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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Saturday, April 29, 2017

In early James Tate

In early James Tate there is a fine movement of surprise.  You never know whether a phrase is going where you expect it to, or in the opposite direction. Of course, if every line was surprising, the effect would quickly become wearisome.  Enjambments are deployed in a savvy way to keep the reader guessing. You will find surprising phrases like "lachrymal glands," but they are surprising because most of the words around them are not like that.

In the later Tate, the whole poem is one more coherent parable, and the cleverness is in the entire conceit, with less subtle movements from line to line.  It can be enjoyable but I find it tedious even in small doses.

Domestic Arrangements

There is a randomness in my heart

grit between my toes

There is a precision in your tongue



molasses in the cupboard

origami alligators

in the rafters



where we seldom go

Friday, April 28, 2017

Bly vs Machado

he abierto muchas veredas / I have opened paths through brush                   17

soberbios y melancólicos / angry and melancholy                                        

pedantones / academics                                                                                 

tabernas / ordinary bars

gentes / men

que no son amargas / not really serious                                                         23

se eterno / cristal de leyenda // its eternal / fountain of story

borrada la historia / the history lost

sobre la orilla vieja / here on the beach                                                          29

criptas hondas / deep vaults                                                                            31

y quimeras rosadas / and mythological beasts, rosy ones

y las campanas suenan / bells are asleep                                                        33

Crece en la plaza en sombra / el musgo                                                        35
In the shady parts of the square, moss / is growing

nuestra sola cuita / our only concern                                                              37


el agua cantaba / the water was composing                                                   39

divino / religious

gran cantar / marvelous lines                                                                         41

los poetas míos / poets I admire

Colmenares / ¿ya no labráis / have those beehives stopped                          45

enjauladas / that were in cages                                                                       49

la voz querida / the voice I loved so much                                                     51

la mano amiga/ the hand that loved me

tu pobre huerto / the garden entrusted to you                                     57

ni vagamente comprender siquiera / 

I don’t even have a general understanding                                                                                                  

estrella / guide

el alma niña / the soul like a young woman                                                  69

y la pequeña historia / and the history not long

Incomprensibles, mudas,  /nada sabemos de las almas nuestras

We know nothing of our own souls / that are ununderstandable and say nothing

Tal vez la mano, en sueños / It’s possible that while sleeping the hand          71

 Gotas de sangre jacobina / A flow of leftist blood                                          83

la mansion que habito / the house in which I live                                           85

cabalgando contigo a tus entrañas
ride with me, as far as I go, deep into you                                                       87

quién sabe / lo que se traga la tierra

Is is certain / how much the earth actually eats                                              103

Está el enigma grave / there is a third serious puzzle                                     107

la palabra / human language

junto a su tomate / next to his darling tomato                                                147

siempre al son que tocan bailan
When the sound is heard people dance                                                            149

un corazón solitario / a heart that’s all by itself

it’s ok                                                                                                               151

es mejor soñar / then it’s better to be asleep dreaming                                    153

y reposó, que bien lo merecía
and rested, which rest it certainly deserved                                                      155

rapaz / speedy                                                                                    157

sent out for punishment to attack constantly                                                   

chopos de frío / cold poplars                                                                           165


a estos jardines de limonar  /to these gardens with private lemons                 167

I can't prove I'm right

The translation of Machado's: "Al borde del sendero un día nos sentamos."  [At the edge of the path we sit / sat down one day."

Almost all the translators construe this verb as a present tense, but I think it has to be a past.  The form is identical with this verb, but I can't understand what a present tense verb is doing with "un día."  What is the present supposed to be here? It cannot be today, since "un día" is any day except for today.  It cannot be a present of habitual action, since it is "un día," not "todos los días."  So it must be some other kind of present. It could be the historical present ("one day I sit down and ask myself, what am I doing here... etc..."). In this case, though, the past translation works just as well, though. It could be the present used to talk about the immediate future:  "Mañana vamos al cine."  I don't hear this much with "un día," where the future is much more common.

The rest of the poem doesn't help much to decide the issue.

Ya nuestra vida es tiempo, y nuestra sola cuita
son las desesperantes posturas que tomamos
para aguardar ... Mas Ella no faltará a la cita.

[now our life is time, and our only care are the despairing postures we take to wait... But She won't miss  the date.].

I know I'm right, but the translators are against me, and I cannot prove that I'm right.  I tried to google the use of "un día ..." with verbs in the present and found very little, mostly uses of the presented of repeated action.  I found a lot things like "Somos los que un día bebemos Koolroff, Barmons o Velero y al siguiente Absolut."  Willis Barnstone agrees with me at least.  


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Barnstone: Machado the imagist

I read all of Barnstone's first published translation of Machado yesterday.  80 Poems.  It is very good, with prefaces by JRJ and Dos Passos.  The image I got of Machado was an imagist poet, with strong visual imagery, fluent free verse. Together with Tomlinson and Levertov, some of the first Machado that got into English was very good.  

The wave of later translations was not so fortunate, in many cases, with Bly's notorious tone-deafness.  I feel the argument of this article coming on.

How to Write a Poem (ii)

VII.  The first line of a poem must be given (donnée). It must pop into your head just like that.  I have had many lines appear to me for which I found no continuation:  "My father was not beaten as a child." The first line of a poem must be great, or there is no hope for the rest of the poem.  Can you think of a poem that starts off badly and is still great?  I'm sure there have to be lines less good in "I knew a woman, lovely in her bones" than the first one. Or "Among twenty snowy mountains."

I just had one this morning:  "There is a randomness in my heart." I can imagine this as the beginning of one of my bad poems quite easily. I have no idea where it came from or where it might lead, but it sounds off-kilter enough to be a good beginning.

VIII. When you think of a line from a poem, you can think of it in two ways.  You can think of it as a phrase someone might say in real life, or as a special kind of utterance.  Now a real life sentence might not work in a poem, because you think that the poet has not taken the first step in writing poetry. He might just be incompetent, and not know that you just can't do that.  On the other hand, a poet who seems to know that a poem has to sound different will write in a pretentious diction. We ask her to write lines that someone might think of using in real life.  So there is a narrow band of language that works somehow as both special utterance and language borrowed from real utterances.  It has a poetic charge to it even though the words don't seem particularly different from what someone might say.

Duncan uses an elevated tone:

I am liable in the late afternoon
lingering to remember in the various cities
the familiar streets, clock-tower, magnolias,
to remember, reconstructing yet not 
faultlessly as then, for the singular vision
has departed, reconstructing the cities
in sand, not faultlessly, roughly,
impatiently...   ["Fragment: 1940"; The Year as Catches 15]

This works for him (not always though). His ear is musical. Even when you don't feel he writes perfectly, his poetry is true to a particular conception of what poetic ought to be. I could select lines and passages from this book of early poetry to try to convince you he is a bad poet, but he is also a poet capable of the lines I've just cited.

There is another aesthetic called "ars est celare artem."  The idea is to write without any obvious poeticism, but without prosaic flatness either.  The artfulness is concealed rather than overt. So you would have Creeley instead of Duncan.

If we look at contemporary poets, we can see that each one has to come up with an individual solution.  Some depend on the inherently poetic qualities of language in its raw state, so that they can incorporate historical documents or bits of conversation without effort. Some work with parody, deliberately muted effects, or a compressed but slightly precious diction.

IX. One way of approaching all of this is to start with poets who are obsessed with craft, like the poets of the Objectivists and Black Mountain School, with some New York School thrown in.  You should read Ronald Johnson, Ken Irby, Eigner, Levertov, Niedecker, Ceravolo. Among the poets favored by the more academic side, you need to read Jean Valentine and Elizabeth Bishop.  It is hard to imagine being a good poet without having assimilated poets like these.  Early James Tate is also excellent.

You can get an excessively strained and stiff quality to your writing, though, if you never loosen up a bit. You need to explore the forbidden side too, break some taboos. What do you fear?  Fine writing?  Sentimentality?  Pretention?  You might be paralyzed by a fear of being thought not talented, or by an avoidance of any number of things.  It is hard to hit the sweet spot where the writing is going to feel just right.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

How to Write a Poem

I. My first idea here is that the Poundian / Williamsian idea is still the basis of what most people are going to think of as a conventionally good poem: rhythmically fluent free verse, with a lot of concrete visual imagery, and a lot of concentration (saying a lot in a few words). The register will be basically colloquial as well. There won't be a lot of dead metaphors or predictable sequences of words as what one might find in prose. So you can't have "I want to make one thing perfectly _____," where the reader can fill in the blank with the expected word.

This standard of writing might be historically contingent (it is) but it is still in force, in that departures from it need to be justified. This is how James Schuyler wrote, or Lorine Niedecker or Denise Levertov at her best.

This is also how we judge poetry of the past, in a sense. Though we might tolerate more rhyme and meter, elevated language and archaism, we still want that concentration of meaning and a strong poetic eye.

II. That is about 90% of it there. Most poems fail because simply because they don't follow those directions and depart from them in quite unintentional ways. Often, a beginning poet will seem to have read no poetry, and has heavy-handed prosaic effects, but with no knowledge at all that he's not supposed to do that.

III. The rest is fine tuning. The main area of fine tuning, once the poem is filled with concentrated visual imagery, is about getting the persona who is speaking the poem exactly right.  This means adjustments in register (up or down) and a really fine-tuned hearing of the language.

Everything to do with logopoeia is necessary to make the poem its own unique utterance, not merely a conventionally good poem with lots of sensorial images. You cannot make a poem sound too poetic with words like shimmering. Instead, think of using words that come from a different context: "a sodium pentathol landscape / a bud about to break open" (James Tate; emphasis added).  

IV.  The poem should seem both inevitable and unpredictable.  So if it is predictable, you see what's coming a mile away, or "telegraph" your intentions. Thinking of hitting someone (forgive the violent imagery but no better metaphor comes to mind). A boxer who telegraphs his punches signals in advance what the punch will be, and thus makes the defensive move, and even the other fighter's next offensive move, quite easy. We know the kind of poem that sets up its humorous premise early and then gives the expected answers. Notice too how the use of statistically frequent combinations of words unnecessarily telegraphs your intentions.



On the other hand, the poem should move with some degree of inevitability as well. If it is merely unpredictable it won't make much of an impression. Think of reading a poem line by line and not looking at the next line (keeping it concealed under another piece of paper). Each line surprises, but in a way organic with the rest of the poem.  The next line can disappoint by being too predictable or too far afield.

If you know what the poem is going to say beforehand, you will end up being very predictable.  You need to discover the meaning of the poem while you are writing it.

V. We want to avoid poetic devices that every other poet uses, like a simile every other line, or a first person speaking in the present tense. There is a contextual sense in which a poet has to be savvy about what the conventions are, and not see them simply as the only possible option.  Poetry will seem amateurish if it simply falls easily into certain stale patterns.

VI. If you look at poets like Robert Duncan, you will find he doesn't care about certain things.  For example, he will be turgid and abstract, archaic or pretentious in diction, etc...  He cares, but he doesn't see anything wrong with that.  Or many contemporary poets combine use the "dim lands of peace" construction that Pound condemned.  The attempt to write the conventionally good poem, then, could just be a form of timidity. When I depart from these rules, which I do in every poem, I see them as a foray into bad poetry. So any kind of bathos, deliberate use of "dim lands of peace" constructions, overt sentimentality or triviality, is what I tend to favor.  That tends to work better for me than earnest attempts to write the good poem.  In fact, I modeled myself after Kenneth Koch, who I didn't realize was writing much more in earnest, many times when I thought he was being purely parodic. Or maybe I am wrong about that.