3.24.2017

everything and nothing

The words of my book nothing, the drift of it everything.

—Walt Whitman, "Shut Not Your Doors," Leaves of Grass (1865)

3.21.2017

backdoor left unlocked

Often the best poems one writes, are those poems one backs into.

3.20.2017

rejection note

It’s nice to see the evolution of your poetry, proving so well that you don’t believe in intelligent design.

3.18.2017

thin as it may seem

Language is the organizing scrim that makes the world intelligible.

3.16.2017

poem at large

Leaving a page of poetry at the bus stop or on a park bench is not litter.

3.15.2017

deep dark line

Her lines mattered like those of an etcher.

3.14.2017

no mouth

Readers:
Roses have no mouth,
So they address your nose with their scent.
The moon has no mouth,
So it speaks to your eyes with its light.
Then with what should a poet speak?

—Oguma Hideo, from “Talk Up a Storm,” Long, Long Autumn Nights: Selected Poems of Oguma Hideo, 1901-1940 (Center for Japanese Studies, The U. of Michigan, 1989)

3.13.2017

unread and not ready

Too much speaking about poetry without due study.

3.12.2017

solid, liquid or gas

As a solid the poem is a form, it can be held and viewed easily from all sides. In a liquid state the poem moves, flows, divides and recombines, never easy to contain. As a gas the poem is not easy to see, it rises and dissipates quickly, leaving no trace. The ideal state of a poem is liquid.

3.10.2017

one-way street

Some failed philosophers become poets, but failed poets seldom become philosophers.

3.09.2017

reading report

I heard the poet A.E. Stallings read today. It was the 54th Wallace Stevens Poetry Program reading. Her work was weaker than all the past readers I’ve heard (going back over a decade). She has a strong background in the Classics (Greek & Latin) but it seems wasted when it comes to her poetry. Stallings read a ‘limerick sequence’ (if you could believe someone would think writing one was a good idea) based on various mythic figures and tales…wow, that was a painful experience to hear. I did like one poem based on the Minotaur myth, wherein the Minotaur isn't slayed by Theseus, but dies trapped below earth after an earthquake has collapsed the structures above his labyrinth.

Stallings is also a translator from the Greek and Latin. I liked something she said about that. Paraphrasing her here: ‘I prefer to translate dead poets. They don’t have any opinions about or objections to your translation.’

3.08.2017

waiting for light

Paintings stacked in a basement; poems in an unopened book.

3.07.2017

word stock

One of the many beneficent aspects of poetry: Learning new words.

3.06.2017

hung in space and silence

     My own notion of a poetry reading is quite different. I want the poet to talk about his poems as little as possible, and not so much about the poems as about something one step removed. The voice in which he does his talking unfortunately is the same voice the poor poems must borrow. The more we hear him the less we may be able to hear them.
     I should like poems hung, one at a time, like Japanese pictures, on the exquisite air, each poem surrounded by space and silence.

—Robert Francis, The Satirical Rogue on Poetry (U. of Massachusetts Press, 1968).

3.05.2017

scenes from my life

Was that a book of poems or a verbal scrapbook of family vignettes?

3.04.2017

known by heart

Without glancing at the contents page or index he cracked open the book at the very poem he wanted to read again.

2.28.2017

not god (sic) enough

Even if a god offered to ghost write the poem the poet would demur.

2.27.2017

in the public square

A symbol monger. An image grinder. A diction trader. A rhetoric freak. A sound dog.

2.26.2017

written over

Critic, create an exegesis that exceeds the text.

2.25.2017

reality calling

In ordinary language words call up the reality, but when language is truly poetic, the reality calls up the words.

Joseph Joubert, Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts (Dodd, Mead & Co., 1899), translated by Katharine Lyttelton.

2.24.2017

not beyond me

Poetry doesn’t need those disappointed poets who have stopped reading and writing poetry only because their work was never recognized.

2.23.2017

on the down low

Let’s keep poetry our secret. Otherwise the culture will only ruin it for us.

2.22.2017

sargeant major

With a glance at the page, the words started to fall into line and form ranks.

2.21.2017

hard reading

A poet of a taxing syntax.

2.20.2017

bhizzt phizzt

A typo is a language short circuit. It breaks and effectively ends the transmission as the reader’s mind struggles to create the proper connection.

2.19.2017

keep an animal

[The poet’s] tragedy is summed up in these word written in a private letter by a contemporary American poet: “For more than a month I have not been able to find time to write anything, and you know how heavy that is to a writer who feels all of youth lost to keep an animal.” Here is the animal, crying to be feed and warmed and housed. Here is the poet, who cannot rest from wanting to set down the bit of reality that he has been able to seize.

—Babette Deutsch, “The Plight of Poetry,” The American Mercury (May 1926)

2.18.2017

small window

He talked in those commonplaces of the workshop method, thus you could tell that everything he knew about poetry was learned in the couple of years he’d spent in a MFA program.

2.16.2017

not the breaking point

For all its effects, the only thing important about the linebreak is that it shouldn’t be where the reader stops reading.

2.15.2017

see-saw

The inverse ratio of heft of content to height of rhetoric.

2.14.2017

high notes

He only wanted to sing the arias.

2.13.2017

covenant of pathos

Stuck for a day in Chicago, I wandered over to The Art Institute of Chicago. (Not that anyone had to twist my arm. We're talking about visiting one of the great museums of the world.) In the Modern wing I happened upon an unattractive though clearly expressionistic portrait by Ludwig Meidner. The label stated this:

Though perhaps best known for his visionary, apocalyptic landscapes, Ludwig Meidner, like many German Expressionists, used portraiture to explore the inner emotional life of his subjects. "Do not be afraid of the face of a human being," Meidner once said. "Don’t let your pen stop until the soul of that one opposite you is wedded to yours in a covenant of pathos." In addition to making self-portraits, Meidner painted many of Berlin’s literati, including the Expressionist poet and theater critic Max Herrmann-Neisse. The artist used the thick paint, energetic brushwork, and distorted form characteristic of Expressionist painting to communicate his subject’s inner vitality and psychological life.

2.10.2017

no line drawn

The prose poet willingly risks even the genre for the good of the poem.

2.08.2017

arrival point

To think of the poem’s end as being an arrival.

2.07.2017

flightless bird

So many feathers and sequins, the piece sagged under the weight of its costume.

2.02.2017

dead end or avenue

People think that many poems are hard to read because of the vocabulary, proper names, lacunae, allusions, etc., things they don’t readily recognize. That’s not a difficulty, that’s an opportunity to explore new avenues of understanding.

1.30.2017

nothing too lavish

In a review of Middle Span by George Santayana, in The New Statesman, June 26, 1948, Raymond Mortimer joined [Santayana] with Picasso as the two living Spaniards most conspicuous for genius and said…
"they have both chosen to be expatriates yet retain under their cosmopolitanism a deep Spanishness—the sense “that in the service of love and imagination nothing can be too lavish, too sublime or too festive, yet that all this passion is a caprice, a farce, a contortion, a comedy of illusions.”

Quoted in Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects: Wallace Stevens’ Commonplace Book, a facsimile and transcription, edited and introduced by Milton J. Bates.

1.28.2017

there and not there

Poetry is literature’s dark matter.

1.26.2017

take it to the streets

The street poet was threatened by the local authorities with vagrancy and public nuisance. It was then he knew he’d made it as a poet.

1.24.2017

earned bona fides

Critics certify themselves review by review.

1.23.2017

certain touchstones

Never through my own but only by reading certain poems by others do I realize why I’ve given over so much of my life to poetry.

1.22.2017

undimmed by familiarity

Thought proceeds by scheme and sequence; it manipulates, puts things where it wants them, makes different designs from any that the eyes see, and, what is more, know that it is doing so. Conscious art selects from nature and by selecting adds. In the process the forms of nature inevitably take second place; their edges are blunted to fit the ruling design, and the complex final effect, being composed of many parts, diminishes the being of any one part. Yet the price of this triumph is violation of our senses. We evidently see at any moment a sequence of sharp particulars—the light at a window, a tree trunk, the gray of a rock—single, peremptory impressions, moving in endless specificity across our vision. A part of our life belongs to them; we know the world and feel at home in it not least through these sure reminders. Happiness, one sometimes thinks, is clarity of vision, moments when things stand clear in sharpest outline, undimmed by familiarity as if revealed for the first time. Such moments bring back, so to speak, the memory of Eden sparkling on the first day of creation, the tree of life soaring in the middle, and if Eden be related to our childhood, they bring back childhood too. In this spirit Gladstone entitled his book on Homer Juventus Mundi, the world’s youth…
—John H. Finlay, Jr., “The Heroic Mind,” Four Stages of Greek Thought (Stanford U. Press, 1966)

1.21.2017

working dog

A critic should be a terrier let loose in a thicket of letters.

1.19.2017

figures in space

The poem’s rhetorical figures reminded one of watching a troupe of acrobats going through their convoluted routines.

1.18.2017

limits of understanding

A great poem cannot be taught, it can only be explored together intelligently.

1.17.2017

foreplay

The title titillated but that was it.

1.16.2017

impressed hard

I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns as a dream, but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy.

George Tooker (1920-2011), American artist.

1.15.2017

overdressed

A minor poet draped in the mantle of his long poem.

1.11.2017

currency trade

If poetry is a kind of money it’s as mysterious in value as bitcoin.

1.09.2017

lost articles

The poems only his notebook has known.

1.08.2017

lean into the corner

All one expects of the word at the end of a line is that it holds the corner.

1.07.2017

walk as prophecies

As {Wm.] James echoed Emerson, so Emerson was echoing the romantic poets. They too urged that men should walk as prophecies of the next age rather than in the fear of God or in the light of Reason. Shelley, in his “Defense of Poetry,” deliberately and explicitly enlarged the meaning of the term “poetry.” That word, he said, “may be defined to be ‘the expression of the Imagination.’” In this wider sense, he said, poetry is “connate with the origin of man.” It was, he went on to say, “the influence which is moved not, but moves.” It is “something divine…at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and the blossom of all other systems of thought.” Just as the Enlightenment had deified Reason, so Shelley and other romantics deified what I have been calling “The Imagination.”

—Richard Rorty, Philosophy as Poetry (U. of Virginia Press, 2017)

1.05.2017

bounty not border

Poetry’s allegiance is to the resources of language and not to the boundaries of genre.

1.04.2017

aspiring attendant

Each stanza should be a poem-in-waiting.

1.03.2017

mishandled analog device

The young man picked up the book, then fumbled around looking for its power button.

1.02.2017

stop, look and listen

Poet, be a fearless witness.

12.31.2016

goodbye to lonnie

Warning: Writing and/or reading poetry is good for your health. I urge non-poetry readers to open-mindedly browse through the pages of poetry books, especially the works of contemporary poets who amplify our daily ordinariness with craftsmanship and courage. To truly appreciate the language of poetry is to be able to come back to it again and again. Not with wisdom supplied by educators or cerebral articles addressing The Real Meaning, but a willingness to allow the senses to be stirred and nourished. Even reading poetry as a child, I never worried if I “got” it.
     Often students ask where my ideas stem from. Naively I refer to a barrage of inspirations, bowing to the commonplace and the patois of my childhood. But mostly they are guided by the opening of Zora Neale Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching God...“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” That one sentence embodies a poetry I crave to attain. In retrospect there was always a thirst, a growing growl, to tackle and nonchalantly lay down words capable of breathing on their own. At times I’m not quite sure how to start or even where a poem may end. Though the writing process often gets the better of me, I welcome the taste of language and the ability to share it with others. One’s imagination is always on the brink of something else. There’s an old saying that there’s never anybody around when you wrestle with an angel. Nonetheless, poets write because they have to…and the angels know it.
     It is rare that people actually go after the things they want to do and become in their lifetimes. Far too many wave back at their dreams. Through poetry I am able to passionately be on board with my wishes.

Lonnie Black (1958-2016), prose piece originally published in Hartford Courant's Northeast Magazine.

12.30.2016

more is required

A poet who believed he was an activist because he’d ranted a few poems at readings.

12.28.2016

new poetics

Every poem has the right to ask for a new poetics.

—Anna Swir, Talking to My Body (Copper Canyon Press, 1996) translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

12.27.2016

risked capital

A good critic is a market maker.