he needed between the speaker of the poem and the subject of the poem; "will" gave the event a sense of inevitability.

At least that's my guess. All Don told me was that it worked.

Sometimes I'll change the gender of the persona in the poem, from male to female, female to male. Perhaps this can be criticized as "femininity defined by men," but I hope it's not. I don't think of it that way. I'm just looking for the voice within me that's right for the poem.

here's one example. I had found a line in a notebook, a line I discarded from another poem, about carrying belongings in a mesh bag. I started building around it, making the belongings old records, and pretty soon discarded the mesh bag, because you can't carry old records in a mesh bag. So who was carrying the records? It became a woman, a woman leaving her husband, and taking nothing but these records. Why would she do that? They meant something to her beyond their values as music or collector's items. They were her father's -- he was a jazz musician. So the poem started to be about what you take, and what you leave behind. The form that worked for it turned out to be regular but syncopated -- a three-stress line, sometimes iambic, sometimes trochaic.

Here it is.


She left home after sunrise,
but before Jack woke. She took
— scrupulously — only
a cardboard suitcase. In it
all she knew was hers:
six polyvinyl choride
records, 78
RPM, cut in
by a band called Ellis
Perkins’ Swing Commandos
Her father was Ellis Perkins.
Curiously, she had no
pictures of her father,
but one was in the archives
of the Chicago Defender
when the Commandos played
The Gate of Horn, their
one brush with the big time.

What she had were solos,
trumpet — plunger mute —
derived from Bubber Miley,
more from burlesque: old-fashioned,
even for ‘47.
Ellis Perkins played
with dogged fervor, on
the beat, half-step behind
the feeling. Late at night,
listening, she would urge him
with wrists, breasts, shoulders,
to walk astride the notes,
to walk inside the tone,
like Bubber, Cootie, Buck
Clayton, Red Allen, Roy
Eldridge — till she realized
Ellis was done walking.
Now it was her turn.

She lined the suitcases with
dishtowels, to protect
the fragile vinyl. She
didn’t think Jack would miss them,
but she planned to send them back.

Some of the details -- her Chicago background, the fact that her father played the trumpet and was influenced by musicians of the 20s and 30s -- came out of the three-stress music of the poem.

A while later, I had a line I tried to build a poem around -- "the days when they still talked about jazz." But it wouldn't work. I loved the line, but maybe I loved it too much, and for the wrong reasons -- for what I felt about it, not for what it felt. It was too sentimental -- it forced sentimentality into a poem every time I tried it.

While I was keeping this line in the back of my mind, I went to visit a friend in New Jersey, took a wrong turn, and passed by a sign that read: HOT ASPHALT, CRUSHED STONE, SAND AND GRAVEL. It sounded right, For something. What, I didn't know, but I wrote it down.

Then I started wondering about the jazz line again, and wondering if it would work in another context. But what? How about if someone else said it, not me? I hadn't intended to go back to the woman from "Walking Blues," but I started to wonder if she might be right for this. What do you leave, what do you take? How do you use the past to find yourself in the present? I decided to bring her closer to me. She was looking for a new life -- why not bring her up to the Hudson Valley, put her in a new place that would give her a different perspective? That led to this:


By spring, she was living in upstate
New York, working for a paving company:
hot asphalt, crushed stone, sand and gravel.
The view from her window was great heaps
of stone, scooped, conveyed to barges,
an inlet of water, a distant high bridge, mountains.
Below her flat, old white men drank and talked
about guns and rights. She could hear,
late into night, the tunk! of darts, like
the patter of of raindrops slowed way, way down
by a drummer intent on mastering their rhythms.
She thought about her father, Ellis Perkins,
in the days when they still talked about jazz --
Louis Armstrong and Jabbo Smith at the Rockland Palace
and the next day it was all over Harlem
how Satch had smoked him with F over high C.
How Cootie left the Duke.
How one day everyone opened the windows, and played
Illinois Jacquet’s solo on “Flying Home”
to the streets and stoops: blat... blat... blaat... blaat... blaat...

And that led to several other poems, as this character became an important persona for me for a while.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Wikipedia and me

At various times in the past, apparently with nothing better to do, I've perused Wikipedia and amended entries (in two cases created entries). This morning, with definitely better things to do (but avoiding them) I looked over my Wiki contribution history, and boy, is it an oddly mixed bunch.

What I have not done yet, but should (that would be actual work, rather than avoidance of work) is to edit and rewrite the entries on Opus 40 and Harvey Fite. But here's what I have done.

June 2006 - entry for Varian Fry, a young American who helped artists and intellectuals escape Nazi persecution in 1939 and 1940. I added a link to Albert O. Hirschman, noted economist wh0 as a young man, helped Fry in Marseilles (I also added Fry to Hirschman's entry. And I added my novel, The Virgil Directive, loosely based on Fry's career, to the list of books on Fry. Someone subsequently removed it. I just put it back in...let's see if the same spoilsport is still around.

July 2006 - The Fontane Sisters -- why was I even at their page to begin with? They were a girl group in the mid-50s, when record labels were covering R&B hits with white-artist versions. I added references and links to the recording artists whose songs they had covered.

Jimmy Bowen -- I wrote this entry and added it to Wiki; it's since been updated a couple of times. Bowen was a teenage rock and roller in the 50s who went on to become a major record producer in LA and Nashville; he contributed a very nice cover blurb to my New Country Music Encyclopedia.

March 2007 -- the Pat Boone entry. I added
In his first film, April Love, he refused to give co-star/film love interest Shirley Jones an onscreen kiss, because the actress was married in real life.

For the Hipster (1940s subculture) entry, I added Cab Calloway to the list of famous hipsters, and the following to their section of hipster quotes:

"When you cats came here, all you could play was the melody. Now you wouldn't know a melody if it hit you in the mouthpiece." -- Ronny Graham, "Harry the Hipster's School for Progressive Jazz Musicians."

* "Hipsters, flipsters, and finger-poppin' daddies, knock me your lobes." Lord Buckley, recording.
All this appears to be gone now. The hipster entry was the subject of a major war, and all of the early work on it has apparently been obliterated.

What is there in the new version, is a long quote on the hipster from The Dark Ages: Life In The U.S. 1945-1960, by my friend, the late Marty Jezer.

The hipster world that Kerouac and Ginsberg drifted in and out of from the mid-forties to the early-fifties was an amorphous movement without ideology, more a pose than an attitude; a way of being without attempting to explain why. Hipsters themselves were not about to supply explanations. Their language, limited as it was, was sufficiently obscure to defy translation into everyday speech. Their rejection of the commonplace was so complete that they could barely acknowledge reality. The measure of their withdrawal was their distrust of language. A word like "cool" could mean any of a number of contradictory things--its definition came not from the meaning of the word but from the emotion behind it and the accompanying non-verbal facial or body expressions. When hipsters did put together a coherent sentence, it was always prefaced with the word "like," as if to state at the onset that what would follow was probably an illusion. There was neither a future nor a past, only a present that existed on the existential wings of sound. A Charlie Parker bebop solo--that was the truth. The hipster's worldview was not divided between "free world" and "Communist bloc," and this too set it apart from the then-current orthodoxy. Hipster dualism, instead, transcended geopolitical lines in favor of levels of consciousness. The division was hip and square. Squares sought security and conned themselves into political acquiescence. Hipsters, hip to the bomb, sought the meaning of life and, expecting death, demanded it now. In the wigged-out, flipped-out, zonked-out hipster world, Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Truman, McCarthy and Eisenhower shared one thing in common: they were squares. ...the hipster signified the coming together of the bohemian, the juvenile delinquent, and the negro.

I wrote most of the Red Prysock entry, building on a skeletal stub that was already there.

I added a note to the Church of the Sub-Genius entry, comparing the picture of "Bob" with pipe to Mark Trail. I'm surprised no one removed it, but no one has.

April 2007 - I created an entry for my friend Michael Jahn, who deserved it for his career as mystery writer and rock critic -- actually the first pop music critic for the New York Times.

And just now, to the "Purple People Eater" entry.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Played with Bird, Part 2

Two more living musicians who played with Charlie Parker: Oscar Peterson and Hank Jones.

Jazz and Opera

Paul Tomasko, a neighbor, and a fine singer of operetta and theater music, came by to show Opus 40 to a friend, a musician from New Orleans. The musician’s name was Chris Saunder, and he was Al Hirt's piano player for ten years, and then worked with Pete Fountain. These aren’t artists I’d rush out to hear, but you don't get gigs like that without being very good. Chris also turned out to be a very nice guy, and we passed about an hour in conversation about music, which is one of the best ways to spend an hour.

Here’s one of the things he said that struck me. He was talking about the contribution of Italian musicians like Nick LaRocca to early jazz. He asserted that the Italians brought syncopation to jazz, and that it came from their cultural background listening to opera.

Well, I’m not so sure. Most people think that those early LaRocca recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band don't swing the way jazz should, and they're mostly right. Most people credit the polyrhythms of West Africa for the syncopation that so much of jazz is built on, and they’re mostly right too, as are those who point out that you don’t need syncopation in order to swing.

But the more you listen, the more you learn. There’s a lot of racial territoriality in American music, neither side willing to concede much to the other. And that can get in the way. The 20th Century, the American Century in music, gave the world one of its greatest artistic flowerings, and it owes its greatness to, as much as anything else, its mongrel nature. Whenever cultures and sounds and styles have butted up against each other, it has enriched the mix. So…opera as a godfather to jazz syncopation? I love it. To me, it’s one more affirmation of the greatness of our American music.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ars Poetica

My ars poetica can be seen at the online journal Ars Poetica.

Work is Love Made Visible

This from the PoetryEtc listserv, where a novice poet who's been making some significant breakthroughs in her work, and has reached that necessary and powerful stage of being excited by process, not statement, wrote:

Wasn't there a famous writer that used to cut their work up, throw it in the air and then reassemble it - or have I been dreaming?

I think I might try this method myself next!

My response:

Burroughs did it, and most famously Bryon Gysin (1916-1986 - I had no idea he'd lived that long. The reason why Bryon Gysin is not more famous may tell you something about the limits of this method.

To me, these things are all tools, not an end in themselves. Cutting and throwing can be good...if it works for you. Reassembling, perhaps, even better. But for me that would still be a first step.

If you've looked at my website, you've seen it's off of a home base -- There are some pictures of Opus 40 on the site, though they don't really do it justice. But it's a magnificent work of art -- a 6 1/2 - acre stone sculpture. The sculptor was my stepfather, Harvey Fite, and he spent 37 years creating it, stone by stone, moving all the stones himself, by hand and with hand-powered tools -- winches and booms and chisels.

So I grew up seeing this amazing creation taking place in my back yard. And what I learned from Harvey, perhaps more than anything else, is that art comes from work. Norman Maclean put this really well, in A River Runs Through It. Speaking of the father, McLean wrote "He believed that all good things in life come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy." Or for another take on this: A few years ago our family donated a piece of Harvey's, a stone carving, to Bard College, where he had taught for 30 years. There was a little ceremony, and they made up a little program for the event, and they asked me if Harvey had a favorite quotation that they could put on it. I called my brother and asked him, "Do you have any problem in using a note from a writer who is these days considered hopelessly kitschy and declasse?" He said, "Of course not -- you're talking about Kahlil Gibran, right?" I was, and the quote that Harvey loved from The Prophet was "Work is love made visible."

So I learned that art comes from the making. It's what comes after you throw the words up in the air, or after you collage them. That's what makes Patti Marshock's essay so valuable -- she talks about that work. Not just the translating back and forth, not just the collaging, but what you build out of that raw material. Harvey worked in tons of stone, and he worked it, and reworked it, the way you have to work and rework a line of poetry. Last weekend was the Saugerties Artists Studio Tour, and one of the artists in the group is me, so one of the studios was mine (and I sold five pieces! Yay!), and during the course of the afternoon, a few people stopped by who remembered Harvey, and remembered seeing him work (he died in 1976). "You'd see what he was doing, and they you'd come back a few weeks later, and it would be totally different! You'd ask 'what happened, Harvey?' and he'd say, 'Oh, I didn't like the curve of that wall.'"

That's why it took me a long time to appreciate the Earthworks sculptors, to whose work Harvey's is often compared -- and I still don't appreciate a lot of them, but I've come to recognize the value of artists like Robert Smithson and Robert Morris. I had a hard time with art that's conceptual rather than organic, that's imposed on a space rather than developing from it.

There are other models in poetry for randomness, but controlled randomness. James Merrill wrote The Changing Light at Sandover based on messages he got from a Ouija board. Donald Justice used his "chance cards." Here's from an interview with Dana Gioia.

D.G.: Several poems in Departures were written using the element of chance. Can you describe how you started composing them?

Justice: As I recall, I got started not long after playing poker one night in Cincinnati with John Cage. Only I wanted to control chance, not submit to it. Chance has no taste. What I did was to make a card game out of the process of writing. I'd always loved card games anyhow, gambling in general. As well as I can recall now what I did, I made up three large decks of "vocabulary" cards--one deck each for nouns, verbs, and adjectives-and a smaller fourth deck of "syntax" cards, sentence forms with part-of speech blanks to be filled in. I would then shuffle and deal out a sequence of "syntax" cards, then shuffle the "vocabulary" cards in their turn and fill the syntactical blanks in. I would go through all this three times, allowing myself to go back and forth as I wished across the table of results, mixing them up to taste. It sounds silly enough, I suppose, and of course anyone could do it. But it seemed at the time to simulate, at least a little, the way the mind worked in writing. And there was enough choice left for the writer's sensibility to enter. I thought that was important.

D.G.: Why aid you stop writing poems according to this method?

Justice: The third set of chance cards I made produced nothing at all interesting. Well, I knew you couldn't win every hand.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Stonework and Earthworks

Two books to our attention recently, one new, one new to us. Suzaan Boettger visited Opus 40 recently, in the company of our old friend Tram Combs, and after a delightful afternoon, she sent us a copy of her book Earthworks, which gives a brief mention to Harvey and Opus 40 (Suzaan will be including more on Opus 40 in her next book). Earthworks is an important addition to any collection of books on the art of the late 20th Century. It told me a lot that I didn't know about the lives and backgrounds of the key figures in the Earhtworks movement, and gives a solid and thoughtful insight into the aesthetic underpinnings of the movement.

Stone Primer, by stonemason Charles McRaven, is a beautifully photographed coffee table book, and also an excellent book on building with stone. Opus 40 is one of the examples McRaven uses.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Idle Thought on Music

Has it ever struck anyone that in the era before 1960, no one making popular music of any sort thought of their work as having any lasting cultural or aesthetic importance, and they produced so many masterpieces that will live forever--and in the era after 1970, everyone making popular music thought of their work as having lasting cultural or aesthetic importance, and hardly any of it does?


In Episode 5, Bob marshals his forces in preparation for his campaign against campaign, and we find out about Blanche's gigolo.

RIP Max Roach

RIP Max Roach, great artist, Founding Father of bebop.

My most potent memory: I heard Max play in a club in New York in 1977. It was right after Paul Desmond had died, and Max did a tribute to him that he called "Five for Paul." It was an unaccompanied drum version of "Take Five," and it was mesmerizing.

Peter Jones and I were wondering, who's left now who played with Bird, or at least recorded with Bird? There aren’t many, but here are the names I came up with:

Roy Haynes
Dr. Billy Taylor

And here's a surprise. Not that he's still alive, but that he played with Bird:

Dave McKenna

Bird did an album with Woody Herman, something else I never knew, called Bird With the Herd, and McKenna was on the date.

Anyone got any more?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Saugerties Art Tour

The Saugerties Art Tour kicked off this rainy Friday evening with a group show opening at Opus 40's Gallery, and a first rate show it is. The studio tour itself takes place tomorrow and Sunday, and my studio in the Fite House at Opus 40 will be part of it.

Here are a couple of the artists featured:

And here are a couple of new pieces of mine that will be on display at my studio:

Situations and Miles

In Situations 4, a vortex of forces begin to coalesce around Carlene's pilgrimage, Will The Major be drawn into Polly's plan to lead a revolution that will install Ross Perot as dictator?

And a poem, "With Miles," in issue 36 of

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Most Deserving Poet of All

This is from an exchange with Bob Berner, a lifelong friend from back in Iowa Workshop days, a fine poet himself and a tireless champion of poets and poetry. Among Bob's many other fine qulaities, he's never short of opinions, and never shy abput expressing them. He's also not to dig his heels ion and refuse to listen to other opinions. Bob wrote to me on the occasion of Charles Simic's being named Poet Laureate, not at all happy with the choice, and not happy, in general, with the fat cats of poetry getting fatter -- Simic winning the Laureateship on top of MacArthur grant.

I wrote back saying that actually, I was a Simic fan.


Tad--Maybe I'm wrong about Simic [he would later delve into Simic further, and find much to admire]. If I read more recent stuff of his I might change my mind about him. I remember changing my mind about other poets, Creeley and Ashbery to be specific. I hated their early stuff and changed my mind after reading more recent work.
But I know in my bones I'm right about the money. Simic is no more worth $300,000 than any jock is worth the millions they get paid. Moreover, it's not exactly that Simic was on the verge of bankruptcy even before he got the MacArthur. He'd been nicely employed in academia for YEARS, thank you very much. Which brings me to my major complaint about the awarding of such big-money prizes: they always seem to go to people who Don't Need The Money. So, instead of giving a six figure award to someone who's been an assoc or full professor somewhere for 10 years, why the hell not give a series of $10,000 grants to people who Need The Money? That would at least take some of the day-to-day pressure off people struggling to pay their bills while they struggle to make it in the quality-lit game,
As to Simic's elevation to poet laureate, I don't know what other poets were under consideration, and I don't even know what the process is. Do members of the Academy of American Poets submit the names of candidates to a committee? Can you and I nominate someone? Can we name ourselves members of the Academy? Can we find out about how a poet laureate gets nominated/named by going to the Academy's website?
For me it's still a matter of Give The Money To Someone Who NEEDS It. Give the titles and honors to anyone you want, but don't give money to people who don't need it.

I didn't know how the Laureate got selected. I knew the selection was made by the Librarian of Congress, but I didn't know who he was, or how he made his selection. But I did know in my bones that Bob was wrong about the money. Actually, I knew no such thing. He's probably right about it. But I argued back anyway.


As far as the money is concerned, that doesn't upset me at all. I'm always glad to see any poet getting money. I suppose I believe in a kind of artistic Reaganomics, a rising tide lifts all boats. If a poet gets the high visibility of a MacArthur grant or a Poet Laureateship, it creates more visibility for poetry. Now, I do understand that this works about as well for poets as Reaganomics does for ordinary citizens, but the stakes are different. You're not talking about people's basic needs, like food and shelter, and as important as I think art is, the unequal distribution fo wealth to artists is not as important as the artificially engineered unequal distribution of wealth to everyone. If 95 percent of people who actually take note of Laureateships or MacArthur grants at all, only go so far as to Google Simic and read a poem or two by him, no one is really hurt, If a few of those people go so far as to go to a reading by Simic if he shows up in their town, all the better, and if a few of them decide they liked it, and go to hear readings by local poets, than that's great.

And Simic's paid his dues, like we all have.

Marvin Bell has had greater recognition, and made more money out of poetry, than you or I have. Now, you and I deserve more money and more recognition than we've gotten, but that doesn't mean Marvin deserves less. He deserves more. I'd like to see him get a MacArthur Grant or a Poet Laureateship. Hey, he's already been Poet Laureate of Iowa -- maybe that could be a stepping stone, like the Governorship for Mitt Romney? (OK, that's a bad example.)

And yeah, while I don't begrudge Simic or Strand their MacArthurs, I'd like to see a series of $10,000 grants to people who Need The Money, too. Maybe Poetry Magazine could use some of its millions to set them up. least this is true for me...the only selection system I'd be really happy with is one where the criteria would include the most deserving poet of!

Sunday, August 05, 2007


In this week's episode of Situations on Fieralingue, Childe Roland to the hotel comes, The Major falls deeper under the evil spell of Tisha, and Mary Jo and Julia go on a road trip to Nashville, but don't quite make it. Don't miss it! And look for the wholesale theft of "The Ballad of Thunder Road" (Robert Mitchum's, not Springsteen's.

Thanks to Lee and Patrick Walker

Lee Walker, who for the last several years has been Opus 40's everything - plant manager, caretaker, fixer of anything and everything that needed fixing, and also the compiler of a complete list of Opus 40's needs for a grant proposal we have recently submitted, has moved to Georgia. He's damn near irreplaceable here, and we'll miss his friendship as well as his help. Thank you, Lee.

With him has gone his son and my grandson, Patrick. Before he left, Patrick set up a server for us so that we can host our own website. He'll be able to continue to maintain the server by remote control from Atlanta, but we'll miss him more than I can say.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

John R. Tunis, Leadbelly, Howard Koch

What authors or books influenced you most? People are discussing this on the NewPo list, and I sat down to write about my biggest influences. Pretty soon, I realized this was getting too long for a post to a listserv, in spite of the fact that there are only three names on it. It's also probably irrelevant to a poetry list, since none of these are poets. I'll think about poet-influences next. Here are the three.

1. The baseball novels of John R. Tunis. In Tunis' novels, like The Kid From Tomkinsville, I first became aware of a writer behind the words -- I could feel someone writing it, injecting his own passion and personality into the story. I remember telling my mother one day when I was maybe 11 or 12, and had never particularly thought about growing up to be a writer, "When I grow up to be a writer, and people ask me about the greatest influence on my writing career, I'm going to say John R. Tunis. Although I didn't realize it at the tme, he was also teaching me my first lesson in telling a great, fast-paced story with vivid memorable characters, that also had a message. Tunis didn't bludgeon you with the message. In Keystone Kids, the main driving force of the novel is baseball, young shortstop Spike Russell being named player-manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and trying to guide his team to the pennant. but the missing ingredient is a catcher, and the Dodgers bring up a talented kid from the minors -- talented and Jewish. Spike has to deal with prejudice from teammates (this was written four years before Jackie Robinson), anti-Semitism from fans and sportswriters, and his own total lack of experience in reaching out to another culture. This is from memory, over 50 years ago. I did pick up a copy of the The Kid Comes Back at a yard sale recently, and it still held my interest. Great baseball stuff, and again, more. Roy Tucker, The Kid From Tomkinsville, now a major league veteran, enlists to fight in World War II, is injured in combat, and has to find the courage (and ultimately, a chiropractor) to get him through the injury and back to help the Dodgers in their stretch run. But before that, he's shot down in France, rescued by a Resistance group that seems more than little Communist, and Roy has to battle his own middle-American prejudice to accept these people who are saving his life. Then, he has to face the culture shock and resistance that all returning GIs must face, in that war and every other -- what Kipling talks about in "Tommy Atkins."

I realized how deep Tunis was still ingrained in me when I started to write a children's sports book for my grandson Josh, in which he and his friend go back in time and meet Pele. And I realized I was beiong drawn to do what Tunis did -- tell an exciting sports story, but never forget that it's also about something more.

2. Leadbelly, for the reasons mentioned in my last post. He first taught me about compression of words, about the power of what's left out, about saying more with less. I found Leadbelly when Probably "In the Pines" was the first song to hit me that way -- the girl whose tragedy we only glimpse, but we feel the immensity of it behind the stark, sparse words. It was only years later, when I began teaching Leadbelly's lyrics, that an important part of her tragedy hit me -- why she's lost her home, why she had to sleep in the pines. She lives in company housing in a company town, and the company takes back the house when her husband is killed in an on-the-job accident.

It was when I started teaching him, all those years later, when I put together my Literature of the Blues course, that I realized how powerful his influence still was, and had been for all of my writing life. Ashbery only provided a continuation of that influence, but more on that when I get to the list of poet-influences.

3. Howard Koch. Howard died in 1995, and I was honored to be asked to give one of the eulogies for him. Because Howard had been mentor and role model to all of those of my generation who grew up in the 50s and 60s, I made myself their voice, and collected stories and reminiscences from them. Here's one from my brother Jonathan, who recalled hearing the name of producer Howard W. Koch in connection with some current movie or other, and asking Noelle Gillmor (a name for another reminiscence), "Is Howard W. Koch the same as our Howard Koch?" Noelle replied, "The relationship between our Howard Koch and Howard W. Koch is roughly the same as the relationship between Jesus Christ and Jesus H. Christ."

But I digress, not for the first time. What I did say, for myself, at Howard's memorial, was that I knew Howard was a great man before I knew he was a great writer. I knew him for his kindness, his intelligence, his integrity, his keen and piercing insights into politics, society, and hypocrisy. So those were my first lessons in writing from Howard, and they're still among the most important that I've ever learned.

Later, I found out about Casablanca, and Sergeant York, and The Sea Hawk. And then I was probably 18, or maybe older, and already serious about becoming a writer. That's when I learned my other lesson from Howard -- that truth can have a heart, and a soul. That if something is romantic, and wonderful, and uplifting, that doesn't negate its truth -- it creates its own special kind of truth.

And there you have it.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

John Ashbery

Happy 80th birthday to John Ashbery, titan of contemporary poetry and sometime Hudson valley resident. Edward Byrne's blog has a great tribute to Ashbery, so I'll direct you there. And here's my Ashbery page.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

In Case You're Worried About Getting Older and Losing Your Edge

Thomas Hardy was in his mid-70s when he wrote this.

During Wind and Rain

They sing their dearest songs--
He, she, all of them - yea,
Treble and tenor and bass.
          And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face....
          Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss--
Elders and juniors - aye,
Making the pathways neat
          And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat....
          Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all--
Men and maidens - yea,
Under the summer tree,
          With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee....
Ah, no; the years O!
          And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them - aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
          On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs....
Ah, no; the years, the years;
          Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Well, That's Another Fine Isolated Verisimilitude Youve Gotten Us Into

In The End of the Mind: The Edge of the Intelligible in Hardy, Stevens, Larkin, Plath, and Gluck, DeSales Harrison credits Larkin with "pledg[ing] allegiance to the rhetoric of verisimilitude." By this he means that Larkin's
obligation is to preserve, to keep the experience "from oblivion for its own sake." This is the positive aspect of the obligation, the obligation to do something. There is a negative aspect as well, an obligation not to do something else.The poet can do no more than preserve. He cannot, Larkin implies, elevate, extrapolate, mythologize, etherealize, or transcendentalize.

Odd to define "negative" as "an obligation not to do something else." and then directly follow it with a reference to Keats. If Harrison is extrapolating from Larkin's obligation, he's extrapolating pretty far away from Keats' Negative Capability.

But Harrison is pretty much on the other side of the fence from me -- as it seems everyone else is. He puts the inability to remain content with half-knowledge on the same shelf as irritable searching after fact and reason, and says that "one reaches for those at the expense of the 'fine isolated verismilitude.'"

Franklin R. Rogers, in Painting and Poetry: Form, Metaphor, and the Language of Literature, also says that Coleridge's need for total knowledge renders him incapable of being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts.

And I suppose there's something to these gentlemen's point. Negative Capability isn't incapability, which Coleridge apparently has. But that fine isolated verisimilitude still bothers me. Where's the Negative Incapability in letting an isolated verisimiltude, however fine, go by? Who's to say you have to irritably reach out grab every isolated verisimiltude that comes along?

This verisimilitude is isolated. If one grabs it too quickly, one loses the chance to find out if it will resonate with other verisimilitudes, maybe even some truths. "Verisimilitude" to me is still a counterfeit, something that has the appearance of truth.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Penetralia, the Verisimilar, and Sookie

I'm not sure that being taught to live in doubt and uncertainty is a significant social function, any more than Saturday morning cartoons where the villain gets blown up have an educational function in teaching kids right from wrong.

But I'm all in favor of a certain amount of doubt and uncertainty. As Keats said, once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously--I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason--Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.

This is probably a better guide to poetry than to a social contract, but it's as good a guide to poetry as one can ask for, and you hardly need me to point that out. It's the second half of it that has always intrigued me, the part about Coleridge. I had always interpreted that to mean that Coleridge was uniquely capable of remaining in in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason -- I guess that would make him uniquely . That he would not accept an isolated verisimilitude -- which I defined as something that has the appearance of truth, but not necessarily the substance. That rather than be content with half knowledge, he could maintain his equilibrium longer in doubt and uncertainty.

I have since found out that this not the accepted reading of these famous lines. The accepted reading is that Keats was criticizing Coleridge.

Here's Dan Simmons on the subject:

A lesser poet like Coleridge, Keats goes on to explain, “would let go by a fine isolated versimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery,” because a lesser poet (or novelist, or filmmaker, or visual artist) insists on – well, actually has no other choice -- impressing his own limited interpretation on reality.

Thomas McFarland, in The Masks of Keats: The Endeavor of a Poet, talks about "the charge [Keats] makes against [Coleridge], and I know these people are better Keats scholars than I am, and know more about the relationship between Keats and Coleridge at this point in their lives. When you get right down to it, I didn't even know that "penetralium" isn't a real word, in either English or Latin.

But I still like my reading of it. I'd better, since I've based my aesthetic on trying as much as possible to let fine isolated verisimiltudes go by. If they've escaped from the penetralium of mystery, then they're no longer one with that mystery or part of that penetralium, and I'd agree with Heisenberg here. If you catch one on the wing and measure it, you'll never measure all of it, and you'll alter it by the catching of it.

I looked up "verisimiltude." Merriam Webster Online says it's "the quality or state of being verisimilar," which I find a trifle odd, in that "verisimiltude" is a word I've actually heard or seen in a real context (I mean other than Keats), but "verisimilar" is a total unknown. Anyway, "verisimilar" means "having the appearance of truth : probable," which is pretty much what I thought. The penetralium is where the truth remains unreachable, like the Grail. The verisimilitudes that escape from it only have it's appearance.

Anyway, here's what my muse, Sookie, has to say about it.


Sookie let a fine
slide right by

I was not too pleased
it left a wake
of clear light
it might have come from the

of mystery
and I could have used it
isn’t that
her job? But there’s no
use fighting it

Sookie only believes
in her own
which she lets me
near on rare occasions

never all
the way in but it’s
what I’ve got
Sookie’s speed rack brand of
half knowledge