Sunday, April 29, 2007

Rurality Salad

If I Had a Hammer

My late father was good at many things and could build anything from wood but he was no carpenter. Everything he constructed was functional but it was mostly without form. Since he had the tools, the ability, and the will to build a bookshelf or an entertainment center, he did. His intention was good, but his “accomplishment which resolves the complexity of detail into a single object” was a bit lacking. When I was growing up our house was filled with ill-conceived furniture that served a purpose but did nothing to improve the aesthetics of our home—a hodge-podge of different designs and colors (which were probably more reflective of the stains and paints that he had on hand rather than what would be appropriate for the room). If only he had emphasized detail “130 times over” I wouldn’t have been so embarrassed to bring my girlfriends over and explain the mustard-colored plywood stereo cabinet in a room filled with dark walnuts, light oaks, and faux-wood paneling.

Louis Zukofsky, in his essay Prepositions +, is building upon the ideas of both Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa when he talks about the means of poetry: words—the syllables, phones, and letters "that were once graphic symbols" which eventually became the images (phanopoeia), sounds (melopoeia), and interplay of concepts (logopoeia). Most of us possess the language (the tools of poetry), so why is it that so few of us are able to construct “good poetry”? If there has been a running thread through the essays we’ve read so far (I believe there have actually been many) it is the idea that poetry and language can be objectified—that the organization of words is every bit as “real” as the things that they represent. Even Zukofsky admits that poetry becomes less when “good” is placed in front of it (good being, in his words, “an unnecessary adjective”)—so how then do we construct poetry that is a fully-formed object—on which we don’t see the “joints” at all? Zukofsky tells us that it isn’t enough to simply have vision; one must also “emphasize detail.” By not developing the skill there will be no “poetic object.”

I have been struggling lately to write “good poetry.” Much like my father’s stereo cabinet, my poems have been functional (that is, they have the components of poetry) but the joints are showing. I want to carve the coffee table (or hammer handle) from that block of wood—I can see it in my mind—but I don’t feel like I’m fully able to realize it. Fortunately, the essays of Zukofsky, Shelley, Olsen, Pound, and (for me), especially, Fenollosa are helping. Like the instructions that came with my IKEA bookshelf—they are a manual that is guiding me to, hopefully one day, being able to create “seamless” poetry with the skill of a Thomas Chippendale rather than my well-meaning, but carpentry-challenged father.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Quote of the Day

A poet who reads his verse in public may have other nasty habits.
- Robert Heinlein

Friday, April 20, 2007

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Darwinian Poetics

Discussing the Clark Coolidge poem in class started me thinking about combining language with evolutionary theory. The words Coolidge uses—the compounds—combine to form the word trilobite, which, in turn, produces trilobites. Coolidge’s building blocks—a unit of measure (ounce), a system of arrangement (code), and a classification (orange) come together to form the basic units of language (the articles a, the) and then, with a little help from an electrical event (ohm), the trilobites are formed—not only the creature but the word representing the creature. Trilobites are well represented in the fossil record and were the earliest arthropods on earth, living between 550 and 250 million years ago. Coolidge’s poem seems to be, at once, a commentary on the beginning of life and the beginning of language—no small feat for a poem consisting of eight words.

This is where my head was when I began to think more about Fenollosa's ideas in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Over and over, Fenollosa talks about nature. He says that European speech grew as “metaphor was piled upon metaphor in quasi-geological strata” (377) (much like our little fossilized friends the trilobites—a metaphor, remember, for both life and language). Fenollosa doesn’t necessarily think that the evolution of language is a good thing however. He laments that “our ancestors built the accumulations of metaphors into structures of language and into systems of thought” that are “thin and cold” and that the structure of language is “less like a paradise than a factory” (379). Poetry, he insists, “was the earliest of the world arts” and that the Chinese written language is aligned with the “poetic substance of nature” (378) while European languages have (d)evolved into a “vulgar misuse” (379). To Fenollosa, complexity is a big problem when it comes to poetics. The “primitive metaphors do not spring from arbitrary subjective processes” (377) and “abstract meaning gives little vividness” (376).

Fenollosa’s “three terms of a natural process” (illustrated in the essay by the Chinese characters for ‘Man Sees Horse’) (362) follows the form of our trilobite (which consisted of three parts—a head, a thorax, and a tail). The three symbols are “alive” (363)—agent, act, object—farmer pounds rice (367). The Chinese transitive sentence and the English version as well (omitting particles) “exactly corresponds to this universal form of action in nature” (367). Unfortunately our trilobite eventually evolved, developed rudimentary legs, climbed out of the primordial soup, and became Robert Frost—okay, maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that—it did take millions of years, after all, so it is possible that there may be a missing link in there somewhere. Based on Fenollosa’s arguments (which I believe are valid), we can see how the evolution of species and the evolution of language can be looked at in much the same way. We humans, arguably the most complex creatures on earth, hold within us approximately 97% “Junk DNA”—DNA left over from evolutionary fits and starts, and myriad dead ends. We, then, are a novel, filled with abstract meaning, intransitive verbs, and innumerable nouns, adjectives, and articles while our prehistoric trilobite is the embodiment of the poem in form and language—simple and beautiful in its way—agent…act…object, head…thorax…tail…

I really got into the Fenollosa piece (and the Coolidge poem) and I’m interested in following this line of thought more thoroughly and, although I haven’t tried it yet, I want to apply some of the ideas to my own poetry—kind of poetics by natural selection, if you will.

Next Time…TRILOBITE WINS THE PRESIDENCY! A spokesman said, “Sure he’s been extinct for 250 million years and he doesn’t have a brain to speak of, but he’s leaps and bounds, evolutionarily speaking, beyond the last guy.”

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Mug Ransacks (Anagrams Suck)

It seemed like an easy enough task--take each of the poet's names from the Hoover anthology from last term, anagram them, mix the words up refrigerator-magnet style, and then write a poem with the results. After obsessing about this and spending countless hours working on it at the expense of my sanity and catching a wicked case of writer's block (and a cold) in the process I am washing my hands of it. I ended up splitting it into two poems because there were definitely a couple of different themes happening. The titles (anagrams of Anagram Poets One and Anagram Poets Two) are the only words that weren't derived from the poet's names. Now, perhaps, by ceremonially casting this into the cybersphere, my mind will be freed to work on more creative and more productive endeavors. National Poetry Month, my ass...

Propagate as Ornament

Dullness rose over Mecca
Jack screwed Jill in hot ember Arabia
Roman queen Juno whose enemies betrayed her
as Jack rejoiced

one crackled, violent bulwark image
palace hall orgy—harem rebelling…
she is the rib?
all hear a brash woman—an acolyte can reign!

men irk Savior son in ten ton tomb—fed up, mad, breeding regret
pray lad, yell in vain
rat knock, rat lurch
pine bat snag

crazy Jew remembering to whip Himler on hell’s molten shoal
no mere man can underscore ills so probable
so far, scorpion ail healer
dry rot, dirt shrine; melancholy, alluring

elm branches hang in water
wrinkled old nags impaired
when Mozart faints
never beg nor relent

Propagate to Straw Man

severed cock
mash hen, cram hen
soak me, cajole me
neuron awe, Akron awe
catlike jungle hiss
avid issue, avid wish
Jamaican oil ass cleft anus
our jet liner, our ark
rip ass, redden ego
it is man
he ate
hairy, horny, lead-belly slob
join us in any brunch line held hence
need love? shop more!
L.A. grocer ad read “low prices!”
sugar, malt, celery dip, rye, lime creams, melon jam, salty anchovies, Coke, crab cake, mayo
jog, run, jog, spend!
backup mail, cork jar, arch yarn, affix ad, nag later
bogus Zurich measle dragnet
legalize beer, scorn pot
inhale joy
acid vial czar, Pensacola jailer, frankest rod

ah, July
Jorge and Jinny rarely did it
Edwardian urban anal trek, Oscar hap
ten prowlers walked
gay kid weathering Denver in hay igloo
Reno brat had mellow end
swarthy amateur dancer
dim blinker or halt
bear clan hunt
ant hole or hornet norm, ha!
ant core or gas merger alarm
lawn tent, lawn toy—lilies
I burn therefore I am

amen, dad

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Psychotic Verse

A warning to more sensitive readers: The following post contains references to violence, profanity, and thematic elements (I'm not quite sure what they are but I know them when I see them)...

Paul Allen: Why are there copies of the style section all over the place, d-do you have a dog? A little chow or something?
Patrick Bateman: No, Allen
Paul Allen: Is that a rain coat?
Patrick Bateman: Yes it is! In '87, Huey released this, Fore, their most accomplished album. I think their undisputed masterpiece is "Hip to be Square", a song so catchy, most people probably don't listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it's not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it's also a personal statement about the band itself.
[raises axe above head]
Patrick Bateman: Hey Paul!"

From American Psycho, 2000

I introduce these lines from American Psycho not only because I think it is a really, really good and under appreciated dark comedy, but because I believe they relate well to both Shelley's A Defence of Poetry and Charles Olson's Projective Verse. The nod to the "pleasures of conformity" that Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale) gives when discussing a very
bourgeois Huey Lewis reminded me of Shelley's essay but it was the axe that brought to mind Olson. Imagine that the head of the Paul Allen character (played by Jared Leto) is syntax and that Bateman, like Olson, is a modern poet who wields an axe instead of a pen. The style section spread across the floor, then, is FIELD COMPOSITION. Now, if we accept that Paul Allen's brains, blood, and skull fragments represent the syllables used to create PROJECTIVE VERSE then we can take it one more step and see, very clearly, that the raincoat represents the aversion by "establishment" poets and the general public to what Bateman, uh, I mean Olson, was trying to do--well, you get the (very sharp) point...

Leaving the above comparisons behind (oh you can be sure they'll return just like American Psycho 2: All American Girl only not as lame but, sadly, without William Shatner) I would say that Olson, despite his bantering tone in Projective Verse, was only partially kidding. We can see projective verse in action in his poem, I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You, written in 1953: "and a man slumped/attentionless/against pink shingles" (Part 3, lines 22-24). Here the "conventions of logic has forced on syntax [are]...broken open" (388). Of course what he was doing was nothing new (he even mentions that Cummings, Pound, and Williams were already doing what he was talking about), but America in 1950 was still the land of Robert Frost (hmmm...maybe it still is) and there were big changes in poetry on the horizon thanks, in no small part, to Olson and his contemporaries.

With Projective Verse Olson has written a manifesto that contains, in its language, as much rage, violence, and dark humor as American Psycho (you were so warned). Olson talks about verse as if it is a tangible thing (and to him it probably was--he was, as Kasey has said, crazy, after all). Olson doesn't just compare the poem to energy--he says it is energy. In fact it "must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy discharge" (387). Like the Bateman character, the poet "can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself (387). Perhaps this is why Bateman uses a variety of weapons to dispatch his victims including a knife, chain saw, and the ever-popular nail gun. The line must be split in half ("the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE/ the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the line (390)) because it (think of Jared Leto's head) "has, is, a deadness..." that "we (Bateman?) are bored by" (390). I could go on and on of course, but I won't. I am satisfied that, if I have achieved nothing else with this post, you will never again be able to watch American Psycho without thinking of Charles Olson and vice versa--and, perhaps, that is for the best.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Shelley Re-Imagined!

I spent FOREVER (literally a ceaselessly continuing, everlasting amount of time) trying to "re-imagine" Shelley's Ode to the West Wind for Kasey's Creative Writing II class. It was, without a doubt, one of the most difficult poems that I have ever tried to write--in fact, now that I know Shelley's own views on poetics, this seems like a sadistic, unShelleyan-like assignment. Anyway, here is the original followed by the result of my labor (since this is not representative of what I normally write or even like to write, feel free to print for use as either kindling or as lining for a gerbil cage):

Ode to the West Wind


O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou 5
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill 1 0
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill;

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!


Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion, 15
Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of heaven and ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning! there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Mænad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm.

Thou dirge Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre, 25
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail, will burst: O hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay, 30
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them!

Thou For whose path the Atlantic's level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear

The sapless foliage of the ocean, know 35
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!

Lull'd by the coil of his crystàlline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers

Quivering within the wave's intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss, and flowers


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share 45

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! if even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed 50
Scarce seem'd a vision—I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
O! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd 55
One too like thee—tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own?
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep autumnal tone, 60
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither'd leaves, to quicken a new birth;
And, by the incantation of this verse, 65

Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

West Wind

You breathe
Leaves twist and reel
Struck by your invisible cry

Rusts, yellows, blacks, and reds
A mural of loss on hard ground
The hasty graffiti of indifferent gods

The last notes of hope
Swept away by your shriek
Cowering promises hidden in frost

You woke from summer’s lazy seduction
Dazed and impatient
His drunken arm, heavy across your chest

And then you rose, raging
Towers trembled and trees bowed
Waves fled your scream, warning again and again

Make your breath my voice
We’ll sing whatever song you’d like
It makes no difference to me if it’s hope or cold despair

And, as you carry the leaves, carry my thoughts
Old and withered, in dead and dying grays
Speak them to some other moment instead

We’ll slide beneath the covers of your plan
Memories buried alongside in unmade graves
And wait for the assurances of spring

In Defence of Shelley

Even though I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says in A Defence of Poetry, and even though his name is Percy—Percy Bysshe Shelley is my kind of guy. Shelley was an antiestablishment hedonist who married the chick who wrote Frankenstein! Even though his life was short, he lived large—and he certainly lived on the fringes of society. He brutally laments the mindless bourgeois surrender to the mundane in his treatise as being incompatible with poetic thought while praising those whose “delicate sesnibilit[ies] and “enlarged imaginations” put them at war with “base desire” (6). If the base desires of early 19th century England were appalling to him (which I can only imagine must have consisted of something like attending church and kicking the tires on a brand new 1820 Harvey barouche) he should see us now—a country of 300 million people blissed out on Twinkies, Mountain Dew, and American Idol! What would he say about someone with a garage full of ATVs, jet skis, and Chevy Tahoes and a rented storage unit to contain all the kitsch that no longer fits in their 4,000 square foot McMansion? I’m pretty sure he would find them unpoetic at best. It is here that I agree with Shelley—we should be closer to the source or as he calls it, “original purity and force” (6), to write poetry. The mindless distractions seem to be mostly incompatible with poetic creation—or are they? Could it be that in modern society are we so inundated with the ethics of voting for Sanjaya and the paternity of Anna Nicole’s baby that we necessarily have an ever- churning defamiliarization of the language in which to plug into? Hmmm, if I take this stance then I think that both Shelley and I are right—only the times have changed. I would have to agree with him, however, that immersion in the bourgeois is detrimental to poetry because it doesn’t require much original thought. As someone who doesn’t watch TV and yet, somehow, still knows about these pop culture phenomena, I can say, with no uncertainty, that they provide hella good material for poetry and, since one of the few advantages of becoming a poet is to necessarily set oneself apart from “those people” to become one of the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” (7), I’m sticking with Shelley.

Where I diverge from Shelley is in his views on the form that poetry should take. Thanks to his and his compatriots’ popularity and the deluge of poor junior high school reproductions that followed, his adherence to “a certain rhythm and order which may be called the beautiful and the good” (5) is dead (R.I.P.). But, then again, Percy seems like a pretty hip guy and would probably recognize and even applaud the new directions that poetry has necessarily taken since his day—or maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part because, if she were still living and even though she would be 209 years old, Mary Shelley would be welcome at one of my orgies any time.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007