Question of the day: Poetry: Deep or shallow?
Clarification: no denigration implied by the word “shallow.” On the contrary. By shallow, I mean that the poem’s surface, its’ words, are what they are. The motto for this position might be “A poem means just what it says.” The initial impetus for this might be a paraphrase of Nietzsche: “Poems are considered deep - why? Because one can never discover any bottom to them. Poems are not even shallow.” Truth is surface. Your face is who you are, not the skull. All skull look about the same, compared to faces.
Clarification 2: Nor should it be assumed that poetry as deep is superior to poetry as surface. When the Russian symbolist movement tired itself out, every image stood in for some abstract concept. The Acmeists rightly rebelled against this, the Symbolist “mysticism” where the obscure becomes the vague, which becomes the bland. The Acmeists sought to “re-surface” poetry, recover precision, clarity. “The rose has once more become beautiful in and of itself.” “No ideas but in things.” “To the things themselves.”
“Shallow” and “deep” are here used as descriptors, not of aesthetic quality (we’re not there yet(and whatever that is)), but as parts of definitions, locations of where poetry dwells. It may turn out that neither depth, nor surface is where poetry essentially is. In which case we will have learned that poetry is something that can be found in either place.
The argument for depth would be something like what—I think—Mary Ruefle said: A poem is always about something else.
Or is this all nonsense? And it's just a matter of whether--*sigh*--you are in or out. WHATEVER *THAT* MEANS.
Question of the day # 2:
If you were in attendance at the inauguration or watched via cathode tube, please respond to the following statements:
The feeling of the inauguration could be described as imperial.
The inauguration was full of the praetorian pomp
The inauguration seemed more redolent of Caesar than George Washington.
Elizabeth Alexander's inauguration poem, "Praise Song for the Day," failed to live up to the standard of public, official verse.
Elizabeth Alexander's inauguration poem was a perfect specimen of bureaucratic verse.
The argument of Elizabeth Alexander's inauguration poem was as hard to remember as its language; it dissolved at once into the circumambient solemnity.
Results will be tabulated and used as part of an upcoming study...
Call me naive (because I am), but I have always derived an almost physical pleasure from reading Updike's sentences, even when the book as a whole disappointed. They proved that prose could be at least as well written as poetry.
There’s one Updike poem I’ve been trying to track down for years. It’s a sonnet, and starts with two or three lines, and the rest of the poem is something like this:
That’s not the rhyme scheme, that’s the poem itself. Ha!
Click on the title to read the down low on:
Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you'll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.
Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more of a football type.
Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.
He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.
Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.
Man, has it been a harsh winter, or what?
Do I love *everything* Mary Ruefle writes?
Yes. Yes, I do.
'Of her poem “Glory,” Ruefle writes: “I don’t know what inspires a poem, but ‘Glory’ was informed by a general self-loathing (and its opposite), a gorgeous autumn, and the bit about the psychic is true. I met a wonderful woman living in one of those awful surfing towns on the Australian coast. She was a psychic and wanted to serve me a kind of candy called Violet Crumble, which I was anxious to try because I believed it was made from real violets. But she couldn’t remember where she had hidden it, though she spoke of the events of the next millennium with ease. Later, I found the Violet Crumbles in a drugstore. They were not made out of violets and were regrettable, but that whole glorious afternoon came back to me while I was writing the poem, though not before—I never know what I am going to write about until I write it. I think there’s a certain amount of poetic denial in all my work, in so far as writing poems sometimes appears to be in direct opposition to living, though in fairness I must admit there are times writing poems appears to be intense living indeed. The tension between the two keeps me working hard at both, complicated by a natural laziness.”'
O, flarf, flarfers!
O, flarf out, flarfers!
You who flarf with flarfs, you who flarf it up flarfishly
O, flarf out flarferingly
O, beflarfable flarfterhood - the flarfter of flarfering flarfers!
O, unflarf it outflarfingly, beflarfering flarfists!
Upflarf, enflarf, flarflings, flarflings
O, flarf, flarfers!
O, flarf out, flarfers!
You can read a correctly lineated version of Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem at Mark Doty's blog.
And I recommend reading Reb's post about sniping and kvetching and such.
Spicer, Bolaño and Borges
As with Flaubert or Kafka, literature for [Bolaño and Borges] was not a path to respectability, recognition or personal fulfillment; nor a difficult and perverse means of scaling the social or economic ladder; but rather a martyrdom or a pilgrimage, or a martyred pilgrimage towards complete annulment: the literary nirvana. "The man is nothing, the work is everything!" Flaubert postulated in an exalted letter to his friend, the novelist George Sand. By comparison, in a speech given in Barcelona a year before his death, Bolaño declared, "Literature is an armored machine. It doesn't care about writers. Sometimes it doesn't even realize that they're alive."
-Aura Estrada - Borges, Bolaño and the Return of the Epic
Thoreau on poetic form
Essentially your truest poetic sentence is as free and lawless as a lamb’s bleat. The grammarian is often one who can neither cry nor laugh, yet thinks that he can express human emotions. So the posture-masters tell you how you shall walk,—turning your toes out, perhaps, excessively,—but so the beautiful walkers are not made.
Good poetry seems so simple and natural a thing that when we meet it we wonder that all men are not always poets. Poetry is nothing but healthy speech. Though the speech of the poet goes to the heart of things, yet he is that one especially who speaks civilly to Nature as aand in some sense is the patron of the world. Though more than any he stands in the midst of Nature, yet more than any he can stand aloof from her. The best lines, perhaps, only suggest to me that that man simply saw or heard or felt what seems the commonest fact in my experience.
-Henry David Thoreau, Notebooks
Not sure about the lineation (in some cases, lack of) here--since it's partially dependent on my memory, but here's a transcript from the New York Times of Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem. Comments below.
Praise Song For The Day
Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise.
All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din,
each one of our ancestors on our tongues.
Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky;
A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."
We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."
We need to find a place where we are safe;
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain, that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce,
built brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign;
The figuring it out at kitchen tables.
Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."
Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.
What if the mightiest word is love,
love beyond marital, filial, national.
Love that casts a widening pool of light.
Love with no need to preempt grievance.
In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp –
praise song for walking forward in that light.
Being able to read it, I have to revise my opinion of this poem upwards. It's tighter than I thought, with lots of interlacing. Again, I like the moves towards words as human phenonmena. "We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider." "What if the mightiest word is love..." "...anything can be made, any sentence begun." Reminds a little of Auden's "...it survives/In the valley of its making… it survives,/A way of happening, a mouth."
I apologize for getting the last line wrong as I was liveblogging: "praise song for walking to that light" rather than, as the transcript shows, "praise song for walking forward in that light."
This might be the best inaugural poem yet. Props out to Elizabeth Alexander!
12:27 PM Here it comes: Elizabeth Alexander:
Praise Song for the Day
First Line: Each day we go about our business
Each one of our ancestors on our tongue..
Making music, waiting for a bus, farmer, teacher to students
We walk into that which we cannot yet see
Many have died for this day
(a montage of activities so far)
A segment of the classic "Praise.."
What if the mightiest word is love--back to word reference above
Today's sharp sparkle--Whitman reference?
"Praise song for walking forward to that light" is, I think the last line.
Certainly avoids bombast. I like the brief emphasis on words. Alexander has said that her poems start in language, which is a good statement of how lots of true poetry starts. "Poems are made of words."
Using the Praise song format was a smart move. It has deep ties to African American poems, and particularly women African American poems poets. It's also a fairly safe wrong approach, and provides a format that is not going to get you into trouble. I'm not going to criticize Alexander for this, though. It's most probably not an occasion when big risks are likely to be rewarded. A nice double meaning in the last line. Is "praise" an adjective or a verb? Both!!
Interlude: Nice phrase in the blessing: tanks will be beaten into tractors. The rev. Joseph Lowery. Then a surprising spurt of rhymes at end: Brown will stick around, yellow will be mellow. I salute you, Rev. Lowery! Best moment yet.
Back to the I.P. - Can't help but wish Alexander had been seized by the Muse more, and pulled it off. Not that I would have done anything differently, and would have played it safe myself.
Well, that's it for me, folks, thanks for stopping by and see you soon, here at the Vrzhu Bullets of Love Blog - your blog for live blogging of all inaugural poems since 1998....
12:14 PM: Inaugural Speech continued. Good stuff, but after the opening imagery, straightforward, except for the "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and ....begin again." Misquoting the song lyric.
Mentions non-believers (probably first time ever in an Inaug. Address).
"We will extend a hand, if you are willing to unclench you fist..." Nice constructed metaphor.
Interlude: Just got an automated marketing call about our car's warranty. When will this madness end?
..and I just broke a tooth. I'm not kidding. Distractions, distractions.
Inaugural Speech ends. 12:26 PM