Archive for Poetry

first independent reading list

My first independent reading list is done for the semester.  I do six reading assignments throughout the semester (though this time they’ll all read the same book for the third assignment), and students are expected to write about the books they read four times. There were a couple of books I was hoping to assign but no one asked for them or asked for work that might have informed the choice.  Students asked for a much wider range of contemporary books this time than in previous classes, which is good; I think they’ll have ample opportunity in literature classes to discover work by poets like Frost, Hopkins, Stevens, Eliot.

Keeping true to my general rule, I assigned one book that I had not yet read, though I have finished reading it since the assignments went out and I think it will be very helpful to the student who requested it.

William Matthews, After All
Weldon Kees, The Fall of the Magicians
Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived
Robert Hass, Time and Materials
2 x Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard
Kay Ryan, Say Uncle
Ellen Bryant Voigt, The Lotus Flowers
2 x Carl Dennis, Practical Gods
Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven
Louise Glück, The Triumph of Achilles
Mark Jarman, Unholy Sonnets
Eavan Boland, Domestic Violence
Elizabeth Bishop, Geography III
Richard Wilbur, Things of This World
Ross Gay, Against Which

So, if one looks at the list above, is it painfully obvious which books were directly requested and which I suggested to students who chose largely traditional books?  The first round is the hardest– I have not yet seen student work to inform the decision, so I was forced to go by their early comments in class (if they have made any) and the poem that they brought in as exemplary.  Really, the biggest determinant was the five books they requested.  Only three students did not get an author they requested; two students ended up with an author they requested but not one of the specific books on their list. The big surprise from the students: no one requested any beat poets.  I think that’s the first time that’s happened in the first round.

How many of my old favorites for this assignment didn’t make the cut this time?  (For example, when was the last time I did an independent reading assignment without Donald Justice?)  Some of them were requested but not available in the library, some weren’t sniffed at.  This will change.  By the time the second assignment rolls around, they’ll be making spectacular requests.  We just need more time together.

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and snicker

Though you hardly notice a difference, I’m now running a more advanced version of WordPress, which is pretty great on the back end.

In my Intro to Poetry class, we spent some time last week on Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” giving it a close reading and looking for ways that the sonnet form provides some tension with the content of the poem.  I tend to be somewhat conservative when teaching my poetry classes, in that I tend to do close readings only of poems that I’m really, really comfortable with: poems that I’ve written about critically and therefore spent hours or days dissecting, or poems that I have read closely in other classes (sometimes classes taught by someone else) or long discussions.

“Ozymandias” was a last-minute choice.  I first encountered the poem in high school but never gave it a great deal of thought, and it’s been circling around the work I’ve done for a couple years now.  It’s made an appearance in the assigned reading in my other classes but I never looked at it with students during our class period together.  The context provided by our textbook always seemed sufficient for what I hoped students would gain from the poem.

But as I reviewed the assigned reading this time, I ditched my initial choice of a William Matthews poem for Shelley.  I spent a little time with it the night before class and then another chunk of time with it the day of.  But, of course, it wasn’t until I was in the classroom, in the middle of the conversation, that I was able to articulate the strategy that must have drawn me to the poem so keenly in the eleventh hour: the layering of voice.  Take a look:


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Look at the distance between the speaker and the spoken.  The speaker (1) meets a traveler (2), who says that an artist (3) built a statue that quotes Ozymandias (4 – it’s the only direct quote of the poem, but is attributable to both the artist and Ozymandias, which is another nice complexity).  Of note: the speaker does not put the traveler’s words in quotes, suggesting that the made-ness of the iambic pentameter belongs to the speaker (and, for two lines, the artist/Ozymandias tag-team).  It’s in this distance that the tension between form and content– the intense made-ness of the poem contrasted with the futility of making– is fully realized.

Sadly, I’ve since gone looking for this poem in places other than the textbook, and sometimes the traveler’s speech is put in quotes!  Well, that sure changes my infatuation with this poem.  Not much, but some.

I always feel a little silly writing discoveries like this in my blog.  Someone else has had them before and articulated them more eloquently.

This is Just to Say

One of the first poems I teach in my intro to poetry classes is William Carlos Williams’s “This is Just to Say.”  It’s a short poem with an amazing amount going on, though at first glance, many students dismiss it as slight or unworthy of being a poem.

My favorite thing about teaching it is the inevitable flurry of “This is Just to Say”-related humor that follows.  Perhaps you remember this post.  This time around, I tweeted that I had taught the poem, and got this message on Facebook a couple days later from a friend:

This is Just to Say

I have stolen
the Manguso
that you
leant me

and which
I meant to return
on the drive

Forgive me
it’s wonderful
so smart
and so funny

one more

Thirty seconds after receiving one acceptance, another came in.  I figure that if I blog this one, too, more will arrive before the end of the day.

And then Gilbert disappeared for 25 years.

I had cause to quote this poem today.  Dan Albergotti turned me on to it last weekend.  It is the first poem in Jack Gilbert’s first book.

In Dispraise Of Poetry

When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,
he gave him a beautiful white elephant.
The miracle beast deserved such ritual
that to care for him properly meant ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.

–Jack Gilbert

Shorty Get Loose

When successful, a short poem immediately launches into its lyrical potential; any narrative grounding happens in service to the lyric. (I don’t think there’s such a thing as a successful short narrative, at least not one in less than ten average-sized lines or so. That’s just not enough to tell a complete story in verse.) The sound and shape of the words must immediately be keener in a short poem; a longer poem doesn’t require such lyric density because there is more potential for variation and rest in a longer poem.

An unsuccessful short poem, however, can do all of those things and still fail. Where I see many short poems go awry is that they describe but never illuminate; they represent a thing but do it no service; they present truth in entirely truthful terms. Where’s the fun in that? Why represent a thing exactly as we know it all to be? These short poems fail to take advantage of trope or figure, fail to imagine their subject in a subjective light, fail to make the objective truth more accessible through the tenacity and frailty of words, or fail to recognize their own flaws as representative descriptions. At their best, the Objectivists understood at least the difficulty of getting it right in a way that was doomed to be wrong: not the thing itself, but the thing captured for a moment on the page; not the thing itself but the essence of the thing communicated in words. Such poems, even when willfully obscuring the speaker, must reveal the speaker in the details chosen to describe the thing…

Ten Sure Signs That You Have “Packet Fever”

  1. You feel guilty about the time you spent folding laundry even though you’re going to have to have something to wear tomorrow.
  2. You start thinking that a poem about lo mein isn’t such a bad idea.
  3. It’s Sunday night and you’re wearing the same shirt you woke up in Saturday morning.
  4. You’re logged in to Instant Messenger, Gtalk, Twitter, and your e-mail account hoping that someone, even a spambot, will send you a message, the first three words of which will help you solve that difficult Mark Strand poem.
  5. The ninth coffee didn’t give you the jitters, but it also didn’t give you the focus you were hoping for.
  6. Being identified as a language poet wouldn’t bother you, because nothing you have accomplished in the last couple days makes a damn bit of sense.
  7. You wonder what possessed you to commit to reading Lowell’s Collected Poems when you could have picked seventeen volumes no longer than Trethewey’s Native Guard.
  8. Larkin doesn’t seem curmudgeonly at all any more. He was dead right about everything and everyone.
  9. You avoid human contact. If your wife knocks on your door, you become furious that she had the audacity to interrupt to tell you she’s leaving you.
  10. You feel a strange sense of bliss, because you know it won’t last forever.  You sort of wish it could.

Thoroughly unconsidered thoughts on intentional fallacy

The following is stuff that sort of bubbled up to the top when thinking about the essay “The Intentional Fallacy,” and while it speaks to the difficult of any evaluation of poetry, it’s not something I’m willing to stand by, just something I present for argument.

The idea of intentional fallacy seems to me inescapable in some ways, though the essay gives me some more context for how it might be better avoided in many of the annotations (and, moving forward, in the class). I think my problem stems from the constant talk about tone in any critical setting. We talk a lot about tone at WWC. I cannot see how any discussion of a speaker’s emotional state can be anything but subjective on the part of the critic and therefore subject to some of the same flaws as the intentional fallacy.

I recognize the difference to a limited degree. The intentional fallacy occurs when the reader supposes that the work’s merit is in some way tied to what the author hoped to accomplish. Tone is focused on the text and not on the author.

But it seems to me that judgment of tone is still wholly subjective. A poem which says “I hate cereal” could be judged by different readers to have wholly different tones. One might think that the speaker is dead serious, that his hatred of cereal is withering and consuming; another might think the speaker prone to hyperbole; another might think the speaker sarcastic. Of course, these interpretations are subject to context, but isn’t any interpretation drawn from the critic’s own experience, as applied to the body of the poem, and therefore suspect? Can’t we then throw out tone entirely as a measurable or observable element of a poem due to that suspicion?

I tend to feel the same way when hearing people talk about the effects of syllabics. It’s wholly subjective; iambs feel no more aggressive to me, by design, than trochees or dactyls. But I feel like I hear statements like that all the time, and if the critic is careful to attribute those emotions to the poem and not to the poet, it passes as valid observation.

How are we to consider, to evaluate a poem without constant self-reference? And how are we to observe when we have first read the poem as a reader, a voracious entity with both an intellectual and emotional appetite, then later attempt to “observe and describe” as though we hadn’t already interacted with, loved or hated or been stymied by or fought with before acquiescing to, a poem? A critic attempts to be a scientist only after he’s had an affair with the subject. We do not, we cannot, read poems as objective scientists, not ever. And once committed to the work as a biased, human, and very fallible reader, it almost seems foolish to bother with a hierarchy of fallibility, where intentional fallacy is bad but emotional or presumptive fallacies are fine.

So that’s where I’m struggling; I feel like the annotation process asks me to be that scientist and I’m never going to be able; I cannot measure the effect of the work without some flavor of informal fallacy. (Obviously, my early annotations, which say “the poem does x to the reader” were poorly veiled references to what the poem did to me; I am the only reader who will ever be relevant to the annotations so it didn’t seem such a rotten linguistic substitution. But I see the necessity for the purposes of awarding credit to the exercise of removing those kinds of statements, and don’t have a problem doing so. It seems a bit askew to ask students to focus on an aspect of the work that they feel they need—and are therefore emotionally committed to—and then ask them not to engage with the work at that level. Beyond concatenating the words, counting the syllables, and observing pattern and deviation, there’s not much one might say without committing some level of autobiography to the page. And simple counting and observing doesn’t seem sufficient to address issues in the writer’s own work; word and syllable counts are hardly teaching tools. So some interpretive fallacy will be necessary to draw any creative fuel from the process, whether it be converse fallacy of accident, non sequitur, or consequent fallacy.)

You can’t maintain enough distance and still see the strings

I know that grad school asks me to write papers about craft so that I can learn from what I am reading, but sometimes, when you really, really love a poem, you don’t want to look under the hood. You know it works. You wish you didn’t have to think about why. As if knowing would take away from your appreciation. Critial study always seems like a “destroy what you love” proposition for me. I rarely come back to those poems disgusted with them. I generally feel a heightened appreciation for them. But there’s always that sense of apprehension before starting. I think it’s because I want to believe it’s magic. I think I wish I had some of that.

The Distance

Two women are hugging each other goodbye
On the sidewalk in the tree-shadow
Of a late spring afternoon. It is not
Sexual, though both are beautiful.
And thought both are tall and lithe
Under their dark hair, the differences
Between them are infinite
And support one another. Behind them,
In the distance, buildings
Tangential to the sun catch fire a moment,
Then darken. A young man, hands
In his pockets, is coming toward them.
The women are crying.
They are not yet ready to part.
And it is not sexual.
Even the young man, who is surely lonely,
Slows as he approaches them,
Feeling a sudden reverence
He wouldn’t have thought himself capable of.
He stops half a block away.
The women part. They part
Like drapes drawn open
To catch the last light.
One of the women gets into a car
And drives away; the other
Waves, then turns back across the grass,
Perhaps to her apartment. And the young man
Walks on into the gathering
City twilight, which will be
More beautiful and lonely for him
When he looks up. His whole self is focused
On the precise spot of the women’s
Parting. When he reaches the spot,
He stands there. Just stands there
Transformed in the vivid air of their absence.

–Joe Bolton

grape juice or wine

Very Like a Whale makes the case for a gestation period for your poems.

Give me some time, I will revise this entry, too.

I got a response (a super-fast one, at that) from my advisor, Mr. A. Van Jordan, today, and folks, I have assembled the first version of my petition to graduate. I’ll have another look at it tomorrow, just to make sure that after sleeping on it, I don’t freak out about any of the selections.

The intention of the petition is to demonstrate that you have 12-15 pages of completed material, which is difficult for me because I have discovered in the past few years that I never stop revising poems. I really don’t. At any moment, a poem that seemed finished for some length of time is subject to go back on the chopping block. It’s kind of frustrating, actually; when I was younger, I would revise a poem two or three times and then stop, but as I get older, everything’s open for discussion. Even if the poem’s been published, that doesn’t seem to curb the urge.

But tonight’s version of the petition is satisfying– at least for the moment– because I think it shows off some of my good habits and declines to reveal some of my bad ones. Some statistics:

  • total poems: 12
  • poems in which humans turn into animals: 0
  • poems in which animals turn into other animals: 1
  • poems in which no metamorphosis occurs but two or more animals are combined: 0
  • poems in which people see animals in the sky: 2
  • poems about robots: 0
  • poems about comic books: 1
  • poems about video games: 1
  • received forms: 1 (ghazal)
  • deeply religious poems: 3
  • percentage of all my deeply religious poems represented in this petition: 100
  • poems in tercets: 3 (naturally)
  • poems in couplets: 2 (naturally)
  • prose poems: 2
  • poems in the first person singular: 6
  • poems I would admit to writing if I were in a crowded bar and someone spontaneously read them aloud: 12


from The Unsubscriber

We are lucky to have to the occasion and desire to write poems…


This old blue medicine-type bottle, unburied
From your garden last year’s the perfect centerpiece
To suit our supper—the totem-trope we need
Across this kitchen table, to show how dangerous

It is where we sit (knees near touching at times)
Dawdling and playing with our silverware,
Tapping teacups, tired and satisfied and prime
From a stint in that garden: in a few hours

We’ll find ourselves in bed, but we don’t know that now,
Do we—we’re still exchanging histories,
(It’s only my something visit to your house)
Just sorting out the portions of who, when, how—

Numbering the decades and the romances
That went bad, the faces that faded on us,
Though nothing too personal at first, just pain;
Divorces, liaisons, estrangements, fixations—

Of course our brows hurry away from hurt:
Anecdotes begun in wince end in wrinkly;
Our woeful tales go told through a mode that’s mostly
A kind of moue, comic attitude, which flirts

With grimace-smiles, jokes, the mocking of those choices,
Those great mismatings: funny how it seems of late
Both of us have been alone, celibate . . .
Collating, getting our dates right, our voices

Shed their list of affairs, entanglements, crises:
So we accord the past its poisons, and theorize
That even this old blue bottle here, stored poisons
Before we were born:—followed by suggestions

That the toxin of those heartbreaks is gone
After this long, their vitriol has fizzed out,
And we could, given an occasion, again
Consume the spirit that killed us once, if not

The letter: confessions used as cue-cards to prompt
Mutual responses of empathy or hope:
No former hemlock can harm us now—we’re immune
By now—don’t you agree—because what happens

Ripens in retrospect; each sour memory
Blossoming like the flowers you sometimes spruce
This bottle’s corroded throat with. We certainly
Are not eating much, are we, but we don’t notice—

Can’t we see how our fingers will likewise bloom
From off these knives and forks and force their field,
Interlocking like tugged-at roots . . . Untombed
Of its venom, this blue vial vigils our held

Glances. Sieved in its acid, its distilled mirror,
Would we (almost as soiled as it by time) appear
A beauty, a scarred heirloom any collector
Might stuff high on a shelf amid simulacra—

Somber still, it approbates that emptiness
We must be preparing to fill with each other—
It foretells the coiled taste, the bite unearthed
In the antiquity of a sudden, wild kiss

Whose disclosure will surprise us, as if
We have not been wholly inured by the years,
The stories we bare here across the rice, the life
Stories bittersweet, neutered, too well-rehearsed.

Will deadlier words then surface—their potency
Dis-elixired, drawn; decanted so often
That by our courteous age they’ve turned as grimy
And bunged with dust as this blue glass was when

Your shovel showed it that summer morning, and
My phrases here are (surely) just as corrupt—
What matter its sharpness, no metaphor can
Pare the ground from us as hard as we try to dig up,

To excavate feelings a bottomless need for
Soars as we toss the salad greens and pour
Dressing dripping down their fineleaved freshness
Starting to wilt already around the edges,

To rot back to that mulch they burst from. Such decay
Preserves some artifacts, if not us: they lie in
Graves contrived to obviate the skeleton
They survive beside, they strive to deny

The obvious, the crepitude fate-of-flesh bleak
Facts of our demise, obdurate bricabrac knickknacks
Laid by ancients in the coffin to propitiate
Ancestors, to aid, via these vain trinkets,

(Are we the ‘subjective correlatives’ of these
Objects, this chthonic junk the tomb-robbers missed,
Tools and talismans, amulets, a corpse-cache
Gear for ghosts, props to assist the posthumous)

Some afterworld sojourn of the soul entering
Itself, self dying to carpe diem one more day.
Refocus us on this figure, this table-centering
Blue bottle. Whose future dye indigos our day.

Dulled, we ignore these darker, gnawing warnings—
Our own skull-and-crossbone labels long since skinned—
We poke at our plates, we pat our napkins.
What antidote waits, withering, within

Against that great granulate upheaval of
Fields whose depths have grown archeological—
Filled by fucked relics and by that above-all
Most subterranean of discoveries, love?

–Bill Knott

Knott has posted every poem he’s written to his web site.  We are insanely lucky to have him, griping and all.

Logical Games for the Unbeliever

Here is a poem that have been wanting to share with you for a few days:

Logical Games for the Unbeliever

All night I kept solving for G.
Now, through this dark morning,
the equation escapes
at the set speed of light.

There are so many things I don’t understand. The future
comes and it’s no longer excited
to be here.

There are so many things I can’t know. My old friends,
are they happy?

That small square of light

I went and sat inside it
and my heart lifted,
I swear it.

–Olena Kalytiak Davis

I have been having some titling issues

I have not titled entries in this blog for a long time. I have not been titling my own poems well, either. So, since today is a writing day focused on annotations, I’m going to distract myself with some thoughts on the Science of Titles. Keep in mind that the advice which follows is written by someone who struggles mightily with titles.

Your poem’s title is like the first jab in a boxing match– you don’t have to knock the reader out, but you had better establish yourself as a formidable presence in the ring. A poem which is sharp, precise, and economical deserves a title to match. Sloppy, awkward, and abstract titles always raise the hairs on the back of my neck. Tight, concrete titles that locate me immediately in what is happening in the poem make me happy.

If there’s a clunky detail in your first stanza, it might be information that could be better conveyed to the reader in the title. Excess narrative information in the body of a poem, particularly early, irritates me– because they suck the poetry out of the poem. Titles that convey that information in a plain style remove the burden of exposition. Specific dates, locations, or people show up in titles for this reason.

Nobody wants to be told what to feel. People want the emotional stakes of the poem to be earned. So, if the poem is titled “Happiness” and goes on to describe happiness, that’s pretty lame. If the poem is titled “Happiness” and goes on to challenge the reader’s perception of happiness, carry on.

Don’t make every title the same. Pearl Jam’s first album has eleven songs, right? But take a look at the track list, and it’s mind-numbingly similar. When titling a poem, look at your related work, and see if you have any nasty habits when titling. If you find that every title is one word, or includes the setting of the poem, or is a borrowed line from Plath, vary it up. (It’s worth noting that, if you are looking at manuscript shapes, and you find a conscious and strongly patterned repetitive urge, that’s worth exploring. You may not want to ditch it too soon.)

A simple title can plug your poem into a much larger tradition very quickly. “Aubade” or “Alba” says a lot. (A funny aside– Wikipedia lists Eagle Eye Cherry’s crappy song “Save Tonight” as a modern example of aubade. Apparently, aside from one Philip Larkin poem, there are no other possible examples. This is what I get for being so fascinated with Wikipedia.)

Don’t telegraph the end of the poem in the title. I hate to be the guy who gives examples from his own work, but here’s one: if you’re going to have the speaker disappear at the end of the poem, a title like “Disappearing Act” or “The Vanishing” might announce your intention a little too much.

Great! Now that we’ve had this discussion, I hope never to see poems with titles like “My Mother Washes the Dishes, Folds the Laundry, and Loves Us Unconditionally” or “Childhood” ever again. At least not from the likes of you.

So what’s wrong with this entry? Check out that title! All the information within is repeated in the first couple lines of the blog post! It’s clunky and tiresome. It personalizes the entry, which isn’t mean to be entirely personalized.

What would a better title be? Comments are open!