Friday, July 31, 2009

What makes it poetry?

From Bob and Margery:

Sarah Palin was a source of found poetry during her Vice Presidential campaign. Now, her farewell speech as she stepped down from the office of Alaska Governor on Sunday has been dubbed a poem by Conan O’Brien and read in Beat fashion, with bass and bongo backup, by William Shatner on the Tonight Show.

The question arises: Where does the poetry come from? Is it in Palin’s writing or Shatner’s reading? As a humorist, O’Brien recognized the natural images, wandering line, moments of obscurity and slightly skewed word usages in Palin’s speech as indicators that “it’s a poem, it was always meant to be a poem.” And Shatner’s hammy, Beatific performance pours her words into an ironic jazz poetry mold that makes it seem as if that was her intent. But who, really, makes this a poem, good or bad? Palin, who wrote the words? O’Brien, who called it a poem? Shatner, who performed it as a poem? Or your Poetry Guide, who transcribed Shatner’s reading with line breaks that make it look like a poem?

Interesting question. I don't accept intent as sufficient for a poem, and I find delivery to be an exciting but nonessential part of the poetry experience - the wasabi to poesushi, as it were. I always come back to the same thing: The conscious selection and informed deployment of poetic device.

But now that I see it in writing, I think I need an hour or two to work out exactly what I mean by that. Again. But one hint: there's actually no poetry here. Parody, perhaps. Some G-O-Peeved people, maybe. Funny as banana slippers, no doubt. But no poetry.

Let me ruminate. See you later.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Good folks, folk music?

Though it's been less barren this year, summer is traditionally a desert in the plenty of NJ poetry, but always a great time for music - you can catch a free show by a quality artist just about every night - it's even easier if you like amateur Sinatra impersonators.

We're long-time Tom Chapin fans in our house, and had the chance to catch him recently at the Gazebo in Florham Park, where my wife made a gift to me of a Chapin's latest album, an adult music collection (he seems to alternate between children's and grownup recordings, though his bigger accomplishments seem to be on the kids' end). I noticed on the new disc a poem of Edward Arlington Robinson's newly set to music. First of all, how great is it that the works of a good American poet are still alive enough to find some music (recall that Robinson died in 1935). And another pleasing note is that the album's title is "Let the Bad Times Roll"; could there be a better place for a Robinson poem to live?

I wonder if there's a natural affinity between gloomy poems and folk performers? Certainly folk music tends toward the darkness in life, as does the poetry that comes to many people's mind when they think of poetry. But is thematic alignment enough? Clearly not, or we'd all be tralala-ing along with the words of Charles Bukowski. In the case of "The Sheaves" (the poem on Chapin's new album), there's the traditional musicality of long iambic lines which support the migration to folk performance.

So if there's a structural element to a poem that makes it suitable for setting to music, is there a difference between a poem and a lyric? I remember perusing mimeographs of Billy Joel lyrics in 8th grade English in an attempt to answer that question, but for me, it's an easy distinction: a lyric, even a rambly folk lyric, contains a repeated chorus a poem's not likely to have (which is why I consider Joel a talented writer, not a poet. Sorry, Mr. Conley). In Chapin's version of The Sheaves, he doesn't create that kind of repetition, so I'll keep thinking about it as a poem set to music. I like it, and I'll request it at his concerts, but it's not "a song" as such.

I also find interesting that the folk-music-is-gloomy theme seems to run counter to the attitude of the performers; Tom Chapin and his band are some of the most genuinely funny and friendly people I've ever met from the stage. Poets, on the other hand, seem to bring their gloominess into audience interactions more frequently. But you knew that already, I'm guessing.

Anyway, this discovery has made me curious to dust off my Robinson (and not just to relive the time my ability to quote "Richard Cory" won my boss at the time a bet). More on that later, maybe. Depending on how gloomy I feel.

Meanwhile, go take in the next concert in your town's park. That's the stuff of summer. No gloominess permitted.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Busy Week Bits

Ugh. Busy week. Lots of goodness. Here's a little of it:
  • FIOS has added a local NJ channel, which I didn't think much of until I flipped to it tonight and saw the 2009 Poetry Out Loud NJ finals (which beat the heck out of watching the Mets lose again). I expected performance quality, since that's the direction young poets lean, but I was also impressed with the variety of their selections. When it was happening, I somehow missed that Maria Gillan was one of the judges; where was my head? The proceedings were dedicated to Bill Higginson (1938-2008).
  • Been reading Dusk Recitals - The Growing Years, Fred McBagonluri's novel set in Ghana in the 1980s. Been such a busy year, I'd forgotten how important it is to let your readings take you completely out of yourself to permit room for new words to grow. It had been weeks and weeks since I completed a draft; thank goodness THAT drought's over.
  • According to the Poets Market emailing list, I might be interested in Horticulture Magazine, because "We know that you're passionate about poetry. But if you're like many of us you have more than one interest." Umm, no. I'm sure it's a fine magazine. Not gonna find one in my house.
  • My department held a community service day today; about 40 of us spent five hours at the Community Food Bank of NJ - marvelous place with great people doing the work of the angels, and they let us help for a little while.

New season at DeBaun and a couple other personal events are in the planning horizon. More soonish!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sometimes, you just want a cheeseburger

I am an extremely adventurous eater. When I travelled in Japan, I frequently didn't know what I had eaten until I asked my host at the end of the meal. I frequently make menu selections by looking for things I've never had in that particular combination before. My mother-in-law has remarked more than once that she loves cooking for me because she can experiment and she knows I'll eat it. With that in mind, please know that there are days when what I want more than anything is a McDonald's cheeseburger. And here's the thing: When that's what I want, a perfect teriyaki salmon over field greens doesn't appeal to me at all.

On another note, Megan Fox recently had this to say about the new Transformers movie: "People are well aware that this is not a movie about acting. And once you realize that, it becomes almost fun because you can be in the moment and go 'All right, I know that when he calls Action!, I'm either going to be running, or screaming, or both."

What do these things have to do with each other? Put these notions together with the last post's ideas of a "range" of poetry: The ideas is that there is room in any artistic field for output that has selective, or opportunistic appeal, and if you know that's what you're after, there's nothing wrong with that - provided you're aware where you are in the range. Two of my favorite movies are Singin' in the Rain and Twelve Angry Men. I don't fool myself that they are equivalent artistic achievements, but when I want "Make 'em Laugh", "I want another vote" won't do.

Norman Mclean similarly observed in an NPR interview that as a teacher, he always taught Shakespeare every year to make sure that he stayed calibrated (my word); it was OK to teach a "second- or third- or fourth-rater" as long as you knew that's what you were teaching, and teaching Shakespeare kept that in perspective.

The concept of accessibility as a scale of expected audience effort seems to me to apply easily to food and movies, as well. And it doesn't mean any of them are just bad (aside from Howard the Duck). But as it applies to poetry, I think it continues to mean that it's OK to be Eve Merriam as long as you don't think you're Louis Zukofsky.

Or to be yourself, whoever that is, in verse, as long as you know who that is, and who it is that is interested in what you have to say.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Surface Roughness of Poetry

Before I went on vacation, I was working with my teammates at work on finalizing a paper for the upcoming Materials and Processes for Medical Devices conference sponsored by ASM International. It has since occurred to me, perhaps as side-effect of eight days of brain purge plus a rapid reimmersion into the business of engineering, that a technical conference is not a bad analog for understanding the idea of "accessibility" in poetry (and the powerful opinions people have about it. Stay with me for a bit.

The argument for accessibility is captured most famously, I think, in Billy Collins' introduction to the Best America Poetry 2006 (which is discussed at some length in this post at Silliman's Blog). There are many arguments made in that post and its comments, but Ron's premise is twofold: "Accessibility" is really just an oversimplification of "understanding in context", and any selection of poems claiming to be representative of American Poetry which only includes poems whose Accessibility Quotient* (thesis complexity x rereading loops**) is toward the low end exclude a great deal of people who otherwise should fit under that title. It focuses on an audience less likely to choose to invest the time in understanding more than the topmost of any number of layers of understanding.

But here's the deal: that applies to any writer in any field.

Here's why this occurred to me now, in the context of writing a technical paper: Without giving too much away before the conference, I can say that one of the core ideas of my team's paper can be described in at least two ways: "changing the texture of a plastic part" and "selecting and validating a means for imparting a surface of controlled and reliable roughness and designing a method for characterizing that surface." You can read the abstract for more details, but trust me, both statements are accurate. You ask: who cares?

Well, one statement is understandable immediately without and need of deep understanding of surface engineering. The other doesn't necessarily say a lot more, but what it says it says with precision and a level of insight that is more meaningful to one skilled in the practice of surface engineering or interested enough to want to acquire that additional meaning. The abstract (link above) and the paper (which you'll have to attend the conference or purchase the proceedings to see!) are increasingly precise and convey additional understanding.

Let's flip that around. If I were to provide the complete paper to someone with no interest in understanding surface engineering, that would be pointless - for me and for them. We wrote that paper for an audience with that particular interest. That doesn't imply that other presentations of the subject are simpler or that we expect a different experience or education level in some potential readers - just that we expect that the conference attendees and other readers are willing to put the effort into getting the most out of what we wrote.

But to present a universal collection of treatises on surface engineering, if one's purpose were not just to introduce the subject, neither just to advance its leading edges, I think it would be necessary to anticipate a range of audiences possible and makes sure there were entry points across that entire range.

This, of course, is the problem with collections of poems, technical papers, baseball cards, or anything else. They are not universal, and to claim that they are is foolishness. It is more foolish still to dismiss ranges of practice outside the scope of one's own collection. From the perspective of the skilled practitioners, it runs the risk of causing potential followers to lose interest for lack of a way to latch on; for the entry-level user, it conveys a sort of willful ignorance - an attitude of "what I don't understand is unimportant".

Now, you may accuse me of just committing another elaborate riff on my old position that every act of writing assumes something about a potential audience (explicitly or implicitly), and that's fair to a point. But when you're making categorizing declarations about writing, in an act of explanation, teaching, or preserving, it's much more difficult to claim ignorance of the need for a target student, current or future.

Which brings me back to "accessibility". It's not so much "simplicity" as it is a set of assumptions about the ambition of the potential audience. Did that take me too long to say?

What, therefore, have I assumed about you?

* - yes, I just made that up.
** - the number of times that later context enhances an earlier word or phrase and makes you want to go back up in the poem.