Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dear Students...

Dear Students,

By class-time on Wednesday I’d like you to write three paragraphs:  one paragraph each about three poems that you choose from the “sheaf of short poems” handed out on the first day of class.  If you weren’t in class, you can find them at the end of the syllabus, which I’ve uploaded to our D2L site.  The poems you choose should be at least three lines long; I suggest that you stick with poems of 3-12 lines for this first assignment.   Each paragraph should talk about how you can make this particular poem interesting by using one or more of the tools laid out in class and summarized later in this email.  You don’t need to give an exhaustive reading of the poem!  One or two tools per poem is fine, and three to five sentences is plenty for each paragraph. Upload your paragraphs--as a single document, preferably--to the appropriate dropbox folder on D2L.  

Your goals for this assignment are to practice some habits of attention, and to give me a taste of your writing.  I’d love to see you try using each of the four approaches spelled out below at least once; as you’ll discover, they overlap in what they discover, although they’re slightly different in primary focus and emphasis.  

In class we picked some two-line poems and considered how to make them interesting (or, if you prefer, how to find something interesting about them) using analytical tools I’d talked about and put on the board.  As a quick refresher, in case you didn’t write those down, here’s more or less what I put there:

There were three broad categories of inquiry—although in practice they will overlap somewhat:  the poem as contraption (a “machine made out of words”); the poem as a character (a script for you to say); and the poem as responding to or inhabiting in some particular context (a form, a genre, a particular historical moment, a particular publishing venue, like the wall of a men’s room stall, etc.)
There were also four specific things that sophisticated-sounding readers of poetry often say they spot a poem doing:

  1. Playing with language (wordplay, puns, musicality, formal patterns, attention to etymology [the roots of words in Latin or Greek or Anglo-Saxon, etc.] in order to make a thing rather than simply express an idea.
  2. Acting out / What it’s about:  that is, having the language of the poem somehow mimetically “act out” something that the poem talks about:  for example, through a change in form or rhythm or pacing, or through a change in the visual layout of the text (including, as we saw in Reznikoff, from the “stiff lines” of letters l and i to the “blurred” lines of b and d), or in any other way.
  3. Dividing into sections, with the emotional / idea drama of the poem (that is, the changes in mood or idea) playing out as linguistic drama (that is, changes in language or style).  This is different from move #2 in that the change doesn’t have to be acting out something that the poem is about; it’s more a matter of a change at one level of the poem, the mood or idea, triggering or showing up as a change at another level of the poem, that of style.* 
  4. Finally, I talked about how poems can be made interesting by dividing them into sections and spotting repetition and variation between the sections, as well as contrast and change between the sections.  Repetition and variation helps hold poems together, giving them the effect “complete centripetal coherence.”  Another way to think about this is that there are many systems at work in any given poem, with many threads of connection, potentially, between any one part of the poem or any one word in the poem and many others.  (There can be sound threads, meaning threads, word-root threads, level-of-diction threads, tone threads, etc.—lots of them, all at once!)  Tug on any one part of a poem, and another part will probably twitch.  Point out those connections, and you’ve made the poem more interesting, and given yourself some tools to talk about the poem as a contraption, as a character, and even perhaps as a response to some context, too!

*PLEASE NOTE:  I didn’t mention this in class, but as you’ll see in future class discussions, you can often use these “linguistic drama” changes as evidence of some kind of change in the mood or idea or psychological state of the character saying the poem.  Repeated sounds, for example, might be used as evidence that the character is hearkening back to or refusing to let go of some idea that was expressed the first time those sounds came into the poem.  These kinds of claims are very dependent on the specific contexts of individual poems, so we’ll spend some time learning how to make plausible ones and to avoid ones that sound forced or unlikely.   

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Noted Rather Crossly

I settled in to read Khaled Mattawa's Mahmoud Darwish: the Poet's Art and His Nation the other day, but found myself frowning at two small errors in wording early on.

The IDF is the Israel Defense Forces, not the "Israeli Defense Forces" (as they're named on p. 1); likewise the PLO is the Palestine Liberation Organization, not the "Palestinian" one, as the organization is repeatedly called, including in the index.

I'm a little puzzled by these errors.  Did they creep in unnoticed?  Are they deliberate?  (If so, a note would be nice.)  They're not big, substantive mistakes, like the ones that Mark sometimes notices in footnotes, but they do grate on me.  A pity.  More on the book anon.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Short Poems (Arranged by Length)

I've wanted for several years to try arranging the poems in my Reading Poetry course not by period, genre, author, or form, but simply by length.  Haven't gone that far yet, but I am starting this term with a week or two on poems arranged this way, starting with two-line poems and working our way up to a 13-liner, just short of a sonnet.

(I could have started with one-line poems, but I don't know many, and the few I do were...distracting.  They needed too much contextual explanation to be helpful, and they didn't lend themselves to the close-reading techniques I was trying to foster.  Maybe next time.)

Here's the little sheaf of poems I handed out on the first day of class.  More next time on what I've asked my students to do with them.

A Sheaf of Short Poems

Two Line Poems

Anonymous Graffiti from a Bard College Men’s Room, when I was Eight Years Old

Don't switch Dicks in the middle of a screw,
Vote for Nixon in '72.

Max and Emmie’s Rhyme (from Dragon Tales)

I wish, I wish, with all my heart
To fly with dragons in a land apart.

Charles Reznikoff, “April”

The stiff lines of the twigs
Blurred by buds.

Robert Frost, “The Span of Life”

The old dog barks backward without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.

Harryette Mullen, from Trimmings

Night moon star sun down gown.
Night moan stir sin dawn gown.

A.R. Ammons, "Their Sex Life"

One failure on
Top of another

A. R. Ammons, “Weathering”
A day without rain is like
a day without sunshine

Ronald  Johnson “Beam  10” of  ARK

daimon diamond Monad I
Adam Kadmon in the sky


Three Line Poems

Selected Haiku by Issa (Robert Hass, Trans.)

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
    casually.

    New Year’s Day—
everything is in blossom!
    I feel about average.


    The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
    with children.

Emily Dickinson (untitled poem)

In the name of the Bee -
And of the Butterfly -
And of the Breeze - Amen!

Charles Reznikoff (untitled poem)

How shall we mourn you who are killed and wasted,
sure that you would not die with your work unended,
as if the iron scythe in the grass stops for a flower?

Ezra Pound, “Alba”

As cool as the pale wet leaves 
of lily-of-the-valley 
She lay beside me in the dawn.

D.H. Lawrence, “The White Horse”

The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on
and the horse looks at him in silence.
They are so silent, they are in another world.

William Bronk, “Eternity”

Always isn’t at any particular time
so everness is also a neverness.
At times, we are more comfortable with that.

Susan Howe, from Hinge Picture

a king
delight
s in War


Four Line Poems

Robert Herrick, “Upon Prue, His Maid”

In this little urn is laid
Prudence Baldwin, once my maid,
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple violet.

William Blake, “Eternity”

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

Coventry Patmore, "Constancy Rewarded"

I vow'd unvarying faith, and she,
To whom in full I pay that vow,
Rewards me with variety
Which men who change can never know.

“Small Song,” by A. R. Ammons

The reeds give
way to the
wind and give
the wind away

Howard Nemerov, “Happy Hour”

Here, on the way from source to sink,
Between the brewery and the piss,
The pale already golden drink,
The dream, the kindness, the company, and the kiss.


Robert Creeley, “A Step”

Things
            come and go.
Then
         let them.

Ron Padgett, “Poetic License”

This license certifies
That Ron Padgett may tell whatever lies
His heart desires
Until it expires

William Corbett, “July 28” from Columbus Square Notebook

If I abandon poetry
If poetry abandons me
I will be the man who owes
$531 on his gas bill.

Mary-Jo Salter, “Lullaby for a Daughter”

Someday, when the sands of time
invert, may you find perfect rest
as a newborn nurses from
the hourglass of your breast.

Longer Short Poems (Five Lines and Over)

Harvey Shapiro, “Desk”

After my death, my desk,
which is now so cluttered,
will be bare wood, simple and shining,
as I wanted it to be in my life,
as I wanted my life to be.

William Butler Yeats, “A Deep-sworn Vow”

Others because you did not keep         
That deep-sworn vow have been friends of mine;         
Yet always when I look death in the face,         
When I clamber to the heights of sleep,
Or when I grow excited with wine,                
Suddenly I meet your face.

Susan Howe, from Pythagorean Silence
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwe that were wood
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwhen that a wide wood was

In a physical Universe playing with


xxxxxxxxwords


Bark be my limbs my hair be leaf

Bride be my bow my lyre my quiver

Robert  Graves, “She  Tells  Her  Love  While  Half  Asleep”

She tells her love while half asleep, 
              In the dark hours, 
    With half-words whispered low: 
As Earth stirs in her winter sleep 
              And puts out grass and flowers 
      Despite the snow, 
      Despite the falling snow. 

untitled poem by “Archilochos” (“First Sergeant”), Trans. Guy Davenport

Some  Saian  mountaineer
Struts  today  with  my  shield.
I  threw  it  down  by  a  bush  and  ran
When  the  fighting  got  hot.
Life  seemed  somehow  more  precious.
It  was  a  beautiful  shield.
I  know  where  I  can  buy  another
Exactly  like  it,  just  as  round.

Frank O’Hara, “Today”                    
                        
Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! all
the stuff they've always talked about
                      
still makes a poem a surprise!
These things are with us every day
even on beachheads and biers. They
do have meaning. They're strong as rocks.
William Matthews, “A Major Work”

Poems are hard to read
Pictures are hard to see
Music is hard to hear
And people are hard to love

But whether from brute need
Or divine energy
At last mind eye and ear
And the great sloth heart will move.

Lorine Niedecker, “Poet's Work”

Grandfather
    advised me:
            Learn a trade
I learned
    to sit at desk
           and condense
No layoff
    from this
          condensery

Harvey Shapiro, “The Uses of Poetry”

This was a day when I did nothing,
aside from reading the newspaper,
taking both breakfast and lunch by myself
in the kitchen, dozing after lunch
until the middle of the afternoon. Then
I read one poem by Zbigniew Herbert
in which he thanked God for the many beautiful
things in this world, in a voice so absurdly
truthful, the entire wrecked day was redeemed.

James Merrill, “b o d y”

Look closely at the letters.  Can you see,
entering (stage right), then floating full,
then heading off  -  so soon  -
how like a little kohl-rimmed moon
o plots her course from b to d

--as y, unanswered, knocks at the stage door?
Looked at too long, words fail, 
phase out. Ask, now that body shines 
no longer, by what light you learn these lines 
and what the b and d stood for.

Harvey Shapiro, “God Poem”

Nobody does silence as well as God.
He fills whole cathedrals with it,
store-front churches and synagogues.
We once believed in the music of the spheres
but now we hear silence--static and silence.
It can be overwhelming--the way God
was said to be overwhelming in the old books:
when he talked to Job, for example,
or when he instructed Moses on
what plagues to deal out
or when he described to Noah just
what he was going to do, and then did it.
Better to be nourished by the silence.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

In-Between Days

Summer is over, and in many parts of my life, I'm in a strange, transitional period.  My son, who was in 3rd or 4th grade when I started this blog, leaves next week for college.  My beloved rabbi, whom I've known for a dozen years, has resigned his post, and since he was the main reason I'd stayed a member at the synagogue, I'm out the door as well, once his final months are done.  At work, a half-dozen colleagues have left:  five taking early retirement, thanks to a generous buy-out offer, and one leaving for greener pastures in Florida.  (Do they have pastures there?)  This leaves me as a senior member of the English faculty, a role I'm not at all used to--and it comes as I've finally sent off the manuscript of my co-edited collection on Romance Fiction and American Culture, a book five years in the making, and as I've been steered back to teaching more poetry by the departmental Powers that Be.

One way I've coped with all of this change has been to go back and re-read some of the early months of this blog.  Very few of my first few years of posts were about me, at least personally.  I was blogging about poetry, and the teaching of poetry, mostly, with a lot of material that I'd forgotten.  I'll use some of it in my courses this fall, and perhaps post more such material here as well, at least as a repository for my future self.  I feel oddly done with Facebook and Twitter, as the summer ends.  "With what I most enjoyed, contented least," as the sonnet says.  Maybe it's time to go back to the older, slower social media?  We'll see!

A strange time.  In-between days. 

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Lifehacks

The quarter didn't work out quite as planned.  Something about the morning schedule (I've rarely taught morning classes), the course for teachers that was outside my area of expertise (grammar? rhetoric? not my fields), the independent study that expanded into 1.5-3 hours a week of meeting and conversing:  all of those ate into my blogging life, and into my professional life more generally.  I felt overwhelmed all winter, and got much less done--aside from those required teaching jobs--than I'd hoped or planned.

Now that spring has sprung, I'm trying out a few "hacks," as they say, in my everyday schedule, not so much in order to free up time to work as to carve out room to think, and read, and play.

You see, for whatever reason, I found myself spending more and more time this winter caught up in digital media:  reading a handful of political blogs, reading (though not really posting on) Twitter, window shopping at guitar sites, etc.  That was where my downtime went, such as it was--and it's a self-reinforcing habit, such that other modes of relaxation grew less and less natural and immediate.

My goal now is to trim back that digital life, and to fill my time (and my head) with more enjoyable material.  I've deleted the personal Twitter account, @EricSelinger, although I still have the professional one, @JPRStudies.  And I've been editing my Facebook feed to take out the posts that tend to preoccupy me without really adding value or pleasure to my day.  I've also swapped my iPod alarm clock, which woke me to music, for an old fashioned travel alarm--not because I disliked the music (it was quite lovely), but because looking at the screen right before bed to turn on or reset the alarm made it all-too tempting to check email, or Twitter, or Facebook, or YouTube, or any of the other sites right before turning in.

I'm not worrying about bit professional or personal goals at this point--rather, step by tiny step, I want to bring my everyday life a bit closer to the happiest periods I had a few years ago, when I read more books and played more music and didn't worry quite as much about things I was reading on line.  I was also blogging more then, rather than posting on the other social networking sites.  Not sure whether we're talking about a causal relationship, or just a correlation, but it can't hurt to try doing a bit more of that as well.

I've also started doing handstands, but that's a topic for another post.  :)


Saturday, January 11, 2014

Very [Adj.] Start to Year

Like most of my plans for the new year--hopes, more than plans; wishes, more than resolutions--my plan to start posting here again have been on hold.  An assortment of exigencies, from work to bad weather, have gotten in the way.  We're not even two weeks into 2014, though, and I refuse to be discouraged, or at least more discouraged, which is what not writing will do to me.  So here I am, by George, however briefly, taking a minute out of the day to think about what needs to be done.

I got a fair amount done during my research leave.  I wrote three conference papers, each different from the last, along with an 11000-word essay on Susan Elizabeth Phillips's Natural Born Charmer and the first few pages of a new essay on some Jewish American poets.  I did a lot of managerial and administrative work on IASPR and the the Romance area of PCA; I worked a lot on JPRS (next issue coming soon!); with help from colleagues, I landed two book contracts, and brought one of those books, a co-edited collection, nearly to completion.  I played a lot of guitar, and a little mandola.

The most important thing I did, though, was figure out what was going wrong, a few months into the leave.  Week after week went by, in the beginning, without any progress on anything substantive; the days blurred into one another, awash in email; I was sleeping badly; I was down, as I hadn't been in a while.  Blogging then seemed to exacerbate the situation, which is why I stopped.

What helped then, and needs to help now, was some good time management decisions.  I moved everything connected to email to my afternoons, and set the morning aside for research and writing.  After lunch I practiced an instrument, if only for 10 or 15 minutes; after dinner, I did no writing or correspondence; at bedtime, I avoided reading on screens.  Simple moves, each of them, but they changed everything.

My teaching schedule this term won't let me keep that schedule, alas.  I have to be up by 6 at the latest, and on the road early; my first class is at 9:40, and my second follows pretty closely on its heels.  That's two mornings a week accounted for--and I have plenty of prep that I need to do for each class, which also takes up time.  I'm getting more and more email, now from students, as well as colleagues, so there's a backlog I'll need to get sorted; I've fallen days or weeks behind on my writing and editing projects; I haven't picked up an instrument in days.  For the past couple of nights I've found myself picking up the iPod right at bedtime to check in on Facebook or scroll plaintively through my inbox, which doesn't help the sleep to follow.

The first task , then, is to figure out a sustainable schedule for the new quarter:  not the same one, but something similar.  Will think about that today.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Just What I Tweeted (Professionally, Natch)

As the summer began, I went off Twitter and Facebook, suspending my accounts.  I've gone back on both, although with Twitter, it's really for professional reasons:  a sense that we needed to have a stronger IASPR / JPRS presence there.

I'm currently posting there from a new Editorial account, with the handle @JPRStudies, and I've signed in to post from @IASPR from time to time as well.

All this on-again, off-again social networking is rather comical, I know.  In fact, I wrote a song about it, delivered by my Alte Rocker compatriot "Flash" (the photographer David Sutton) at last spring's PurimSpiel:




 David's having a little joke by reading the lyrics off of his phone; here they are, for your amusement, too:

Just What I Tweeted - Lyrics © 2013 by Eric Selinger

I make the promise every year--
It's wasting all my time.
I've got to quit the cybersphere,
And get some peace of mind.

But there's a farm to populate
And something new from George Takei
And have you seen this video
Of puppies making wine?

Every time we're on a date,
We're posting while we dine.
I know the food was awfully good,
You told me so, on-line.

You keep a browser in your hand,
Another one on your nightstand,
In case you feel like waking up 
To "like" me in my sleep...

This time I'm gonna defeat it!
You know, I'm feeling so free,
Since my account's been deleted,
But I've got nothing to read...

[solo]

People tell me logging on
Is wasting all their time, time.
I'm bragging I gave it up,
I feel so unconfined, yeah.

But won't you tell me what's the news?
And could you check +972?
I'm pining for my Muzzlewatch,
Or was it Mondoweiss?

This time I nearly suceeded!
I lasted almost a week.
But there's a fix and I need it!
I've got a friend list to weed...

I guess I've just been defeated!
I couldn't stand to secede.
In fact, I'm gonna go tweet it!
I've got a Tumblr to feed—yeah, yeah...

So feed me.

I've just been re-tweeted!
I've just been re-tweeted!
I've just been re-tweeted!
Yeah, yeah, yeah...