Cowboy Poetry

It’s not the cowboys they object to, but the poetry. Poetry is never anything but a joke in American culture, especially (but not exclusively) on the right.

Afterthought: One thing about poetry being despised & abject in the US — it confers freedom.

Certain Things Lyric Poetry Can Do

Rick asks in a comment to the previous post what I think of this poem by Kimberly Johnson. When I read it yesterday I hadn’t seen any of the comments appended since then by readers at Slate. I have to say that the commentary is some of the best and most intelligent about poetry I’ve run across recently on the internet. Not that I spend that much time reading about poetry online–lots of reasons for that, but mostly I got burned out on special pleading (including my own) in the early days of poetry on the web.

I like Kimberly Johnson’s poem because it does with economy & grace one of the things that lyric poetry is especially good at: turning the world inside out for a moment, perceptually, sometimes morally. Lyric moments in longer works such as novels and movies can also do this. One of the people commenting at Slate mentions the movie Patton, which certainly has such moment; so does Apocalypse Now, which makes war look beautiful and exciting, only to then turn the world inside out on the viewer, turning the beauty back into horror. Johnson’s poem does something similar on a small scale.

The problem with the lyric form — and with this poem — is that an ending is required. I don’t think “Catapult” ends very satisfactorily, what with it’s gesture toward the sacred. The beautiful is not always sacred, though lyric poets often pretend it is. I think I would have put a period after “earth” and let it go at that.

Presentation Tomorrow: Claims for Poetry

I’m giving a presentation tomorrow in my department’s Colloquium Series, in which my colleagues or visiting guests present the results of their research. Since my “research” is poetry, my presentation will be mostly a reading, but I also want to open up my own history & influences, while at the same time saying a few things about what I think poetry is capable of. I’ve spent the last decade, frankly, doubting the value of poetry & trying to write against that doubt. Slowly over the last year or so I have begun to work toward the sense that the value of poetry is to hold judgment in suspense, if not indefinitely, then long enough that judgment be informed with . . . what? If I have to choose just one thing, I would want poetry — all poetry, but my poetry in particular — to suspend judgement long enough for generosity to enter. Perhaps this is just a version of Keats’ notion of Negative Capability: “The ability,” the poet wrote to his younger brother, “to be in doubts, mysteries and uncertainties without irritably reaching after fact and reason.” Not that I’d deny the importance of fact or reason — I’m very interested in them.

My poetic autobiography is pretty mainstream. I have been sympathetic to the revolutions going on around me, but mostly I have followed the poetics developed at the beginning of the 20th century by the great Anglo-American modernists, though I have reached back, too, toward Emily Dickinson & Walt Whitman, a couple of poets Pound & Eliot were suspicious of. So I will lay out my early attachments & my application to the Writers Workshop in order to study with Donald Justice, a poet who would say, late in life, that he regretted not having lived in a time when there was a period style. Don might have envied, I think, the way jazz players have a set of standard tunes they can play individual variations on and in the process work out both a group & individual style. He had studied musical composition as a young man & the only music I ever heard him play was Bach. Don Justice was very important to me and I was distressed to see how he was championed later by the reactionary “New Formalists,” who had to distort his great achievements in free verse in order to make him a hero of metrical verse.

Most of the touchstones of my own poetry were already in place by the time I left Iowa. Some — Donne’s lyrics, Auden, Berryman, James Wright, Williams, Roethke — I’d acquired before going to Iowa, but while studying there I picked up on Elizabeth Bishop (via my teacher Sandra McPherson), Robert Hass, Linda Gregg, Czeslaw Milosz, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Rilke. My appreciation of Dr. Williams was deepened by studying him with Don, the supposed paragon of formalism. No doubt there are many others, but those were & have remained the central figures of my own writing. I am only one teacher away from Bishop & Berryman, with whom my own teachers studied. The only significant influence I came by after leaving Iowa in 1980 is Hayden Carruth, who is now the titular spirit of my poetic house. The one remaining — & more recent influence on my poetry & on my thinking generally — has been several extended periods in Vietnam over the last decade & a half.

That’s where I came from, but what do I believe about poetry? I’ve already mentioned Negative Capability as both a moral and aesthetic pivot in my work. I believe in the reality of feeling & of the affects generally, including mood, reverie, and other states of intuitive knowledge. Surely we poets need not apologize for asserting a strong ontological claim for such states when modern cosmology posits multiple, perhaps infinitely multiple, universes; when string theory supposes the existence of half a dozen extra dimensions invisible to us because they are “rolled up” into the curved surfaces of Calabi-Yau manifolds; when tried & true quantum mechanics makes a strong claim for probability waves, or wave functions, which are not waves of anything or in anything, but finally as far as I can tell, waves in thought. So poets need not apologize for examining human affective states, from the calmest to the most agitated, from the most contented to the most anxious.

One thinks in this regard of Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem, “In the Waiting Room,” in which the poet looks back upon her seven-year-old self at the very moment that she, Elizabeth Bishop, realizes she is a self, “an Elizabeth,” as the poem says. One thinks of the child William Wordsworth have to grip a fence post or a stone in order to reassure himself of the existence of a world outside his thoughts; one thinks of Hartley Coleridge, son of the great Romantic poet & philosopher, who, aged four, when asked whether he had enjoyed a ride in a dog cart, replied that he might have enjoyed it more if he had not “always been thinking of his thoughts.” One thinks of William Blake noting that the balloon of the imagination needs the ballast provided by sacks of earth.

Eliot said that poetry “purifies the language of the tribe,” but surely this is High Modernist overreaching; at best, perhaps, poetry might remind those who are willing to be reminded of the importance of what the historical Buddha called “right speech.” And right speech is speech that pauses, halts, even stutters, on its way to judgment.  Stutterers are often flawless singers, I once wrote in a poem. I also wrote, in another poem, that “knowledge is loved information” & poetry surely is one way though of course not the only way of turning information — especially affective information — into knowledge.

I will expand on those ideas and read illustrative poems by some of the figures mentioned above, along with a dozen or so of my own poetry poems, several finished just this year after what I can only describe as a return to poetry, despite the fact that I never completely abandoned my muse, who I sometimes visualize as a skinny girl with a little bit of a drug problem.


Some Thoughts on Politically Correct Language

I know, I know, this is such a remnant of the culture wars & a silly remnant at that. Why return to the subject now, when all language seems drained of significance? One hardly ever encounters arguments about “political correctness” except among jejune  undergraduates, usually but not always boys & usually but not always “conservatives.” I wouldn’t bring it up except that the subject has rippled to the surface several times in conversations with students I would have thought more sophisticated. “Why do you always say ‘he or she’,” I’ve been asked. Or, a student has asserted, “I don’t go in for all that politically correct language.”  As a poet, my response is ambivalent. I want to agree with students who resent the machinery of social control telling them that they cannot call a dickhead a dickhead or a mean-spirited bitch, well, a mean-spirited, soul-killing bitch. On the other hand, if by “politically correct language” one means gender neutrality or the avoidance of racial or sexual slurs designed to wound or marginalize individuals or groups, then I am in favor of politically correct language. Context, of course, is crucial. Members of a marginalized group may turn oppressive language against the oppressor; lovers may say to each other in private what they would not say in public; one may put into a poem or story languages one would not usually use in the lecture hall or lunchroom. I conclude that my students have glommed onto the right-wing media meme about leftist educators trying to impose conformity — if they have thought about it even that much — and employed it as a shield against thinking. Thinking always involves dispensing with universals (slogans) and engaging with ambiguity & change (contexts).

Room by Emma Donoghue

Because I use the theme of childhood & Innocence / Experience in my freshman writing course, I’m always on the lookout for fiction dealing with those subjects. Emma Donoghue’s novel Room came up recently as a recommendation on Amazon, based, I think, on my purchasing history. I’d read a glowing review in the NY Times, so I ordered the book with the idea that it might work in my class. When it came I read the first twenty pages or so, then set it aside when I got busy grading, thinking that the story ran a serious risk of falling into an inevitable form of  sentimentality, given the subject and the point of view.

The story involves a young woman kidnapped and used for sex by an anonymous man who keeps her locked in a garden shed behind his suburban house that he has converted into the self-contained Room of the novel’s title, which is in fact a very effective prison. The young woman is 19 when she is kidnapped and within a couple of years becomes pregnant and bears a son. The tricky and audacious thing about the novel is that it is told in the first-person point of view of this boy when he is five years old. There are plenty of novels in the voices of children, but five years old is pushing against the downward limit of verbal ability for a narrator; still, Donoghue manages the difficulties with a kind of intelligence and grace one wouldn’t think possible, given the narrative situation she has set up for herself.

The narrator’s name is Jack and he is surely a verbally gifted child, but not so gifted as to seem implausible even to a reader (such as me) skeptical of this particular technical choice. The story develops in such a way that Jack’s verbal gifts seem natural: he spends a great deal of time talking to his mother and reading his five books and they also play a game called Parrot in which they watch TV and then the mother hits the mute button, Jack’s task in this game being to parrot back the whole previous sentence he has just heard whether he understands the words or not. They then discuss the words and their meaning. This game is only mentioned once or twice, but in the huge silence that is their lives (the room is soundproofed) language takes on a nearly magical importance. Continue readingRoom by Emma Donoghue”

Summer Course: Modern American Poetry

I’m getting ready to teach an online course, Modern American Poetry. The course requires junior standing and at least one previous literature class, but it is open to all majors. That is, I think I can expect a certain amount of reading savvy and engagement with the material, but not a lot of background in poetry as such, especially modern poetry. The last time I taught the class, in the flesh, as it were, I used Cary Nelson’s fat and inclusive anthology, which I like — it also has a good web-based supplement that includes critical statements about the poets, which I use as a way of getting students to enter into a “conversation” or on-going argument about a particular writer or text. But I had fourteen weeks during the regular semester, with class seventy-five minute class meetings twice a week. With the summer course, I can go as long as ten weeks, but students usually prefer a more compressed schedule in the summer, so I’m going to schedule eight weeks, with a couple of weeks of non-required start-up time during which the site will be live and I’ll be posting some general thoughts; students can also of course use this time to get going on the reading, which will not be voluminous, but will require close attention. So I’m going to abandon the Nelson anthology for the two, much more conservative, anthologies edited by Joel Conarroe, Six American Poets and Eight American Poets. Rather than assign a text about poetry — I like Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Poem — I will link to online resources and create a few pdf files of commentary for students.

Conarroe’s six poets are Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Williams, Frost, and Hughes. I will put all six on the syllabus; his eight are Bishop, Merrill, Plath, Ginsberg, Roethke, Berryman, Sexton, and Lowell. Of these, I will drop Sexton, who wrote very few good poems, I think, and Merrill, to whom I’ve never warmed, whatever virtues he possesses. And then I’ll add Eliot’s “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” — he was born in St. Louis, after all. Along the way, I’ll try to link to less mainstream poets as a supplement. For instance, I’ll use Hughes to link to a bunch of good online material about the Harlem Renaissance. I’ll expect about as much reading and writing from students each week as I would expect in a week & a half (three class meetings) during the regular semester.

Week 1: What is Modernism & what do we mean by “modern”?

Week 2: Dickinson & Whitman as the inventors of American modernism.

Week 3: Stevens & Eliot

Week 4: Williams & Frost

Week 5: Hughes & the Harlem Ren

Week 6: Bishop & Lowell

Week 7: Plath & Berryman

Week 8: Some contemporary poems / the reaction against the personal