Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Winters and Rexroth on Poetry

A few noteworthy passages. First, Yvor Winters, from the foreword to The Testament of a Stone:
"A poem is a state of perfection at which a poet has arrived by whatever means. It is a stasis in a world of flux and indecision, a permanent gateway to waking oblivion, which is the only infinity and the only rest. It has no responsibilities except to itself and its own perfection--neither to the man who may have come to it with imperfect understanding nor to the mood from which it may have originally sprung. It is not a means to any end, but is in itself an end, and it, or one of the other embodiments of beauty, is the only end possible to the man of intellect."

"The poet, in creating, must lose himself in his object. If he becomes more interested in himself observing than in his object, and still continues to write about his object rather than himself observing, he will create a mannerism but no image.... The poet who is preoccupied with his object desires a speech without idiom and a style without mannerism, that the clarity of his perception may not be clouded by inessentials."
And second, from Kenneth Rexroth's essay "Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation":
"The problem of poetry is the problem of communication itself. All art is a symbolic criticism of values, but poetry is specifically and almost exclusively that. A painting decorates the wall. A novel is a story. Music... soothes a savage beast. But poetry you have to take straight."

Monday, March 26, 2007

Just an Update

Still working on defining my own guiding principles for poetry, and of course on continued revisions. I hope this week proves to be more productive than last, though a business trip on Thursday / Friday threatens to foul things up a bit. Airport poem, anyone?

I'm also looking toward my next submission, with the hope of getting another one out before April. Given that this week may be a little frantic, that will probably happen over the weekend instead. I've found that using the weekends to prepare submissions and do research (e.g., additions to my reading list, literary magazines, poetry events) is a good way to keep up my momentum while also giving myself a break. It also allows me more time during the week to devote to the poems themselves.

Speaking of reading, Fagles' translation of The Iliad has been incredible. At the end of Book 6, which I just completed this morning, there is a lovely and agonizing moment when Hector, having briefly returned from the battlefield to visit his wife and infant son, prepares to leave them again. Despite his assurances, his wife Andromache fears he will be killed. As Hector reaches down to touch his son--possibly for the last time--the boy cries out and recoils, afraid of his father's helmet and armor. It's an unexpectedly bittersweet and human moment in an epic that otherwise occupies itself largely with armies, heroes and gods, and it's the kind of moment to which I think poets ought to gravitate.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Beware "the Writer's Triangle"

Freelance writer Caitlin O'Neil has an article in the Mar/Apr issue of Poets & Writers on how hard it is to find time to write: "The Writer's Triangle: Balancing Writing with Living." The "dreaded triangle," she explains, "refers to the metaphorical vortex writers get pulled into while trying to balance making a living, being committed to their literary lives, and staying connected to the world around them." O'Neil uses the article to examine how she and other writers experience, "anxiety, depression and self-doubt--not about our writing, but about how our writing fits into our lives."

Finding time for writing is a real issue that, as the fact of A Writing Year should make clear, concerns me as well. Unfortunately, though O'Neil dramatically recounts various writers' struggles and the results (including "thousands of dollars of dental work" and "a panic attack"), the article as a whole is profoundly unhelpful. It winds down with a few catchphrases seemingly designed to make writers feel better (among them the increasingly irritating cliche, "writers don't choose the task of writing... it chooses them") before basically concluding that, sure enough, one has to compromise and make sacrifices.

To which I can only respond, AND? I don't need O'Neil or P&W to come up with all the answers for me, but it seems like a few suggestions would be in order. Otherwise what's the point? To show we're all in it together? Without any substantive guidance, it just feels like an exercise in self-pity.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Trouble Focusing

For the most part, this dividing my time between writing and work has gone smoothly. But this week the work half has been chaotic, with a major grant deadline looming and too little time to get everything done. The stress has made it hard to concentrate in the mornings and left me feeling unbalanced. I often feel that I need to achieve a kind of serenity to write well, and all the anxiety of work is making that difficult -- during the time I'm supposed to be writing, I can't help but think of the emails stacking up and my lengthening to-do list. Consequently I'm spending more time revising poems this week and practicing my focus when it comes to starting new ones.

Speaking of my mind wandering, yesterday it occurred to me that although I've written a lot about other poets' and critics' claims for poetry (and hopefully said something in the process about my own values and ideas), I haven't really enunciated my own thoughts about what makes it worthwhile or what I believe it should accomplish. So over the next week or two I hope to come up with some Most Excellent Universal Guiding Principles for Poetry. I think this will help in orienting my writing instincts at times like this, when it's hard to focus, and to establish some compass points for the kind of poems I hope to write in general. Plus, everyone else will start writing just the way I want them to. Killer plan, no? Stay tuned for all the excitement.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Stanley Plumly on Poetry

The summer after my junior year in college, I spent several weeks in a writing seminar series in Prague. The poet Stanley Plumly was the leader of workshop group I joined and, as I mentioned in a previous post, he refused to allow anyone in it to treat the writing of poems lightly, even if it was the summer, and Prague, and all very romantic. He reviled lazy writing and did not hesitate to cast judgment on the poems we brought before him. Tears were not uncommon. I recall one or two people dropping out of the class.

Having someone take my poems seriously was just what I wanted, and I quickly learned to welcome his criticism -- I figured that the sooner I could identify and understand where the words went wrong, the sooner I could set them right. He taught me that the poem matters and the poet does not, or not much. In the end, he also provided me the support and genuine encouragement to continue writing, and in that way he was kind. His guidance helped me get my first publication--of a poem he critiqued--in a national journal, the Ohio Review. I suspect he isn't aware what a difference that class made to me.

Throughout the workshop I tried to write down everything Plumly had to say about writing poetry. I forgot about all of those quotes until this morning, when I came across them in an old notebook. They're still illuminating and I think they're worth sharing here:

[On the writing process:] “I sit there a lot, in silence, like a good quaker.”

“There’s no such thing as omniscience in poetry; God doesn’t need to write poems.”

“Use form for tension.”

“The hardest thing is to resist therapy.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, poetry is about losing.”

“Poetry is about making a world, however small it is.”

“You can’t live on only the energy and emotion of your art—it will eat you alive.”

“Remember there are only small things, and you are a small thing among them.”

“The poem has to live in your world, not just in your private consciousness.”

“Embrace the object. Do not lose sight of that objective.”

“Language ought to be a transparency over experience; what we don’t want is a linguistic opacity.”

“If you write badly, it’s because you don’t know, you aren’t focused, you aren’t being honest, or you aren’t feeling it.”

“Editing is a way of rewriting, the emptying of a previously filled space.”

“Beware commentary; when you enter a poem, you’re in there—you can’t go out again.”

“Cliche comes in when we’re in a hurry to get somewhere else.”

“Work against the material.”

“[in poetry, answer:] What is your problem right now? Where does it hurt?”

“So much about writing is getting to what needs to be written.”

“Everything in a poem has to be answered... or unanswered.”

“You mustn’t treat your experience as if it only happened to you.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Revisions and Confusions

More revisions today as I try to prepare another set of poems for sending out. A mix of older and newer drafts, this time. This week I've been enjoying looking back on some of the poems I did five or six years ago and allowing myself to edit them aggressively. The intervening years provide the necessary distance to be merciless with those cherished lines and images.

Meanwhile, Gioia, Mason and Schoerke's Twentieth-Century American Poetics has been excellent so far, though I'm only a few poets in. This morning I read Robinson Jeffers' "Poetry, Gongorism and a Thousand Years," which was published in 1948 but retains much of its relevancy. In it he describes the intentions and methods of a hypothetical "great poet." Among the passages I find striking:
"... to put the matter more fundamentally, I believe that our man would turn away from the self-consciousness and naive learnedness, the undergraduate irony, unnatural metaphors, hiatuses and labored obscurity that are too prevalent in contemporary verse. His poetry would be natural and direct. He would have something new and important to say, and just for that reason he would wish to say it clearly. He would be seeking to express the spirit of his time (as well as all times), but it is not necessary, because an epoch is confused, that its poet should share its confusions."

Monday, March 12, 2007

David Orr: Drawn to Heat and Conflict

Whether you agree or disagree with John Barr's tract on The State of Poetry Today (which, however rickety it may have first appeared, increasingly seems to have achieved near-earth orbit alongside similarly shouted-about essays like Dana Gioia's "Can Poetry Matter?"), you have to give him credit for igniting a large and lively discussion.

David Orr, resident poetry critic for The New York Times, is the latest to weigh in, with an essay in yesterday's paper ("Annals of Poetry") that assesses Dana Goodyear's assessment of the brouhaha. Orr is kind of like the Predator of the poetry community, attracted to areas of conflict where he can prowl among the combatants and maybe do a little hunting of his own. A few years ago, for example, he wittily chronicled August Kleinzahler's attack on Garrison Keillor's anthology Good Poems. He is also known for very neatly skewering Jorie Graham.

In this latest piece, Orr questions Goodyear's article and calls The New Yorker to task for pimping poems for the sake of its literary reputation in the magazine market. I personally am glad that The New Yorker continues to print poetry, but I agree with Orr's point that its efforts to straddle several different readerships means that it sometimes makes questionable decisions about what it purveys ("bad poems by excellent poets," he says).

More to the point, I agree with his moderate take on Barr's essay and the Poetry Foundation's efforts to coax American poetry out of its cloister. It captures my own views better than anything else I've read yet.

Friday, March 09, 2007

More from Rilke

"Praise the world to the angel, not what can't be talked about.
You can't impress him with your grand emotions. In the cosmos
where he so intently feels, you're just a novice. So show
him some simple thing shaped for generation after generation
until it lives in our hands and in our eyes, and it's ours."
-- Rainer Maria Rilke, from "The Ninth Elegy"

Sound advice for a poet, I think. But what a challenge it is to find "some simple thing" that can last more than a few minutes, much less generations. How did William Carlos Williams know so much depended on a red wheelbarrow? Writing something worthwhile requires so much instinct, discipline and patience, and the chances of success are so unlikely. Then again, why bother at all if that's not the goal, making something that will endure?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Some odd synchronicity in this morning's reading:
"Continuous present is one thing and beginning again and again is another thing. These are both things. And then there is using everything. This brings us again to composition this the using everything. The using everything brings us to composition and to this composition. A continuous present and using everything and beginning again. In these two books there was elaboration of the complexities of using everything and of a continuous present and of beginning again and again and again."
--Gertrude Stein, from "Composition as Explanation"
"When longing overcomes you, sing about great lovers;
their famous passions still aren't immortal enough.
You found that the deserted, those you almost envied,
could love you so much more than those you loved.
Begin again. Try out your impotent praise again;
think about the hero who lives on: even his fall
was only an excuse for another life, a final birth."
--Rainer Maria Rilke, from "The First Elegy"
Begin again. It makes me consider "revision." A re-seeing and so, a re-beginning in its own right. The hard part is finding the courage to begin again and again, to circle back, to make the ending a beginning also.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Martin Espada Reading - Mar 15

"The Pablo Neruda of North American poets" will be taking the lectern at the Newberry. Certainly worth checking out if you're in Chicago.

DATE: Thursday, March 15
PLACE: The Newberry Library (60 West Walton St.)
COST: Free, but call to reserve a seat - (312) 787-7070

Friday, March 02, 2007

Thoughts at Month 3

It's somewhere near terrifying that I'll be a quarter of the way through A Writing Year in just a few more weeks. Fortunately, over the last couple weeks, especially, I've felt a new energy for writing and a sense of confidence in the work I'm producing. I'm drafting about one poem a day, and though they certainly won't all be worth keeping, I feel like that pace is helping me build a kind of creative momentum. I'm thinking about new poems all the time and suddenly seeing solutions for problematic older drafts. When I started this year, I worried about having enough material to keep my readers occupied, but now I find I have to hold myself back so they aren't overwhelmed.

That said, I'm still cautious. Having found a good routine and achieved a kind of productive rhythm, I'm wary of doing something that could mess it all up. So I'm trying to avoid thinking about it too much and to conserve some energy from day to day, keeping a balance between creation and revision and attending to new ideas one at a time, across the week. For now, it seems to be working.

Though putting them together felt totally lame, the goals I mapped out for myself before starting AWY have kept me motivated and are helping drive my current pace. Here's a quick update of my progress so far:

Since January 1, I've drafted and typed up 23 poems. There are probably 6-10 more that have yet to be ensconced in MS Word. That translates to 3-4 poems per week, or almost double what I was aiming for. Which is good, because probably half of them are scary disabled things, missing legs or eyes and calling out barbaric yawps. They will not be allowed to play with the other children.

Nothing so far, but I've sent off submissions to two journals (Kenyon Review and Tin House), and likely will be sending another this weekend. So I'm on track for my goal of putting together at least one submission per month.

I said I wanted to read 2-3 books a week. I've read about 12 so far, which means I'm behind. But personally I think Carl Sandburg's gigantic Complete Poems should count as about five books alone. It's good, but good lord...

Literary Events
Made one in January, missed one in February. Damn. I'll try to make up for it this month.

Publishing Options
Haven't done a thing about this yet, but I think that's ok.

Documenting the Process
Yer lookin at it.