Saturday, December 29, 2007

Kind Words and Questions

Sweet words this morning from Mark, mon semblable, mon frere, concerning my burst of mid-life, mid-career angst. "I've always felt like Jack Lemmon to his Tony Curtis," says he; that would be me on the left, then, the brunette. For the record, I've always thought of Mark as the real scholar in our little fellowship: the one who's done the legwork, mulled things over, and who therefore speaks with authority. I'm good for a flip word, a sprightly opinion, and every now and then a valiant effort, but I"m as often comic relief as intellectual protagonist. Pippin to his Frodo, say, or Buffy to his Giles.

So here's a question for you readers: one I'll be considering as I schlep to the aquarium store and supermarket with my kids (ah, life). What is it we want to learn--or want our students to learn--from poetry? What do we hope for poetry to teach? I started a list this morning, but it got wobbly and general pretty quickly. Maybe you can help?

We want poetry to teach our students how to attend to and rejoice in language: all the things that language can do, which ripple out far beyond narrative, expository, and persuasive prose.

We want poetry to teach something about heritage, and something about encountering the Other. (What does that mean? No time to reflect--just get it out for comment.)

We want poetry to teach things worth knowing: literary things, historical things, religious things, scientific things, what else? Any way to categorize these? Does the heritage / otherness material simply fall into this category, too?

All of this preparation for the next NEH grant application, if that helps...

Monday, December 17, 2007

Work Worth Doing

What's worth doing, in the poetry biz, or in my career more generally?

My friend Mark has just published an honest-to-God literary biography: that one to the right of the screen, The Poem of a Life: a Biography of Louis Zukofksy. Now friends, that's work worth doing: a project you can hang your hat on, as some bad country song might say. Here's what Mark wrote for the jacket copy, "Zukofsky was a protégé of Ezra Pound's, an artistic collaborator and close friend of William Carlos Williams's, and the leader of a whole school of 1930s avant-garde poets, the Objectivists. Later in life he was close friends with such younger writers as Robert Creeley, Paul Metcalf, Robert Duncan, Jonathan Williams, and Guy Davenport. His work spans the divide from modernism to postmodernism, and his later writings have proved an inspiration to whole new generations of innovative poets."

All true--but just as important, Zukofsky is one of those poets who has needed a level-headed, articulate, and whip-smart advocate, someone to make the case for him to readers who're not already convinced of his worth. In Mark, he has one: a blessing for the both of them. I've needed this book for a decade, and now I have it; Zukofsky is about to enter the building, or at least my syllabi.

Watching Mark write this, though, I've often stopped to wonder: what the hell am I up to? Where's my Louis Zukofsky, my Tenzing Norgay, my John Wayne, my prairie son? Where's the poet, the poem, the project worth doing for me?

Years ago I wrote academic essays, a lot of them, published in scholarly journals. Contemporary Literature, Postmodern Culture, Arizona Quarterly: I had my venues, and I had my reasons, most of them strictly professional. (If I had to write an essay for a graduate class, why not get it published? Efficient use of time, good for my CV, maybe help me get a job or, later, tenure.) I stand behind a handful of those pieces. Others, frankly, embarrass me. I'll leave it to you to guess which.

After that I started writing for Parnassus: Poetry in Review. The brilliant editor there, Herb Leibowitz, taught me how to write lively prose again, after graduate school. More important, he gave me the chance to write about a crazy range of topics: Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, Hayden Carruth, Performance Poets, Muriel Rukeyser, most recently a big overview of Chicano, Nuyorican, and other Latino poetries. (Next up, Taha Muhammad Ali and Mahmood Darwish!) I worked harder on any one of those pieces than I did on any one of my peer-reviewed essays, and I'm proud of all of them--but none has led yet to a book, and they don't really add up to one, either.

When I hit 35, I took a self-imposed five year break from writing. Instead, I decided to work directly with teachers of poetry. Four grants from the NEH so far: three to lead summer seminars, and one for a year-long series of workshops. A joy to teach, every one of them--but looking back? Strangely unsatisfying. I know, on an intellectual level, that each of those teachers does a better job with poetry now than he or she did before working with me. That makes, what, 60 teachers, times 30 students a year...1800 K-12 students every year who are getting a better poetry education thanks to me. But only a handful of those teachers stays in touch with me, and I don't see that benefit myself, can't spot it on my shelf or in another author's notes. As I career deeper into my 40s--45 is heading for me at an alarming clip!--I want something more. Not to leave the teachers behind, but to write again, too.

Since coming off that hiatus, I've published two pieces in Parnassus: one on Muriel Rukeyser and one on novels about poets. I could start a book on either, but neither grabs me as the project to carry me into my fifties. The big Latino poetry piece and the Muhammad Ali / Darwish work in progress? Essays, the both of them, that only work as essays, trials and tests, exploratory work. I don't have the chops, or the ganas, to pull off either at any greater length.

Lawrence Joseph? A piece underway on his work, which I've known rather casually since my days in Detroit, back in high school. The more I read it, the more I like it--but for a book? Jewish poets or poetics? Last fall I finished a 38 page piece on Jewish argument poems, or argument poems by Jews; the section on Norman Finkelstein (the poet, not the political scientist, late of DePaul) was a joy to write, as was the short review I did of some essays by Michael Heller. A book in there, somewhere? A follow-up to the edited collection on Ron Johnson (at the indexer, wrapping up, due out this spring I hope)?

My heart, these days, is with romance fiction--or, at least, it's torn between poetry and golden-tongued romance, with (or without) her serene lute. If I throw myself into romance work entirely, though, what will happen to my poetry scholarship, and my work with teachers? I don't want to give up either, which means I need to come up with new projects on both fronts. Yes, yes, I have some lined up--but again, just essays. I need to think bigger, and not just for the NEH this time. I need a course of study, a specialty, a poet or topic or period that I can call my own. I used to be eclectic; now I'm just aimless.

Help me, somebody! What's worth doing, that I might want to do?

For My Teachers: Some Sappho

One of the teachers in my workshop series, "How to Teach a Poem (and Learn from One, Too)," mentioned that she's teaching Greek mythology in her middle school class these days, and she asked about poetry assignments that she might use.

One idea I suggested in class was to have students pick particular Greek deities and write poems to them modeled on Sappho's "Hymn to Aphrodite," or Fragment 1 (to be more precise) of what's left of her work.

You could give the kids these three translations of the original, and then go through and break them into sections: the invocation of the goddess, the account of how she traveled down from Olympus once before, what she said then, the promise she made once before, and the final request for help, or something like that.

Their assignment: imagine you are an ancient Greek and write a "Hymn to X" (Ares, Poseidon, Artemis, whatever) that draws very specifically on the God or Goddess's iconography, personality, and area of expertise. (Or something like that--anyone have any suggestions to spruce this up a bit?) Four lines stanzas: 3 longer, one short. Any other specifications?

Here are the original poems: three translations of Fragment 1 by Sappho. Below them, if you scroll down, is a YouTube assignment on Sappho herself that shows another way to take this project, if you have the technology handy.

Jim Powell’s translation of Fragment 1

Artfully adorned Aphrodite, deathless
child of Zeus and weaver of wiles I beg you
please don’t hurt me, don’t overcome my spirit,
goddess, with longing,

but come here, if ever at other moments
hearing these words from afar you listened
and responded: leaving your father’s house, all
golden, you came then,

hitching up your chariot: lovely sparrows
drew you quickly over the dark earth, whirling
on fine beating wings from the heights of heaven
down through the sky and

instantly arrived—and then O my blessed
goddess with a smile on your deathless face you
asked me what the mater was this time, what I
called you for this time,

what I now most wanted to happen in my
raving heart: “Whom this time should I persuade to
lead you back again to her love? Who now, oh
Sappho, who wrongs you?

If she flees you now, she will soon pursue you;
If she won’t accept what you give, she’ll give it;
If she doesn’t love you, she’ll love you soon now,
Even unwilling.”

Come to me again, and release me from this
want pas bearing. All that my heart desires to
happen—make it happen. And stand beside me,
goddess, my ally.


Guy Davenport's translation of Fragment 1

Aphrodita dressed in an embroidery of flowers,
Never to die, the daughter of God,
Untangle from longing and perplexities,
O Lady, my heart.

But come down to me, as you came before,
For if ever I cried, and you heard and came,
Come now, of all times, leaving
Your father’s golden house

In that chariot pulled by sparrows reined and bitted,
Swift in their flying, a quick blur aquiver,
Beautiful, high. They drew you across steep air
Down to the black earth;

Fast they came, and you behind them. O
Hilarious heart, your face all laughter,
Asking, What troubles you this time, why again
Do you call me down?

Asking, In your wild heart, who now
Must you have? Who is she that persuasion
Fetch her, enlist her, and put her into bounden love?
Sappho, who does you wrong?

If she balks, I promise, soon she’ll chase,
If she’s turned from gifts, now she’ll give them,
And if she does not love you, she will love,
Helpless, she will love.

Come, then, loose me from cruelties.
Give my tethered heart its full desire.
Fulfill, and come, lock your shield with mine
Throughout the siege.

Anne Carson's translation

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,
child of Zeus,who twist lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains,
O lady, my heart

but come here if ever before
you caught my voice far off
and listening left your father's
golden house and came,

yoking your car. And fine birds brought you,
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky
through midair---

they arrived. But you, O blessed one,
smiled in your deathless face
and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why
(now again) I am calling out

and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O
Sappho, is wronging you?

For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love
even unwilling.

Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
be my ally.

And, as promised, this:

Friday, December 07, 2007

Loveliness, & Longing

This is a film clip, so I'm sure there's a back-story fleshing out the characters and their interaction. I, though, came upon it as a fan of fado, in search of a fix.

How she sings? How he watches? Where he goes, and what he sees? Someone please write that up. Not the film's version--your own.

Or, like me, you can just listen. Madredeus, anyone?

No Eye Contact Here

...but a very funny video. My son, the pianist, was laughing, and he's only 10. Think This is Spinal Tap, but with jazz.


You have no idea, folks, how much it means to me to have gotten some comments recently. Thanks for not giving up on this blog--I haven't, even if I've been a mite overwhelmed this past week / month / year.

Back on the 1st I got this, from Maria Melendez--a wonderful poet whom I'm happy to have discovered recently in two venues: the Very Useful anthology The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry, edited by Francisco Aragon; and then her own fascinating first collection, How Long She'll Last in this World. She's the penultimate poet in my big roundup essay-review of Chicano, Puerto Rican, and a few other poetries con sabor latino, which is due out in the next issue of Parnassus: Poetry in Review. (Look for it on the stands in February, I believe.)

I'll post more about that review in another post. First, here's her comment, based on my little joust with Josh Corey a few days ago.
"The symbol of all Art is the Prism. The goal is unrealism. The method is destructive. To break up the white light of objective realism, into the secret glories which it contains."

Thus spaketh e.e. cummings, whose work I still love, dad gummit.

Although...I do tense up a little around all this talk of destruction and destabilization...where does the ancient tradition of poetry/chants that heal fit in with this brusque language? A notable difference between Corey and Cummings: toppling structures as the desired end, vs. releasing secret glories. Both seem, intellectually, like noble aims, but I have to admit the latter has more gut appeal, for me. OK, so, yes, even Cavafy says half the house must come down, but then again, that leaves half of it standing, and the coming down isn't the goal in itself, the release, the broadened view, is...I suppose this is where my sympathies for avant garde writing lie.

I say this as someone who has loved, and written, many an "epiphanic lyric," although I'm now working to learn what I can through admiring, and taking inspirational cues from, writers who have devoted their efforts to the breaking up of the epiphanic lyric's white light.

(Which breaking, by the way, just as a reminder, can be done without breaking the surface of language to the extent that avant-garde writers are known for. Lyrical content itself can potentially "destabilize hierarchical structures of meaning and feeling" simply by having a speaker from the non-top of the hierarchy.)

I agree, in part, with both Josh Corey's post and your response. Corey's claim is to the potential of avant-garde writing, your point about pedagogy speaks to this potential's realization.

One of poetry's most endearing qualities, to me, is that it needs so much help in the world; readings, thorough discussion in blogs and in reviews and in classrooms, word-of-mouth expressions of that it is most alive only as individuals make it so, I love this weak little puppy.
I love Maria's final metaphor here: poetry as the runt of the literary litter, endearing because it needs our help. Compared to the other metaphors she quotes--poetry as a prism, poetry as a destabilizing force, poetry as the big bad wolf that huffs and puffs and blows half your house down--this homelier version of the art speaks to my own sense that poetry needs my help on a practical, down to earth basis. Maybe that's why I love both poetry and romance fiction. They need me (sniff!)--and you know, genres who need people are the luckiest genres, aren't they, really? (Insert image of Lorne in lounge-wear here.)

Seriously, though, I get tired of the higher-flown romantic and post-romantic Claims for Poetry. Even the cummings, which I hadn't heard before, falters when I compare it to, say, "may i feel, said he."
may i feel said he
(i'll squeal said she
just once said he)
it's fun said she

(may i touch said he
how much said she
a lot said he)
why not said she

(let's go said he
not too far said she
what's too far said he
where you are said she)

may i stay said he
(which way said she
like this said he
if you kiss said she

may i move said he
is it love said she)
if you're willing said he
(but you're killing said she

but it's life said he
but your wife said she
now said he)
ow said she

(tiptop said he
don't stop said she
oh no said he)
go slow said she

(cccome?said he
ummm said she)
you're divine!said he
(you are Mine said she)
Secret glories? Nah. (Although for those of you interested in pedagogy, the final stanza is a hoot. The way male and female students read its second line out loud--let's just say, it differs. No secret as to why.)

Anyway, I like Maria's metaphor, which speaks to why I do what I do, here and elsewhere, and inspires me to do it more. Posts soon on the next set of comments: on Ron Johnson (what's up with the NPF volume? Stay tuned!); and on delicious glances in music videos. And if you're reading, say hello--it means the world to me.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Oh, That's Lovely!

Family in town, so no time yet to respond to Maria Melendez's fine comment the other day.

Here's something lovely to keep you occupied while you (singular?) wait.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Kafka

Teaching The Metamorphosis tonight. Well, not teaching it, exactly: talking about it with adult readers at the Wilmette Public Library, where I am leading discussions for a "Let's Talk About It: Jewish Literature" series sponsored by Nextbook.

My favorite book in the series so far has been S. Y. Ansky's play The Dybbuk, which is utterly wonderful; two books from now we'll do another play, Kushner's Angels in America, which I've taught a half-dozen times and love more the more I read it.

Kafka? Meh. Not a writer I love. I'm too optimistic, too happy, too American (perhaps) to feel that way, although I did my best to love him at 16 and 17. (Never could pull off that broody, angsty thing.) Still, he's not a writer I actively dislike, either, and I am actually rather proud of the take-home questions we handed out last month to prepare for tonight.

I'm off to reread the text itself--not much of the criticism satisfies me just now, so let me pass those questions along and pat myself on the back for posting something today.

Here they are: steal at will!

1) Unlike the first two books in this series, Satan in Goray and The Dybbuk, Kafka’s Metamorphosis does not explicitly deal with Jewish characters or Jewish subjects. What might be gained or lost by reading the book as a Jewish novel? How does it seem different if we read it this way, rather than as a Modernist or Central European text?

2) Readers who approach The Metamorphosis as a Jewish book often refer to one or both of the following passages from Kafka’s letters:

“Most young Jews who began to write German wanted to leave Jewishness behind them, and their fathers approved of this, but vaguely (this vagueness was what was so outrageous to them). But with their posterior legs they were still glued to their fathers' Jewishness and with their waving anterior legs they found no new ground. The ensuing despair became their inspiration. . . . The product of their despair became their inspiration. . . . The product of their despair could not be German literature, though outwardly it seemed to be so. They existed among three impossibilities, which I just happen to call linguistic impossibilities. . . . These are: the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently. One might also add a fourth impossibility, the impossibility of writing. . . .

"The disgusting shame of perennially living under protection. Is it not self-evident that one should leave where one is hated so much? (Zionism or ethnic feeling is not even needed here.) The heroism of staying under these conditions is that of cockroaches in the bathroom one cannot get rid of.”

Do these passages help us understand Gregor Samsa’s transformation? If so, what meanings or implications might we find in the rest of the novel’s plot—especially in its ending?

3) Historian Gershom Scholem once wrote his friend Walter Benjamin that “I advise you to begin any inquiry into Kafka with the Book of Job, or at least with a discussion of the possibility of divine judgment, which I regard as the sole subject of Kafka’s production.” Benjamin took a different view, and wrote that “the most essential point about Kafka is his humor…. I believe someone who tried to see the humorous side of Jewish theology would have the key to Kafka.” Do either of these suggestions help us read The Metamorphosis? Is there any way to understand the book as concerned with divine judgment? Is it theological in a particularly Jewish or humorous way?

4) The Metamorphosis begins with Gregor’s transformation, and ends with a focus on his sister Grete. How does Kafka’s portrayal of Grete compare with Singer’s and Ansky’s treatment of female characters in Satan in Goray and The Dybbuk? Why might the novel end with a focus on her, rather than on her brother?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Catching Up

Classes are done. (All but the grading.)

My conference on "Multilingual Jewish Literature and Multicultural America," down at the U of Chicago, is done. I got to respond to two dear friends, Maeera Shreiber and "Not That" Norman Finkelstein. ("Not that" meaning not the political-science professor late of DePaul University, most recently spotted mourning his martyrdom to big crowds at Princeton. My heart bleeds.)

The copyedited manuscript of Ronald Johnson: Life and Works is now at the indexer. It will come out... I don't know. Soon. Sooner now than before it was off at the indexer, yes?

The galleys of my fat new essay on Latino and Latina poets are corrected and back at Parnassus. Look for it in the next issue, along with Mark Scroggins on Ron Johnson.

I've read Cynthia Ozick's odious The Puttermesser Papers for the December Nextbook discussion group up at the Wilmette Public Library. Next week it's Kafka's Metamorphosis, so I still need to work that up. I'd rather read Kafka's Motorbike, the Greatest Novel of Our Time, but that's another blog post. Question: why does anyone like Cynthia Ozick's work? She's a masterful prose writer, but so what? Puttermesser is as bleak, mean-spirited, and pessimistic as anything I've ever slogged through. I wanted to rinse my mouth out after I read it. I guess that means it's Important Literature. Feh.

I've finished my Institutional Compliance Training workshop. I solemnly swear to comply with my institution. Respect it? A little less, each year: not my colleagues or my students, but my administration. Shrug. Compared to a law firm, DePaul is heaven on earth. Enough kvetching.

Got my first decent night's sleep last night in weeks. "Grant us sleep, thy most precious gift." Oh, wait, that was "grant us peace" we used to say in Temple. Whatever. My dad was always asleep by that point, teaching me a noble lesson. I pass along lessons to my son, too. Last night it was a line from Ishmael Reed: "Son, neo-hoodoo never says no to pork."

My daughter and I sing Avril Lavigne songs together. "I hate it when a guy / doesn't get the door / even though I told him yesterday / and the day before..." "Sk8terboy" is a good song, with pronoun drama to die for. She's just a girl, I'm just an English professor--can I make it any more obvious?


I stumbled over to Josh Corey's website this morning and found a little kvetch from him, or at least a murmur of discontent, over what's been said about him over at the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog, which (unlike dear Cahiers de Corey) I have trouble reading. Here's the young man in his own words:
In her most recent post at Harriet, the Poetry Foundation's blog, Ange Mlinko identifies me as belonging to a coterie of male poet-bloggers who have arrogated to themselves the privilege of deciding "what innovative is." It's interesting to be interpolated as a member of the patriarchy: it feels, and probably is, impersonal to who I actually am and what my real opinions might be (about feminism, for instance). That is, I doubt Ange intends any personal malice. But whether or not I fit the powdered wig she's placing on me, I have no doubt but that she's addressing a real and serious problem of underepresentation of women in a community with supposed egalitarian commitments.

The global frustration expressed by Ange (and by Julianna Spahr and Stephanie Young and others involved in the debate centering on the most recent issue of The Chicago Review) is one I've heard expressed locally by some of the women (and a few of the men) at the few poetry-related gatherings I've attended so far here in Chicago. That is, as far as the poetry scene here goes, it's a boys' town. I see no reason to doubt this assertion. Women are visible here, but the men are more so: a glance at The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, as good an index of the State of the Post-Avant in the City of the Big Shoulders as any, shows me 21 women contributors out of 52 total, or 40 percent. Not exactly parity, is it? A similar, slightly wider disparity manifests when I compare how many of the poets included self-identify as editors, curators, or otherwise having a public platform that goes beyond just writing and teaching: 10 women to 16 men.

It seems self-evident to me that the work of feminism is far from over in any public sphere you'd care to name, including poetry; it's also clear that the avant-garde scene is no better (or worse) than the mainstream one when it comes to the patriarchal structure of power that is the default mode for all of our institutions. I'm talking about the real world relationships between people and the means of production, now—I am persuaded that the actual writing produced by the avant-garde has a greater potential to destabilize hierarchical structures of meaning and feeling than the mainstream epiphanic lyric does. But that only seems to apply to poems—the discourse around poetry, particularly in the reviled comments streams (mine are less populated than some but the number of female commenters seems much smaller than the male population), is masculinist by default when it isn't patently chauvinistic or violent (there's nasty stuff slung in Ron Silliman's comment fields almost every time a female poet is his subject).
Here's what I posted as a comment, in the hope that you'll comment here:
Dear Josh,

You write: "I am persuaded that the actual writing produced by the avant-garde has a greater potential to destabilize hierarchical structures of meaning and feeling than the mainstream epiphanic lyric does."

Here's my question. If the men who do and read this writing haven't been "destabilized" yet enough to change their ways, doesn't that call into question the idea that such work will have this effect? Sweet Virgin in the Fade, if it hasn't had that effect on Ron Silliman, who's made such verse his life, what makes us think it'll have that effect on anyone?

Conversely, I've seen oodles of anecdotal evidence (no empirical studies, mind you) of women's lives being changed, empowered, made better and happier, by reading precisely the least AG writing out there in the marketplace, my beloved popular romance fiction.

There are plenty of ways to defend the avant-garde, but as the years go by, I think the argument from efficacy ("a greater potential to destabilize hierarchical structures of meaning and feeling") gets weaker and weaker.
Here's my question to you, Dear Reader--and by now I think there is only one of you left!

How can anyone over, say, 40 still believe all this nonsense about poetry and politics?

I'm just baffled, Dear Reader. I honestly don't understand how year after year, in the face of overwhelming evidence--the lack of any change in reader's lives or the culture at large or even (evidently) in this little subculture of the avant-garde--how anyone can still cling to this little myth about "destabilization." Even if you've seen change happen in your own classes, with your own students, surely that's the result of the pedagogy and not the poetry.

This isn't an article of faith for me. If you can point me to some evidence, I'd be grateful--although skeptical, yes, just as I am when people point me to the evidence that reading the Bible or the Book of Mormon or the Quran or the Diamond Sutra changes lives. But where is it? And if it ain't there, can't we please just drop this self-regarding, self-aggrandizing, ultimately narcissistic line of defense and find something new to say, for a change?

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Learned on Tuesday that one of my college roommates died alone in his apartment last May, a probable suicide. We hadn't been in touch for over a decade, but still. A shame.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Robert Burns, "A Red, Red Rose"

Stumbled on this just now:

I love teaching Burns, not least because I love to read aloud wi' an accent. (It's not ham acting, it's estrangement--you know, all that Russian Formalist stuff.)

This and this are pleasures too.

For All You Ronald Johnson Fans...

Joe Brainard has discovered the long-lost Elegy for Princess Di by Ron Johnson, my favorite poet!

It's not my favorite poem by Ron, not by a long shot, but the timing couldn't be better, as I spent yesterday morning printing out the galleys of the long-lost (well, long-awaited) Ronald Johnson: Life and Works collection. One more set of galleys to print, and it's off to be indexed.

So, without further ado, the elegy, which Brainard found in "Word of Mouth, this excellent anthology of Gay American Poetry edited by Timothy Liu and published by Talisman House (God bless you, Ed Foster!)" Bear with it--the final stanza works quite well, and I suspect that RJ would have pruned it down to 8 or 12 lines eventually.

August 31st - September 5th
doomed princess
pursued by paparazzi
smashed flashbulbed
into infinity

candle in the wind
buried bright day
all London lines
polite the streets

lie softly, ghost
aghast at the actual
limbs dumb as trees
slippered in lead

round earth no more
would Saturn's rings
each proximity pull
to pale the whole

interred Isle du Lac
but for helicopters
safe in autumn sod
England's green hills

Diana, huntress
brought down herself
relentless chase
turned into marble

Friday, October 19, 2007

On Recitation

Just ran across this, from the scholar and editor Jerome McGann:

As we know, students—most ordinary and intelligent people, for that matter—imagine poems are difficult, full of deep meanings that have to be deciphered. It’s our fault that this dismal and quite mistaken view prevails. We’ve imagined that our proud schools of criticism have more to show us than the poetry itself. Above every poem we "teachers" have inscribed a hellish warning: Abandon hope, all you who enter here.

As Gertrude Stein would say, we've got to begin again at the beginning, which is where poetry always locates itself anyway.


The poem is a musical score written in our mother tongue. Our bodies are the instruments it was made for. Perform:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is. . . . Be thou me, impetuous one.

The poem will obey if you pay attention to what you’re doing. Its mechanisms aren't difficult, even if they are amazingly flexible. They are as natural to us as speaking and singing. We learned them before we knew them, on the banks of the Derwent, in our mother’s or our nurse’s arms.

The basic structure is like a double helix—one strand is linguistic—a syntax and a semantics—the other is prosodic, made of rhythmical and acoustic units (metre and rhyme). We practice to discover their synchrony. The two play off each other, and while every poem permits a personal inflection of its elements, your freedom is constrained. That constraint is telling you to pay attention to what you're doing.

When you set out to perform a poem, you don’t proceed willy-nilly. You try it out and test its possibilities. There will always be multiple possibilities. Eventually, in the act itself, you’ll have to make a performance decision. When you do that you'll have something else to look at and think about. What was good about what you did, what wasn't. And so you can begin again.

As Gertrude Stein says, beginning again and again.

Postlapsarian Note: In my experience, many difficulties of meaning disappear when students begin to construct and perform recitations. Indeed, only then do many other significant difficulties of meaning begin to reveal themselves. (Perhaps in poetry we're always working to find those beginnings.) Recitation compels you to give a specific shape to the text's linguistic and prosodic relations. They can't speak the words until your mouth, your lungs, and—indeed—your whole body understands how to give them articulate shape so that someone else will also understand. It's not hard to do but it does take practice. And you have to pay attention. And the more you do it, the better you get.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Terms for Tones

Often my students enter my class with a very small palette of tone-terms to work with. As a result, they talk about poems as though they were composed in primary colors: happy, sad, angry, sarcastic, and maybe one or two more.

If your students have that problem, they might find this useful: a handy-dandy Tone Vocabulary List. If you spot any missing useful terms, let me know & I'll add them. For an assignment that uses this list--a fully developed "class plan," actually--go here and click on the pdf called "The Tone Map."

Terms for Tones




























































































































































































Thursday, September 27, 2007

"Batter my Heart": The Bet!

Like any sensible poetry teacher, I love to teach John Donne. Donne makes me look smart; all I have to do is paraphrase the poem well and accurately, and the students are impressed--by the poet, but also by me. Just by knowing pretty basic stuff--say, what "dross" is, or an "alloy"--or by navigating through a complex, multiply-figured, multiply-subordinated sentence, I get to come across like some sort of trained professional. What's not to like?

Every now and then, however, teaching Donne gets really fun, because it lets me joust with my colleagues. Last night, for example, I got into a lively debate with P-- over this little number from the Holy Sonnets:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to'another due,
Labor to'admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly'I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me,'untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you'enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Says I to my colleague, those last two verbs are brilliant ("Brilliant!"--as in the Guinness ad) because of the way they take Donne from the violent verbs he starts with into an aesthetic realm, a realm of transport, of delight. To be enthralled doesn't just literally mean to be imprisoned, says I; you can be enthralled by a plot, by an argument, but a poem. To be ravished doesn't mean to be raped (although my students have been taught so); it's a broader, less brutal, more delightful thing. In fact, says I, what Donne wants by the end of the poem is for God to out-Donne him, to do unto the poet what the poet does to us. "Batter my heart" doesn't batter or break us, but it does enthrall and ravish us. Says I.

Says P--, a Renaissance scholar, "I bet those words didn't have those meanings in Donne's time." "You're on," says I, and off we trot to the OED, one dollar hanging in the balance. (Don't scoff: that's four shots of in-house espresso from the Modern Languages department.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the envelope, please:


1. trans. To reduce to the condition of a thrall; to hold in thrall; to enslave, bring into bondage. Now rare in lit. sense.

{alpha}1656 COWLEY Pindar. Odes, Brutus iii, Ingrateful Cæsar who could Rome enthrall. 1659 PEARSON Creed (1839) 512 A ransom is..that which is detained, or given for the releasing of that which is enthralled. 1777 WATSON Philip II (1839) 321 The danger..of being again enthralled by the Spaniards. 1871 B. TAYLOR Faust (1875) I. xxv, I am free! No one shall enthrall me.

{beta}1614 RALEIGH Hist. World I. 39 Those people, which he [the Turk] hath subjected and inthralled. 1636 E. DACRES tr. Machiavel's Disc. Livy II. 495 It is as hard and inthrall a people, that would live free.

2. fig. To ‘enslave’ mentally or morally. Now chiefly, to captivate, hold spellbound, by pleasing qualities.

{alpha}1576 NEWTON tr. Lemnie's Complex. (1633) 170 A man should not give over or enthrall his credit and honour to Harlots. 1590SHAKES. Mids. N. III. i. 142 So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape. 1695 LD. PRESTON Boeth. IV. 177 Vice doth enthral Men's strongest Powers. 1797 MRS. RADCLIFFE Italian xvii, He was inclined to believe that a stratagem had enthralled him. a1839 PRAED Poems (1864) II. 123 And M{em}, in that simple dress, Enthralls us more by studying less. 1878 E. JENKINS Haverholme 136 He was enthralled by the wizard spell of the orator.

{beta}1603 DANIEL Def. Rhime (1717) 12 Seeking to please our Ear, we inthral our Judgment. 1636 HEALEY Theophrast., Impert. Diligence 53 This fellow perswades him not so much to inthrall himselfe to his Physicians directions. c1720 PRIOR Poems (1866) 12 She soothes, but never can inthral my mind. a1803 BEATTIE Hermit (R.), Spring shall return, and a lover bestow And sorrow no longer thy bosom enthrall. 1859KINGSLEY Raleigh Misc. I. 30 The sense of beauty inthralls him at every step. 1876 BANCROFT Hist. U.S. I. xviii. 516 To inthrall his mind by the influences of religion.

Hence en{sm}thralled ppl. a. enthraller, one who enthralls. en{sm}thrallingvbl. n. and ppl. a.

1591 SHAKES. Two Gent. II. iv. 134 Loue hath chas'd sleepe from my enthralled eyes. 1600 HOLLAND Livy II. xxiv. 59 The enthralled debtors..were immediatlie by name enrolled. 1644MILTON Areop. (Arb.) 75 Through our..backwardnes to recover any enthrall'd peece of truth out of the gripe of custom. 1640-4 in Rushw. Hist. Coll. 111 (1692) I. 93 The subjecting and inthralling all Ministers under them. 1669COKAINE Poems 149 Her sweetest mouth..[is] All hearts enthraller. 1797 BURKE Regic. Peace iii. Wks. VIII. 311 With an enthralled world to labour for them. 1820 SCOTT Monast. xiii, Those of the Sucken, or enthralled ground, were liable in penalties. 1871MACDUFF Mem. Patmos xiv. 195 To break loose from the enthralling chains of earth.

Ravish (note meaning 3 a, b, and c)

[a. F. raviss-, lengthened stem of ravir to seize, take away:{em}pop. L. *rap{imac}re, class. L. rap{ebreve}re. Cf. RAVIN1.]

1. a. trans. To seize and carry off (a person); to take by violence, to tear or drag away from (a place or person). Now somewhat rare. {dag}Also, to sweep or carry away; to drag off (to or into a place). Obs.

a1300 Cursor M. 7680 His reners [saul] {th}eder send For to rauis dauid he wend. a1340 HAMPOLE Psalter lxii. 8, I am thi bridde & if {th}ou hill me not {th}e glede will ravishe me. 1422 tr. Secreta Secret., Priv. Priv. 174 The course of the ryuer so stronge and so styfe rane, that the knyght and his hors rauyshith, doune hym bare, and dreynte. 1585 T. WASHINGTON tr. Nicholay's Voy. III. i. 69 [They] by outragious force rauish these most deare infants..from..their fathers and mothers. 1603 B. JONSON Sejanus V. x, Now inhumanely ravish him to Prison! 1624 QUARLES Sion's Elegies iv. 20 Heaven's Anoynted, Their hands have crusht, and ravisht from his Throne. 1655FULLER Ch. Hist. I. v. §20 The British are not so over-fond of St. Patrick, as to ravish him into their Country against his will, and the consent of Time. 1854 SUMNER Speech in Wks. 1895 III. 291 For the mother there is no assurance that her infant child will not be ravished from her breast.

fig. 1513 DOUGLAS Æneis VIII. i. 49 In mynd..Nou heyr, nou there, revist in syndry partis. 1560 J. DAUS tr. Sleidane's Comm. 464b, Many men rauished & toste hither and thither with euery wynde of doctrine.

{dag}b. In pass.: To be carried away from a belief, state, etc. Obs.

1362 LANGL. P. Pl. A. XI. 297 Arn none rathere yrauisshid fro the ri{ygh}t beleue Thanne arn thise grete clerkis. a1400-50 Alexander 4424 {Th}us fra {th}e rote of ri{ygh}twisnes rauyst ere {ygh}e clene. c1425 Found. St. Bartholomew's (E.E.T.S.) 45 In his slepe he was raueshid from his resonable wyttys. 1758 H. WALPOLE Catal. Roy. Authors (1759) I. 157 Ravished from all improvement and reflection at the age of seventeen.

{dag}c. To draw forcibly to (or into) some condition, action, etc. Obs.

1398 TREVISA Barth. De. P.R. II. iv. (1495) bijb/2 Aungels ben..rauysshed to the Innest contemplacion of the loue of god. 1450-1530 Myrr. our Ladye 329 That whyle we know god vysybly, by hym we mote be rauyshed in to the loue of inuysyble thynges. 1574 tr. Marlorat's Apocalips 23 Christes works..might rauish all men to haue them in wonderfull admiration. 1600HOLLAND Livy X. xli. 382 The Romanes were ravished and carried on end to the battaile, with anger, hope, and heate of conflict.

2. a. To carry away (a woman) by force. (Sometimes implying subsequent violation.) Also said fig. of death. ? Obs.

a1300 Cursor M. 7048 Alexandre, in {th}at siquar, {th}at paris hight, raiuist helayn. 1303 R. BRUNNE Handl. Synne 7422 {Th}ay rauys a mayden a{ygh}ens here wyl, And mennys wyuys {th}ey lede awey {th}ertyl. 1387TREVISA Higden (Rolls) I. 171 Iupiter..rauisched Europa, Agenores dou{ygh}ter. c1477 CAXTON Jason 8 They rauisshed the fayr Ypodame out from alle the other ladyes. 1585 T. WASHINGTON tr. Nicholay's Voy. II. iii. 33 It was there..Paris after he had rauished Helene, tooke of her the first frutes of his loue. c1665 MRS. HUTCHINSON Mem. Col. Hutchinson (1846) 49 Death quenched the flame and ravished the young lady from him.

b. To commit rape upon (a woman), to violate. Also absol.

1436 Rolls of Parlt. IV. 498/1 [He] flesshly knewe and ravysshed ye said Isabell. 1560 J. DAUS tr. Sleidane's Comm. 220b, The women and maides that were fled thither for feare, they ravissh every one [L. constuprant]. 1642FULLER Holy & Prof. St. V. xi. 397 Defiling virgins, or ravishing them rather, for consent onely defiles. 1756-7 tr. Keysler's Trav. (1760) II. 159 The Locis Turpitudinis, as it is called, where St. Agnes was in danger of being ravished by two soldiers. 1834 Cycl. Pract. Med. III. 583/1 Ravishing by force any woman-child..or any other woman. 1939 G. B. SHAW Geneva III. 70 Am I to allow him to kill me and ravish my wife and daughters? 1981 Sunday Times (Colour Suppl.) 8 Mar. 104 He ravished and pillaged...left sons to hate him, women to fight over his wealth.

fig. 1664 DRYDEN Rival Ladies II. i, Against her Will fair Julia to possess, Is not t'enjoy but ravish Happiness. 1782 COWPER Table T. 332 May no foes ravish thee [Liberty], and no false friend Betray thee, while professing to defend.

{dag}c. To spoil, corrupt. Obs. rare{em}1.

1593 SHAKES. Lucr. 778 O hateful, vaporous, and foggy Night..With rotten damps ravish the morning air.

3. a. To carry away or remove from earth (esp. to heaven) or from sight. Now rare.

a1300 Cursor M. 18483 We sal be rauist forth a-wai, Sal na man se us fra {th}at dai. 1340 HAMPOLE Pr. Consc. 5050 We..Sal {th}an with {th}am in cloudes be ravyste Up in-to {th}e ayre. c1375 Sc. Leg. Saints x. (Matthew) 210 It hapnyt {th}e kingis son be ded..{th}ai tald {th}e kynge {th}at goddis had rawist hyme. c1450 LYDG. & BURGH Secrees 97 He was Ravysshed Contemplatyff of desir Vp to the hevene lyk a dowe of ffyr. 1513DOUGLAS Æneis I. i. 50 Ganimedes reveist aboue the sky. 1697 DRYDEN Virg. Georg. IV. 719 For ever I am ravish'd from thy sight. 1754 FIELDING Jonathan Wild IV. vii, A very thick mist ravished her from our eyes. 1885-94 R. BRIDGESEros & Psyche Oct. xii, Ravisht to hell by fierce Agesilas, Thou soughtest her on earth and couldst not find.

b. To carry away (esp. to heaven) in mystical sense; to transport in spirit without bodily removal.

c1330 Arth. & Merl. 8915 (Kölbing) This Naciens..Whom se{th}{th}en {th}e holi godes gras Rauist in to {th}e {th}ridde heuen, Where he herd angels steuen. c1400MANDEVILLE (Roxb.) xxvi. 124 {Th}anne {th}ei seyn {th}at he is ravissht in to ano{th}er world. 1482 Monk of Evesham (Arb.) 36 Y was rauyshte in spirite as y laye in the chaptur hows. 1552LYNDESAY Monarche 6076 Quhen Paull wes reuyst, in the spreit, Tyll the thrid Heuin. 1615 G. SANDYS Trav. 56 They haue..naturall idiots, in high veneration; as men rauished in spirit, and taken from themselues, as it were, to the fellowship of Angels. 1644 EVELYNMem. (1857) I. 117 It has some rare statues, as Paul ravished into the third heaven.

c. To transport with the strength of some feeling, to carry away with rapture; to fill with ecstasy or delight; to entrance. Also const. from.

13.. E.E. Allit. P. A. 1087 So was I rauyste wyth glymme pure. 1377LANGL. P. Pl. B. II. 17 Hire arraye me rauysshed, sucche ricchesse saw I neuere. 1484 CAXTON Fables of Alfonce i, The medecyns..sayd that..he was rauysshed by loue. a1533 LD. BERNERS Huon cxliv. 538 She had suche ioye that of a great spase she coude speke no word, she was so rauysshyd. 1586 A. DAY Eng. Secretary (1625) 23 Doth not the learned Cosmographie..rauish vs oftentimes and bring in contempt the pleasures of our owne soyle. 1695BLACKMORE Pr. Arth. II. 316 Ambrosial Juices, sweet Nectarean Wine, Ravish'd their Tast. 1753 HOGARTH Anal. Beauty v. 28 Ravish the eye with the pleasure of the pursuit. 1826 E. IRVING Babylon II. VIII. 282, I have been wrapt in wonder, and ravished with delight, in the study of it. 1873BROWNING Red Cotton Night-Cap Country IV. 135 You ravish men away From puny aches and petty pains.

4. a. To seize and take away as plunder or spoil; to seize upon (a thing) by force or violence; to make a prey of. {dag}Also with away.

c1374 CHAUCER Boeth. IV. pr. v. 102 (Camb. MS.) Shrewes rauysshen medes of vertu and ben in honours and in gret estatis. 1382WYCLIF Nahum ii. 9 Rauyshe {ygh}e syluer, rauyshe {ygh}e gold. 1483 CAXTON Cato Biij, To be wyllyng for to dyspoyle and rauysshe hys neyghbours goodes. 1535 COVERDALE Gen.a1661 FULLERWorthies (1840) II. 104 Some antiquaries are so jealous of their works, as if every hand which toucheth would ravish them. 1731 MEDLEY Kolben's Cape G. Hope l. 66 The Free-booters had used to ravish away their lives and their cattle. 1794 BURKE Sp. agst. W. Hastings Wks. 1826 XV. 430 To steal an iniquitous judgment, which you dare not boldly ravish. xxxvii. 33 A rauyshinge beast hath rauyshed Ioseph.

absol. 1712-14 POPE Rape Lock II. 32 He meditates the way, By force to ravish, or by fraud betray.

fig. c1374 CHAUCER Boeth. III. pr. i. 50 (Camb. MS.) Whan {th}at thow ententyf and stylle rauysshedest my wordes.

{dag}b. To carry, take, pull, or drag away or along in a violent manner without appropriation; to remove by force. Also with away, down. Obs.

c1374 [see RAVISHING ppl. a. 1]. 1398TREVISA Barth. De P.R. VIII. xxii. (Bodl. MS.) lf. 86/1 Aboute {th}e whiche axis alle {th}e swiftenes of {th}e firmament is rauessched and ymeued. 1460-4 Paston Lett. No. 434 II. 81 The gret fray..ravyched my witts and mad me ful hevyly dysposyd. 1535 COVERDALE Prov. i. 12 These are the ways of all soch as be couetous, that one wolde rauysh anothers life. 1620 MELTON Astrolog. 65 His minde was rauished downe the swift torrent of an insolent vanity. 1698 CROWNE Caligula III, Rivers he ravishes, and turns their courses!

c. Const. from, out of, {dag}into, to.

1398 TREVISA Barth. De P.R. XVI. vii. (Bodl. MS.), {Ygh}if {th}ow doste {th}er on [on quicksilver] a scrupil of golde it rauessche{th} into it silfe {th}e li{ygh}tnes {th}erof. c1400 Rom. Rose 5198, I mene not that [love] which makith thee wood,..And ravysshith fro thee all thi witte. 1563 WIN{ygh}IT Wks. (1890) II. 16 We also.. suld reuiss fra it, that mot proffet to the lyfe eternall. 1634 W. TIRWHYT tr. Balzac's Lett.1722DE FOE Col. Jack (1840) 175, not..obliged to ravish my bread out of the mouths of others. 1748 RICHARDSON Clarissa1838 PRESCOTT Ferd. & Is. (1846) I. ii. 135 The crown was ravished from her posterity. 1871 R. ELLIS Catullus lxiv. 5 Fain from Colchian earth her fleece of glory to ravish. (vol. I.) aij, The onely thing hee supposed to possess..was ravished from him. (1811) II. xxxiii. 239 He even struggling hand; and ravished it to his odious mouth.

{dag}d. With double object. Obs.

c1400 Destr. Troy 462 The sight of {th}at semely..rauysshed hir radly {th}e rest of hir sawle. a1500 Sir Beues 3917 (Pynson) Thou haste rauysshed my men theire liffe.

{dag}5. a. To ravage, despoil, plunder. Obs.

1297 R. GLOUC. (Rolls) 4001 {Th}ou..rauissest france & o{th}er londes. a1340 HAMPOLE Psalter ix. 32 He waites {th}at he rauysch {th}e pore. 1388 WYCLIF Isa. xlii. 22 Thilke puple was rauyschid and wasted. c1619 BACON Sp. concerning War w. Spain Rem. (1734) 226 We ravished a principal City of wealth and strength.

{dag}b. To despoil, rob, or deprive (one) of something. Obs.

1362 LANGL. P. Pl. A. IV. 34 And hou he rauischede Rose, Reynaldes lemmon, And Mergrete of hire maydenhod. 1560 J. DAUS tr. Sleidane's Comm. 29b, I am not led rashely on like one that were ravished of his wittes. 1606 G. W[OODCOCKE] Hist. Ivstine VIII. 38 Assailing the brothers..[he] rauisht them both of their kingdomes. 1686 F. SPENCE tr. Varilla's Ho. Medicis 240 As he was..more methodick than Blondus, he ravish'd him of his reputation. a1803 Hughie GrameBallads IV. 13 They may ravish me o' my life, But they canna banish me fro Heaven hie. xiv. in Child

Eccovi! Judge ye! Who gets the coffee next week?