Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Thought for the Day

"A traveler has a right to relate and embellish his adventures as he pleases, and it is very impolite to refuse that deference and applause they deserve."

-Rudolf Erich Raspe,
Travels of Baron Munchausen

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What Work Is, Part 5

I've been busy with my day job, grading papers, writing recommendations, "finishing" a good-sized narrative poem and otherwise getting ready to go to the AWP Conference tomorrow morning.

You know the drill:

1. Yes, I was happy to read Sven Birkerts stunningly good review of Ellen Bryant Voigt's Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006, (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007) in Sunday's New York Times Book Review.

Birkerts writes, "Voigt is a seasoned poet in full confident stride. She continues to put the muscle of her craft in the service of her steady sensuous intellect. There is finally a unity in these poems, but it's the kind we find when what had looked like a mere scatter of stars suddenly discloses the shape of a known constellation."

Ellen, of course, is the founder of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1992 (as I recall) she was Poet in Residence at Hope College, and I was in a community workshop she gave. I learned two things: (a) I didn't know anything about poetry, and once I got over that--about three weeks later-- (b) that if I could get into the Warren Wilson program, Ellen Bryant Voigt could teach me what I didn't know and couldn't learn quickly enough on my own. If you want a sense of what I'm talking about, pick up a copy of The Flexible Lyric (University of Georgia Press, 1999) a collection of some of the lectures she's given during the residencies at Warren Wilson.

Ellen is the most brilliant person in America when it comes to disassembling a poem and explaining its working parts.

I'm looking forward to seeing her in Atlanta.

2. Yes, I was happy to see Rosanna Warren, Paul Mariani and Warner Berthoff come to the ramparts in response to William Logan's hatchet job on Hart Crane (Letters, NYTBR, February 25, 2007). Yes, this is a subject I've gone back to again and again on this blog.

I suppose the guillotine is out of the question.

3. Note to my students: Your mid-term grades will be posted before I leave town.

4. I don't know when I fly out of Grand Rapids, I don't know when I'm arriving in Atlanta, I couldn't tell you the name of the hotel I'm staying in, I don't know how to get from that hotel to wherever the Conference is, I haven't yet registered for the Conference, my membership in AWP expired on February 9, and oh yeah, I can't see. Other than that, everything is under control.

Travel safely, sweet readers.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A Poem from Figured Dark

Here's a fourteen-liner from my forthcoming collection, Figured Dark. The literal occasion for the poem came several years ago, when a "fish lamp" sold at A Great Shop in Gearhart, Oregon, appeared on the cover of Coastal Living magazine. The store is owned by my in-laws, Robert and Florence Arenz. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a copy of the magazine cover (or a picture of the fish lamp) online, so I have included a picture of a Tautog.

You may have noticed that we are feeling fishy here at S@4AM, probably because we've had a little thaw as of late, and it's almost time to head for the Pere Marquette River in search of the clever steelhead. My friends in Oregon don't believe me when I tell them this, but we have one of the best spring steelhead fisheries in the world, right here in Michigan.

This poem originally appeared in The Blue Mesa Review.


As scup or drum his realm is the open sea,
but now, this living room: the chintz
and brocades, a tidy reef of table and vase.
He's made of rice and chrysanthemums,
the slurry pressed beneath a stone,
then fingered across a bamboo frame.
His fins spay out and paper eyes bulge,
as if his equilibrium––pinioned
atop a metal pole, body puffed full
of sixty watts and air––astonishes.
That lyric, Too many fish in the sea?
He croaks and hums and whistles along.
And the dark that sails beyond the window––
he has never seen such dark water.

Describe that Book!

The voices in Greg Rappleye's Figured Dark call across a vast American landscape of myth, memory, and horrific wreckage. In the title poem, speaking of the phenomenon of fireflies rising at night from a southern field, he writes, "I could round this down to a million tiny bodies, / blazing the midnight trees," but the reader is left to wonder whether any extravagant numbering can account for the massed starlings, dreamy raptors, dome-lighted Firebirds, flaming bodies, junk cars and deadly archangels that come to ground in Rappleye's world, where the spiritual exhaustion of Odysseus is visited upon Brian Wilson and the young John Berryman seeks recompense from a wily family in northern Michigan. These poems are by turns wise, elegiac, ironic and wickedly funny; this is a poet who refuses easy categories. If these poems are anything, they are affidavits of a heart-at-work, building out of darkness a kind of wild redemption, hard-earned in the real world.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

What Work Is, Part 4

I've been busy this week with my day job (many small projects and two board meetings) and with school (papers to grade and mid-terms coming up) and I've also been working on a new poem, so you know the drill:

1. On Wednesday I met with photographer Jeff Cunningham to do a photo shoot for the cover of Figured Dark, my full-length poetry collection that is forthcoming from the University of Arkansas Press. Today I had a chance to look at the results and I think this is the one we will be using.

Generally, I don't like to look at photographs of myself. I tend to have my eyes closed, or look too much like what I am--a slightly overweight middle-aged man. The Quarter Pounders are stacked against what we think we are, I hear someone saying. Well, true enough. But I am pretty happy with this photograph, which will be in black-and-white and on the inside back cover of the book. I hope you like it, too.

My thanks to the talented and patient Jeff Cunningham.

2. All of the blurbs are in, the jacket copy is written and the only thing that remains to be done (well--I'm sure there are many more things, too, but I'm not a book designer) is to choose an image for the front cover. I may be able to tell you something more about that before the AWP Conference.

I didn't realize how worried I was about all of this, but I feel that a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I only hope that the book is as nice looking in my hands as it has become in my head, but I have all the confidence in the world in the good people at the University of Arkansas Press. They've been a dream to work with and they put out such wonderful books.

The other three books selected for publication in the Series this year are by Robert Gibb, Donald Platt, and R. T. Smith, so I feel like I'm in rather stellar company. My understanding is that Donald Platt's My Father Says Grace and World Over Water by Robert Gibb will be available at the AWP Conference, so be sure to check the University of Arkansas Press table.

R.T. Smith's book and mine will be released in the fall.

3. I've been working on two sets of new poems. One series is lyric and concerns a figure from Greek mythology, the second (involving a 19th Century American painter) is quite narrative. I'm not sure yet how they fit together, but the poems seem to be coming as quicky as I can set aside the time to write them. That is very strange, and yes I am grateful, but I don't want to say too much yet about the poems, for fear that I will break something.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

An Observation and a Poem

Last night, I was thinking about something that Hayden Carruth wrote in his 1993 essay The Nature of Art: "A poem is an existent; it has the same status as a pebble or a galaxy. It has no relationship to nature, but only to other existents within nature. And what I think is that any work of art not informed by a bold and determined regard for this equivalency and its effects is deficient intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, and cannot speak to the discerning contemporary sensibility. Let the fundamentalists rage. Poets are quiet seekers unwilling to be deluded."*

Which is not to say, of course, that critical theory has no utility in the real world.

Here's a poem from my second book, A Path Between Houses (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000):


It's the moment semiotics begins
to make sense. A man thinks salmon
in a dimly lit fish house, as a chute feeds
dead king after dead king, which he takes,
one-by-one from the water-wash,
and inserts into a heading machine,
the pneumatic < of the blade thunking
down and through to separate head
from body––a collar cut, just behind
the gills. It isn't his job to sort males,
(plum-red, hook-jawed, thick with
grayish clots of milt), from females,
(evergreen, honey-combed with
golden roe). He simply thinks salmon
and slides the body forward, steps
to trigger the device, then the pneumatic
< drops like a rapid sigh, and the head falls
or is cleared by the women
on the cleaning line, who will take
the headless body, razor the belly, and
if it is female, drop the eggs
into a bucket, then pass the fish
to the gutting crew. The man works on, until
he sees gloved hand and thinks salmon
and the pneumatic < drops and cuts
glove, flesh, and bones an inch above the wrist
in a perfect collar cut, more quickly than
signs arrange vowels and consonants
in his mind, and the hand falls
into a box of salmon heads,
bound for sale as crab bait. He
reaches with what is left, still wearing
the cuff of the yellow glove
like a bracelet, and doesn't think
hand until blood comes in two quick
pumps, splattering into the box of dead
kings, as lights start to spin and
the women look up from their work,
knives gleaming.


*In Selected Essays & Reviews by Hayden Carruth (Copper Canyon Press, 1996)

A Poem by John Ash

John Ash was born in Manchester, England, in 1948. He has lived in Cyprus and in New York City and has taught at The University of Iowa and the University of California at Berkeley. Since 1996, he has lived in Istanbul and teaches at Bosphorus University. In this country, his work has appeared in a number of publications, including the The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and The Paris Review. He has published (my count, I may be off here) ten collections of poetry, including Disbelief (1987) and Selected Poems (1996). His most recent book is To the City (Talisman House, 2004).

Writing of that most recent collection in Poetry the critic Peter Campion said, "John Ash could be the best English poet of his generation. Yet somehow it seems inappropriate to play the old ratings game with him. Ash lives as an expatriate in Istanbul, a vantage point from which the machinations of 'po-biz' must seem very far away. And that distance isn't merely a geographical fact but a condition of his work."

Here's a poem from The Burnt Pages (Random House, 1991), his first book to be published in the United States. Something about this poem--perhaps it is the persistent inquiry of the second-person protagonist, observing the "other" who may be the writer's self--reminds me of Rilke.


These glances press against you like the surges of the breeze
off the Hudson crossing Hudson Street.
What could be going on in the mind of the young,
upwardly mobile person shopping for vitamins and beansprouts
hard by The First National Church of the Exquisite Panic?

Doesn't the whole city cry out to him
that he must do something remarkable today?
One assumes (one can assume anything)
that behind the charming pediment of a smile
there is an interior to be explored, a suite of rooms––
a place at least big enough for a piano and a bed.

Perhaps there is only darkness, you say,
a wormeaten stair curving down from nowhere
to nothing, but that would be too bad to think of
on a day in January of such warmth it seems
a gesture of forgiveness, like the scarf
a neglected relative sent to you.

On 15th Street we assume the best, that
you will find the thing you have been looking for
in the hat shop on Greenwich Avenue,
or that winter like a curse is spent once and for all.

On 13th Street the banners blow
in sad celebration of family, friends, and lovers.
In the little triangular park by Horatio
where the homeless slept last summer
they are building a fountain from the last century.
Ah, streets where are you taking us?

Love, Gambling and Magic

"Perhaps nothing is so akin to the mysterious and stirring condition that we call falling in love, as that mystic expectancy of miraculous intervention and of benevolent and unexpected happenings which come to all men at certain psychological moments and forms the foundation of the human belief in magic. There is a desire in every one of us to escape from routine and certainty, and it can be said, without exaggeration, that to most men nothing is so cheerless and oppressive than the rigidity and determination with which the world runs; and nothing more repugnant than the cold truths of science, which express and emphasize the determination of reality. Even the most sceptical at times rebel against the inevitable causal chain, which excludes the supernatural, and, with it, all the gifts of chance and good fortune. Love, gambling and magic have a great deal in common."

-Bronislaw Malinowski,
The Sexual Life of Savages

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Thought for the Day

"I could readily see in Emerson, notwithstanding his merit, a gaping flaw. It was, the insinuation, that had he lived in those days when the world was made, he might have offered some valuable suggestions."

-Herman Melville

Friday, February 16, 2007

...and a Poem on Cultural Capital

Here's a poem from my second book, A Path Between Houses (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000). Those of you who know Tony Hoagland's work are probably familiar with "Lawrence," Tony's brilliant, hilarious defense of D. H. Lawrence against those who speak contemptuously of such writers through "theory tainted lips." This is a homage, if you will, to Tony's poem.


for Tony Hoagland

I've never been able to finish it,
so I buy the book on tape,
and drive across Michigan, lost
in the English Midlands.
It's a lovely story, and perhaps my mind
is adrift, but through two-and-a-half cassettes,
no one seems to be in love.
Instead, men get naked to dive into ponds,
and men get naked to wrestle each other.
Not that I mind. No one likes skinny dipping
more than I, though snapping turtles
are a worry for the well-endowed.
And I'm not against naked wrestling,
though if the wrestlers take steroids
they may shrink their nether regions,
causing women to laugh and fall
out of love. I agree, Lawrence is
a holy writer, el brujo grande, his
men and women all free and helpless.
But my allergies are acting up, and
I'm thinking about the meeting I'm late for,
and it's only when men get naked that
I listen again, as Gerald and Birkin jujitsu
across the drawing room floor. I'm not
asking for men wrestling women,
but what about one scene where a naked woman
flips a naked woman into a shallow pond?
Say, Gudrun against Ursula,
which has the dueling-sisters element,
or either one taking on
that annoying Hermione, giving her
the full-Nelson she deserves. What we
might have seen in the director's cut
of "Tarzan Returns," where Jane tangles
with Benita Hume, in a barely clothed slapfest
for the heart of the Jungle King,
said to have gotten most interesting
in a certain lost reel. But eschew that,
the sneeze-word that says no.
This line of thinking has patriarchal tendencies,
it appeals to the prurient interest,
the first strand of the Miller test uncoils
its lascivious tongue across the dash,
and what I truly want is love,
love that is transgendered! Like Tarzan,
every morning, I want to kiss my jungle bride
awake! Art is so savage! Are we
great tumbling beetles, whose horns
have locked, pushing each other forth and
back across some jungle path? Even
Lawrence, who wrote the best sex
in the English language, wasn't too busy
making love, writing it down, and cough, cough,
coughing up blood to mock the dead,
calling Melville a sententious old bore,
and Whitman, worse, a dribbling, oozing, leaker.
This could go on, of course, like lung-snot
in our hankies––this hate business, this
punch-each-other-in-the-nose business,
these salon jealousies, backstabbing
over silver bullets and soggy canapes,
but, like the great hymn urges, let it begin
with me
, because, as I miss my exit
east of Battle Creek, I see the trenches:
Derrida to the left of us, Cleanth Brooks
on the right, Paul deMan--crypto-fascist
or lifelong comsymp?--lobbing a cluster bomb,
and have to ask: Can't we all swing out
on some long jungle vine,
and drop together, thumping our chests
and screaming, into the vast literary pond?
At one time, there was a certain pathos,
an era of good feelings. Michigan hadn't yet
been mapped by the white man,
the lion lay down with the lamb,
and the Midlands still had the mystery
of a wild, dark continent.

A Note on Cultural Capital

I am surprised when American poets resort to calling each other bourgeois and privileged. I mean, this is North America in the 21st Century. Compared to 8/10's of the world, everyone likely to read this is bourgeois and privileged. An American poet can pretty much write whatever he or she wants because (sad to say, yes--but sad for reasons other than outdated Marxist rhetoric) no one in the real world cares what sort of poetry gets written.

Get a grip. It doesn't matter if you're driving an '83 Honda Civic or a brand new Lexus. The only way anyone is going to repossess your car is if you don't make the monthly payment. The banker isn't concerned with which side of the "great poetry debate" you write from.

And no matter what you're driving, if you have talent and persist, you'll get where you're supposed to be.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Poem by Jack Gilbert

In 1995, the poet Bill Olsen urged me to read the work of Jack Gilbert, so I ordered a copy of The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994). It is a book I go back to time and again.

Gilbert's 1962 volume, Views of Jeopardy, won the 1962 Yale Younger Poets Prize. He is also the author of the collections Monolithos and Refusing Heaven (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). It is unfortunate that the prize-winning Yale collection and Monolithos have been allowed to slip from print. How sad that we do not have greater access to poems like this one.


Love is apart from all things.
Desire and excitement are nothing beside it.
It is not the body that finds love.
What leads us there is the body.
What is not love provokes it.
What is not love quenches it.
Love lays hold of everything we know.
The passions which are called love
also change everything to a newness
at first. Passion is clearly the path
but does not bring us to love.
It opens the castle of our spirit
so that we might find the love which is
a mystery hidden there.
Love is one of the many great fires.
Passion is a fire made of many woods,
each of which gives off its own special odor
so that we can know the many kinds
that are not love. Passion is the paper
and twigs that kindle the flames
but cannot sustain them. Desire perishes
because it tries to be love.
Love is eaten away by the appetite.
Love does not last, but it is different
from the passions that do not last.
Love lasts by not lasting.
Isaiah said each man walks in his own fire
for his sins. Love allows us to walk
in the sweet music of our particular heart.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Thought for the Day

"The story of Orpheus underlies every poem. The poet risks the dangers of silence and darkness, bringing the message of human emotion to the gods and carrying back news of the gods to men."

-Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses

And now, a big happy bowl of oatmeal.

Happy Valentine's Day, Mr. Keats.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sylvia & Ted Go Fishing

In Her Husband: Hughes and Plath–A Marriage (Viking, 2003) Diane Middlebrook recounts an interesting story about the poem "Flounders," which appears in The Birthday Letters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) the collection intended by Ted Hughes to tell his side of the tragic, legendary marriage with Sylvia Plath.

Middlebrook writes:

"The time is summer, 1957; Plath has just completed her Cambridge degree, and Hughes has accompanied her home to Massachusetts. They were indulging in their second honeymoon on Cape Cod–––Hughes remarked that learning how much it cost Aurelia (seventy dollars per week) anesthetized him for a whole month. The poem says that they spent a day in a rented rowboat, fishing in the channel, bouncing in the wake of grand pleasure boats owned by the rich. Suddenly the wind shifted and the tide turned, and they rowed hopelessly while their boat was slowly being pulled out to sea. Then their luck turned again: they were rescued by a family in a fast power boat and towed into a quiet channel, where they ended the day happily making a fabulous catch of flounder.

"Hughes unfolds the story as a contemporary faily tale, in which the bountiful catch of flounder is bestowed on them by a beautiful nameless goddess, they have been spoiled by studying literature––it made them uninterested in American abundance. (We have to infer that this is a goddess of the New World.) She is engaged in a competition with her sister, the goddess of poetry, for the hearts and minds of the young couple. The goddess of poetry, however, demonstrates that Hughes and Plath are under her management. She shuts their ears to the siren song of luxury, so that they heard only the calling of poetry in their life."

Here's the poem--a great one, I think--with it's retrospective wisdom, its wonder, its solid, workman-like lineation and visceral, single syllable words. The poem itself is a well-constructed little dory, holding the two poets and their fragile marriage as they venture out off the coast of Cape Cod.


Was that a happy day? From Chatham
Down at the South end of the Cape, our map
Somebody's optimistic assurance,
We set out to row. We got ourselves
Into mid-channel. The tide was flowing. We hung
Anchored. Northward pulling, our baited leads
Bounced and bounced the bottom. For three hours––
Two or three sea-robins. Cruisers
Folded us under their bow-waves, we bobbed up,
Happy enough. But the wind
Smartened against us, and the tide turned, roughening,
Dragged seaward. We rowed. We rowed. We
Saw we weren't going to make it. We turned,
Cutting down wind for the sand bar, beached
And wondered what to do next. It was there
I found a horse-shoe crab's carapace, perfect,
No bigger than a bee, in honey-pale cellophane.
No way back. But big good America found us.
A power-boat and a pilot of no problems.
He roped our boat to his stern and with his whole family
Slammed back across the channel into the wind,
The spray scything upwards, our boat behind
Twisting across the wake-boil–– a hectic
Four or five minute and he cast us off
In the lee of the land, but a mile or more
From our dock. We toiled along inshore. We came
To a back-channel, under beach-house gardens––marsh grass,
Wild, original greenery of America,
Mud-slicks and fiddler-crab warrens, as we groped
Towards the harbour. Gloom-rich water. Something
Suggested easy plenty. We lowered baits,
And out of about six feet of water
Six or seven feet from land, we pulled up flounders
Big as big plates, till all our bait had gone.

After our wind-burned, head glitter day of emptiness,
And the slogging row of our lives, and the rescue,
Suddenly out of water easy as oil
The sea piled our boat with its surplus. And the day
Curled out of brilliant, arduous morning,
Through wind-hammered perilous afternoon,
Salt-scoured, to a storm-gold evening, a luxury
Of rowing among the dream-yachts of the rich
Lolling at anchor off the play-world of the pier.

How tiny an adventure
To stay so monumental in our marriage,
A slight ordeal of all that might be,
And a small thrill-breath of what many live by,
And a small prize, a toy miniature
Of the life that might have bonded us
Into a single animal, a single soul––

It was a visit from the goddess, the beauty
Who was poetry's sister––she had come
To tell poetry she was spoiling us.
Poetry listened, maybe, but we heard nothing
And poetry did not tell us. And we
Only did what poetry told us to do.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

On Jim Harrison's "Returning to Earth"

And yes, it's good to see Jim Harrison's Returning to Earth (Grove Press, 2007) make the cover of today's New York Times Book Review. I've been reading Jim's work for years, and it's wonderful that he's getting some well-deserved attention. Writing in the London Sunday Times, Bernard Levin once described Harrison as "a writer with immortality in him." Harrison, a Michigan native, is more well-known--and more highly regarded--in Europe than he is here, probably because so much of what is fawned over in American literary circles originates on the "Dream Coasts," while those of us in the vast middle are seldom thought capable of generating anything more compelling than a seed catalogue.*

Here's a quick read from Returning to Earth, a novel set, for the most part, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This is written in the voice of Donald, the story's half-Finnish, half-Chippewa protagonist whose impending death from Lou Gehrig's Disease is the central event of the novel:

"...Alcohol doesn't run much in my family. My dad said he had trouble when he returned from the Korean War. He stopped drinking because he knew he would lose my mother if he didn't. He had tried to drown himself but changed his mind when he got to the bottom of the lake off the pier. One thing that truly bothered him was cutting open an enemy's stomach to stick his feet in to keep from freezing. You look at Korea on the map and you see it's real far north and they experience a hard winter just like we do in the U.P. Men are always quick to go to war and if it doesn't kill them it kicks the shit out of them. Some of them recover and some don't and who knows why. I knew a fellow pretty well who had a hard time in Vienam and one day he drove his motorcycle off the end of a half-built bridge at a hundred miles an hour. He told his friends he was going to do it and some of them watched. They built a fire and had hot dogs and beer for his last meal and off he went."


*In February, what is more compelling than a seed catalogue?

Daniel Halpern's Letter to the NYT Book Review

Yes, I was happy to read the letters of Langdon Hammer and Daniel Halpern in this morning's New York Times Book Review, responding to William Logan's snark-filled commentary on Hart Crane: Complete Poem and Selected Letters (The Library of America, 2006).* The response of Hammer, the Yale University English professor who edited the Crane volume is, perhaps, predictable, if no less valid for that fact. More intriguing is the longer letter of Daniel Halpern, publisher of the Ecco Press and one of America's best (if sometimes, most overlooked) poets.

The entire letter is damning and true and worth your consideration, but let me give you a taste of it:

"Logan believes that 'The Library of America edition contains more of Crane than most readers will ever need,' but he also complains that 'the poems take up so little space.' Bad enough that he can't make up his mind regarding quantity and greatness, it would appear that his formula for greatness is somehow a function of drinking in moderation, securing employment, not cruising for sex (Logan is not beyond scolding the dead, complaining that Crane was involved with 'far too many sailors') and writing a lot: 'Crane left only two very short books and the shards of a third.' I guess that makes Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, John Kennedy Toole, and Malcolm Lowry all failures for their dismal output.

"Maybe the problem here is the self-importance the critic accords himself, imagining that 'a hundred American poets will begin odes to Angelina Jolie' upon reading this review. Who's delusional now? And to compare Jolie to Chaplin causes a wonder of its own.

"Call me crazy or just another poetry publisher, but I have to believe people read reviews to find books to read, even books of poetry. Poetry is what people turn to during times of duress and celebration––marriage, death, 9/11––that is, our rites of passage. Logan's is a review riveted to the underbelly of the biographical, and to the poetry not at all. What is not addressed is the fact that we have here a celebration of an American original, memorialized by one of our most distinguished publishing imprints, the Library of America.

"The most surprising part of the review, however, is the fact that Logan has continued to review poetry. I would have thought he'd have followed his instincts long ago and found something more kindred to his soul."



The original review, "Hart Crane's Bridge to Nowhere" appeared in the New York Times Book Review, January 28, 2007.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Thoughts On "Narrative Arc" and the Assembled Manuscript

A recent exchange about "narrative arc" and poetry manuscripts has me thinking about the organization of full-length collections.

The question of whether a "narrative arc" exists within a collection is a function of the intention of the author, the subject matter and mode of the poems within the manuscript, and the reader. A poet writing in a clear style in a primarily narrative mode (or in a contemporary "mainstream" fashion which blends narrative and lyric elements with relatively straightforward diction) is more likely to be charged with assembling a collection into a discernible narrative arc. The more shared characters, events, figures, and metaphors, the more the poems are arranged in a linear (or other familiar "story-telling") time-sequence, the more obvious it will seem that the poet intends to be read as writing in a "narrative arc." Depending upon the relative clarity of the other elements of the manuscript, this may be true even if the passage of time within the narrative is radically dismantled by the ordering of the poems. To the extent the reader and the poet share (or can readily access) the same language, history, metaphors and culture, the presence of a discernible narrative and of the elements of that story will be more or less obvious to the reader.

When a poet writes in a primarily lyric mode, the narrative intention of the poet, if any, may be obscured. But a collection of lyric poems can be deliberately arranged into a "lyric arc" or into a trellis-like structure that suggests more narrative than is disclosed by a random ordering. A collection of intensely lyric poems might even arrange itself into a lyric or narrative arc in the eyes of a discerning (or particularly sensitive) reader, quite apart from any conscious intention of the author.

Assembling a manuscript in a manner that explores whatever organic structure may exist within the text seems to me a good thing. A collection of poems can (should?) have a presence, an identity, a whole, that is more than the sum of its parts. If the possibility of organizing the manuscript in service to a larger narrative statement exists, why not explore it? Please note: I am not saying that a manuscript must have an arc of any sort. I am not immune to a manuscript that features "stunning poem after stunning poem, with no connection one to the other." And please note: I am not advocating on behalf of "filler poems." I suspect that the average poet working at an average intensity writes enough poems to fill three full-length collections for every one that gets assembled and published. That has been my experience--writing at a journeyman's pace, I've been seven years between books.

The problem may lie in determining what a "filler poem" is. One poet's packing material is another's heirloom teapot. For every one hundred readers who cannot live without Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish," there are at least two or three of us who love "Jeronimo's House" or "View of the Capitol From the Library of Congress." I like them all, though I do not like them all equally. Still, we are lucky to have them. The fact that Bishop, in her lifetime, chose to publish relatively few poems is not lost on me.


My thanks to Rebecca Loudon, Brent Goodman and all the good commentators for this topic. Sorry to be several days behind the curve!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

John Heath-Stubbs (1918-2006)

I first encountered the work of John Heath-Stubbs in The Modern Poets: An American-British Anthology (McGraw-Hill, 1963), the groundbreaking collection assembled by John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read, with its elegant photographs by Rollie McKenna. This is another amazing book I bought (for $3) at a library discard sale, and I wonder about America's librarians for letting classics like this get out of their hands. No great matter to me, of course--now I have the book!

John Heath-Stubbs was born in London on July 9, 1918, and educated at schools in Sussex and on the Isle of Wight. Due to his failing eyesight, he continued his education under private tutors until spending a year at the Worcester School for the Blind and then entering Oxford University, where he took a "first class" in English language and literature. He was poet in residence at the University of Leeds and later taught at the University of Cairo (1955-1958) and at the University of Michigan (1960-1961). In 1972, he received a tutorial post at Merton College, Oxford, a position he held for some twenty years. He was the author or editor of more than 27 volumes, including a translation of The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam, an autobiography, a collection of literary essays, and his Collected Poems: 1942-1987, published by Carcanet Press in 1988.

In an obituary that appeared in The Guardian following the death of John Heath-Stubbs on December 26, 2006, Johnathan Fryer wrote:

"Though curious to discover new ideas, [John Heath-Stubbs] was not a good listener and could be unbridled when his hackles were raised. He sometimes lost his temper even with close friends, though he would usually ring them the following morning to apologise.

"John could be found in many of Soho's notorious drinking-holes in the 1950s and 1960s, and his own little basement flat in west London was a model of bohemian squalor. Fiercely independent, he lived on his own and insisted on cooking for his guests--surprisingly well, though both the floor and the ceiling showed evidence of mishaps.

"Although John was open about his sexual orientation with close friends, he did retain a certain feeling of Christian guilt about it. It was not something one should discuss in public, he believed, and in his autobiography, Hindsights, he avoided almost all mention of the subject."

On the question of his blindness, Heath-Stubbs wrote, "People tend to exaggerate the effects of blindness. There's a kind of very primitive fear of it. It's the punishment of Oedipus. Blind people don't spend all their time wishing they could see however; they've got more important things to do." I've posted a copy of this, along with a photograph John Heath-Stubbs, above the desk in my studio.

Here's the title poem from his 1954 collection, A Charm Against the Tooth-ache. This poem appears in the Brinnin and Read anthology, along with McKenna's photo of the young poet, (above left) pipe in hand, straining to read the newspaper.


Venerable Mother Toothache
Climb down from your white battlements,
Stop twisting in your yellow fingers
The fourfold rope of nerves;
And tomorrow I will give you a tot of whiskey

To hold in your cupped hands,
A garland of anise flowers,
And three cloves like nails.

And tell the attendant gnomes
It is time to knock off now,
To shoulder their little pick-axes,
Their cold-chisels and drills.
And you may mount by a silver ladder
Into the sky, to grind
In the cracked polished mortar
Of the hollow moon.

By the lapse of warm waters,
And the poppies nodding like red coals,
The paths on the granite mountains,
And the plantation of my dreams.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

A Blizzard and a Poem

We're in the midst of a blizzard that should go several days. This is our winter story--extremely cold air from Canada comes down across the Great Plains and crosses the warmer waters of Lake Michigan. Molecules of water steam off the lake in vast clouds, and fall across the western counties as "lake effect" snow. When the snow squalls combine with howling winds and bitter temperatures, the far side of the road disappears, neighbors don't come out to check the mail, and dogs never stray far into the woods.

I made my travel arrangements for the AWP Conference in Atlanta and found an inexpensive place to stay not that far from the Hilton. Apparently, it's too late to register by mail for the Conference itself, so I'll do that after I arrive. If you are going, I look forward to seeing you.

Despite the weather, I have a busy weekend; papers to grade for Monday's class and a poem to work on. I'll leave you with this from my second book, A Path Between Houses (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000). In its little plea for a February thaw, the poem seems timely.


To the chair near the linden tree
where my daughter once wept
and could not be consoled.
To the black-and-white cat,
carrying a sparrow into the garage.
To a February thaw
and to every small act of mercy.
To the light that floods the anchor of the bridge.
To the walnut trees aligned in a dolorous row
and the man who tried to make order of this.
To middle age and the condition of my heart.
To the Tibetan prayer for the dead
and the Episcopalian service
for those lost at sea.
To the split oak stacked
against the ramshackle house
and the fires that will carry me
through another winter.
To the whiskey I am allowed in dreams.
To the fiction of my life
and whatever truth I've made of it.
To what the hand finds
when laid against the wall, in the very place
where the bees have made their hive--
some great buzzing heart,
alive again beneath the lath.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

On Crows in Winter: Lawrence Kilham (1910-2000)

I read field guides and books on nature, and though I don't know a great deal about birds, I pay attention to them; they are recurring figures in many of my poems. I particularly like crows. A common sight (and sound) in all seasons, they are an especially striking presence during the Michigan winter.

One of my favorite books is The American Crow and the Common Raven (Texas A&M University Press, 1989) by the late Lawrence Kilham (1910-2000). The book is beautifully printed and profusely illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings by Joan Waltermire. According to Amazon, it is still readily available.

Lawrence Kilham was a Harvard-educated physician who taught for many years at Dartmouth Medical School. I've read that his interest in birds was "recreational" but he can only be called an amateur ornithologist in the root-sense of the word--"to love." Kilham loved birds and wrote well about their lives and habits. He published several books and more than 90 scientific papers on ornithology and bird behavior. His books include On Watching Birds (1979) reissued as A Naturalist's Field Guide (Stackpole Books, 1981), for which he received The John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing in 1988.

I was driving to work this morning and as I headed down through the blueberry fields, saw a crow fluttering back and forth from the roadway. The crow was feeding on a road-kill carcass--perhaps a rabbit--and though the crow was attentive to traffic it was otherwise intent on its work, indifferent to the snow that swirled up from the cane of the fields and across the icy surface of the road. I remembered Kilham's book on crows, and when I opened it tonight, found an entry for an occurence at a feeding station the author kept in New Hampshire.

Kilham writes:

"About forty crows were on the snow feeding on the morning of February 1, with possibly twelve to fifteen more in the woods directly behind. After a half hour of undisturbed feeding, the crows suddenly flew into the air, cawing. I saw no cause for the disturbance and the crows quickly returned to feed as before. But within seconds they whirled up again, and it was then that I saw the Goshawk carrying a crow at snow level out onto the field. With the crow pinned under it, the Goshawk held its head up as the crows, with much cawing, passed 8 to 12 meters above in what appeared to be a panic flight that took them beyond the horizon in seconds...The Goshawk flew as the crows passed and, surprisingly, so did its victim, seemingly uninjured.

"When I inspected the site, I found that the hawk had carried its crow ten meters, so low that the tips of the hawk's primaries and the body of the crow left marks on the snow for the last five meters before the two birds, captor and victim, came to rest, There were no feathers, blood, or signs of struggle. I looked out at the feeding station several times in the next two hours but could not find a single crow. Attempting to reconstruct events, I surmised that the Goshawk had come out of the woods low and fast, caught a crow that flew up after feeding, and continued straight on. The sudden fly-up of the forty to fifty crows that circled without swooping or stopping to mob had, possibly, frightened the Goshawk enough to make it leave. Its victim, seemingly no more than stunned, then flew off."