Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Finals Week - can't write anything til Monday

I'll get back to the blog next week. Look for my review of The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dappled Things is back... for the moment

The newest issue is finally online. You can read one of Steven Milne's poems here (I gushed about him back in November, remember?). His other poems are also wonderful, although you can only read them in the print magazine. I was also impressed by "Poem with a line from the Desert Fathers" (Sabrina Vourvoulias), which is a sinewy, courageous meditation on this astonishing little story. The way she puts the key line is, "Why not become fire?" There is also a nicely-done critical essay on the novelist J.F. Powers, and some book reviews that may interest you.

We are currently putting the finishing touches on the Christmas issue, which will be a celebration of DT's fifth birthday, and hopefully the new website will be ready by then. Despite this good news, though, Dappled Things has been suffering in this economy (as have we all), and donations have slowed down so much that the journal is in danger of folding in the next year. If you feel so moved, please send DT a Christmas present via PayPal, or send a check here:

Dappled Things Magazine
2876 S. Abingdon Street, C-2
Arlington, VA 22206

Dappled Things is the only Catholic litmag in English today. We fill a niche, we meet a need... but there's more to it that: Dappled Things has drawn on some of the liveliest circles of young Catholic writers and given them a forum for their most purely imaginative efforts. Paper architecture, dystopian fiction, holy/unholy sonnets - all of this is leading somewhere, and I want Dappled Things to keep taking me there.

I have copied Bernie's message for anyone who didn't get it through email:

Dear Friends of Dappled Things,

As many of you will have noticed, there has been a long delay in releasing the Mary, Queen of Angels 2010 edition online. The reason is that we have a brand new website in the works and were aiming at releasing that edition once the site was ready. So the good news is that the issue is now online. The bad news (no, not the news mentioned in the subject line, read further for that) is that the new website has given us more trouble than we expected, so we are publishing this issue still under the old format, hoping to have the Christmas edition up in just a few weeks to inaugurate the new design.

Let me add that the Mary, Queen of Angels edition is truly an exceptional one. Here's what one reader wrote to us after receiving the print edition of it: "I have to say this issue is really something else . . . . 'After' is . . . one of the best [poems] (DT or otherwise) that I've ever read . . . . If DT isn't on everyone's radar, the world is blind." Click here to read the poem online.

In this issue you will also find:

* The dramatic, haunting photographs of Rick Westcott;
* A wonderful reconsideration of the unjustly forgotten Catholic novelist J.F. Powers;
* "I've, like, got to get there, like, now" a delightful rant by the inimitable Eleanor Bourg Donlon on language, unintelligibility, and irreverence;
* Reviews of award-winning graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang's new book of stories, The Eternal Smile; and of House of Words by Jonathan Potter, a beautiful book of poems which is the first title from Korrektiv Press, a promising new venture by the writers of Korrektiv.org;
* "Achilleus Now," an insightful feature essay by Robert T. Miller on his experience teaching great books and how old books still matter to young students;
* Great new stories and poems that you can only enjoy as a subscriber to our marvelous print edition.

Please stop by the site to enjoy all of this wonderful new work. And if you like what you see, please consider making a donation to Dappled Things. Despite the enthusiastic messages that we regularly receive about the magazine, the response to our just-launched annual fundraising appeal has been dismayingly slow. Unless this picks up soon, Dappled Things will have to close down shop in the new year (this is the bad news from the subject line). As the only Catholic literary magazine in English that is currently in print, we think this would be a loss to our culture and the Church. If you agree, please don't let this happen. Stop by the website today and make your secure donation by credit card via PayPal. Or you can send a check, payable to Dappled Things Magazine, to the following address:

2876 S. Abingdon Street, C-2
Arlington, VA 22206

Don't assume that someone else will do it. Please contribute today as you are able.

Wishing you a lovely Gaudete Sunday,

Bernardo Aparicio Garcia
President, Dappled Things

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sundry Sunday Links

Bob the Ape has made a poem out of one of my posts! After six years of scribbling for St. Blog's, I've finally arrived. Thanks a million, Bob!

Dylan has joie de vivre.

"If you're close enough to read this, you must be a New Critic." Poetry bumperstickers! For AWP! Most of them are obnoxious (really obnoxious) in-jokes, but I can't help but laugh at some of them. Oh, and I'D RATHER BE SCANNING QUANTITATIVE METERS, kthanxbye.

I want this book for Christmas. I'm such a sucker for chiming Anglo-Welsh chamber music.

An article on the wild, untameable holiness of prosody. I don't agree that meter is never imitative (I've certainly speeded up verses to express quick motion), but I think Rothman makes a good point: "...prosody has nothing to do with the referential functions of language. Rather, verse draws its power from an utterly different faculty, the number sense, which orders experience not by construing it into propositions but instead by categorizing and counting, an activity that does not require linguistic syntax." In other words, more poetry critics ought to know music theory.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Wind and Window Flower

Photo credit

I've never lived anywhere cold enough for frost crystals to grow on my windows, and lacy window-frost has always seemed like a trope to me. Sort of like nightingales. But this is why Google Image search was invented! Ecce pruina.

Suddenly obsessed, I went to this page which is maintained by a physics professor from Caltech. As I suspected: "Window frost was more common in the past, when houses still had single-pane windows." I'm crazy about this site. It seems that frost, hoarfrost and rime all denote specific ice formations... I'm especially awed by the "frost flower," which appears to be made of cotton candy. Had no idea that water could do that. Apparently it results from water slowly freezing out of wood...

True to the Caltech spirit, there is also a page devoted to the art of growing one's own snowflakes in a vapor diffusion chamber.

And yes, this is a poem about frost by Robert Frost. Happy Advent!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

C.S. Lewis and the perils of poetry

All C.S. Lewis ever wanted to be was a great poet, and when he realized that he never would be, he resigned himself to producing marvelous prose. As a hopeful young poet myself, I find his longing poignant and frightening. How he must has slaved at that unreadable epic of his... but all the industry in the world won't get you the muse or the duende.

Is it too psychologizing and unfair to assume that his poetic failures had something to do with his hatred of Eliot? For years, the two men nursed a dark dislike for each other; only gradually did they lower their defenses and discover how much they had in common. It is clear to me, though, that Lewis's total scorn for modern poetry didn't do his own poetry any favors. Beyond even that, he was apparently impatient with even the most traditional sorts of poetic apprenticeship. In other words, he just didn't think like a poet; in some ways, he was too intelligent. There's a certain amount of stupidity that goes into good poetry.

The following "confession" was meant to be satirical, but as you will see, it is Dame Irony's revenge:

A Confession

I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening -- any evening -- would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
Never, for me, resembled in the least
A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;
Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,
Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known
The moon look like a hump-backed crone–
Rather, a prodigy, even now
Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow
Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place
I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.

Never the white sun of the wintriest day
Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.
I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things… peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.

I think most people who like this poem like it for the catalog at the end, with its nouns as bright as enameled roundels on a medieval chalice. But sadly, Lewis spends the preceding stanzas playing laborious Salieri to modernism's scabrous Mozarts. He was normally a perceptive critic, and it shouldn't have taken him twenty years to admit that the sun could rest on the horizon like a sick man after the doctor has "put him in the dark of ether." Couldn't he translate the Latin occidens? Eliot was certainly subject to the "stock response" of west-evening-death; he just expressed it in it a fresh way. To which Lewis seems to reply: "Don't get fresh with me, kid. I know what a sunset looks like." How he could bear to re-read that laboured, dissipated simile of the ship "whose freight was everything" leaving mankind forever? Forever? Everything? Three modifiers for "leaving behind"? Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.

The chilblain on the cocktail shaker's nose is at least funny as parody, and the rhythm of "Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes" is jolly; but in this stanza he falls victim to the main hazard of trying to parody surrealism: he dredges up images that are actually rather apt and satisfying. Waterfalls will now remind me of torn underclothes because of you, my dear Lewis. If the hokiest poetaster can say "scarf of mist" or "bridal-veil falls," surely a comparison to ragged cloth shouldn't stump even poetic beginners. As for the moon as a "hump-backed crone," one wonders again where Professor Lewis's Latin was when he was writing this, as gibbus (a "gibbous moon") is Latin for "hump." (I would be shocked if he slammed Virgil for personifying Mount Atlas as an old grey-bearded giant.) The metaphor he offers instead, the eye of the Cyclops, seems much more shocking. And again, the whole counter-image is a depressing, long-winded retreat from the pungent images that we are meant to laugh at. The moon is a "prodigy," which isn't an image at all. A prodigy is merely something extraordinary or ominous, and it summons no clear visual image whatsoever. Not content with this vagueness, Lewis changes "prodigy" to "riddle." Then comes the Cyclops' eye, "glaring from the Cyclops’ brow / Of the cold world," and I want to break something because HOW can the cold world be the brow of the Cyclops? If the cold world is earth, there is no freaking way that our round planet can be the moon's eye-socket. If the cold world is the moon, there's no way it can be both eye and brow. If the cold world is Space...

All right, I feel better now that I've taken a box-cutter to the sofa.

The impression you get from this poem is that C.S. Lewis could not deal with metaphors or similes, which would be a grave defect in an admirer of Homer, or of pretty much any poet, ancient or modern. That would be a false impression. It is lovely to turn to his prose and breathe in the subtle wood notes of a description like this one from That Hideous Strength:

Perhaps the winter morning sunlight affected him all the more because he had never been taught to regard it as specially beautiful and it therefore worked on his senses without interference. The earth and sky had the look of things recently washed. The brown fields looked as if they would be good to eat, and those in grass set off the curves of the little hills as close clipped hair sets of the body of a horse. The sky looked further away than usual, but also clearer, so that the long slender streaks of cloud (dark slate colour against the pale blue) had edges as clear as if they were cut out of cardboard. Every little copse was black and bristling as a hairbrush, and when the car stopped in Cure Hardy itself the silence that followed the turning off of the engine was filled with the noise of rooks that seemed to be calling "Wake! Wake!"

When I first read that perfect, homely simile, "every little copse was black and bristling as a hairbrush," and almost tripped over the numinous cry of the rooks, which whisks you up to the sublimity that a lesser writer would have labored in magenta and cerulean to induce, I was thrilled and shivery. Notice that he doesn't say that the trees were like virgin pillars in the green halls of Diana. He says they resemble a hairbrush. He also says that the clouds are like cardboard, which doesn't seem so distant from those tin-can glaciers. I want to revise my earlier assessment of the poem: it's not that he thinks the modernist images are weird, it's that he thinks they're ignoble. His prose, however, seems to quietly resolve this anxiety.

What gets to me the most about Lewis's poetry, and most suggests that his efforts in verse were more careless than he knew, is the sheer sloppiness of the prosody. A.N. Wilson mentions the terrible enjambments and unscannable lines that mar Dymer, that still-born epic; and "A Confession" launches itself in iambic pentameter, absorbs Eliot own pentameter line, and then collapses into tetrameter: "In VAIN. I SIMply WASn't ABle." Or maybe there is a rest after "vain"? But the next line is definitely tetrameter: "To me each evening looked far more." The stanza concludes with a baggy alexandrine that looks like "The Wreck of the Deutschland" in cargo pants. But wait... was this supposed to be a return to iambic pentameter?

LIKE the dePARTure from a SIlent, yet a CROWded, SHORE

Or maybe another tetrameter?

Like the dePARTure from a SIlent, yet a CROWded, SHORE

I would be very surprised if any two people scanned this poem in the same way. It's obvious to me that Lewis's mind got way ahead of his iambs, and you can see him powering through their little hurtles with more haste than grace. I've seen this tendency in every poem of his I've read. (Count the stresses in that last sentence: Lewis would have had no qualms about sticking it willy-nilly into a poem!) If he had something to say, he was usually better off working it into a book or article; but he craved the megaphone of verse. The poems betray their prose fervors:

On a Vulgar Error

No. It's an impudent falsehood. Men did not
Invariably think the newer way Prosaic
mad, inelegant, or what not.

Was the first pointed arch esteemed a blot
Upon the church? Did anybody say How
modern and how ugly? They did not.

Plate-armour, or windows glazed, or verse fire-hot
With rhymes from France, or spices from Cathay,
Were these at first a horror? They were not.

If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food
All set us hankering after yesterday,
Need this be only an archaising mood?

Why, any man whose purse has been let blood
By sharpers, when he finds all drained away
Must compare how he stands with how he stood.

If a quack doctor's breezy ineptitude
Has cost me a leg, must I forget straightway
All that I can't do now, all that I could?

So, when our guides unanimously decry
The backward glance, I think we can guess why.

This seems a mere appendix to some essay on modernity. There is not much here that would not be more convincing in prose.

Now, you should never turn your back on Lewis. Like the sea, he is capable of lifting a freak wave and knocking you out. I would be grateful ever to write something so good as this:

The True Nature of Gnomes

Paracelsus somewhere in his writings tells us
A gnome moves through earth like an arrow in the air,
At home like a fish within the seamless, foamless
Liberty of the water that yields to it everywhere.

Beguiled with pictures, I fancied in my childhood
Subterranean rivers beside glimmering wharfs,
Hammers upon anvils, pattering and yammering,
Torches and tunnels, the cities of the dwarfs;

But in perfect blackness underneath the surface,
In a silence unbroken till the planet cracks,
Their sinewy bodies through the dense continuum
Move without resistance and leave no tracks.

Gravel, marl, blue clay--all's one to travel in;
Only one obstacle can impede a gnome--
A cave or a mine-shaft. Not their very bravest
Would venture across it for a short cut home.

There is the unbridgeable. To a gnome the air is
utter vacuity. If he thrust out his face
Into a cavern, his face would break in splinters,
Bursting as a man would burst in interstellar space.

With toiling lungs a gnome can breath the soil in,
Rocks are like a headwind, stiff against his chest,
Chief 'midst his pleasures is the quiet leaf mould,
Like air in meadowy valleys when the wind's at rest.

Like silvan freshness are the lodes of silver,
Cold, clammy, fog-like are the leaden veins
Those of gold are prodigally sweet like roses,
Gems stab coolly like the small spring rains.

(first published in Punch, October 14, 1946)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

my apology for poetry

Crazy Brain II - Peter Ciccariello

How in this swank parade of fragments, erasures, selflesh, no one knows; interrogations and extraordinary renditions, surrendering to information, to mind as screen, surfing channels, survival of the flittest, self a locus where voces cross always. Voice is Latin for word. Where are the women in the litmags? Why aren't we submitting?

Because I am at home, taking care of my two metaphysics. Particular friendships are dangerous. Also the unobservable virtual unicorn particles. I am afraid they are right. The beginning of fear. The worse the better. The night the day.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Degrees of Separation

I met a man once in Manhattan who had known Auden. Not as remarkable, perhaps, as meeting someone who had known the secretive Greta Garbo, but I'm a West-coast girl and have only been twice to New York. Over tea, he gave me a new simile for the poet's face: "like a waffle iron," he said, which I found vivid. And Auden met Yeats once, and thought he was "pure evil." And it is a little known fact that Yeats once met Hopkins in Dublin, though it was a dull evening and they didn't have much to say to each other.

I don't like the idea of talking to famous people - it makes me dizzy. I'm afraid I would talk gibberish; or worse, fall completely silent. Though Seamus Heaney visited Lexington just before I began studying here, and I do kick myself for missing him. Oh well. I can continue folding my paper snowflake.

Hopkins' grandfather, as it so happens, studied medicine with Keats. Whew. After that I can't go on. Everything goes misty. What other poets can I wiki-walk over to? Hmmm... my mother and Dana Gioia were in a class together in the seventies. I met Erik Keilholtz in San Francisco once; he had given a lecture on Fra Angelico. Erik was friends with surrealist poet Philip Lamantia, who was friends with all the Beats.

I wonder dreamily if I can connect myself to Virgil somehow. I did meet Cardinal Arinze once. He is hilarious. He also knows Pope Benedict, who knew John Paul II, who knew... and etc., etc. Every pope either knows the old pontiff or knows other cardinals who knew him. This is the easy part. Virgil, on the other hand, knew the Emperor Augustus. Is Constantine the first link between popes and emperors? I assume they weren't talking before the whole "In Hoc Signo Vinces" incident.

But what I'd rather imagine is that Virgil used to get his breakfast sometimes in a thermopolium near the Palatine Hill, and he had a bit of a crush on the cute guy who worked there, one Quintus Fabius, who later opened a new shop trans tiberim, or as they now say, in Trastevere, where he made friends with a Jewish scribe, whose grandson briefly worked for the poet Statius... and so on for centuries... and the farmer from Bracciano, just north of Rome, met a girl from Gubbio, and they got married, and their son, who was studious, became a professor at the Sapienza University of Rome, and one of his students fought in the Second World War, survived, and took charge of Zubboli's Books in Assisi, and when I dropped in in 2007 and asked if he had any Vergilio, he said no, but we do have some Ovidio. And he smiled wryly through his white beard and sold me the Metamorfosi di Publio Ovidio Nasone.

Who are you connected to?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

New Pavel Chichikov! new links!

A new book from Pavel! Must get this now!

I ran across Pavel's poetry when I was in high school, and I've been reading him ever since. If I ever get over my spider/moth phobia and make friends with the insect kingdom, it will be his doing.

He also has a podcast. Maybe I should get me one of those.

* * *

I updated the links in my sidebar today. Are there any that you guys think I should add? This is your moment to agitate for your favorite arts-related blog!

Optime valeatis.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

lush new poetry in Dappled Things

I just got the newest issue of Dappled Things in the mail... it looks lovely, as always. Alas, the website has not been updated yet, so if you don't subscribe, you'll have to wait a bit. I am still gleeful that we have published the poems of one Stephen Milne. Perusing his website, I marvel at the way all of his poems hit a certain baseline of interest and pleasure, a rare feat for a contemporary poet (or for any poet, really). I am tempted to wonder if this is because he is English, which seems like an embarrassingly retrograde thought... but maybe British poets haven't heard of the false dichotomy between anecdotes in colloquial language on the one hand and High Experimental Word Salad on the other. Or maybe it's just because he's good. This is poetry in love with place, in love with visual detail, in love with history. It seems to take its cue from those crunchy, countryside-loving poets whose names begin with H: Hopkins, Heaney, Hughes, Hill. Check out "Hopkins at Bovey Tracey" for a taste.

We are also publishing a nice essay by Robert T. Miller on teaching the Iliad. Miller is a law professor at Villanova University and a friend of James Matthew Wilson, who wrote (and is still writing?) one of the most thoughtful critiques of contemporary poetry and criticism that you're likely to find: parts I, II, III.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Poetry "Do"s and "Don't"s

Verbal fashions which may or may not be real. Because I'm feeling silly.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Aeneid and Zombies

Chaucer is back! And he has thought up even more middle English horror novels for your entertainment:
In thys sequel to the moost-loved epique of classical tymes, the howlinge soule of Turnus gooth nat to helle but rathir infecteth the manye deade left from the horribel werres that the booke doth narrate. Zombie Pallas, Zombie Mezentius on hys Zombie horse Rhaebus, and Zombie stag-of-Tyrrus-that-Ascanius-accidentallye-killede, all lumber wyth muchel gore and litel speede Aeneas-toward. Aeneas hideth wyth the men of Troye in a shoppinge mall, in which he saith to them “Peraventure oon daye yt shall do us goode to thinke upon thes tymes,” and hys men saye to hym, “Peraventure oon daye ye shal get a newe lyne.” And then thei shal maken good battel ayeinst the Zombies, bewieldinge the many wepens that are redily founde yn an anciente Etruscan shoppinge malle. Many a zombie is slayne wyth a club of golf, a baseballe bat, or a smalle terracotta figuratyve sculpture. At the ende of the greate tournement ayeinst the undeade, Aeneas sheweth his hardinesse and knighthede by backinge ovir the last of the zombyes wyth a truck, commetinge upon which deede of chivalrie he saith: “Hic sunt lacrimae rearended!”

More terrible macaronic puns await.

AE Stalling's "Anti-Muses"

I was very sad indeed when this post disapeared from Harriet, but I found it again on Squandermania and decided to repost the whole thing here. Enjoy!
Like the Muses, they are attracted to talent and promising projects, and the presence of several at once probably means you are on to something big. Still, they can frustrate or even destroy the most inspired tender new poem, and send the poet into despair, alcoholism, or flash fiction. The more we know about them, the better.

Their mother is Amnesia, “Forgetfulness.”

They are goddesses, 13 in number:

She who holds the alphabet under her terrifying mis-spell.

The Anti-Muse of computer (typewriter, fountain pen, goose quill) malfunction

The Anti-Muse charged with the terrifying void of the blank page. As her symbol is Zero, she also governs poetry royalty checks.

The Anti-Muse of unsympathetic, snarky and condescending reviews. Yes, it is possible to dismiss an entire book of poetry on the grounds of capitalized lines.

“She of two left feet.” If your rhythms clunk, your lines lurch, your sonnet does not scan, this Anti-Muse may well be to blame. Mind you, if everything you write goes da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, you may be under the sway of her equally evil twin, the jackbooted Metronomē.

Not to be confused with her half-sister, Erato. She is the (Anti-) Muse of false revision. Also, she whispers the name “Cortez” when you should be writing “Balboa”.

She governs rejection slips and rigged book-publishing contests and all impediments, real and imagined, to publication. She also inspires poets to versify pointless incidents from their everyday lives.

Her name means “voice from afar,” thus “interruption”. Sometimes this Anti-Muse manifests herself as the shrill ringing of an annoying device. Sometimes it is a small child calling for a cookie from across the length of the house. Her seat of worship is Porlock.

She is the Anti-Muse of Prose disguised as Verse by Line-breaks.

Represented with the head of a warthog, the body of a Slinky, the wings of a bat, and the tail of a beaver, she holds sway over all mixed and misbegotten metaphors.

The Anti-Muse of verbiage, 1000 words that create no picture. She also governs graphomania in all its manifestations, and the related ekdotomania, the compulsion to publish a new book every year.

The goddess of blurbs.

A total lack of subject matter, thus a curse on confessional poets with nothing to confess. Suddenly the poet starts writing poems about sitting down at his desk with his leisurely morning coffee, looking out the window, and writing a poem ("Morning Coffee"). See also Anecdotē."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

the poetry of old textbooks

A First Latin Verse Book, circa 1890.

First Exercise

1. Rome was falling.

2. Fire in the city.

Second Exercise

1. Vergilius, the poet, made most-beautiful songs.
2. The beautiful mother comes, the beautiful girl comes.
3. A bird comes, the messenger of light.
4. The horsemen come out of the wood.
5. The horsemen hurry through the waves.
6. The wind carries the swift ships.

Third Exercise

These-things remain to-us.
Buried bones.
The waves of the sea.
Lay-aside tears now.
Let others relate these-things.

Fourth Exercise

The wind carries the swift ships over the waves of the sea.
The husband crosses the ocean: the wife returns to the city.
A year ripens the grapes on the sunny hills;
    A year carries the stars in fixed succession.
The wind carries the swift ships over the waves of the sea.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Name that Rhetorical Device! and some links

As I look at my post on "Fern Hill" again, I see that I was trying to express how the word "sea" is contained in "easy" and "mercy," so that it seems to emerge of necessity. "easy...mercy...sea." Mer-sea. Ain't I clever! But I have been tallying up instances of this device for a while. Does anyone know if it has a name? Here are three examples:
Her earliest stars, earl-stars, stars principal, overbend us - Hopkins

Omnipresence, equilibrium, brim. - Seamus Heaney

egret, killdeer, bittern, tern. - Robert Hass

Interview with AE Stallings, and three eery new poems.

I would really like to read what Victor Segovia wrote when he was trapped in the mine.

Coolest poet name ever. And she gives good review-writing advice.

The new musicality.

If you haven't seen the ongoing poetry articles in the Atlantic Monthly, here is the series so far: 1,2, 3.

And a little treat from My Mom the Style Icon: a dress with an Alan Ginsberg poem on it.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

On the power of Y

Sometimes a poem's stylistic power comes from the smallest, humblest units of meaning. Alliteration, metaphors, nonce words, magical conceits - all of these splashy tactics are wonderful, but sometimes you can work wonders with a quirk of syntax or the connotations of a suffix. I was marvelling at this as I read "Fern Hill" again the other day. This poem is unashamedly lush, but some of the greenery is suprisingly common and dandelion-like. Think about adjective suffixes for a moment, and the finicky differences in tone that they can create. "Childlike," vs. "childish," The visceral, tactile quality of toothsome, loathsome, handsome, lightsome. That marker of latinity: feral, liminal, sepulchral, cerebral. Then there is the -y suffix, which has a diminutive, childlike feeling to it. Airy, watery, fuzzy, yummy... happy, tipsy, itsy-bitsy... you get the picture. Dylan Thomas uses it brilliantly in Fern Hill. It's a very simple tincture of childhood in this nostalgic, happy-sad poem; and he gets it just right: not so much of it that it becomes babytalk.

Look at the first stanza. "easy, happy, starry, lordly, barley." The 'y' in barley isn't a suffix, but it's an elegant little echo. "easy" and "happy" are insistent motifs in the poem. Next stanza: "happy, only, mercy, slowly." I love the bittersweetness of "only" and "mercy," where the -y becomes a little filip of innocence under the influence of "happy." Third stanza, laying it on thick: "lovely, lovely, watery, nightly."
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.

Now we're mid-poem. Switch! The tone becomes bass-like and sonorous.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

No '-y' endings here, except for 'very' (and perhaps "whinnying"?) Is that devious or what? Then the next to last stanza: "happy." That's all. But the repetition makes it clear and obvious. Final stanza: "easy, mercy."

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

That final line is well known for its beauty. But marvel for a minute at how that last word, "sea," rolls up like a huge snowball from the white field of all those teeny little words: "easy, happy, starry, watery, lovely."

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Some Poetry Blogs Reviewed

I've only recently started to follow poetry blogs in any quantity. When I started reading blogs, Catholic blogs were the first ones I bumped into, and I set about making a little niche for myself within that sphere. I've always been on the fringe of it, but I've been happy. However, when I started For Keats' Sake, I originally had grand hopes of becoming a slender bridge between St. Blog's and the poetrysphere. That hasn't happened, of course. I do think that I've brought some more poetry to St. Blog's, but I haven't ever broken out of the Catholic orbit and into another. To do that, I would have to have read and commented on poetry blogs and made friendships with poets. And I am pathologically shy when it comes to my own poetry. I do not play well with others. The very thought of applying to a writing program spreads an ugly, uncollegial smirk across my face... and the prospect of swishing into a room full of live poets and chatting with them is really scary. I'm working on desensitizing myself, of course. Last week I went to a small reading on campus, talked to the editor of the Heartland Review, read a couple of (other people's) poems, promoted Dappled Things a little, and did not die.

I have read Harriet for some time now, and kept up with poetry news via Choriamb, but I have seldom ventured into Harriet's blogroll and started browsing. I'll try, and get discouraged. Ron Silliman is kind of like the Amy Welborn of the poetry blogosphere. He used to have a Mark Sheavian flora of poisonous com-box warriors, but he finally got fed up and disabled comments. I've never really gotten into his blog, sad to say, because the ratio of links to commentary is just too high. The blogs I gravitate to feature an intimate, epistulary voice with a lot to say about a topic that interests me. Smaller blogs. Blogs with little salon-like circles of friendly, non-flamey readers. And a lot of poet bloggers commit the same faults that most obscure bloggers (like myself) commit: not posting often enough, getting bored with their blogs and dropping them for a month with no explanation, posting too many squibs and not enough essays. Also, some of them are written in non-sequential, eye-gouging experimental prose. Just what you'd expect from a poet, ha! But reading through a variety of these blogs has also encouraged me. Many of them are also crossover efforts, to some extent. I haven't run into any other trad-Catholic poet bloggers yet (besides the merry little band I already link to!) but I've found bloggers who are self-consciously Latino, or Wiccan, or gay, or even (scandal!) formalist. This really cheers me up. I'm sure they would coalesce into a band of maenads to rip into my politics (such as they are), but otherwise there's some welcome ideological diversity.

So here are a few poetry blogs I want to read:

Isola di Rifiuti
John Latta has a wonderfully recognizable, Anthony Blanche-ish sort of voice. He affects apostrophes in his past tenses ("All the surrounding houses demolish’d, ailanthus and other weed trees partout."), which is enough to make me feel charmed. And he writes nice, bedsheet-sized posts on everything from modernism to Martial.

The Newer Metaphysicals
I was attracted to this blog by a series of posts titled "Manning makes Fun of His Elders," in which the eponymous blogger fisks various famous definitions of poetry:
Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.

- Carl Sandburg

Poetry is thus completely revolting Carl, if my morning's experiments are to go by. Remark, for instance, that it is impossible to get the weedy taste out of the dough batter, and the subsequent mouth-burning is an experience comparable only to the most recent Ted Kooser collection.

I'm sorry to say that I just can't get enough of this sort of thing.

Don Share is the senior editor of Poetry, so maybe that accounts for the coherence and disciplined posting schedule on his blog. Check out this essay on Pound which turns into a heartening stand on behalf of learning foreign/classical languages.

George Szirtes
Another poet-blogger with a voice I just like. He is an Anglo-Hungarian poet and translator, and in response to this submission guide:

XYZ will accept no poems about cats, funerals, churches, the Holocaust or disasters seen only on television.

once wrote a poem titled


He is, needless to say, worth reading.

Poetry and Popular Culture
This blog is much less garish than you might expect, as it has a retro focus. Mike Chasar's own description is perfect: "Further thoughts on the intersection of poetry and popular culture: this being a record of one man's journey into good bad poetry, not-so-good poetry, commercial poetries, ordinary readers, puns, newspaper poetries, and other instances of poetic language or linguistic insight across multiple media in American culture primarily but not solely since the Civil War." See this post on a Depression-era can of "Magic" birdseed and get addicted.

Friday, October 29, 2010

OMG I think I like Flarf....

This post started out as a rant about why flarf is inane and a waste of time. I still think it's inane and a waste of time, but at some point I realized that I like a number of inane, time-wastey things; and why shouldn't flarf be one of them?
Why atomize, shatter, and splay language into nonsensical shards when you can hoard, store, mold, squeeze, shovel, soil, scrub, package, and cram the stuff into towers of words and castles of language with a stroke of the keyboard? And what fun to wreck it: knock it down, hit delete, and start all over again. There’s a sense of gluttony, of joy, and of fun. Like kids at a touch table, we’re delighted to feel language again, to roll in it, to get our hands dirty. With so much available language, does anyone really need to write more? Instead, let’s just process what exists. Language as matter; language as material. How much did you say that paragraph weighed?

This ode to flarf reminded me of Dylan Thomas's stated MO:
What I like to do is to treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone or what-have-you, to hew, carve, mould, coil, polish and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, fugues of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly-realised truth I must try to reach and realise.
I lean heavily towards this kind of writing, this view of language as lovely stuff. Dylan, though, sees himself as a grown-up and a professional, while the flarfistas are gleeful, bratty kids.

What I like about flarf:

1. It's childish. It's very much in the spirit of the rude songs and word games that gave us such pathetically all-consuming joy on the playground. (Okay, maybe some of us enjoyed singing "Here comes the bride, undressed and wide" more than others.) And to become a poet today, you are expected to put away childish things when you go to grad school and undergo initiation into theory. (I imagine it must be like training to become a geisha.) Eventually, poets were bound to snap and go back to making mud pies and eating paste. That's sort of what I get from this interview with flarfista Sharon Mesmer:
....you can throw into the mix the inevitable influence of the New York School and its various generations, a dissatisfaction with certain LangPo products, a crying need for humor, and the creeping realization that American poetry overall was a bit lacking in life. To me, this lack of life can be blamed on the over-reliance on theory that leeched into the work. Now, that said, I'm certainly not suggesting that everything theory-related is bad! Or that these responses should never have happened. Questioning reader involvement, authorial hierarchy, what the page constitutes – all very necessary. I'm just saying it might be time to come up for air now.
I agree with that last sentence, and I think a lot of people would. What we do after we come up for air may differ. Some write poetry about lolcats.

2. It's humorous. Most contemporary poetry wants to be one or more of the following: ironic, honest, smart, disorienting, everyday, conscientious, or experimental. It's not often trying to be funny. You can't help snorting, though, at titles like "Unicorn Believers Don’t Declare Fatwas," "The Swiss Just Do Whatever," and "Chicks Dig War." The humor ranges from sweet lolcat silliness to 4chan-like trollery - many of these poems are just dying to be called "inappropriate."

3. It's a true vernacular art form. The flarf poets were not the first people to make poetry out of spam. Remixing, auto-tuning, meme-seeking, googlewhacking, refrigerator magnets - all of this comprises a thick leafmeal of pop collage in which flarf can bloom. I'm not a die-hard democrat when it comes to art, but American poetry has become academic, and any poetry movement that might actually appeal to ordinary smart people who read xkcd or the Onion comes as a relief.

So flarf is fun and fun is good (saith Dr. Seuss), but combine the word "Flarf" with "Poetics of," and you murder the joy. You would think that flarf poets would succeed in keeping anyone from taking them seriously, but that underestimates the zeal of grad students with dissertations to write. Flarf has a dark side - or worse, a beige side. From Poets & Writers:

Edge Books publisher Rod Smith, a poet himself, says he feels the collective is prompting a bit of anarchy in the poetry world by widening the vocabulary of what is permissible. "Aesthetic judgments about what's bad in a very hierarchal society are usually serving upper-class people with a certain amount of privilege," he says. "So for a bunch of poets who are very well schooled in a variety of traditions of American poetry to take what's considered bad and throw that at people is a very interesting maneuver. It's not simply bad poetry; it's quote-unquote bad poetry written by people who know how to write poetry."

Yeah, down with skill! Beauty is oppressive! I agree that the loudness and rudeness of flarf are a tonic to the hyper-academic or virtuously workshopped poetry that has ruled for the past few decades, but a little violence and inanity goes a long way.

My main problem with flarf as the future of American poetry? It's lazy. A poetic form that robots can excel in as easily as I can does not set the bar very high. Look at this piece of ready-made flarf from my own combox:

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with as small sum of money as 20-100 dollars.

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asset management technologies in production and
delivery of pipes for oil and gas.

Its head office is in Panama with offices everywhere: In USA, Canada, Cyprus.
Do you want to become really rich in short time?
That`s your chance That`s what you wish in the long run!

I`m happy and lucky, I started to get income with the help of this company,
and I invite you to do the same. If it
gets down to choose a proper partner utilizes your
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It`s easy to start , just click this link http://yzasahamaf.
and lucky you`re! Let`s take this option together
to get rid of nastiness of the life

Is it not gently, hypnotically rhythmic? Is it not devastating in its campy glorification of avarice? How uncomfortably intimate that "Let`s take this option together." You may argue that it's not flarf; it's the stuff that flarf is made of. Okay. But my work is literally cut out for me (cut and pasted out of a combox), and I can dash off something in minutes. I just can't respect that as my life's work. Exegi monumentum AOL perrennius.? Please!*

The humor of flarf, as I mentioned before, is uncommon in modern poetry; and a lot of poets (and poet-wannabes) are simply unable to cope with such impropriety. This sometimes results in real-life Monty Python sketches like this: writer for Jezebel goes to a reading at the Bowery Poetry Club, and hears a flarf piece which catches her fancy. She is not a big poetry fan, but this absurd, obscene poem makes her laugh. "But then," she says, "I was informed that I was loving it all wrong, because I laughed at the funny parts."

You can read more here (warning, gross language): "Let The Laughers Stand Up!": Scenes From The World's Most Annoying Poetry Reading. After she finished reading her poem, the author, Ariana Reines, asked the audience if there were any questions. One woman glared at the unpoetic interloper and said her laughter at the "sexier" parts had made her "uncomfortable." A bunch of other audience members agreed, and they piled onto Jenna like the Spanish Inquisition.
"Why are you mad?" called out [poet] Eileen Myles — again, I think — when my friend repeated that it was a savagely funny satire that we were responding to. The first woman, the one with the nasty look and the somewhat aggressive sense of propriety, said she hadn't meant to imply in any way that she thought laughing was wrong. "Of course laughing's not wrong!" I shouted. I couldn't help myself. I wasn't about to have my feminism impugned by these people — or my manners. "Why are you angry?" said Eileen Myles. "First you were laughing, now you're angry."

"Wait, no!" called out Reines. "We're all having a great time here! Come on, it's a party!"

I know that poets don't care if nobody likes them, but... dammit, this is why no one likes you!!! The red-state folks hate you, naturally, but even your fellow blue-staters find you insufferable. I am reminded of a review I read on Amazon, in which the writer said that reading poetry should be like licking shards of broken glass. He was serious. You can't have a conversation with such people about audience. Even Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to the world, as opposed to a suicide note. What, are we all cooler than her now?

Flarf comes out looking pretty good in this article:
For what it's worth, I went up to Ariana Reines afterwards, and told her I very much enjoyed her poetry. (It's really good! Not that I know anything about poetry.) And, I said, I hope my laughter didn't offend you.

She took my hand in both of hers, and replied, "I thought your laughter was great."

I can't really bring myself to love flarf, though. Flarf is free to be mean, retrograde, un-PC and awful, which can be fun for a while - but eventually one gets tired of being bludgeoned. I was both fascinated and revolted by "Chicks Dig War," which is apparently "something of an anthem for the Flarf Collective and its supporters." It's also a barbaric yawp from the id of a misogynistic liberal douchebag, brought to you by the Internets. There is some criticism of it here, along with a video of Gardner reading it. As is YouTube's wont, some commenters did not appreciate the irony, if that's what it was.

There's also a strain of political agenda in flarf which constrains all the naughtiness along disappointingly partisan lines. Flarf thrived on Bush, but it seems to have died down a little under Obama. From the same interview with Sharon Mesmer:
How might the poets—not just flarf poets—treat Obama? Have you sculpted any Obama poems?
SM: At around 8am on the morning after election Gary sent around a message that read "FLARF IS DEAD!!!!!!!!!!!" And then Rod Smith sent around a response: "o, wait a minute." Later, Gary sent around a fake Associated Press-type news release: "Historic Election May Signal Death of Flarf." And then a few days after that I sent around a poem (and keep in mind that Obama is the first political figure I actually love) called "Sorry, Even Mariah Carey's Dog Has Had Enough of Obama." He'll probably get his share of flarf. But whatever happens, I can say with certainty that I will always be incredibly grateful and amazed that he became our President.

So, no Obama raping a kitten, then. He might be allowed to ride a unicorn though.

*I have raised a monument more enduring than AOL. - Horace

Correction 11/1/10 - After listening to some of Ariana's poem, it didn't sound like flarf; and then I went back to this post, which I had skimmed through for the Jezebel link... the woman who started the row was--gasp!--Nada Gordon! One of the very founders of flarf. How surreal. So the only one who came out looking good was Ariana Reines, I suppose. Read the comment thread, if you dare--the freeze-dried intellectual hauteur on display is downright frightening. Did I mention that poets scare me?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Ant and the Grasshopper

At last! The children's contribution from the Lexington Conventiculum. Adorable, nonne? I thought the "Nunc tibi est moriendum!" was kinda harsh, but that's what big sisters are for... And "formicamica" = cuuuuuute!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Thinking of the Chilean miners...

...this poem came into my head because of the opening:

Nick and the Candlestick
by Sylvia Plath

I am a miner. The light burns blue.
Waxy stalactites
Drip and thicken, tears

The earthen womb
Exudes from its dead boredom.
Black bat airs

Wrap me, raggy shawls,
Cold homicides.
They weld to me like plums.

Old cave of calcium
Icicles, old echoer.
Even the newts are white,

Those holy Joes.
And the fish, the fish—
Christ! they are panes of ice,

A vice of knives,
A piranha
Religion, drinking

Its first communion out of my live toes.
The candle
Gulps and recovers its small altitude,

Its yellows hearten.
O love, how did you get here?
O embryo

Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean

In you, ruby.
The pain
You wake to is not yours.

Love, love,
I have hung our cave with roses,
With soft rugs—

The last of Victoriana.
Let the stars
Plummet to their dark address,

Let the mercuric
Atoms that cripple drip
Into the terrible well,

You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on, envious.
You are the baby in the barn.

This is one of my favorite Plath poems. The occasion is the poet nursing her infant son Nick by candlelight. The creepy conceit is that she's nursing him in a cave.

I must confess that I have always loved caves, the fairy-tale premise of some hole in a hill, a muddy rabbit-run behind a boulder which leads to another world--a world with trees of gypsum, perfectly quiet weather, and a stone dome of its own, eerily devoid of stars. So the gothic ickyness of the cave in this poem is weirdly fascinating to me. What does make it horrible is that the miner seems to be trapped in the cave, with piranha-like fish nibbling on her toes. I love the way Plath smudges the lines between the physical room she's sitting in--a drafty room in an old house in the Devonshire countryside, I think--and the desolate mind-cave she takes with her everywhere. The cave isn't total fantasy--the blue light might be from the moon coming through the window, you can imagine cold draughts of air, and the candle of course is a physical candle, in a brass candlestick with a figure of Hercules kneeling at the base (she writes about it in another poem). I love how she feels her way into the poem, moving from assonance to assonance, hand over hand, like someone groping through darkness. ("Waxy / stalactites," "Drip / thicken," "womb / Exudes," "Black bat / wrap / raggy"...) It's musical and kinetic. At one point the musicality goes too far, when she says the black bat airs weld to her like plums, which is sort of baffling. I take it as a tactile expression. She is like the pit of a plum, with the plum-flesh vampirically glomming onto her. Think of trying to cut open a plum and pry the pit out, and you'll feel how hard it would be to pry off the black bat airs.

The candle gutters and shines out again, and she "finds" a baby. Here the poem begins to turn from ghoulish to poignant. This is Sylvia's own description of the poem: "...a mother nurses her baby son by candlelight and finds in him a beauty which, while it may not ward off the world's ill, does redeem her share of it." The woman may be trapped in the cave, but she can still exercise her free will within it: she has a job: she is a miner, and miners are searching for precious ore. Her great find is a ruby, the living ruby of her child. Sylvia Plath was often a disturbed and unhappy person, but she loved her two children and mothered them as best she could while suffering from depression. "O love, how did you get here?" She is amazed that this luminous, pure child could be born into the cruel "cave" she lives in, which is her personal darkness, yes, but also this fallen world under the rule of its dark Prince. (I don't know that she would have used these theological terms, but that's how I understand "the world's ill.") There is gratitude along with pity in her voice. The cave is no place for a baby, and so she tries to make it more homey. The roses and soft rugs are expressions of her love, but what soft and perishable items they are--"the last of Victoriana," she says wistfully. Those last four stanzas make my hair stand on end. Somehow the roses and rugs generate a real air of coziness which begins to glow stubbornly in the grim cave, warming the woman along with her child, although intellectually she doubts that her new decor has made any difference. Comfort me with chintzes, sustain me with teacups! You can set a Victorian armchair down there and put doilies on all the rocks, but those blind fish are still in the water, waiting to snack on you. Your attempts at domesticity are useless. You can make cheesecakes and sing nursery rhymes, but it's all a figleaf...

But no. Your love makes a difference. The roses are bright and fragrant, the rugs are deep and soft. The candle's yellows hearten and it "recovers its small altitude"--the candle is at least as real as the cave. Something about the delicate balance of the words--the brave, rough 'r's in "rugs" and "roses" contrasted with their possibly ineffectual prettiness, and the unscornful sadness of "last of Victoriana"--makes them seem like tiny facets of some ambivalent jewel. The two fierce provocations that follow are splendid: "Let the stars plummet to their dark address": who knew that the plain word "address" contained a latent glamor waiting to be unlocked by the word "dark"! I think she transcends her usual technique of serial assonance in this line. "stars" and "dark" share an assonance, but the secret alchemy of the other sounds seems inexplicable, and therefore miraculous. She keeps going, pitch-perfect: "Let the mercuric atoms that cripple drip into the terrible well": what are "mercuric atoms"? In a literal sense they are poisonous radiation, or the atomic bomb... "Mercuric" seems to widen the circle from radiation poisoning to mercury poisoning... really, they could be anything that is hostile to life. (After thinking some more, I see that "mercuric" can mean "liable to splitting into smaller balls, the way spilled mercury does." She has a vivid description somewhere of mercury from a shattered thermometer.) There's something Audenesque about the "terrible well," the cryptic allegory of it. And the assonance of "cripple...drip" forms a faint tether with the stalactites at the beginning that "drip and thicken." Whatever, she says, let them drip. No one can deny the beauty of my child.

The last stanza affirms the child completely, ending with a serene nativity scene. The phantasmagoria of the cave image has retreated, and we are back in the bright, solid narrative of the stable and the manger. Although if we think a little bit, we quickly draw parallels between the desolate cave-scape in Plath's poem and Christian themes surrounding the Nativity. You can go to the Holy Land and see a cave that is the traditional birthplace of Jesus, and carols always sing of the bitter cold and dark on the night he was born. Herod tried to kill the infant Jesus, and he succeeded in killing others. There is something of the Coventry Carol in Sylvia's bittersweet poem. In this poem, though, she holds up her hand to the melancholy and says Stop. This far, and no further.

Well! It looks like "Nick and the Candlestick" is slightly relevant to the rescued miners after all. Coming out of the mine into the daylight must have been like being born again.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Famous Seamus

I came home to find a "Sorry we missed you!" note from the US post stuck in my door. I sighed - and then I noticed a mail truck idling further up the street! Ran all the way there and bounced up to the door as if expecting ice cream. What I got was this:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More Poetry Goodness

So freakin' adorable! (Here is the written text.)

New Dappled Things! Check out the visual art.

This site is a neat survey of British poetry magazines. I'm looking at this raucous Welsh one right now... it's called The Yellow Crane.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"Thei are fillinge me to the brim with all kindz of latin shenanigans and the partyinge heere ys out of control."

Chaucer Jr. apparently rocked his first year at Oxford, judging by his casual use of Linglish - a dialect I'm familiar with by now. When conventiculum ends, I always have a little trouble choosing Latin or English, and I alternate between them for a day or two. It's fun and kind of weird to hear everyone's "real" voices. And Marcello, it was awesome to see you again!

Videos are now online... N.B. four versions of "The Country Mouse and the City Mouse," written and acted by us. And from last year, a play acted out by the kids(I wish the one they did this year were online; it was adorable!):

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Poetry Links

The Trousered Ape creates a Shakespearian slasher flick.

From YouTube, an old documentary on Hopkins in five parts. Look for the cool footage of St. Beuno's in Wales in part 3.

One of my favorites from Dylan T., "Author's Prologue."

Sylvia Plath reads "Poppies in October" (one of her less savage poems) and "On the Difficulty of Conjuring a Dryad" (can't you hear her channeling Dylan? pretty sure this is older), and bites Ted Hughes in the face just after 7:18. (Dude, run away!)

Oh yes, and I finished my Horace. Email me if you want it (I don't want to publish the whole thing on the web, in case some journal accepts it.)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Blog Friends

Jen and Sheila both tagged me for this award. Thanks, ladies! It made my day to be reminded of our friendship, and I feel driven to update my poor, neglected blog once more.

Orders are as follows:

1) Save the image above so you can upload it on your own blog without direct linking.
2) List 5 things you absolutely love to do
3) List 5 friendly bloggers, and comment on their blogs to let them know they've received an award!

So, 5 things I absolutely love to do:

1. Be with my family and friends. I get depressed when I'm far away from my people! There are few things I like better than just being at home, or going on fun outings with my mom and my sister (beach, shopping, opera, etc.), or wandering around town with my brother, or going skiing with my dad... rosary on Friday nights at my grandma's house, capers with cousins - this is living. And now that two of my dearest Christendom friends have moved to California (for the time being), I have been able to have them over and share the pleasures of home with them. It's my wistful fantasy to have everyone I care about in one place, preferably beautiful northern CA. I think that now is as close as I will ever get to that fantasy, so I'm enjoying it while it lasts.

2. Eat and drink. These joys are closely allied to the ones above. I cooked some nice things for myself back in Kentucky, and I enjoyed my meals even when I ate alone, but I didn't care as much; and I got kind of thin and wan (stress helped with that too!). I've been an incorrigible hedonist and foodie ever since I was a toddler screaming for fresh Brussels sprouts in the supermarket and requesting Parmesan cheese for Christmas, but it's the context of food - family and friends - that makes it so satisfying. My mom will cook dinner, my dad will open a bottle of wine from Paso Robles or San Luis Obisbo... and I will try to be a good girl and remember to do the dishes. Yup.

3. Be in the Magic Poetry Zone. Whether I'm reading something that makes me feel drunk and sober at the same time, or writing something that sings and shouts and demands to be born in a particular form and and color and meter, these are the times when I feel most alive. As I've said before, they come less often now that I'm a little older and have some grown-up responsibilities. I'm not too troubled by this; I think I'm going to develop a new zest for poetry soon. I identify ruefully with this post from Heather Ettlinger's blog.

4. Read and speak Latin. I can just feel the continuity with the Renaissance and the Middle Ages and antiquity, and it thrills me to pass the charge along. And speaking Latin in public has the tang of a madcap conspiracy. Every now and then someone realizes what we're doing, and I think it adds a bit of wonder to their day.

5. Appreciate beauty. Whether it's natural or man-made or intellectual or spiritual. Kind of a broad category, but it is something I do a lot in various ways.

Five bloggers:

Dylan, whose blog is a rose window of jewel-toned poetry and apt spiritual nuggets. He knows the word-lust that Hopkins and Dylan T. inspire. He opened my narrow mind to the charms of e.e. cummings, for which I owe him big time.

someguyonthestreet. His blog has been going for more than a year now, and it's fantastically eclectic. Always enough linguistic wiki-walks to make Joyce proud.

Paul Stilwell, poet and artist. I'm a fan of his work!

Enbrethiliel. Sheila tagged you, but I'm tagging you too! Can't leave out the indie Catholic blog princess. ^_^

Steph. My friend since freshman year, starting her life as a Navy wife in CA.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

'Cellar door'--and more.

I just came across an article in the New York Times which examines one of the weirder memes in English letters: the alleged beauty of the word "cellar door." Most of my readers probably read this somewhere in Tolkien's lectures, if they know about it all. But Tolkien wasn't the first to say it. In fact, as I have learned to my astonishment, "cellar door" has been a hardy little meme for a good hundred years now. Part of the meme seems to demand that you not tell your readers where you came up with the claim, or else offer a suspiciously vague story of some unnamed Spanish guy or famous professor who first noticed the word's beauty.

I feel bound to mention that Michael Gilleland of "Laudator Temporis Acti" wrote a post about "cellar door" last year, in which he cites many of the sources used in the NYT article--and a couple of others, among them the original Tolkien quote. Turning to Wikipedia, you will find it cited in Tolkien and Mencken, as in the other articles; but you will also find an anecdote from the historian Jacques Barzun which is so elaborate that might be for real:
I discovered its illusory character when many years ago a Japanese friend with whom I often discussed literature told me that to him and some of his English-speaking friends the most beautiful word in our language was “cellardoor.” It was not beautiful to me and I wondered where its evocative power lay for the Japanese. Was it because they find l and r difficult to pronounce, and the word thus acquires remoteness and enchantment? I asked, and learned also that Tatsuo Sakuma, my friend, had never seen an American cellar door, either inside a house or outside — the usual two flaps on a sloping ledge. No doubt that lack of visual familiarity added to the word’s appeal. He also enjoyed going to restaurants and hearing the waiter ask if he would like salad or roast vegetables, because again the phrase 'salad or' could be heard.

At first I thought that the opening gambit, "I discovered it many years ago from one of my Japanese friends," was a damning indicator that Barzun was remembering something that had never really happened, prompted by coming across the meme in print. But when he gives his friend's name and adds the detail about "salad or," he makes me wonder if there isn't really something special about "cellar door." I actually do find it pleasing, although not more pleasing than a hundred other unlikely-but-lovely words like "railway" or "whitewash"--and it's a kind of touchstone for me when I think about euphony in general. I'm very much on the side of those who say that sounds affect us as sounds, even before meaning. The "meaning" of a sound like "sss" or "mmm" or "ahhh" is very broad, very general; but it is there.

Not everyone believes this, though; not by any means! If you read to the end of the "Laudator" post, you will find this little thought experiment of Max Beerbohm's:
What you take to be beauty or ugliness of sound is indeed nothing but beauty or ugliness of meaning. You are pleased by the sound of such words as gondola, vestments, chancel, ermine, manor-house. They seem to be fraught with a subtle onomatopoeia, severally suggesting by their sounds the grace or sanctity or solid comfort of the things which they connote. You murmur them luxuriously, dreamily. Prepare for a slight shock. Scrofula, investments, cancer, vermin, warehouse. Horrible words, are they not? But say gondola—scrofula, vestments—investments, and so on; and then lay your hand on your heart, and declare that the words in the first list are in mere sound nicer than the words in the second. Of course they are not. If gondola were a disease, and if a scrofula were a beautiful boat peculiar to a beautiful city, the effect of each word would be exactly the reverse of what it is. This rule may be applied to all the other words in the two lists. And these lists might, of course, be extended to infinity. The appropriately beautiful or ugly sound of any word is an illusion wrought on us by what the word connotes. Beauty sounds as ugly as ugliness sounds beautiful. Neither of them has by itself any quality in sound.
Where to begin? First of all, what a charming serial synecdoche for a certain very High Church, very English vision of happiness: "gondola, vestments, chancel, ermine, manor-house." This is not a list of beautiful words, this is a list of "words that make me think of Brideshead Revisited." But let's look at the words a little closer. What I am going to say about them is certainly not scientific; in fact, I am just going to go by my own tastes, which are of course subjective. Still: "gondola" is more amusing than beautiful, or maybe I should say amusing and beautiful. If I were going to use it in a poem, it would probably be in a tragicomic poem about how frazzled and overrun Venice is. In fact, I did once, in a bit of teenage doggerel (which I won't share). The word "gondola" has a kind of slack-jawed, blissed-out langour. It is hard to imagine a boat called a "gondola" moving very fast, for instance. "Scrofula" is a very different word. That initial "scr-" is seldom an indicator of anything sweet or lovely; and that "fu" sound connotes disgust in many languages. The feminine-sounding ending only makes the word more grotesque. As for "chancel," it is pleasing to the ear - but so is "cancer," if you can forget what it means. Maybe I'm simply hearing a rhyme with "dancer"? That's another aspect of euphony: the sound has a vague connotation by itself, but when you hear it in a word, it carries a little bur or tatter of every other word you've heard with that same sound in it. "Ermine" sounds ugly to me; it's a nubby, nebbishy little word, rather like "vermin." "Warehouse" sounds more beautiful to me than "manor-house" - not because I'm a redblooded 'Merican who has no use for aristos, but simply because the word is stronger and lovelier. It must be the Anglo-Saxon strength of the spondee, combined with the airiness of 'w' and the antiphonal contrast between the vowels 'a' and 'ou.'

Finally, it has often been noted that the word "beauty" is rather ugly. I've always wished it sounded nicer, and I feel the same way about the Latin "pulchritudo." Beautiful, pulchra. Meh. But Greek "kalos" or "kala" hits the mark for me. This touches on the tragic aspect of euphony: that some lovely things have ugly-sounding names, and that no word can contain the full reality of what it denotes. The word "girl" for instance--it doesn't sound as sweet as "lass" or as cute as "chica." And so it is vulnerable to defacement: how easy it is to say grrl. (Google it and see what you get!) Fortunately, the more delicate kinds of euphony and cacophony aren't a hindrance to our daily speech. "What a cute little girl!" "You girls are awesome!" Who is distracted by the euphony of these phrases? They mean what they mean. In poetry, though, the question of euphony is always open. "Girl" is such a basic, necessary noun that its euphony isn't always an issue; but an adjective like "sweet" needs looking after. It's not that it's played-out and Victorian; it just needs to modify the right words. The sound of it is surprisingly high and sharp; it's a thin, piercing, flute-like word. When you use it, you need to surround it with sounds that bring out the poignant sharpness, not the sugar-water thinness. How different it is from the Latin "dulcis" or its Spanish and Italian descendants. The "dolce" kind of sweet is a custardy, burnt-sugar sweetness. (Initial 'd's always taste sweet, really - the dental 'd' has some of the strength and cleanness of 't', but being voiceless it is sort of muted and velvetined - like a berry dipped in chocolate. Darn! This is making me hungry again! And now it's Lent...)

Chesterton was the one who named and confirmed my feelings about 'sweet' and 'dulce': please do read this marvelous passage from "The Thing: Why I am a Catholic." He's talking about the misunderstandings that can arise when Latin is translated gracelessly into English: "I will venture to take one example, about which I feel very strongly. Will somebody with better authority than I have announce in a voice of thunder, through a trumpet or with a salute of big guns, the vital and very much needed truth that "dulcis" is not the Latin for "sweet"?" He goes on to say about "sweet" much what I just did: "It is at once too strong and too weak a word." Finally, he applies this observation to the saccharine overuse of the word "sweet" in Catholic devotional books, which he blames on bad translations of French and Italian prayers. I got a good laugh from his witty parting remark: "I believe that this incongruous and inaccurate repetition of the word "sweet" has kept more Englishmen out of the Catholic Church than all the poison of the Borgias[.]"

So "cellar door" can sound strangely attractive, and "sweet" can sound irritating. How odd. Does anyone reading this have a "cellar door" (or a "sweet") of their own?

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Seven Chimes of Poetry

I'm not sure who will benefit from this post, but I amused myself greatly by writing it. It's just a neat little way I found of organizing various "chimes" for when I'm writing.

Every reader knows that there are different ways in which two words can sound alike: rhyme, alliteration, assonance and so on. But not everyone is in the habit of thinking of all these sounds as siblings. In fact, they can all be linked together in a very simple way. Perhaps it is an oversimplification, but for the purposes of English poetry I assume that the average English word is composed of a consonant, then a vowel, then a consonant. (ex. - sun, moon, shout, with, bring, flight) This simplified scheme can be expanded to account for longer words, but it is easiest to think in terms of one syllable beginning and ending with consonants. (Obviously, this system is far less useful for Latin and Spanish!) Then all you have to do is go through all the possible combinations of consonant-vowel-consonant. And here they are!

Alliteration. You know the drill - "field and fountain, moor and mountain." Alliteration is very common in Anglo Saxon poetry, and in English poetry in general. What isn't always emphasized is that alliteration is really a likeness between consonants. When two vowels sound alike, you have assonance. Even if they are both initial vowels. (ex: "angels' age" - Herbert) As many have pointed out, Pope's line "And apt alliteration's artful aid" misses both alliteration and assonance.

Assonance. This is where you get two words with the same vowel sounds. Assonance is even more powerful, to my ear, than alliteration; vowels are the body of speech, as singers know. Some kinds of Spanish poetry use assonance the way we use end rhyme in English. The Song of Roland uses it - check out Dorothy Sayers' translation to get an idea of the effect. And if you listen to any kind of popular music or rap or spoken word poetry, you will notice (maybe to your irritation) that assonance, rather than perfect rhyme, joins one verse to the next. (I'm not really bothered by it myself. Blame my Lorca addiction.)

Skothending. I would have had to call it "final alliteration" if I hadn't come across this fantastic Norse word in some of Hopkins' lecture notes. Skothending apparently means "glancing blow," and that is the effect it gives: a very subtle one. One poem which uses it to great effect is Horace's "Carpe diem" ode. In it, Horace keeps ending words with 's' right where there is a metrical pause: "Tu ne quaesieris - scire nefas; "numeros. ut melius"; "sapias, vina liques". Somehow this enhances the haunting, waltz-like feeling of the meter. A subtle effect, and not very well-known.

Rhyme. For perfect rhyme you need the final stressed syllables to match up in both vowels and consonants. Final assonance can also count as rhyme. Slant rhymes would take a whole other post! A lot of prosody writers put three of my categories under the heading of "slant rhyme," but I think it's more useful to distinguish things like pararhyme and save the term "slant rhyme" for really distant cousins like "tree" and "fray," while allowing that someone who mixes up assonance and pararhyme and such in his line endings is, well, slant-rhyming. Seamus Heaney is a modern master of both kinds of slant-rhyme, the more and the less blurry.

Front-Rhyme. Instead of keeping the end of the word and changing the consonant at the beginning, you keep all of the word from the beginning and change the final consonant. This gives power to "The Wreck of the Deutschland" - "giver of breath and bread" - and to "Altarwise by Owl-Light" ("shape without shade...").

Pararhyme. For pararhyme, you keep the hard consonantal shell of the word but change the vowel. Wilfred Owen kind of owns this one: "Courage was mine, and I had mystery; / Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery." He commonly used it in place of end rhyme, and it was his signature technique. WH Auden has a nightmarish little poem in which a good 50% of the fear is generated merely by the pararyhmes: "reader/rider," "midden/madden," "fearer/farer," and finally - well, read it yourself! Brrr.

Homophone. "Rein/rain/reign," "rose/rose/rows," etc. It's unseldom that you would see "rows" and "rose" together in a line: usually homophones are more powerful, not as puns, but as echoes within a single word. To make up a lame example, "rain of fire," when spoken, could also be heard as "reign of fire."

* * *

Why is it important to know these things? Because then you can mix them up! Interlacing these categories successfully takes practice, but it's worth it. For a locus classicus of the technique, see these lines from "The Wreck of the Deutschland":
    We lash with the best or worst
  Word last! How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe
        Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,
Gush!—flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,
Brim, in a flash, full!

I don't think I've ever seen a more exhilarating chord of assonance, alliteration, rhyme, pararhyme, and beautifully opposed vowels. I've read that phrase, "lush-kept plush-capped," so many times without ever breaking the charm that holds it so elusively together.

More subtle, but no less beautiful, is this line of Dylan Thomas: "And I rose in rainy autumn and walked abroad in a shower of all my days." Assonance is particularly strong here, with all those 'ah' sounds. The play of sharp, sibilant sounds in "rose," "shower," and "days" cuts the richness of the assonance beautifully. Mmmmm. This is making me hungry. Anyone have plans for Mardi Gras?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

All Manner of Loveliness

I wanted to write a real post today, but I had too much to do. So here are some links which should make you happy.

A French religious community for women with Down's Syndrome and the women called to live with them in community. (My thanks to Seraphic for this one.)

Winter vacation pictures from Cachemire et Soie. (I try and practice reading French there, but I haven't made much progress!)

Regina Doman's family lives out a parable.

Cannelle et Vannille. Period. (Just in case you haven't heard of it already.)

This artist from northern Alaska, who makes amazing jewelry inspired by her Eskimo heritage. (Thanks to my dear sister for this link.)

So much beauty, even in winter.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Poetic Conspiracies

Has anyone seen this article over at Poetry Foundation? It's about Michael Field, a Victorian poet who was actually two women, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper. I had never heard of "Michael Field" before, and I was quite taken by a few of his poems. This excerpt sums up the main argument of the piece:
Although Bradley and Cooper frequently acknowledged in their personal writings the prejudice against women writers, they viewed the prejudice against collaborative creativity as their larger foe. In a journal entry dated July 21, 1891, Bradley recounts an evening that she and Cooper spent at the London literary salon of American poet and critic Louise Chandler Moulton. By this point, Bradley and Cooper were known by most in their literary coterie to be Michael Field, and after an encounter with the poet/novelist Thomas Hardy and man of letters Theodore Watts-Dunton, Bradley exclaimed with emphasis that “[b]oth these men found it inscrutable, incomprehensible, that two people could write poetry together.”

At first I thought, "It is incomprehensible. Who else does that?" And then I remembered that Keats had written a verse drama (not a very good one, really) using plots and ideas cooked up by his friend Brown, and of course there is the famous collaboration of Eliot and Pound on "The Waste Land," which was going to be called "He Do the Policemen in Different Voices" before Ezra got his hands on it. I also thought of those two Australian poets who created the incompetent Ern Malley to sock it to Modernism. One of the attractive things about poetry is that, unlike film, it can be created by one person on a zero-dollar budget. But there's no law about this. You can collaborate with another writer; and as for the shoe-string budget, you can always run over it by deciding that you need to move to New York or Munich or Constantinople to write your poetry.

And lest I forget, I have collaborated on poems, just for fun. My sister and I once wrote a ballad together, trading off stanzas; and Sheila can testify that she and I wiled away an hour, while we were at Christendom, on a parody of "Jaberwocky" (she came up with all the good bits, though). In fact, I can't be really good friends with someone and not want to write stories, poems, or invented languages with them; and I do think that for some people this impulse can result in really good art. I bet that most of my readers have cherished a project or two of this sort with their dearest friends. As for famous examples of writing as a team, are there any I've missed? I'm sure there are.

I'm rather intrigued now by the ladies behind "Michael." Here is another smidgen of background information:
Though Bradley and Cooper often discussed modernizing their style and worried about becoming too traditional and passé, they never bowed to critics, even when their readership dwindled to an intimate few. In their later years, when they converted to Catholicism, as was the trend among many of their circle, their lyric poetry and plays continued to echo with Shakespearean and mythological themes and never shied away from their virile power and a masculine tone.
Read "Summer Wind" for a taste of their talent. And then read their translation of a lyric by Sappho, a version worthy to be learned by heart:


Yea, gold is son of Zeus: no rust
    Its timeless light can stain;
The worm that brings man's flesh to dust
    Assaults its strength in vain:
More gold than gold the love I sing,
A hard, inviolable thing.

Men say the passions should grow old
      With waning years; my heart
Is incorruptible as gold,
      'Tis my immortal part:
Nor is there any god can lay
On love the finger of decay.