Small Demon
Mar 162010
 

I’ll be giving a poetry reading at SUNY Farmingdale (in the Paumanok Poetry Series) at 11:00 on Thursday. Haven’t done a reading in a long time & I’m a little nervous. After the reading on Long Island, I’m going to spend my honorarium staying a couple of days in NYC going to bookstores, galleries, etc. Haven’t been down to the city in a long time either — I’ve spent farm more time in Hanoi in the last decade than in NYC. To get to Long Island, I have to drive to Burlington VT tomorrow, fly to Philly, then to Islip NY, where I’ll be picked up and whisked to my hotel. Margery Brown, who coordinates the series, has been extremely helpful and totally organized about setting up the trip, for which I am very grateful. After the reading, I go to lunch with the SUNY folks then get on a train to Union Station.

Update: Lovely audience this morning at Farmingdale and a lovely lunch afterward with faculty from the English Department; after lunch I took the train into Penn Station (not Union) and then took a taxi to my hotel in Tribecca. Grabbed a sandwich at a deli and have just been gathering my resources for a couple of days of city walking.

 Posted by at 7:19 pm
Feb 122010
 

Song

The fuck you say?

Two hundred million
(or whatever it is)
won’t keep the Marines
in bullets for a day.

The†fuck you say?

The Pentagon won’t
deign to wipe its ass
with anything less
than a couple billion.

The†fuck you say?

An ancient master
noted: All things
are empty, true, but
differences still count.

The fuck you say?

One does not use
the emptiness
of a shit scoop
to ladle out the soup.

 Posted by at 8:42 am
Jan 242010
 

I’m teaching a five-week Saturday morning class for local high school students on “creativity and imagination.” I’ve got a great group of thirteen teenagers who have self-selected or been encouraged by a guidance counselor to take this class in “creativity and imagination” and they seem engaged and happy to take part, though many are shy and all have been trained by their high schools to be obedient. Yesterday we were talking about ways to put pressure on language in order to see what happens; then we wrote six word short stories and haiku. While the students were working I wrote the following poem(s). I don’t think it’s great work, but it captures a certain insight and it does have the spirit of haiku, I think.

Two Hakiu in a Classroom

Gray metal tables
Arranged end to end in rows
The students also

A square of sunlight
Paints one row illuminating
One studentís face

Nov 232009
 

pc3 Sometimes the world hands you a gift. I just found out that I will be spending Christmas and the first ten days of the new year in Hanoi. I’ve been invited to participate in a conference on the translation of Vietnamese literature and its reception abroad, mostly in the English-speaking world. When I came back home from my trip to Vietnam last spring, I thought it would be at least a year before I returned, perhaps longer. I’d been a little disappointed in my failure to make more contacts and get more projects going during my spring trip, but apparently I was planting seeds that will now begin to germinate. I hope so.

I spent Christmas of 2000 in Hanoi, which is when I took the picture of the boy selling Santa Claus decorations. Christmas is not a holiday of central importance in Vietnamese culture except to the 10% of the population that is Catholic, but as in the West it has begun to be a commercial holiday even for non-believers. (In general, Catholics in Vietnam are probably more†intensely†religious that the followers of Tam Giao, or “triple religion,” the combination of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism that most Vietnamese at least nominally subscribe to and that overlies an even deeper level of animism.)

I am delighted to return to Vietnam, however briefly, and to meet others†interested†in the diffusion of Vietnamese literature around the world. And as soon as I return, still jet-lagged, I will begin teaching my course, Understanding Vietnam, at Clarkson. Though the course focuses on the history and culture of Vietnam, we use literature to illuminate and illustrate those subjects, so the conference discussions will certainly inform my teaching next semester.

Nov 062009
 

I was reshelving a book in my office and noticed a volume on the shelf that I hadn’t picked up in a couple of years– a collection of selections from the work of Gaston Bachelard,†On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (edited by Collette Gaudin). I remembered being disappointed when I first got the book that it was a collection of snippets rather than something more substantial. I pulled the book off the shelf anyway and flipped it open at random, coming to this:

From the standpoint of its will to shape expression, the literary image is a physical reality which has its own relief. More precisely, it is the psychic relief, the multi-leveled psyche. It furrows or it raises; it finds a depth or suggests an elevation; it rises or falls between heaven and earth. It is poly phonic because it is polysemantic. If meanings become too profuse, it can fall into word play. If it restricts itself to a single meaning, it can fall into didacticism. The true poet avoids both dangers. He plays and he teaches. In him, the word reflects and reflows; in him time begins to wait. The true poem awakens an unconquerable desire to be reread. (28) [Empahsis in original; original source: L’Air et les songes, 286.]

So sometimes the merest chance brings you something you need. (My mother used to half-believe this about the Bible, but felt it was a little too “superstitious” to be morally reliable.) I am less cautious about such things than my mother and I needed to be reminded about this middle path for poetry, which of course does not necessarily mean “mainstream.” I think I was drawn to the passage, too, because of the word will in that first sentence. I’ve been reading William James, whose philosophy is in some ways an exploration of the idea of the power of will to create meaning. Here, Bachelard attributes will to the “poetic image” and only by extension to the poet who “creates” the image, or discovers it. This conforms with my own experience writing poems, in which language wills itself into meaning as a kind of collaborator with the one holding the pencil or sitting at the keyboard.

During my poetic lifetime — the last thirty years or so — it seems as if the reactionaries have had a steady presence that continues the orientation of the New Critics but without the New Critics’ skills; and the†theoreticians of language and power have had an opposing presence that claims at least sometimes to†descend†from Pound and Williams, but also from the Objectivists and Olson. (I’ve never got Olson and in fact published a poem against him in APR several years ago.) I’ve long felt bereft in this landscape. I trace my own descent from Pound and Williams, but I also acknowledge Eliot (despite Dr. Williams’ disapprobation). I also honor my teacher Donald Justice, though I write nothing like him and resemble him only in my failure to be prolific and perhaps in my general pessimism. Also in my poetic makeup are some voices I have tried to disown over the years: from early adolescence Kipling and Edna St.†Vincent†Milay. †I still have my mother’s volumes of these poets on my bookshelves and while they are no longer central, I learned traditional metrical practice from them, for which I am grateful. And from my later adolescence comes my continuing attachment to the so-called Confessional School of Berryman, Plath, Lowell, Sexton, and Snodgrass. A very unfashionable group these days, but also a group, I’d argue, that practiced a middle-path poetics, with a concern for both matter and meter, subject and language.

Bachelard’s definition of poetry, if that’s what it is, also insists upon a reader, but a reader who has the gumption to reread, who is open to the poem’s insistence on being reread. It seems to me that contemporary schools of poetry have either over-emphasized or under-emphasized the reader, either pandering or pushing away, didacticism or word play. I think the division reflects a †fundamental dualism we have been unable to get beyond in Western poetics (with some notable exceptions); we feel driven to be one thing or the other, completely; we are made uncomfortable by mixed states.

[Cross-posted to The Plumbline School.]