Monthly Archives: May 2013

May 28, 2013: THE ONION, MEMORY (Craig Raine)

Dear readers,

given the national holiday, I consider this installment to be very punctual. Early, almost.

But what if David Yezzi were right? Let’s assume for argument’s sake that contemporary poetry is dominated by the themes and treatment he describes. Yezzi argues that this poetry is bad because it’s dishonest, and it’s dishonest because A) nobody could actually feel that way, and B) the poems describe a world that does not exist.

So, A), who says nobody feels that way? I bet some people do. I bet some people reading these horrible, horrible poems feel just that way. I am getting older; sometimes I feel that way. I have no better rebuttal to argument 2.A than, no, I think Yezzi is wrong, and I submit–using the same evidence he does, which is to say: none–that many people regard the world within much the same frame that he deplores.

And B), I was not aware that literature had to describe worlds that actually exist. In fact, I’m pretty sure that there are entire genres that do nothing but describe worlds that do not exist. Anyway, must a poem–a poem, for gosh sakes–describe a “world?” Mightn’t expressing a point of view suffice for a mode that, after all, sometimes lasts for only a few lines? Not everything has to be the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

And point of view really gets to the heart of matter, for here is where the poet can bring his/her tools to bear, even if the world described is a boring or “nonexistent” one. I don’t see why the poet can’t take as a topic the same situation that a Lifetime movie does. But whereas the Lifetime movie must make a broad appeal, and thus employ the blandest, most repetitive point of view available, the poem really lives on its own terms and probably appeals to a narrower audience, so the poet can be risky with his/her choices. For some reason, ruminating on this possibility brought me to Craig Raine (anagram: I are racing), initiator of the so-called “Martian” school of poetry. Now this was not really a school of poetry, but what Raine did was write a book of poems with the title A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979), which made a big splash. In the title poem, and others, Raine attempted to take a point of view that was distanced from the human point of view, while living in an obviously human world. He chose as “speaker” a martian who was describing the actions of humans to the martians back home, the same way we would write a postcard saying “It’s beautiful here but the Burmese don’t form an orderly queue at the bus station!” I love this concept for our purposes today because, first, it takes as its subject a world that does not exist–martians don’t live among and observe humans! Second, it takes as its subject the most humdrum of worlds–humans interacting with each other in their normal routine. Here’s a poem by him from 1978–prior to the whole martian thing–which really exemplifies the approach. The subject here is a speaker preparing dinner with his partner (I’m assuming a man’s speaking voice, but it needn’t be), and thinking about having been together for a while now. There’s nothing more middle-aged, blinkered, suburban, and genial than that. But the approach takes us far out of that, uses scientific and metaphorical words for everyday things, gives a tactile history to the places and things, makes a pop culture allusion or two, unpeels a sexual innuendo, and somehow brings an emotional punch to its totally predictable conclusion. We call this writing poetry.

Some of the poems Yezzi is thinking of may truly be terrible. But they’re not terrible for the reasons he thinks they are. Next week: the third leg of the stool. -ed.

The Onion, Memory

Divorced, but friends again at last,
we walk old ground together
in bright blue uncomplicated weather.
We laugh and pause
to hack to bits these tiny dinosaurs,
prehistoric, crenelated, cast
between the tractor ruts in mud.

On the green, a junior Douglas Fairbanks,
swinging on the chestnut’s unlit chandelier,
defies the corporation spears–
a single rank around the bole,
rusty with blood.
Green, tacky phalluses curve up, romance
A gust–the old flag blazes on its pole.

In the village bakery
the pastry babies pass
from milky slump to crusty cadaver,
from crib to coffin–without palaver.
All’s over in a flash,
too silently…

Tonight the arum lilies fold
back napkins monogrammed in gold,
crisp and laundered fresh.
Those crustaceous gladioli, on the sly,
reveal the crimson flower-flesh
inside their emerald armor plate.
The uncooked herrings blink a tearful eye.
The candles palpitate.
The Oistrakhs bow and scrape
in evening dress, on Emi-tape.

Outside the trees are bending over backwards
to please the wind : the shining sword
grass flattens on its belly.
The white-thorn’s frillies offer no resistance.
In the fridge, a heart-shaped jelly
strives to keep a sense of balance.

I slice up the onions. You sew up a dress.
This is the quiet echo–flesh–
white muscle on white muscle,
intimately folded skin,
finished with a satin rustle.
One button only to undo, sewn up with shabby thread.
It is the onion, memory,
that makes me cry.

Because there’s everything and nothing to be said,
the clock with hands held up before its face,
stammers softly on, trying to complete a phrase–
while we, together and apart,
repeat unfinished gestures got by heart.

And afterwards, I blunder with the washing on the line–
headless torsos, faceless lovers, friends of mine.

May 20, 2013: WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? (Kim Addonizio)

Readers:

In the college newspaper, a daily, there was a column titled “Thursday’s Verse.” It was the titular and spiritual spark for this forum. And now, thanks to my laziness–also a regular feature of collegiate life–, we come full circle. I am not re-naming the column, but I do apologize for the delay. And now:

John Ashbery, Daniel Groves, Sally Van Doren, Niki Giovanni, Paul Muldoon, Sharon Olds, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gerald Stern, Frederick Seidel, Kevin Young, Terrance Hayes, Kim Addonizio, Wanda Coleman, Diane Wakoski, Philip Levine, Bob Hicok, Gary Soto, Michael Harper, Robert Pinsky, William Matthews, Louise Gluck, W.D. Snodgrass, Craig Arnold, Grace Paley, Beverly Rollwagon, Michael Blumenthal, Michael O’Brien, Stephen Dunn, Daphne Gottleib, Galway Kinnell, Fish Vargas.

This is my argument #1 against Mr. Yezzi, and the entirety of my argument #1 against Mr. Yezzi. For this is just a tiny smattering of the “contemporary poetry” one would have to ignore in order to “honestly” make Mr. Yezzi’s argument. It is also why I’ve insisted on using quotation marks around the words “contemporary poetry” when discussing Mr. Yezzi’s take. His argument about how predictable, how staid, how excruciatingly boring “contemporary poetry” is relies on this transparent move: Let me define who is in the group of people writing “contemporary poetry,” and then I get to say it’s terrible.

As an aside, it’s a move similar to the “today’s music sucks” argument. Well, that argument is certainly right in a way. One can look at rolls and rolls of today’s hits and argue convincingly that they suck. And one can ask, “Where is today’s Black Sabbath, today’s Ray Charles, today’s Tom Waits?” Well, on the one hand, they’re right here, too. I’m not gonna play let’s-name-names, but there is gold in that dross, nevermind that wading through the dross makes one feel filthy. More importantly, have you ever picked up a billboard magazine top 40 from 1969? Or 1974? 1996? Whenever music was “good?” You should do that. You’ll get a good laugh. Good god, what a load of time-tested, incredible crap you’ll find. Crap that, by and large, sank to the bottom of the river, for good reason. And this is no joke–you’ll find the same with books of old poetry. For every Wordsworth, five Wordsworthlesses.

So this is rebuttal #1 to his take: Yup, the main effects of contemporary poetry are certainly the genial lament, the middle-aged, middle American revelation, especially if we leave out all the contemporary poetry that doesn’t do exactly that. And I know, I’ve only mentioned a handful of writers above, so let’s acknowledge that there are way, way more challenging writers out there than we’ve managed to look at here on MV. Enough, at least, to challenge the notion that the “dominant mode” of current writing is what Yezzi says it is.

I can’t remember if we’ve read Kim Addonizio’s work before. She’s a west-coaster. This one’s from 2000. It’s neither genial nor boring. -ed.

WHAT DO WOMEN WANT?

I want a red dress.

I want it flimsy and cheap,

I want it too tight, I want to wear it

until someone tears it off me.

I want it sleeveless and backless,

this dress, so no one has to guess

what’s underneath. I want to walk down

the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store

with all those keys glittering in the window,

past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old

donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers

slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,

hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.

I want to walk like I’m the only

woman on earth and I can have my pick.

I want that red dress bad.

I want it to confirm

your worst fears about me,

to show you how little I care about you

or anything except what

I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment

from its hanger like I’m choosing a body

to carry me into this world, through

the birth-cries and the love-cries too,

and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,

it’ll be the goddamned

dress they bury me in.

May 15, 2013: SNOW DAY recap

Readers:

I’m sorry again for the delay. While it is true that I normally just don’t work very hard on Mondays, which enables my poetry habits, the past two weeks have, for some maddening reason, just seemed too dang busy! But enough about my personal woes, and on to my completely unfounded opinions about poetry.

No, wait… let’s let someone else speak. I had a brief exchange with Dalia Nassar last week, and she gave me permission to share her reflections in a cut-and-pasted version. Jennifer U. noted how influenced she was by Yezzi’s take–she thought she would have liked the poem, but found it fit too perfectly with the complaint he’d made about contemporary verse in general. I would say here that Dalia shares that basic outlook, but she’s just expanded on it a bit. By the way, both these long-time readers are currently residents of Australia–coincidence? Anyway, I’m curious to know how many readers feel the same. This take–the close reading and giving fair credit to the Yezzi position–is part of the process I wanted to engage in, so I thank you all for doing it for me. -ed

“Just a quick word on the Billy Collins: I actually really liked this one. I am not very familiar with his work, and am sometimes dissatisfied with contemporary for the same reasons that Yezzi points out, but found this to be a really nice poem; maybe it is not going to change my life, but it is perceptive, and has some really nice lines.

But that is not to say that Yezzi is completely off the mark. A couple of years ago, at a major Australian Poetry event in Sydney, I was often shocked by the blandness and mundaneness of some of the work: the most shocking of all were poems that read like grocery lists. And of course the way the poets read their work was especially disappointing: mundane, even bored–a voice that had little excitement for what it has to say, a voice that has nothing to hope for or fear.

But I don’t see that in this poem. Though I would like to add that while the Billy Collins poem is good, it loses something once he starts listing all the school names: here one sees something of the affable, but also quite mundane suburban voice. And in this he does seem to come very close to the voice I mentioned previously: the voice of the lister — it seems that poetry has become so much about “listing” rather than telling or revealing. So while I like the first 4 stanzas, I was less”