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: 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
savings in a right way - that`s it!.

I make 2G daily, and my first investment was 500 dollars only!
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: