Monday, January 31, 2005

Performance versus Paper

Among the outstanding series of Debates, Manifestos and Criticisms over at The Academy of American Poets is one by David Groff on the dangers of poetry readings. He discusses the arguments over whether the popularity of readings is good or bad for poetry, the crux of which is experiencing a poem in performance is so vastly different from experiencing a poem by reading it in private that the success of one has little to do with the success of the other. He has a point; there are poets I enjoy greatly in one form that I struggle to appreciate in the other (Amiri Baraka comes to mind).

Now, since my primary contribution to the arts in my community is the reading series I host, it would be greatly inconsistent with my mission to think that The Spoken Word, as we title our series, does not contribute to the world of "The Written Word". However, I think Groff makes an excellent point when he says "...most harmfully, a public poetry performance usually cannot convey a poem’s form. In a world where the very notion of "poetry" contains multitudes of meanings, only one element separates poetry from other verbal arts: the line. A poem is essentially a collection of words in which the margins matter—yet this basic element is the one thing a poet can seldom convey in a public reading. Listening to a poem, haven’t you longed for the poet to hold it aloft so that you could see its shape on the page?"

He's right on here. Poetry is about form, whether conscious alignment with existing form, bold creation of new form, artistic use of visual form, purposeful avoidance of all form (which is the hardest of all to do well). Hearing a poem aloud should drive you to the page to see what it looks like. More importantly, it should drive you to the page so you can inhabit that poem again yourself through reading, and get the next level of understanding or enjoyment from it.

Then there's the Pinsky mandate to "read it aloud". I do this often. There's a practical piece, of course: selecting writers for the series, I need to have a sense for how the material works aloud. But for me, poetry - on the page or in the ear - must have some kind of music in it. I first concluded this when studying Wallace Stevens for the first time, I've incorporated it into my own work - even though I write mostly narrative, character-driven poems - and I feel more strongly about it then ever, having seen too many poems lately that are so impressed (or preoccupied) with their subject or their style that they ignore the textures of the words they use. The biggest sin here is the acceptance of an OK word when a better one is available (for precision in definition, for alliteration, for dramatic impact, etc.).

I seem to be all over the place on this one. But even though I am a fan and practitioner of writing for the ear, I guess I agree that poems must be successful on the page to be truly successful. I think I'd trade off greatness aloud for greatness on the page.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Love Me, Love My Accordion

Oh I know you're cheap and vulgar, you're an instrumental crime
In drawing-rooms you haven't got a show
You're a musical abortion, you're the voice of grit and grime
You're the spokesman of the lowly and the low
You're a democratic devil, you're the darling of the mob
You're a wheezy, breezy blasted bit of glee
You're the headache of the high-bow, you're the horror of the snob
But you're worth your weight in ruddy gold to me.

(from "Accordion", by Robert Service)

There are many good poems about baseball. Now all I need is a good poem about bowling and I'll have all my hobbies covered.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

What's in a Name?

How important is the title of a collection of poems? Have you ever had to have a book just for its title? I admit I mostly purchase on the bases of author's names and recommendations from poets I respect. But I just checked the New Arrivals list at Poetry Daily. Here are the first 5 books on the list:

Birds And Bison, Claire Malroux, tr. Marilyn Hacker (Sheep Meadow Press)
Desesperanto: Poems 1999-2002 (new in paperback), Marilyn Hacker (W. W. Norton & Company)
A Sail To Great Island, Alan Feldman (University of Wisconsin Press)
Aunt Lettuce, I Want to Peek Under Your Skirt, Charles Simic, Illus. Howie Michels (Tin House/Bloomsbury)
Green Rice, Lam Thi My Da, tr. Martha Collins and Thuy Dinh (Curbstone Press)

Does one jump out at you? My collection doesn't include much erotica (and even the one book I have has marriage as its central theme), but I'm considering Simic's book on the title alone. It doesn't hurt that Simic is a tremendous poetic presence, of course.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Goodnight, Johnny

A: Never again.
Q: When will there be another presence like Johnny Carson?
And if you disagree with me, may the sweat of a dozen pregnant camels accumulate in your oatmeal.

As he makes his way to that great Slosson cutoff in the sky, let's take a minute think about the impact Johnny Carson had on his art form, and let's think about our own impact.

- Johnny inherited a simple format. He personalized it, expanded it, and stamped it in a way that spanned 40 years (example: Steve Allen's Question Man predated Carnac, but who did you think of at the start of this entry?) If you are a writer, what contributions to your form are you making that are unique? Memorable? Different?

- Editors and reading series hosts, this one's for you: Johnny had everyone from zookeepers to actors to writers to that lady who found a potato chip that looked just like Bob Hope, and he gave them all respectful time and made them all better for being with him. Don Rickles, in an interview on NBC tonight, said his appearances on The Tonight Show were on a different level from much of his work because of Johnny. What do you do in your collections and with your features to make them better? Isn't that your job?

- He booked a wide variety but he knew his audience, or else how could he have lasted so long and left on his own terms? What's your audience? What are you doing to serve them with your art? Yeah, yeah, "art for art's sake" and all that, but who are you hoping is going to see your work and what are you delivering to them to earn that privilege?

- With many "hosts", it's about the host bringing the funny or looking clever. If it was about that with Johnny, he was the greatest actor who ever lived. Ask yourself seriously: Do you want to create art or do you want to be "an artist"? It's not always the same thing.

Late night television hasn't been the same since Carson. What are you changing? And how are you changing it?

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Applying the Shovel

I enjoy shoveling snow. I'm not just saying that because right now it would be impractical not to, but because it occurred to me this evening that shoveling snow is a lot like writing.

No, really.

Shoveling snow is a job without a starting point. You drive the shovel in anywhere, then you keep going. If you're good, you can find something important along the way, but the point is to make your way from here to there, disrupting your beautiful surroundings as little as possible along the way. It's easy to be sucked into making one sidewalk square or one corner of the driveway perfect - you scrape and scrape and scrape the edge of your shovel until the rest of the project goes to hell or you ruin your shovel and your attitude over something small. In the end, it's not about being perfect, it's about being done. And even with stray streaks and occasional lumps of snow, you can take pride in what you've completed, because it often is beautiful and valuable and appreciated.

Substitute pen for shovel, word for sidewalk square, line for corner, etc. See? I was going to suggest occasional cliché for occasional for lumps of snow, but that may be going a bit far.

There are a lot of places I think poets can take a tip from the physical world. It's not that hard to get started. It's not hard to make progress. It is hard to step back from what you're doing once your back is into it. Poets have the harder time here; at least God gave us exhaustion to force us to take a break from shoveling.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Everything Old Is New Again

I'm putting together a couple of poetry class ideas - one for grownups who probably don't know much poetry (or much about poetry), one for grammar school kids who we're trying to get not to hate poetry. To love it, even. Maybe. Hopefully. So I've been combing through poets as far ago as Wordsworth, and as recently as the copy of Smartish Pace that arrived yesterday, looking for ideas that suit my themes.

What's been striking me is how many similarities I'm finding in poems across the last several centuries. Oh, sure, Wordsworth wrote with a style that today we consider stilted (or worse), but if you can accept that the tendency toward sonnet was as much a part of his generation of artists as the avoidance of form is for (most of) mine, he might not be that different from us - from me, at least. He advocated "common speech", he didn't care for the epic, he wrote about people and things he saw as he walked and death and all the things that show up in so much contemporary poetry today.

Rediscovering Wordsworth like this has been fascinating for me. It has made me recall all the wonderful poems I studied in high school that instilled my love of poetry. All of a sudden, I'm looking forward to Poetry Daily's annual NatPoMo exercise where they call attention to poems in the public domain (read: old) that contemporary poets have selected for their meaning and value to them as artists. Until then, I'll try to treat my sense of wonder the way Wordsworth did his:

My Heart Leaps Up (by William Wordsworth)

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Exciting, not Great

First, of all, I'd like to thank my New York Jets for giving us a nice ride this season. The year lasted longer than we in the land of Gang Green thought it would, and it was fun while it lasted. But (and here's where I make like Justin McCareins and stretch)...

The Jets demonstrated in their last game this year that they're not (yet) a great football team. In 5 quarters of playoff football, they scored 3 points on offense. For those of you on whom this reference is lost, let me clarify: That's not very good. But the game was exciting. Sometimes badly executed, showcasing some obvious mistakes, highlighted characters doing dumb deeds; you see where I'm going yet?

I think there are some parallels to writing here. Writing can be exciting without being great. There are poems and stories and books that catch your interest without being top-shelf writing. I've often heard Stephen King placed in this category. I happen to be very fond of Mr. King's short stories, but I've only walked away from one novel thinking "Wow" (Thinner). Finished all the ones I started, though. I don't think his books are bad, but in my narrow view, they're not great.

It's easier for me to define what appeals to me in prose, because it's narrower than what appeals to me in poetry. I suppose it's all the things they teach in ficton classes; I look for well-drawn characters with motivations that lead them to decisions that will change them forever. I prefer not to hear the character's thought in my omnisicient earpiece ("Show, don't tell"), I'm partial to the speculative (my favorite prose producers tend to be from SF, and just to bring this back to football, I don't mean the 49ers).

Ah, the things that go through your head when you have a long ride home after watching a tough loss.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

“Where do you get your ideas?”

The great Harlan Ellison once responded to this least favorite of all questions by saying he sends money to a PO Box in Schenectady NY and gets ideas by mail in return. That glibness actually titled Barry Longyear’s excellent collection of short stories.

Poets don’t get asked this question as much as do writers of speculative fiction but since poetry is
“the supreme fiction”, it does come up from time to time. In very broad strokes, here’s a short summary of my own sources, or at least the routes by which they access me.

First are the classic “Inspired” poems, the kind where you stop what you’re doing, grab a pen, and commit excellence to paper. This doesn’t happen to me much. Generally, I dictate ideas into a recorder as they come to me and transcribe them later. Sometimes there are poems in the transcription, but more often there is input material for…

“Self-driven” poems: I comb my old material (sometimes as far back as 10 years) for ideas. Most of the time, these are poems I never finished that I take a new shot at. I don’t consider these inspired, because the inspiration is usually long dead. The character that resembles me in these poems is the me of 2005, not the me of whenever the idea struck me. I call these self-driven because they are derived all from my own thought (self), and are the result of conscious work (drive). Which distinguished them from…

“Event-driven” poems. You know the drill. Something happens in the world, and the writer sits down to write about it. Most of the time, this doesn’t work for me either. I’ve very rarely been able to react viscerally to a current event, and allow the event to pull the words from me. I blame this on (1) being a technologist, and as such feeling the need to see all side of every issue before responding and (2), being a storyteller (or narrative versifier, if you prefer) – I generally write from the eyes of a character. There are some events I have trouble allowing my mind’s eye to embody.

The final category is Prompted poems (any writing in response to a contrived or artificial
prompt). I’m more adept at this than I feel I should be, and I think it’s primarily because of that “handicap” of being a storyteller, and the amount of reading I’ve done (and continue to do). It’s frequently easy for me to picture a scene around the most ridiculous things. And I see prompted poems sort of as logic puzzles or mysteries: Here’s what’s left in the room; what just happened?

I could write for days about the kinds of things I find when I sit down for some self-driving, and that would more appropriately answer that terrible, uninformed, wondrously naïve and star-struck question above, but I’ll save that for another time.