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.