Jul 13, 2014

Walt Whitman Spins in His Grave

First book awards are apt to be contentious. The major ones—Yale Younger Poets, the APR/Honickman, Cave Canem, the Walt Whitman—produce winners that are as often ignored as praised. In poetry, everything is arguable. But the 2013 Academy of American Poets' Walt Whitman Award winner is especially distressing. Judge John Ashbery chose Chris Hosea's Put Your Hands In, which has been issued by Louisiana State University Press. I have to confess that I haven't read the book and will not, based on the odious excerpts from it published in the Spring-Summer 2014 issue of American Poets. Here is what Ashbery has to say about Hosea's book by way of introducing Hosea's poems:
Exactly a century ago, the Armory show brought European avant-garde art to New York. We are still experiencing its consequences. Among the works on view as Marcel Duchamp's notorious Nude Descending a Staircase, which a derisive critic wanted to rename, "Explosion in a Shingle Factory." Both titles come to mind as one reads Chris Hosea's Put Your Hands In, which somehow subsumes derision and erotic energy and comes out on top. Maybe that's because "poetry is the cruelest month," as he says, correcting T. S. Eliot. Transfixed in mid-paroxysm, the poems also remind us of Samuel Beckett's line (in Watt): "The pain not yet pleasure, the pleasure not yet pain." One feels plunged in a wave of happening that is about to crest.
Now, it's clear that Ashbery has no idea what to say about the book he has chosen and so falls back on the magical invocation of Duchamp—a value-free gesture meant as an avant-garde stamp of approval akin to "Gluten-Free". What "subsumes derision and erotic energy" means is anybody's guess, as is the sense of Hosea's poems being "transfixed in mid-paroxysm." It may not be idle to point out that "paroxysm" in its medical sense means "a sudden recurrence or attack of a disease; a sudden worsening of symptoms." In fact, when one finishes puzzling over Ashbery's nonsensical praise and confronts the poems offered up as exemplary, the medical meaning seems the most appropriate.

Here are the first two of the three offered up in American Poets. I have scanned the pages because I figured that otherwise I might be accused of making these things up.



Is it any wonder that this stuff has to depend on the incoherent puffery of John Ashbery, whose poetry has been in steady and sad decline since the mid-1980s? Far be it from me to declare what is and what is not poetry, of course, but if this is what poetry has become, if this is what the poetry establishment—through its inscrutable but lionized master—aims to foist on whatever small audience for poetry remains in this nation, a nation whose idealized image fed the dreams of Walt Whitman and now must leave him spinning in his grave ... well, kindly count me out.

Jul 7, 2014

On Tom Montag's In This Place

In This Place
I highly recommend this insightful review by Peter Stephens of Tom Montag's In This Place: Selected Poems 1982-2013 over at the wonderful multi-author blog Slow Reads. I've posted many times about Tom and his work, but never as cogently as Peter has in this review. Enjoy!

Also, a heads up: Tom will be reading at BookBar in Denver on Saturday, October 4th. More information on that to come, but mark your calendar now!

The man himself

Jun 30, 2014

Borges and His "Christ on the Cross"

I’ve been following a fine freelance translator named A. Z. Foreman, who it seems has never met a language he doesn’t know. His Poems in Translation site is full of gems imported from a dozen or more different languages, including ancient Greek, Persian, Arabic, French, German, and Russian.

Jorge Luis Borges walking with Willis Barnstone
in Buenos Aires, 1975
His latest translation, as of this writing, is an extraordinary poem by Borges called “Cristo en la Cruz,” or “Christ on the Cross.” Says Foreman: “I think this may be the best poem in the Spanish language about Christ's crucifixion.” I’m not conversant enough with the Spanish tradition to have a valid opinion, but I do think the poem is unquestionably fine. In fact, I became so enamored of it that I found myself drawn into doing my own version. There are places where Foreman expands the lines to incorporate what amount to explanations of Borges’s references; he does this with “la conversión de Guthrum por la espada,” for example, rendering it as “Guthrum's conversion by the sword of Alfred,” which in my view doesn’t help much: Alfred, although called "the Great," is scarcely better known than Guthrum. So I’ve stuck a bit more closely to the text, though temptations abound.

Borges, for example, has this to say toward the end of the poem:
Nos ha dejado espléndidas metáforas
y una doctrina del perdón que puede
anular el pasado. (Esa sentencia
la escribió un irlandés en una cárcel.)
Foreman translates it thusly:
He has left us some splendid metaphors
And a doctrine of pardon with the power
To cancel out the past. (This is a dictum
Written down by an Irishman in jail.)
What this misses, I think, is Borges’s use of “anular,” meaning “to annul”, which deepens the irony because the Irishman in question is Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned for “gross indecency” (read: homosexual acts) with his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. While jailed, Wilde wrote De Profundis, a letter to Douglas that prison authorities didn’t allow him to send. In the second half, Wilde describes the spiritual development he experienced in prison, which led to his seeing himself as a Christ figure—Christ, that is, as a kind of romantic artist. Here’s the passage Wilde wrote that Borges probably had in mind:
Of course the sinner must repent. But why? Simply because otherwise he would be unable to realise what he had done. The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation. More than that: it is the means by which one alters one’s past. The Greeks thought that impossible. They often say in their Gnomic aphorisms, ‘Even the Gods cannot alter the past.’ Christ showed that the commonest sinner could do it, that it was the one thing he could do. Christ, had he been asked, would have said—I feel quite certain about it—that the moment the prodigal son fell on his knees and wept, he made his having wasted his substance with harlots, his swine-herding and hungering for the husks they ate, beautiful and holy moments in his life. It is difficult for most people to grasp the idea. I dare say one has to go to prison to understand it. If so, it may be worth while going to prison.
It’s repentance, of course, that occasions divine forgiveness.

This seems more to me than a “dictum,” which I think of (subjectively) as a very brief statement, almost an aphorism. But for the life of me I couldn’t come up with a better word. I did try to capture the occasional nature of Wilde’s writing in De Profundis, though, with the verb "jotted", and to bring the word “annul” into play:
He’s given us splendid metaphors
and a doctrine of amnesty that’s able
to annul the past. (This dictum
was jotted down by a jailed Irishman.)
There are churches, of course, that may annul a marriage, asserting that the marriage never truly existed. The deeper irony Borges is after, I think, is that Douglas and Wilde were actually in love, actually “married,” but Wilde, repenting of that past, essentially had that marriage annulled. Wilde’s compliance with doctrine provided forgiveness but denied the love at the heart of his “crime.” I wonder, too, if Borges didn't see Guthrum's forced conversion to Christianity by Alfred the Great as a parallel to Wilde's jailhouse conversion, in some way "forced" by Lord Alfred Douglas. Hmmm....

Anyway, here’s my effort, probably not yet “final” (if a translation is ever final), undertaken simply for the pleasure of it:

Christ on the Cross
Jorge Luis Borges

Christ on the cross. Feet touching earth.
Three wooden beams, all the same height.
Christ isn’t in the middle. He's the third.
The black beard slumps onto the chest.
The face not the face from iconic pictures.
It's rough and Jewish. I don’t see it—
and I’ll keep seeking it until the last day
my footsteps wander upon the earth.
The man suffers, broken and silent.
The crown of thorns hurts him.
He’s untouched by jeers of the crowd
that has seen his agonies so often.
His or another’s. Makes no difference.
Christ on the cross. Wildly he obsesses
over the kingdom that may await him,
obsesses over a woman who wasn’t his.
He’s not given a glimpse of theology,
the indecipherable Trinity, the Gnostics,
the cathedrals, Occam's razor,
the purple, the mitre, the liturgy,
Guthrum's conversion at sword-point,
the Inquisition, the blood of martyrs,
the atrocious Crusades, Joan of Arc,
the Vatican that blesses armies.
He knows he’s not a god—he’s a man
who dies with the day. No matter.
The cruel iron nails matter.
Not a Roman. Not a Greek. He groans.
He’s given us splendid metaphors
and a doctrine of amnesty that’s able
to annul the past. (This dictum
was jotted down by a jailed Irishman.)
Hastily the spirit seeks the end.
It’s darkened a little. Now he’s dead.
A fly wanders over the stilled flesh.
What use can it be to me that that man

has suffered, if I suffer now?

Jun 6, 2014

On "The Uses of Difficulty"

Sometimes it’s only when a difficulty is removed that we realise what it was doing for us. […] Our brains respond better to difficulty than we imagine. In schools, teachers and pupils alike often assume that if a concept has been easy to learn, then the lesson has been successful. But numerous studies have now found that when classroom material is made harder to absorb, pupils retain more of it over the long term, and understand it on a deeper level.

Ian Leslie, “The Uses of Difficulty
Difficulty is perhaps the taproot that makes poetry different from and (dare I say it?) more nourishing than prose. Prose exists to make ideas go down easy. It explains, it contexts with a vengeance. Even the greatest novel does yeoman duty of creating a setting that defines and restricts its characters’ actions; within the setting, the novel tells us the character stood and left the room or peered over the rim of the canyon or whatever; the novel, as a rule, presents motivations in order to explain why characters are in a particular setting and why they do what they do there.

Poetry, lyric poetry especially, tends to set all this aside. Actions are presented as quiddities, without explanation, and even when explanations seem to be present they are equivocal, polyvalent—in short, difficult. If the research referred to above is correct, this difficulty is what brings readers of poetry back to poems again and again. Surely few readers of prose reread even the most poetic prose as frequently poetry readers reread poems. This makes poetry the most durable of forms, the most rewarding, the most satisfying.

In my experience, readers who dislike poetry typically dislike complexity, period. They prefer the reassuring hand of the patient narrator at their elbow, the pleasures of characters they can “identify with”—that is, characters who have been sufficiently explained so that they, the readers, themselves feel explained and clarified.

Poetry can be clear as snowmelt trickling across the tundra, but the story it tells is full of shadows, which tell us something new and different every time we look into them.

*

Philip Booth
DREAMSCAPE
by Philip Booth

On the steep road
curving to town, up
through spruce trees
from the filled-in canal,
there have been five houses, always.

But when I sleep
the whole left side of the blacktop
clears itself into good pasture.
There are two old horses,
tethered. And a curving row
of miniature bison, kneeling,

each with his two front hooves
tucked in neatly under the lip
of the asphalt. I am asleep.
I cannot explain it. I do not
want to explain it.

Jun 3, 2014

Transatlantic Poetry with David Mason and Gerry Cambridge

David Mason here, reading from his wonderful new book Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, followed by the extraordinary Gerry Cambridge, Scottish poet and editor of the journal The Dark Horse. Enjoy!

May 30, 2014

Derek Walcott on the Poet's Voice ... and Much More

From a Bill Moyers interview with Derek Walcott:
It takes you all your life to write the way you speak without faking it. I mean I think it’s very hard for a poet, very-very, very-very hard to get to hear his own voice without affectation. I mean I couldn’t read my poems with a British accent, or an American accent. You know, there’s an inner thing that makes me speak, I hope, the way I would write—tonally, not just in terms of vocabulary. So that I could perhaps move from talking to you now and read something that does not heighten me, you know, sociologically or because I’m on TV or something, you know, that you can just slide into your own voice. And that is what a poet, I think, spends his life trying to do.


I first read Walcott in Canada, when I was eking out my MFA at the University of British Columbia, in a funkily red-edged Cape paperback of his first book, In a Green Night. I admired him from a distance because of his iambic formalism and (not uncommon in first books) his tendency toward set pieces. But I couldn't argue with the power of his music and his precise, painterly images.

It wasn't until many years later that I developed a deeper appreciation of his work—I like to think because his work became leaner, subtler, and less affected. He can still overwrite (for my taste) like nobody's business, but his musical and imagistic lushness makes his later work among my favorites.

Here's a taste from his luminous book-length sequence, The Prodigal:
The day, with all its pain ahead, is yours.
The ceaseless creasing of the morning sea,
the fluttering gamboge cedar leaves allegro,
the rods of the yawning branches trolling the breeze,
the rusted meadows, the wind-whitened grass,
the coos of the stone-colored ground doves on the road,
the echo of benediction on a house—
its rooms of pain, its verandah of remorse
when joy lanced through its open-hearted doors
like a hummingbird out to the garden and pool
in which the sky has fallen. These are all yours,
and pain has made them brighter as absence does
after a death, as the light heals the grass.
And the twig-brown lizard scuttles up its branch
like fingers on the struts of a guitar.
If you write poetry and don't feel pangs of jealousy reading this, you may want to check your pulse.


May 27, 2014

Just Listen: A radio interview/reading by Robert Cooperman

My good friend Bob Cooperman reads from his collection of cabbie poems Just Drive on Colorado Public Radio. Give a listen!


May 22, 2014

Ting-A-Ling!

I am finally getting around to reading Kurt Vonnegut’s last novel Timequake, which I have put off reading because it leaves me only one Vonnegut title I haven't read. I try not to read everything of a writer I love. An unread bit of oeuvre allows me to pretend that the writer hasn't left us. Anyway, in Chapter 14 of Timequake I came across a statement that explained, in a flash of light, as it were, something that has always puzzled me about Karl Rove.

I mean the fact that Karl Rove never wears a hat. I know how categorical this sounds, and I'm sure some of you will comment with links to pictures of Rove in a fedora or whatever. But my contention is that Rove never wears a hat, except maybe when he's cavorting in bed at the Mustang Ranch. Most men in Sparks, Nevada wear hats, after all.

I always chalked Rove's haplessness up to that trait in so many ego maniacs which requires them to flaunt their defects. In Karl’s case, the defect is his bulbous semi-bald noggin. How daunting it must be to face that head in the mirror every morning! I know how daunting it is to face my own, even though my noggin is less bald and bulbous than Karl’s. At any rate, I used to imagine (since I don’t know the man) that he chooses to flaunt this defect by not wearing a hat because he has convinced himself that people see his big head as the outward manifestation of a superior brain. It's no stretch to imagine that Karl still thinks of phrenology as a science, since he views the Bible as the last word on climate change.*

Kurt Vonnegut, posthumously and therefore accidentally, has presented me with another way to see this issue. I draw attention to it now for all you who have shared my puzzlement over Karl’s hatlessness.

In Chapter 14, page 49 of Timequake, Vonnegut discusses the various meanings that various contexts produce in a phrase frequently used by one of his characters, Kilgore Trout, an out-of-print science fiction writer and Vonnegut’s admitted alter ego. The phrase is one Trout “would have said ... to anyone who offered him an empty greeting, such as ‘How’s it goin’?’ or ‘Nice day’….” That phrase is: “Ting-a-ling!”

You can imagine how unnerving it would be to get this response to one of your own empty greetings.

Anyway, Vonnegut goes deeper into the issue, pointing out that Trout uses “Ting-a-ling!” in ways that give it any number of meanings. The meaning of “Ting-a-ling!” that led to my enlightenment regarding Karl Rove is the following:

“If your brains were dynamite, there wouldn’t be enough to blow your hat off.”

Suddenly I realized that Karl flaunts his shiny dome not as a psychological ploy but merely as a way of avoiding mockery. After all, were he to spare us that nauseating sight by wearing a hat, as soon as he'd speak, all of us—even the so-called journalists who pitch vacuous questions to Karl and his ilk on Sunday morning TV—would instantly understand the meaning of his hat. For Karl Rove has never had a thought explosive enough to blow off a nearly weightless seed of milkweed, much less a 140-gram Stetson Imperial.

Ting-a-ling!

__________________
* Small wonder that Karl's middle name is Christian. Let me add that it's a matter of some personal consternation to admit that Rove was born in my own home town, Denver, Colorado, the same year I was born. I first saw daylight in June, Rove on Christmas day, of 1950.

May 19, 2014

Bed of Coals Reviewed In-Depth by Jim Murdoch

Jim Murdoch
I'm excited to report that Scottish poet and fiction writer Jim Murdoch, whose incisive essays appear regularly on his piquantly titled blog The Truth About Lies, has written an extensive essay on my own Bed of Coals. It is the most in-depth writing that anyone has done on any of my work, and I appreciate it especially because the structure of Coals admittedly makes it a challenge for readers, and Mr. Murdoch tackles that challenge with lots of close, insightful reading. (His glancing comparison of my book's structure to that of Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook makes me blush, but it's heartening that he made that particular connection.) His response is not so much a review as a record of his wrestling match with these poems, which, as far as I'm concerned, is the most useful kind of criticism.

Here's how his essay opens:


******

[Click here to read the whole essay] 

Notice that Mr. Murdoch doesn't deal with the book in isolation, but in the context of my other work. Would that all reviewers were this fastidious and generous with their time!

Don't forget that Bed of Coals is available both in paperback and ebook from FutureCycle Press!

May 16, 2014

The Invention of Hell


Hell was the invention of money-makers; its purpose was to divert the attention of the poor from their present afflictions. Firstly with the repeated threat that they might be very much worse off. And secondly with the promise, for the obedient and loyal that, in another life, in the Kingdom of God, they would all enjoy what wealth can buy in this world and more.

Without the evocation of Hell, the Church’s demonstrative wealth and ruthless power would have been far more openly questioned because they were in evident contrast to the teaching of the Gospels.

Hell bestowed a kind of sanctity on amassed wealth.

The inflictions of today have gone further. No need to evoke a Hell in the afterlife. A hell for the excluded is being constructed in this one, announcing the same thing: that only wealth can make sense of being alive.

—From A to X: A Story in Letters, by John Berger
This passage isn't typical of Berger's fine novel, but it's among the few excerptible portions. The letter form is a difficult one to use if one wants to sustain a plot, and From A to X—like most epistolary stories—is almost plotless. The beauty and the depth of it are in the characters, only one of whom really gets the opportunity to speak. The action is almost completely implied, as in Greek tragedy when the most crucial turns of plot take place off stage. From A to X is more complexly structured, though, and throughly Modernist in sensibility. There is also a non-theistic spirituality at the heart of this novel, summed up toward the end of the story:
Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells and their received messages form a network of ceaseless feedback and co-ordination. No high command, only a continual circuit of the body's own messengers, some of which existed since life began, and which, in their multiplicity, weave—that's the only word I can find—weave an intelligence comparable with the famous one of the mind. It looks as if body and mind are of the same substance. Angels are the powers hidden in the faculties and organs of men.
That last sentence is a quotation from Aristotle, one cited by the letter writer earlier in the book. The argument here, the vision, reaches backward and forward from this point in the book, and I can't bring myself to attempt a summary of what amounts to a profound description of what can only be called divinity as encoded in our bodies—and by extension the bodies of all creatures—at the cellular level.

All this must make From A to X sound dry or airy-fairy or ... well, who knows. Nevertheless, it's an engaging and engaged, if oblique, expression of solidarity, and it deserves to be widely read.

I have to add that I came to this book thanks to Lyle Daggett, who has yet to steer me wrong with his literary recommendations.

May 14, 2014

My Profession

I just signed up for a free account with the London Review of Books so I could read Slavoj Žižek's thought-provoking take on Ukraine. I mention this for one reason only. LRB is the first and only site of any kind—journalistic or "literary"—that actually offers a pop-up choice of professions that includes poets. Here's my registration screen:


I didn't realize how deep my poetic/cultural disaffection runs until I felt the glow this whiff of recognition brought to my cheeks!

May 4, 2014

Sea Poems of Juan Ramón Jiménez

The great Juan Ramón Jiménez often drew inspiration from the sea, and a great many of his sea poems are brought together in The Poet and the Sea, translated by Mary G. Berg and Dennis Maloney. What follows is one of my favorites:
IDEAL ARRIVAL

February 11

         To Joaquín Sorolla

     Suddenly, the afternoon opens out, like a golden fan, a great royal illusion. What a sense of wellbeing fills us, what happiness! You’d think Turner were seeing it with us… Seagulls whose arrival we didn’t notice, that no doubt were here already, fly overhead, in the flags waving from the mats, how far from the sky and how high above us! The sky rises up, moves away, disappears, no longer has a name, is no longer sky but glory, calm glory, altogether opal, not quite yellow. The sea ripples in a new way and seems, while ever more fluid, as the sky rises as the sea sinks lower and lower, ever more liquid. Barrels and times float on the tide. We leave behind some little fishing boats… Are we arriving?
     The setting sun tints the port-side railing rose with a nostalgic ray of light. How joyous the red is fused with the rose, on the life vests; how soft and white, fused with the rose, on the handrail; the blackness of that black woman, the olive tint of that Japanese: how beautiful all their eyes are, everyone’s hair, all their mouths in the sunset! What brothers they all are—Blacks, Whites, Asians—in their happiness! I listen eagerly to the melancholy voice of the man who smokes opium. I answer this man who works on commission, although I haven’t spoken to him during the entire voyage. I avoid the smoke of the friar’s cigar… Their faces, glowing in the sunset, reflect their imaginations. There is singing, running about, no one wants to go down to eat, people turn their faces toward the warm fresh breeze that comes from the new land. Toward starboard, below in the shadows, those who do not sing or dream or love pace back and forth.
     The moment seems like a song lifted out of a dream, in which we are heroes. Yes, we are truth, beauty, the eternal strophe that endures, captured in rhyme, in the most beautiful glimpsed center of an eternal poem we always recognize, and are always expecting to encounter anew—the second quatrain of a pure marine sonnet?—Where are we? What time do we live in? From what novel have we emerged? Are we a picture? Are we arriving?
     But the picture fades and is extinguished. Never has an afternoon been so extinguished! The sky lowers again and the sea rises, and they leave us as small as the day. Again, anxious attention to the schedule, fog, cold noses, the short distance, the little time left. Those of us who were conversing a minute ago, we unfurl our silences now. I stroll alone along under the dripping canvas of the portside deck. Again, we feel we’ll never arrive, shove the hours ahead with our imaginations, sailing in one time in two ships, curse the smooth, boring, insipid sea, the eternal black marble veined with white—yes, marble!—on one side and the other of the heavy ship, this great smelly bear… The page slips from my hand… I no longer know how to write…
Zenobia Camprubí and
Juan Ramón Jiménez
(1916)
When Jiménez received the Nobel Prize in 1956 he was unable to attend the ceremony. His wife of forty years, Zenobia (née Zenobia Camprubí Aymar, a poet in her own right, a feminist and Spanish translator of Tagore), had died two days after the prize was announced; and so, "besieged by sorrow and sickness," Jiménez remained in Puerto Rico where he'd lived and taught since 1951. The Rector of the University of Puerto Rico, Jaime Benítez, accepted the prize on Jiménez behalf and made this most telling remark: "Juan Ramón is such a poet that his every word reflects his own internal kingdom."
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