Sunday, October 30, 2016

Ted Hughes on America, 1957

From his letter to Olwyn:

 "What a place America is. Everything is in cellophane. Everything is 10,000 miles from where it was plucked or made. The bread is in cellophane that is covered with such slogans as de-crapularised, reenergised, multi-cramulated, bleached, double-bleached, rebrowned, unsanforised, guaranteed no blasphemin. There is no such thing as bread. You cannot buy bread. And fifty processes that side of the wrapping these loaves saw the last molecule of their original wheat. Garlic comes in little boxes – two garlics to a box – covered with manager’s and directors’ names & the multiple vitamins injected to keep the flavour even though the garlic in appearance is black-rotten. Everything is a bit the same...."

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Breaking Away

In the 1979 coming-of-age film "Breaking Away," Dennis Christopher plays a high school graduate who has a fascination for bike racing, and a crush on the Italian racing team. There is a moment in the film in which he comes to know disillusionment, when the team behaves dishonorably.

The other day I had my own Cinzano moment. I met someone whose work I admired, and I experienced a similar disillusionment; he was boorish and rude, and to his audience, insulting. Now, this isn't the first time I've ever met a bully, or been belittled; I went to high school, after all, and I know exactly how to deal with them.  But here's the thing: right away, I felt like I didn't want to own his work anymore. I didn't want the books in my home.

That was an interesting response, I thought.  And the more I thought about it, the more interesting it seemed.  I'm no stranger to the cognitive dissonance required for loving various works of art.  Rilke left his infant daughter. Frost was cruel (according to the Thompson volumes, although this has been disputed). Dickens, too was no angel. It can be posited that Ted Hughes did not behave well. Picasso, Mailer, the list goes on; and anti-semites abound in my favorite literature and art of the twentieth century: Eliot, Pound, Wagner. And yet I love their work.

How do we come to love the work of writers, painters, artists, and others who are not really nice people? Is there a bar one must reach, a bar of excellence, that permits such behavior? It could be that distance permits dissonance; I wasn't in the room when Frost was cruel to his family. But that leaves me off the hook in a way I don't like. Maybe it's just this: if you are going to be a jerk, you better also have greatness within you. Although I'd really rather that you be nice, too.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Elizabeth Bishop's Brownie Recipe

Perfect day for it.  Read the work and wait for them to come out of the oven. What would be the perfect poem to read with?
4 squares bitter chocolate (or about a cup of cocoa)
4 eggs
1/2 cup butter
2 1/2 cups white sugar
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups chopped nuts
Melt the chocolate and butter together—or, if you use cocoa, melt along with half the sugar and a little water. Cool slightly and beat in eggs and rest of sugar. Sift in flour, add vanilla and nuts and beat. The batter is fairly stiff – doesn’t run much. Spread about <[1 inch]> this thick in square pan. Bake in a slow oven – about 45 minutes to an hr., depending on pan, thickness, etc. They should be dry on top, just pulling away from edges, but still rather damp in the middle. Cut in squares in pan and remove with spatula. This makes chewy brownies – for a harder kind, use brown sugar and an extra egg—or half brown sugar—Can be made thicker and used hot with whipped cream on top for a desert.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Was Assia One Of Those Girls?

What a place America is. Everything is in cellophane.
— Hughes to Olwyn in a letter, 1957

I've been reading up on Plath and Hughes, which I have done for class so many times, and this time a small detail I'd overlooked has caught my imagination. Plath's depression and eventual suicide is an enduring subject; Hughes' role in her creative work and in her life is equally interesting. They both hoped to become myth, and that they indeed apotheosized only intensifies the scholarship. But I'm starting to think about Assia.

I can't help but wonder if Assia was One Of Those Girls.

If you're a female, you know the type. She appears to be powerful because of her beauty, she incites jealousy because of her luck and her genetic inheritance, but it turns out that these are smokescreens, incidentals. She carries a much more devastating charm in that she is...well, what word will work here? Maybe unscrupulous is the right term for this quality. She uses it in a way that is invisible to men. They just can't discern it. It's like a dog whistle that only women can hear.

No, that isn't right. It may read as unscrupulous, but it's survival. She is focused. And here's where it befuddles me a bit. Hughes' grasp on Nature was invigorating to poetry, and troubling to civility. When his prizewinning first book Hawk in the Rain came along it was important in part because it spoke in a way that The Movement Poets—the UK poetry in fashion in the fifties—stylistically denied. Though poets such as Thom Gunn and Philip Larkin spoke of death, of loss of faith, or purposelessness, of most unsavory feelings, they did so with such restraint you barely saw the glimpse of fang. Even in his remarkable "Deceptions," Larkin's deep empathy could destabilize the most clear-eyed reader were it not in such tight, polite words and meter. It's a beautiful accomplishment, this.

Hughes on the other hand, was straightforward in awe of Nature's design, of its brutality, its efficiency. How he loved the single-mindedness! The thrush's efficacy, utility in killing to survive: "this bullet and automatic / Purpose"; the pike's rapacious mouth as its whole reason for existence: "A life subdued to its instrument."

What the civilized reader saw as brutal and violent, Hughes understood as essential. "My poems are not about violence but vitality. Animals are not violent; they are so much more completely controlled than me."
When my Aunt calls my verse “horrible and violent” I know what she means. Because I know what style of life and outlook she is defending. And I know that she is representative of huge numbers of people in England. What she has is an idea of what poetry ought to be… a very vague idea, since it’s based on an almost total ignorance of what poetry has been written. She has an instinct for a kind of poetry that will confirm the values of her way of life. So to define their use of the word violence any further, you have to work out just why her way of life should find the behaviour of a hawk “horrible” or any reference to violent death “disgusting," just as she finds any reference to extreme vehemence of life “frightening somehow." It’s a futile quarrel really.
How Nature was open about living for need. "With a man it is otherwise[,]" Hughes complains in "Thrushes," lamenting a civility that would sterilize dark temptations into denial. Isn't that what civility is? The refinement of rudeness, in order to avoid the kind of things that cause trouble. But it's really just wrapping paper on the loins. I think of Plath, who struggled so majestically to be both pure and herself, to be the fifties girl she was raised to be, while being, also, a magnificent sensual being. One only has to read her journals to see the deep jealousy she felt for boys who could roam:
I have too much conscience injected in me to break customs without disasterous effects; I can only lean enviously against the boundary and hate, hate, hate the boys who can dispel sexual hunger freely, without misgiving, and be whole, while I drag out from date to date in soggy desire, always unfulfilled. The whole thing sickens me.​
One could write a series of encyclopedias on the female animal and propriety, and the entry on Plath would be terrific. Once married with children, you either fly right and behave or you kindle come what may. Assia was relentless, which is to say, one can admire her for her focus and efficiency. In pursuing Hughes, and in letting herself be pursued, she was like any animal stimulated and awakened by hunt, by hunger. Like Hughes, she was unmoved by appeals for tenderness to others, as is Nature.

Photo of Assia on her Wedding Day to Richard Lipsey, October 1952. Courtesy of Celia Chakin, in Yehuda Koren and Eliat Negev's Lover of Unreason.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Why You Don't Want to Know What I Think of Your Poems: A Guide.

Like so many teachers of poetry, I imagine, I get random requests, often, from people I don't know, to tell me they write poems. They want to meet with me sometime, whenever it's convenient for me, in my office, or they offer to treat me to coffee or tea. They want to know what I think of their work.

So this post is my answer to you. You don't need to know anything about what I think of your work. What I think of your work isn't of much value. Are you hoping to hear that you're good? Me too.

My response would only be to ask what you think of your work in the context of poetry as it is and as it has been. Who are your reading? Who has had the greatest effect on you, positive and negative? Why? What do you think about the work you see in the journals you read? Whose essay on poetry moved you? Which writer challenges you? What ideas challenge you? What are you chasing in language that won't hold still?

I've had several of these meetings with people, and based on this experience, I conclude the following: 99% of people who wish to show you their work don't read poetry. And now for a banner announcement that is sure to surprise no one: If you are not reading poetry, you probably aren't writing it.

You don't need to know what I think of your work. Once you've scratched out a draft or twenty on the page, what any writer needs is that sharp, focused eye that is not satisfied. How do you get that eye?

Here is my guide:

1) Read more poetry. Read the books that have just been published, the books that were published ten years ago, the books that were published fifty years ago.  Read ten of the current issues of diverse poetry journals. Then look at that draft you've got there in your little plastic envelope (and why, why, must you keep a draft in a plastic envelope?)—and see if that draft won't take on a larger shape almost immediately.

2) Send your work to journals you love. You do want to know what editors think of your work. And there is a major side effect to sending your work out. Once you begin to think about attaching that draft in your submission or putting that draft in an envelope, once you begin to take seriously that an editor will at least start to read it, you bring the vision to the poem that you hadn't up until this point. There it is: your sharp, questioning eye, the eye that isn't flattered by anything.  That's the eye you want on your work.

3) You do want to know what you think of your work.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Three workshop ideas. You know this.

1. Revise. The draft changes and takes shape as you revise (re-vision, re-see, review, reconsider) what you first wrote.

2. Revise your first draft once at least, maybe twice, before bringing it to workshop. Absolute first drafts are like a bag of groceries you place on the counter, waiting for your readers to come in, unpack, get out the pots and pans, cut the carrots, and prepare dinner for you. What's for dinner?

3. If your desire to be read eclipses your drive to write, you may be in the wrong forest.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Like All of Us, Robert Frost is a Liar

I'm about to break some student hearts this week. We're beginning our study of Robert Frost, the one writer with whom they may already be familiar.  "The Road Not Taken" seems to be for students a "calendar poem" (to use Auden's term of distaste for this sort of thing), a hang-in-there-kitty-poster of encouragement they've got engraved on their spirits.  Maybe they know it from a high school class or saw the poem on a calendar somewhere and took it as their motto of difference and achievement. All of us can benefit from a tale that gives us hope and a sense that our differences and our choices contribute to our successes in life.

But "The Road Not Taken," which is so often thought of in this way, is about our need to pretend to have power in spite of what we know. This is tougher for the students. I won't have to bring tissues, but disappointment will reign in class.

Either way, we can blame Frost himself, who was a master of deception. The proposition that Frost was an aw-shucks type of farmer wrote pretty verse has been disposed of by now. Philip Gerber writes “perhaps even Frost himself at last came to believe in the simple farmer-poet who had one hand clamped on the spading fork while the other was busily autographing title pages to Complete Poems; he was, perhaps, playing the role which had been created for him and which he had helped to lodge in the public consciousness." There's little doubt that his rural New England character had a great deal to do with the populist success of his work. He was a craftsman of his public persona. He seemed aesthtically—almost agressively—pastoral. And he was, if we want to think of the pastoral as a genre in which the rural is not idealized but realized.

Frost's skill at pretense extends to his poetry, in which at times he writes what seem to be lovely soothing poems that instead eye dread and terror. Further, he understood the need for dissembling, of using a mask—to appear sincere while coming quite close to deceiving—and he could write in such a way that underlines that such a need is essential. When Frost writes in "The Figure a Poem Makes" that the last line of of a poem, which he takes as "a clarification of life," is a "momentary stay against confusion," he affirms that poetry removes us—momentarily—from what life really is: confusion.  Poetry as a still moment against the ongoing, confusing, natural world, in which we see the clarity of life.

For the speaker in "The Road Not Taken" such a "momentary stay" requires that we tell the story of our achievements gloriously, whether or not it's the truth. We hear the speaker recalling how he took a road "less traveled" and it "has made all the difference." The kicker is, the speaker is saying: I will be telling this story, but really, those two roads were pretty much the same. He studied both diligently: "looked down one as far as I could/To where it bent in the undergrowth."  In the second stanza, he offers that the road he takes is one that had "the better claim" to him "[b]ecause it was grassy and wanted wear"; yet it was, he admits, "just as fair[.]" In fact, he lets slip, casually that:
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
and that both roads that morning were covered "equally/ In leaves no step had trodden black." If these two roads are worn really about the same, why does he make so much of this less traveled business?
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference
Oh that sigh. Of course he'll be telling his tale "with a sigh." It's part of his story, gestures to accompany this grand curation of his past. The poem's subject is less the road, or the choice of a less-traveled road, than how the speaker has put together this story. Like all of us narrating our origin myth, it's better to think we have had some firm input as to our destiny, that what we did, and our difficult choices, have made us what we are. To consider otherwise—to consider that life is a series of random events and that luck or the lack of it play a terribly great part—is not terrifically encouraging. Both roads were about the same, but when I look back on my past, I can't imagine that I had nothing to do with getting where I am. Am I some flotsam floating along with less control over events than I'd like to think? That's not a good story. Richard Poirier said of Frost that his poetry "can be said to include terror without itself being terrifying."

This is Frost, a modernist wolf in the sheepscloth of the sonnet. Lionel Trilling caused a stir at a celebration of Frost in 1985 by saying in his introduction: ''I regard Robert Frost as a terrifying poet." The audience at the Waldorf-Astoria made such a fuss that Trilling wrote an apology to Frost about having used the word terrifying.  But Frost was anything but bothered by Trilling's definition. And Trilling had read, closely, lovingly, Frost's most terrifying poem "Design."

But Frost is worth his terror, especially in what his poetry creates. Life is a random mess, and out of that mess, we make beauty.


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