Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Course for Next Quarter

ENG 466:  Modern American Poetry

Personal and political, local and global, difficult and accessible, lyrical and experimental, polished and (ostensibly) improvised, sacred and secular, familiar and estranging:  these are some of the axes with which we can plot the trajectories of modern and postmodern American poetry.  This Winter Quarter, we will explore those trajectories through extensive readings in four contrasting African American poets:  Robert Hayden, Lucille Clifton, Nathaniel Mackey, and Harryette Mullen.  We will situate their work in a range of literary and cultural contexts, including Eliotic and popular modernism, the Black Arts Movement, the New American Poetry (especially the work of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson), Language poetry, and the French group Oulipo.  We will read selections from the authors’ prose (essays, memoirs, fiction, criticism) as well as their verse, and when possible we will explore their on-line audio and video presences through PennSound, the Poetry Foundation, and other archives.

(We'll see how it goes.  Hayden and Clifton I've taught many times before; Mullen not in a decade, maybe; Mackey, never before.  All advice appreciated!)

Monday, September 29, 2014

More Handouts from Class

I'm not sure if this will be useful to anyone, but just in case--here's a handout I distributed today in my Reading Poetry class.  More to come, as they show up in the class.

4-Beat (Tetrameter) Worksheet

In English poetry, tetrameter starts as the prestige meter of the ruling class.  An unrhymed, highly alliterative tetrameter is the meter of Beowolf, Caedmon's Hymn, The Seafarer.  The meter thus carries with it some historical associations of archaic or primitive poetry, and of heroic and manly struggle.  Later poets who want to trigger those associations in the minds of their readers will often use the four-beat line, especially in that unrhymed way.

After Norman Conquest, the language of the Court & upper classes is French, not Old English.  The tetrameter line survives and still flourishes, mostly with rhyme added in, as the dominant form of popular or oral poetry, as in magic spells or charms or incantations (“Double, double, boil and bubble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble…”), nursery rhymes, hymns, ballads, folk songs, pop-songs, old-school rap, etc., as well as in later literary verse that wants to conjure up these associations, for straightforward or ironic reasons.

In both its Old English and popular varieties, tetrameter is a "strong-stress" meter.  That means, the poet generally counts the number of stresses per line, not the total number of syllables; it’s often hard to talk about metrical “feet” when we’re reading tetrameter verse. 

Frequently it falls into the 4 x 4 pattern, with four line stanzas marked by end-rhymes.  Another common variant is the 4-3-4-3 stanza with a "virtual beat" (that is, a little pause) at the end of the shorter lines.  This version was once so common that it earned the name “common meter.

Tetrameter is a powerful meter, which tends to overpower or shape the language you use, turning it into a hypnotic chant or sing-song rhythm, even if this means that you’re not putting an accent onto a word that carries meaning.  It is much more powerful in this way than pentameter (five-meter), which can sound more conversational and less chant-like.  Pentameter becomes the prestige meter for English poetry during the Renaissance. 

Scan as Four-Beat (Tetrameter) Lines, marking four heavily accented (“stressed”) syllables in each line.

Dr. Seuss

The sun did not shine.  It was too wet to play.

So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day.

I sat there with Sally.  We sat there, we two,

And I said, “How I wish we had something to do!”

Too wet to go out and too cold to play ball,

So we sat in the house.  We did nothing at all.

And so all we could do was to sit, sit, sit, sit.

And we did not like it.  Not one little bit.


"That Sam-I-Am! That Sam-I-Am!

I do not like that Sam-I-Am!”

"Do you like green eggs and ham?"

"I do not like them, Sam-I-Am."

"Would you like them here or there?"

"Would you like them in a house?

Would you like them with a mouse?"

"Would you like them in a box?

Would you like them with a fox?"

Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes

Star light, star bright

First star I see tonight

I wish I may, I wish I might

Have the wish I wish tonight

Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again 

Hymn / Ballad / Song Stanzas  (4/3/4/3 and other common variations)

Just sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale,

The tale of a fateful trip (X)

That started from this tropic port

Aboard this tiny ship. (X)

Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now I’m found

Was blind, but now I see.

From LOTR: Return of the King

Riders of Rohan!  Oaths you have taken--

Arise, Arise, Riders of Theoden!

Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered.

A sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises!

Ride to ruin and the world’s ending—

From Beowulf

Cunningly creeping,     a spectral stalker
slunk through the night.     The spearmen were sleeping
who ought to have held     the high-horned house,
all except one,     for the Lord's will
now became known:     no more would the murderer
drag under darkness     whomever he wished.
Wrath was wakeful,     watching in hatred;
hot-hearted Beowulf     was bent upon battle.

Here is a recent poem by Annie Finch, a contemporary formalist poet.  What features of this poem can you connect with features of Old English poetics, both in terms of sound and in terms of naming and renaming?   What features are more typical of later medieval poetry, either in terms of sound or of other kinds of language use?

Annie Finch, “A Blessing on the Poets”

Patient earth-digger, impatient fire-maker,

Hungry word-taker and roving sound-lover,

Sharer and saver, muser and acher,

You who are open to hide or uncover,

Time-keeper and hater, wake-sleeper, sleep-waker;

May language's language, the silence that lies

Under each word, move you over and over,

Turning you, wondering, back to surprise.

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

    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
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”

            come and go.
         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


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”

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

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.