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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Barnstone: Machado the imagist

I read all of Barnstone's first published translation of Machado yesterday.  80 Poems.  It is very good, with prefaces by JRJ and Dos Passos.  The image I got of Machado was an imagist poet, with strong visual imagery, fluent free verse. Together with Tomlinson and Levertov, some of the first Machado that got into English was very good.  

The wave of later translations was not so fortunate, in many cases, with Bly's notorious tone-deafness.  I feel the argument of this article coming on.

How to Write a Poem (ii)

VII.  The first line of a poem must be given (donnée). It must pop into your head just like that.  I have had many lines appear to me for which I found no continuation:  "My father was not beaten as a child." The first line of a poem must be great, or there is no hope for the rest of the poem.  Can you think of a poem that starts off badly and is still great?  I'm sure there have to be lines less good in "I knew a woman, lovely in her bones" than the first one. Or "Among twenty snowy mountains."

I just had one this morning:  "There is a randomness in my heart." I can imagine this as the beginning of one of my bad poems quite easily. I have no idea where it came from or where it might lead, but it sounds off-kilter enough to be a good beginning.

VIII. When you think of a line from a poem, you can think of it in two ways.  You can think of it as a phrase someone might say in real life, or as a special kind of utterance.  Now a real life sentence might not work in a poem, because you think that the poet has not taken the first step in writing poetry. He might just be incompetent, and not know that you just can't do that.  On the other hand, a poet who seems to know that a poem has to sound different will write in a pretentious diction. We ask her to write lines that someone might think of using in real life.  So there is a narrow band of language that works somehow as both special utterance and language borrowed from real utterances.  It has a poetic charge to it even though the words don't seem particularly different from what someone might say.

Duncan uses an elevated tone:

I am liable in the late afternoon
lingering to remember in the various cities
the familiar streets, clock-tower, magnolias,
to remember, reconstructing yet not 
faultlessly as then, for the singular vision
has departed, reconstructing the cities
in sand, not faultlessly, roughly,
impatiently...   ["Fragment: 1940"; The Year as Catches 15]

This works for him (not always though). His ear is musical. Even when you don't feel he writes perfectly, his poetry is true to a particular conception of what poetic ought to be. I could select lines and passages from this book of early poetry to try to convince you he is a bad poet, but he is also a poet capable of the lines I've just cited.

There is another aesthetic called "ars est celare artem."  The idea is to write without any obvious poeticism, but without prosaic flatness either.  The artfulness is concealed rather than overt. So you would have Creeley instead of Duncan.

If we look at contemporary poets, we can see that each one has to come up with an individual solution.  Some depend on the inherently poetic qualities of language in its raw state, so that they can incorporate historical documents or bits of conversation without effort. Some work with parody, deliberately muted effects, or a compressed but slightly precious diction.

IX. One way of approaching all of this is to start with poets who are obsessed with craft, like the poets of the Objectivists and Black Mountain School, with some New York School thrown in.  You should read Ronald Johnson, Ken Irby, Eigner, Levertov, Niedecker, Ceravolo. Among the poets favored by the more academic side, you need to read Jean Valentine and Elizabeth Bishop.  It is hard to imagine being a good poet without having assimilated poets like these.  Early James Tate is also excellent.

You can get an excessively strained and stiff quality to your writing, though, if you never loosen up a bit. You need to explore the forbidden side too, break some taboos. What do you fear?  Fine writing?  Sentimentality?  Pretention?  You might be paralyzed by a fear of being thought not talented, or by an avoidance of any number of things.  It is hard to hit the sweet spot where the writing is going to feel just right.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

How to Write a Poem

I. My first idea here is that the Poundian / Williamsian idea is still the basis of what most people are going to think of as a conventionally good poem: rhythmically fluent free verse, with a lot of concrete visual imagery, and a lot of concentration (saying a lot in a few words). The register will be basically colloquial as well. There won't be a lot of dead metaphors or predictable sequences of words as what one might find in prose. So you can't have "I want to make one thing perfectly _____," where the reader can fill in the blank with the expected word.

This standard of writing might be historically contingent (it is) but it is still in force, in that departures from it need to be justified. This is how James Schuyler wrote, or Lorine Niedecker or Denise Levertov at her best.

This is also how we judge poetry of the past, in a sense. Though we might tolerate more rhyme and meter, elevated language and archaism, we still want that concentration of meaning and a strong poetic eye.

II. That is about 90% of it there. Most poems fail because simply because they don't follow those directions and depart from them in quite unintentional ways. Often, a beginning poet will seem to have read no poetry, and has heavy-handed prosaic effects, but with no knowledge at all that he's not supposed to do that.

III. The rest is fine tuning. The main area of fine tuning, once the poem is filled with concentrated visual imagery, is about getting the persona who is speaking the poem exactly right.  This means adjustments in register (up or down) and a really fine-tuned hearing of the language.

Everything to do with logopoeia is necessary to make the poem its own unique utterance, not merely a conventionally good poem with lots of sensorial images. You cannot make a poem sound too poetic with words like shimmering. Instead, think of using words that come from a different context: "a sodium pentathol landscape / a bud about to break open" (James Tate; emphasis added).  

IV.  The poem should seem both inevitable and unpredictable.  So if it is predictable, you see what's coming a mile away, or "telegraph" your intentions. Thinking of hitting someone (forgive the violent imagery but no better metaphor comes to mind). A boxer who telegraphs his punches signals in advance what the punch will be, and thus makes the defensive move, and even the other fighter's next offensive move, quite easy. We know the kind of poem that sets up its humorous premise early and then gives the expected answers. Notice too how the use of statistically frequent combinations of words unnecessarily telegraphs your intentions.

On the other hand, the poem should move with some degree of inevitability as well. If it is merely unpredictable it won't make much of an impression. Think of reading a poem line by line and not looking at the next line (keeping it concealed under another piece of paper). Each line surprises, but in a way organic with the rest of the poem.  The next line can disappoint by being too predictable or too far afield.

If you know what the poem is going to say beforehand, you will end up being very predictable.  You need to discover the meaning of the poem while you are writing it.

V. We want to avoid poetic devices that every other poet uses, like a simile every other line, or a first person speaking in the present tense. There is a contextual sense in which a poet has to be savvy about what the conventions are, and not see them simply as the only possible option.  Poetry will seem amateurish if it simply falls easily into certain stale patterns.

VI. If you look at poets like Robert Duncan, you will find he doesn't care about certain things.  For example, he will be turgid and abstract, archaic or pretentious in diction, etc...  He cares, but he doesn't see anything wrong with that.  Or many contemporary poets combine use the "dim lands of peace" construction that Pound condemned.  The attempt to write the conventionally good poem, then, could just be a form of timidity. When I depart from these rules, which I do in every poem, I see them as a foray into bad poetry. So any kind of bathos, deliberate use of "dim lands of peace" constructions, overt sentimentality or triviality, is what I tend to favor.  That tends to work better for me than earnest attempts to write the good poem.  In fact, I modeled myself after Kenneth Koch, who I didn't realize was writing much more in earnest, many times when I thought he was being purely parodic. Or maybe I am wrong about that.

The Passageway

We think of music and poetry as contiguous spaces. They aren't the same thing, but there is a passageway between them. So the number of poems that can be set to music (that I can imagine setting) is a rather small percentage of poems I like in other ways. And if I write a tune first, I find it extremely difficult to come up with a satisfactory lyric, so the passageway is narrow in both directions.

Imagine it were different? I suppose if I was working in a poetic genre already that was tin pan alley or madrigal, then the tunes would come easily.

Poem found in old notebook

Sonnet of the Two Visitors

The visitor leaves no trace of herself

She drinks your coffee and sleeps in your sheets

But leaves things as they were

If anything a little cleaner

She doesn't love you

That's why she comes when you aren't there

You don't love her

How could you, if you've never seen her?

I much prefer the one who leaves behind aromas

lipstick marks on wine glasses

There is something pure I can still taste

She steals the taste of my mouth when she leaves at dawn

A stirring of the loins, perfumed strands of hair on my pillow

Monday, April 24, 2017


I overheard this conversation last night between two students Northwestern university.  They talked about how an English professor would invite the students to denounce the politics in a reading they had done.  Like, he would say, "what did you think about the political appropriation in the text..."  They would take the bait...  and then he would reveal that there was no such thing happening in the text.  He would use this technique to see who hadn't done the reading. They were eager to jump in with a political denunciation, especially when they hadn't done the reading.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

my students

In my undergraduate translation class my students refer to a "change" or "cambio" when the translator deviates from the original.  Of course, I point out that translation itself is already a change, even at its most literal.  They tend to be literalists, and want translations to adhere closely to the original in all aspects except metrical.  They are adept at finding fault, and are very sensitive to register.  The don't like "girls in heat" for "muchachas amorosas," in Belitt's translation of Neruda's "Caballero solo."

I chose this poem for an in class translation exercise because it has a variety of registers that refer to sex, from vulgarity and clinical language to religious, romantic, and euphemistic discourses.  He uses the verb fornicate (its Spanish cognate rather) to refer to animals, and the adjective preñada, usually used for animals, for humans. Bly objects to Belitt's translation by claiming that Neruda's attitude toward sex is positive in this poem (it's not!) and that Belitt makes it sordid. Belitt does make it sordid, but often in the wrong places.  Even though Neruda's attitude is largely negative, it encompasses a wide range of attitudes and registers, some quite ironically.