Thursday, August 31, 2017

Consolation, Poetry

Usually when I teach the British poetry of the 20th Century, my students respond wholeheartedly to Auden for a number of reasons. Coming as he does in the syllabus right after Eliot's "The Waste Land," Auden is a great alternative for those who took Eliot to be the harbinger of catastrophe, and a nice change, anyway, for those who couldn't even get through "The Fire Sermon." The class appreciates Auden's exploration of the artist's relationship to suffering, even though "Musée Des Beaux Arts," though moving, is in part a comment on our ability to avoid others' catastrophes if those catastrophes interfere with our own needs. The students appreciate the near-eviscerating truth-telling in the poem "Lullaby": Auden's mortal creatures, all of us, as simultaneously beautiful and guilty? None of the students can quite overlook the second line, in which the speaker calls for his lover, who's sleeping, to rest his head, "Human, on my faithless arm." It slays them. Students are fond of enchantment, usually, quite the opposite of Auden, who said the proper effect of art is "to disenchant." That would have bugged them earlier in the semester, yet they don't resist him; the students are ready for him, almost too ready. 

I wonder if they'd come to Auden differently if we moved in a random way through the poetry, and viewed his work after say, Wordsworth's daffodils. Would we be so prepared to see the uncertainty, the clarity of flaw in the world arranged in neat, unpanicked sheets of stressed and non-stressed lines, to hear such a dry illumination of the human condition? I think Eliot did something amazing to poetry when he wrote "The Waste Land," though perhaps not the something he set out to do. James Merrill said, "All of Auden's poems were written on paper on which the tears had dried." My students are ready to move out of the abstract, out of what they appreciate as Eliot's real chaos, into attempting a shape—but with a kind of awareness that the poem has to survive. It was the middle of the twentieth century, after all, and mere consolation, already out of fashion, helps no one.

Image of paper via A Moment of Silence.

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.


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