Monday, March 12, 2012

A Portrait of the Poem as a Mirror

While Jacques Lacan is widely-known for his pioneering into the depths of the psyche, he also takes a stance on poetry. Who knew?

In Lacan’s Seminar XI, he follows his first lecture (mostly a rant about being “ex-communicated”) with a lecture called “The Freudian Unconscious and Ours.” He begins with a poem by Loius Aragon titled “Contre-chant,” loosely translated as “Counterpoint.” The translation of the original French reads as follows:

In vain does your image come to meet me

And does not enter me where I am who only shows it

Turning towards me you can find

On the wall of my gaze only your dreamt-of shadow.

I am that wretch comparable with mirrors

That can reflect but cannot see

Like them my eye is empty and like them inhabited

By your absence which makes them blind.

Lacan prefaces the poem by saying that it “has no relation to what I am about to say,” which, of course, it does. The poem (surprise!) functions as a Lacanian joke, playing on the idea that our existence is punctuated with interruptions destabilizing the flow of discourse. More on that later.

The poem could be titled “The mirror’s lament,” which would shed some light on its content, and perhaps even its form. The poem laments the mirror’s task of enabling others to see themselves, but never itself (the mirror) seeing what they see. But the poem on the page actually has a similar function. Like the mirror, the poem never knows its audience. It is confined to a spoken utterance or to the page. What the poem means to you—what it reveals to you about yourself—the poem (or the mirror) will never see. It is blind.

The blindness of the mirror and the poem are a result of our own seeing. It is only because the poem or the mirror cannot see us that we are able to see ourselves. This particular poem, lamenting the plight of the mirror and itself, might be saying: “I sacrifice my own sight, so that you may see.”

But as if being blinded was not enough, the mirror is also invisible. In order to see yourself in a mirror, you actually have to look past the mirror’s surface to see your reflection. Likewise, when we hear somebody read a poem, isn’t it more often than not that we learn more about the person reading than the poem itself? In order to do this we have to look past the poem to see the person.

For Lacan, the mirror and the poem become the site of the ego-ideal. That is, a secondary point of identification by which we construct who we would like to be. Like the poem and the mirror, a kind of sacrifice must be made in order to create this ideal self. That sacrifice, or loss, (for Lacan anyway) is a condition of the entry into the symbolic order—the ability to recognize ourselves as self.

This loss is perpetually recurring in the punctuations and interruptions, what Lacan would call compulsive repetition. The sacrifice of the mirror and the poem reflect the gap in us. This particular poem laments its existence as a mirror from the perspective of the poem itself.

But all psychoanalytic babble aside, I think the French doctor has a point. Poetry is a way to better see ourselves, and one that requires a kind of sacrifice. An opening up, a vulnerability. A forfeit in order to create and maintain identity.

So read on, says the Lacanian in me. Read on and recognize the gap in yourself to better understand who you are. And lest we forget—bow down to that which recreates the lamentable mirror: poems.

Emily Schuck, Assistant Editor

foothill: a journal of poetry

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Humor and Heaney

            When I was an undergrad at Vassar, Seamus Heaney came to give a talk and read from his newly published translation of Beowulf.  Though even then he was getting on in years he spoke with the energy and enthusiasm of my twenty-year-old friends.  The talk lasted an hour or so, and then we lined up to get our copies of Beowulf signed and to ask him a question or two.  Waiting in line, I mulled over what I wanted to ask him.  Not very well-versed in poetry or poetics at the time, and having only ever read his poem “Digging” (and his translation of Beowulf which I was currently reading for my Old English course), and being rather nervous to talk to a literary legend, I settled on the lame question, “What is your favorite poem?”  My turn approached and I set my copy of Beowulf in front of him to sign.
            “Hello, my dear,” Mr. Heaney said.
            “Hello, Mr. Heaney,” I said, and blurted my question.
            Mr. Heaney lifted his head halfway through signing my copy, looked directly at me, at burst into laughter.  I had not expected this reaction to say the least.  Perhaps a moment of pause followed by a few names of poems or a bored expression to a question heard a hundred times, but not this.  His laughter, having attracted the attention of everyone in the room, subsided slowly, though he remained smiling at me when he said:
            “Define comedy!”
            I got it then, what he found so funny.  It was my turn to laugh.
            A joke or scenario I find hilarious may fall flat with a friend or may even seem boring to me after a time whether because of its repetition or my own evolving sense of humor.  Just like an evolving funny bone, our appreciation of various works of art changes over time as we gain new experiences that alter (for better or worse) our understanding of ourselves and of the world.  For that matter, how can you pick a favorite poem particularly when you, yourself, are a poet, constantly evolving as a reader and a writer and a person in general?  I know many people and many writers have favorite poems, favorite books, favorite movies, etc.  But often favorites change.  All these thoughts – more crudely developed at the time – flashed through my brain as I processed Mr. Heaney’s challenge.
            As Sir Philip Sidney wrote in what is arguably the first work of English literary criticism, An Apologie for Poetrie, “Comedy is an imitation of the common errors of our life.”  I wish to high heaven I had read An Apologie at that stage in my education and could have pulled this quotation out of my brain; but even if I had, Mr. Heaney’s challenge was largely rhetorical, meant to teach rather than test me.  Instead I said:
            “Apparently comedy is asking a poet to name his favorite poem!”
            Mr. Heaney chuckled, his eyes kind and patient, not rushing me along to the next student.  He finished signing my copy of Beowulf and beckoned for me to lean down to him.  I did.
            “I know a great knock knock joke,” he said quietly.
            “Oh, OK,” I said.
            “You start, my dear.”
            “OK.”  I was confused.  “Knock knock.”
            “Who’s there?” he said, and burst into laughter again.  I joined him.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Considering the "Minor" Poets

I found myself thinking the other day about what we do at Foothill, as editors, and what the majority of us do in the classroom, and in our research, as students: we strive to select the best, the most notable, the finest of the literary arts (in case you didn't know, at Foothill, many of us are involved directly in the Claremont Graduate University English program). I also found trying to name the top ten poets we read and study so regularly.

Now, this game is one that must be played, of course, without personal interest or in light of the love affair one has with a certain writer. In short, to pick the "major" poets we consider their ouvre, and their output, but also the impact they have on world at large, and other writers, in particular. It's not a tough game to play... think hard: 20th Century? Bet you already have three or four in mind; let me guess them: T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens. Am I right? I mean, come on, these guys are the biggies --they exerted more influence over the writing and writers of two continents than should have been humanly possible. Their very existence as writers enriches the world of poetry; these are the greats of high modernism, who (like them or not) influenced every English-speaking writer who came after them, really. And, if perhaps, you're a kindred soul to mine and looked slightly away from major colonial powers for your 20th Century writer, you may have come up with Seamus Heaney, or even W.B. Yeats, both Irish, and to a regrettable degree, both English speakers (nope, sorry folks, Yeats wasn't quite as "Celtic" as he made himself out to be). And these guys, as well, deserve quite a bit of credit, both holding Nobel Prizes for Literature, and writing extensive amounts of poetry. Additionally, both Heaney and Yeats worked diligently to further the prospects of peace in their native Ireland. Still, if those two might not have been on your mind when you joined the game, what about these three: Milton, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, poetic and literary lions each in their own rights. Or perhaps Dickinson or Bishop. These are the great poets, the mammoth voices dictated by the Canon, aren't they? Admit it, no English program or poetry course worth much of anything ignores these writers.

But what about the "Minor" poets? Now, this is a much more fun variation of the game, in my mind... it allows us to consider the poets on their own merits, rather than simply based upon output, publication power, popularity in the academy, or prizes received. In fact, some of the finest poets out there have few, if any awards to their names, or only published a slim, single volume. Some of these poets have been scorned by the Canon, and the Canonizers. And while critic Terry Eagleton reminds us in Literary Theory that the style and makeup of the Canon can and most likely will change, with some falling out of favor and some rising a bit, I find it doubtful that its changes will be so fickle as to unseat these ten, or others we often study.

For me, some names come to mind immediately, and for very clear reasons: Gerard Manley Hokins, S.J., Patrick Kavanagh, E.E. Cummings, and Mary Oliver. Night after night, and day by day, I find myself turning and returning to the pages of these poets' work. From Hopkins, who wrote in secret, and without much real recourse to publishing (he was, after all, a Jesuit priest and teacher, not a literary figure in a major metropolis), I have learned much about the music of language, and the way works can play with one another in a line. For example, in "Pied Beauty," Hopkins writes:

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Now, beyond its purely aesthetic interplay, with consonance and assonance at work, Hopkins also pushed the envelope of meter and rhythm. In fact, he employs a technique he called "sprung rhythm," in which the stress and inflection of everyday speech was imitated, often with a spring, that is, an intial stress upon the line. For Hopkins, sprung rhythm forced the language out in such a natural and powerful way that it allowed him to emphasize what he called the "inscape" or "instress" of both words and situations. In this way, as the poem above demonstrates, the words literally trip over themselves on their way onto the page; I mean, try saying "With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim" five times fast! in considering the impact of his stresses with regard to the ideas he wished to stress, Hopkins provided a verbal-visual map for any writer looking to see just how to pull out all the stops in creating an emotionally charged line.

From Patrick Kavanagh, a poet few outside of Irish Studies have heard of, only one slim volume is still in print, Collected Poems. In it, Kavanagh's genius shines through. His is a poetry of incisive wit, and strongly held beliefs. Kavanagh's uniquely Irish brand of confessionalism taught me not only the charm of words, but the necessity of choosing the right word for the occasion. I could tell you in my words bits of his biography, and how he lived his life, but he, like American poet Robert Lowell (the first confessional poet), does it better himself. "The Hospital," by Patrick Kavanagh:

A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row
Plain concrete, wash basins - an art lover's woe,
Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored.
But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
The common and banal her heat can know.
The corridor led to a stairway and below
Was the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard.

This is what love does to things: the Rialto Bridge,
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love's mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.
Utilizing the sonnet form, Kavanagh's reflections on the situation of being gravely ill provide for readers a brilliant array of language, and appropriate language, at that: functional, cubicles, woe, inexhaustible adventure, the love-act and its pledge --all leading up to his brilliant final two lines... a sort of credo, built out of exhaustion, blandness, sorrow, and pain. Like many poets, Kavanagh manages to take us to the depths of despair, but transmutes it, and very nearly into an instruction for his readers. In fact, yes, the inclusion of the reader, the "we" in this injunction is where the poem's power resides; in Kavanagh, I came to realize, the job of the poet is to share the experience with the reader. That is, truly share the experience with the reader; this simple transition from the isolated, scared, tired, first-person "I" to the encouraged, energized instruction to the communal "we" allows Kavanagh to achieve this.

Cummings, to be honest, I could go on all day about. And while he is written off far too often as that guy with the weird spacing, or the nonsense rhyming, or as the visual poet but nothing more, I think this sells him short. He is, as many know him, the poet of love and Spring, and death, and eroticism; but how does he manage to make these aspects so brilliantly present in his poetry? For Cummings, lines, spacing, and breath become everything: even and especially when he deconstructs them. He was, in essence, rebelling against the great high modernists I mentioned above, seeking a swifter, clearer line to the reader: not through involuted phrasing, nor by way of complicated form (although he did use form, intermittently and to great success), but through the way the words both looked and sounded. The transition from page to voice in Cummings should be near immediate, I believe. Where he wants his reader to slow down and contemplate, things break, either lines or spacing, and where he wants the reader to feel a forceful impact, a quickening, the line also provides this cue. As we read in "Buffalo Bill's":

Buffalo Bill 's
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

First of all, please forgive me if this doesn't quite line up exactly as a printed edition of the poem might. I did my best, but Cummings' typography being what it was, it is a challenge to recreate. What we find in this work, however, is that the words do exactly, or very nearly, on the page, what he wants them to do in the reader's mouth --and thereby simulate reality, additionally. The subject of the poem, Buffalo Bill is, of course, dead, both at the time Cummings writes the work, and in the poem itself; thus, he is set apart, on his own line. The situation (his death) being finished, Cummings includes the verb ['s] with the subject, for there is no separating the subject from its action. Fittingly, defunct falls on the next line, also alone; both are, verbally and visually, dead-stops in the line, followed by more white space than a page generally gets in poetry, reinforcing their finality and isolation. Continuing on, Cummings elaborated on Bill's former life occupations: riding, shooting, etc. The way these are laid out on the page, however, are uniquely Cummings: the fused words (that no poet before nor since has used with such ruthless perfection) demonstrate not only Bill's action, but also his skill, and most importantly, the speed with which they happen. To read this out loud is to pull the trigger repeatedly upon the words at hand; they are rapid-fire, at the very least. They embody the very actions of which they speak, and demonstrate it, to the extent possible, on the page. (Here, I have to stop, and take a breath, as I usually have to at this point when reading the poem: they stun me, they blind me, they take me out of myself and, verbally, visually, and aurally, they stop me in my tracks with the burst of energy and image they express --this is why I love poetry, folks! This is why I love Cummings!). Finally, having caught my breath, I return to the poem only to have it taken away again with a single, off-set epithet, "Jesus," followed on the next line by its accompanying praise of Bill's looks. Can you hear it? Can you just hear someone, perhaps an old-timer admiring another old-timer in that way that only they have, in their secret, awed admiration, delivering this line? If you can't, I can only suggest that you stop, go back, and read it again. The moment is equivalent to a Shakespearean "O," a Dickinsonian dash, or, yes, Hopkins' mid-line "Ah!" in God's Grandeur. (I'll admit it: I shiver every single time I read it.) As poetry should, Cummings takes this opportunity to comment upon the situation, however, it is again, thrillingly unique. Personifying and apostrophizing Death, Cummings asks, essentially, if Death admires the man as much as he did. Cummings uses what is for him code for honorable, upright, strong, and brave in querying Death about Bill: the blueeyed boy. Sometimes in Cummings this will include blond, or gold, but inevitably, blue-eyed is the catch-all for good in Cummings. It is always of interest to me that this whip-snap, lightning fast poet can, in this poem, slow down so much when he asks the question. There is white space all around, and the question is even removed from the actions listed above by being placed in its own stanza. (By the way, what did folks think about that watersmooth-silver stallion? Wow! What a horse that must have been... worthy only of the blueeyed boy, right?) See, what I learn from Cummings is the oragnic-ness of the line. That the line, and the language of a poem should do exactly what they talk about. Cummings is teacher par excellence of form (however modern and "fractured") living out function.

Whew! Don't worry, friends, I'm only going to bother you with one more "Minor" poet tonight: Mary Oliver, the lady herself. Again, often dismissed in my conversations with instructors, and writers, and even poets... let's not forget, folks, Mary Oliver had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pulitzer, and a National Book Award, among her several prizes! Regardless of all that, it can be easy to feel that Oliver is a one-trick-pony as they say, or endlessly repetitive, lacking much originality. I mean, really? How much Nature can one person share before things become stale, right? Pack it all into 30-some volumes of verse, and add in three books on prosody and other poets, and it's all been said, right? I will say, no. While it may look the same at a cursory glance, therein lies the problem: the way we read. I hesitate to to say "today," because I do like to think of myself as young and hip and such (yes, I have been known to read -even poetry- in digital format, though I prefer books, truth be told), but honestly, friends: as the new Century progresses, bit-by-bit, reading is becoming a lost art. It's often on-the-fly, quick little chunks in between work, and commute, workout and dinner out; not to mention our dvr's, On Demand, Netflix, and Apple TV's. Reading is becoming a lost art. Oliver's poetry has taught me, time and again, that its value lies in contemplation, and in surprise. To really read Oliver and be open to her is to give one's-self over to the simple joys that she can share in considering a leaf, a bear, the glow of a star, and every human person's place in the universe. Still, 30 books, isn't it tiresome? I discovered Oliver, thankfully, to the benefit of my soul and my psyche, in a chapel in Seattle on September 12th, 2001. Needing a bit of soothing, something to ground me, and a way to access something outside myself in those dark, painful days after the attacks, I followed up on the scrap of paper the Jesuit had left in the church, and purchased Oliver's New and Selected Poems, Volume I. It saw me through. It still sees me though. And two and half years ago, about seven years after I had discovered and begun reading her, my mother sent me Evidence, her 2009 volume. While thrilled at new poetry to digest, I had a bit of the contemporary non-contemplative attitude in me as I opened the book and thought, Can she really keep doing this? Will it work? The answer, as I'm sure you have gathered, is yes. She can and she does. Mary Oliver, in the grandeur of explaining the simplest sublime feeds us, nurtures us, and points us to our better selves. Having said all of this in praise of her writing, I probably should have let her poetry simply do its work, and shared that with you, as I will now. The first piece I offer you is the first poem of Oliver's I ever read, the second, merely one I find lovely, as it is, and the third, the poem that, 17 years after my introduction to her, makes me answer yes, she can still do it.

"Roses, Late Summer"
What happens
to the leaves after
they turn red and golden and fall
away? What happens

to the singing birds
when they can't sing
any longer? What happens
to their quick wings?

Do you think there is any
personal heaven
for any of us?
Do you think anyone,

the other side of that darkness,
will call to us, meaning us?
Beyond the trees
the foxes keep teaching their children

to live in the valley.
So they never seem to vanish, they are always there
in the blossom of the light
that stands up every morning

in the dark sky.
And over one more set of hills,
along the sea,
the last roses have opened their factories of sweetness

and are giving it back to the world.
If I had another life
I would want to spend it all on some
unstinting happiness.

I would be a fox, or a tree
full of waving branches.
I wouldn't mind being a rose
in a field full of roses.

Fear has not yet occurred to them, nor ambition.
Reason they have not yet thought of.
Neither do they ask how long they must be roses, and then what.
Or any other foolish question.

"Freshen the Flowers, She Said"

So I put them in the sink, for the cool porcelain
was tender,
and took out the tattered and cut each stem
on a slant,
trimmed the black and raggy leaves, and set them all -
roses, delphiniums, daisies, iris, lilies,
and more whose names I don't know, in bright new water -
gave them

a bounce upward at the end to let them take
their own choice of position, the wheels, the spurs,
the little sheds of the buds. It took, to do this,
perhaps fifteen minutes.
Fifteen minutes of music
with nothing playing.


There is the heaven we enter
through institutional grace
and there are the yellow finches bathing and singing
in the lowly puddle.

I could, as I have done above, engage in some explication or exegesis of these poems, but sometimes Billy Collins is right, and we shouldn't take hoses and beat the answer out of the work. More importantly, I think these are poems Mary Oliver means for us to sit with, to contemplate, as she so obviously has.

What fascinates me, then, is the "Minor" poet, the poet who, upon being brought up for study or discussion, or even inclusion in a qualifying exam reading list is discounted, or tossed off as merely worth some note, but not real time. For me, these are the poets we must look to, who we must endeavor to read, especially because they are outsiders and exiles, or are paid too little attention in the Canon and the academy. The combined diversity of their voices, techniques, and styles represent vast riches for the true student of poetry. Thus, I say to you, dear readers and Foothill fans: read! Read to your heart's content, and find the value in these poets few look to; recognize the true worth of their struggle; take as them as your models, these "Minor" poets.

And I challenge you, friends: who are your favorite "Minor" poets? Please, share you answers!

Thanks for reading my thoughts... hope you made it this far, friends! And be sure to watch for the newest issue of Foothill: A Journal of Poetry coming soon!


Brian F. McCabe
Outreach Editor
Foothill: A Journal of Poetry

Saturday, January 28, 2012

In Search of Picabia

Last month I went to see the “Modern Antiquity” exhibit at the Getty Villa.  Visual pairings of pieces by contemporary masters and classical Greek artists/artisans were dusted off for public consumption.  As a poet, I frequently reference visual art pieces and techniques.  My thought pattern is one that generally turns from prosody to visual piece and back.  I have not found myself working from visual art to poet on very many occasions.  Perhaps only for research purposes when I studied Italian art history and sculpture as an undergraduate; I would move from a painting to a poem produced in the same region and time period as a way to culturally contextualize the visual piece.   During my visit, most foot traffic became congested around the Picasso paintings.  But it was the large-scale, dreamlike, myth-scape transparencies, or panels by Francis Picabia (1879-1953) that compelled me to stand in one spot for over 10 minutes.  I wondered where they belonged.  Originally, who did these paintings belong to besides the artist?  Not which museum or collection had loaned them to the Getty, but where were they made to hang?  The size of the panels seemed so deliberate, the order of their hanging so specific, that they functioned as visual stanzas.  I had no idea that Picabia was too a poet when I initially viewed these pieces. 

Thanks to the exhibit curators, I read on a small card that the panels were commissioned by Picabia’s art dealer as a gift to his wife and featured in the “Home” section of Vogue.  If my analysis of the photograph tells an accurate story, these panels were made to be hung in the couple’s bedroom.  Panels by a French Surrealist/Dada painter in Vogue??  In someone’s bedroom??  A quick search on my smart phone resulted in many biographies of the painter and poet.  I wondered how his poetry faired in the commercial market of France during his lifetime.  Had his poetry been translated into English? 

In fact, yes.  Marc Lowenthal translated 2/3 of Picabia’s published poetry and prose for the 2007 collection, I Am a Beautiful Monster.  It should be mentioned that I could not find any other published English translation of Picabia’s prosody.   Reviews of the collection reveal a critical consensus: that prior to Lowenthal’s translation, Picabia’s poetry and prose had been long overlooked by scholars.  A quick search of Marc Lowenthal directed me to Wakefield Press, the independent publishing house he started about 9 years ago in Cambridge, MA.  The press is dedicated to translated works, “overlooked gems, and literary oddities” according to their website.

A drive down PCH to the Getty Villa in Malibu led me to the east-coast based Wakefield Press, where there is a catalogue of intriguing reads. Here, I am bound to discover English translations of several poets I have only read about in brief references to European art movements.

I have just ordered I Am a Beautiful Monster and the exhibit publication for “Modern Antiquity,”  Modern Antiquity: Picasso, de Chirico, Léger, Picabia by Christopher Green and Jens M. Daehner.  I’m waiting for my books to arrive with more questions than I began with at the “Modern Antiquity” exhibition.  I’m on my way to discovering Picabia as a poet, but isn’t Lowenthal too a poet?  By most biographical accounts, Picabia was an inter-genre artist, working with paint, prosody, prose and drawings.  Perhaps Lowenthal has provided this student with a contemporary example of inter-genre artistry: translator of poetry, independent publisher and scholar.  Thanks to Picabia, I have a better idea about how contemporary poets, even translators of poetry, can fuse their variant creative interests.  And, I have started to explore how variant art genres can become fused by the nature of my own curiosity to search for answers. 

Here are links to some of the sites that I explored in the writing of this blog post:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Poetry: The Movie

Poetry is a 2010 South Korean drama by writer/director Lee Chang-dong. The movie is about an elderly Korean woman, Mija, who takes up poetry writing in an attempt to stave off symptoms of her early-onset Alzeimer's disease. Though that sounds depressing enough, the film's two subplots--involving her ne'er-do-well grandson and the stroke patient she takes care of--are even sadder. But to speak further of them would ruin some of the film's bleak surprises.

What was most interesting to me--poetry-wise--was to see a depiction of someone engaging with the act of writing poetry with almost no concern for her audience. Mija wrote only for herself. She was often captivated by the beauty of nature and hoped that expressing that beauty in words would heighten her appreciation of it.

As someone who has also taken poetry classes, the idea of not being concerned with my audience was almost revelatory. I have not only been concerned about my audience--what they will think of my work; whether the will understand it; whether it will resonate with them--I sometimes find myself driven to distraction while writing as I imagine the reception a poem will get.

While I do think considering your audience can be helpful--in moderation--watching Mija write a poem for herself reminded me that poetry need not be created for the benefit of others. Writing poetry can be a way to self-reflect that produces a poem which can--or perhaps should--be appreciated by the author far more than anyone else.

Friday, January 6, 2012

overused words...

It seems most poets and writers have pet peeve words. "John Tottenham says that saying 'awesome' in his presence is like 'waving a crucifix in a vampire's face [,0,2183189.column?track=icymi].'" I could go a lifetime without hearing "ethereal" or self conscious theory terms like "objective correlative" or "slippage." Anyone care to share theirs?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

See More Beauty: Poetry According to Salinger's Glass Family

J.D. Salinger's scorn for academics is well-known. Take, for instance, the dedication that greets the reader of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour – An Introduction: “If there is an amateur reader still left in the world – or anybody who just reads and runs – I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children.” Here at Foothill, we're grad students, and when we go through batches of submissions we do anything but read and run. We read and reread poems, discuss, read again, sit with poems and meditate on them, let our thoughts marinate, and discuss them anew. In spite of this, I like to think that the way we read poems wouldn't generate Salinger's contempt. In fact, I think what we're looking for in our poems is pretty close to what Salinger was looking for.

Salinger made his thoughts on poetry known through the Glasses, the fictional family of child prodigies who peopled his last published works. Seymour, the eldest Glass child, was a poet who left behind 184 unpublished poems that serve as the standard by which his younger siblings come to judge poetry and art in general. We don't really get to read Seymour's poems, but Buddy, Seymour's younger brother and chronicler of the Glass family saga, tries his best to describe them: they “are as unsonorous, as quiet as...a poem should be, but there are intermittent short blasts of euphony...which have the effect on me personally of someone – surely no one completely sober – opening my door, blowing three or four or five unquestionably sweet and expert notes on a cornet into the room, then disappearing.” A poem, Buddy tells us, should be both quiet and loud – it's a subtle and precise craftsmanship that produces the most striking effects; it's an unassuming posture through careful articulation that clears the way for exuberant, drunken feeling and expression. And when a poet manages to do this, to borrow the words of Franny the youngest Glass sibling, he leaves “something beautiful after you get off the page.”

While we may not be the amateur readers for whom Salinger reserved “untellable affection and gratitude,” we are a bit like the Glass children he loved so dearly. We appreciate “terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings” as much as the next, but what we're after is something lasting. We may be discerning and demanding, but we are also truly grateful for each time we witness something beautiful through poetry. And, like Buddy, who believes that Seymour's poems “can be read by anyone, anywhere, even aloud in rather progressive orphanages on stormy nights,” we're convinced that poetry and its beauty are meant to be shared.