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.