Tag Archives: poetics

Answering Jonathan Mayhew

Jonathan over at Bemsha Swing posted a set of questions related to poetics, aimed at poets, I assume, a few days ago. Although I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer these questions, I’m taking a stab at them. By the way, in case you didn’t know, Bemsha Swing is the name of a composition by Thelonius Monk. In Monk’s typical style, it is four minutes and twenty seven seconds of iconoclastic wit and playful rhythm that hides a genius big enough to rewrite the entire face of jazz, both when it first was written and performed, and probably even now.

1. What is your sense of the poetic tradition? How far back does your particular historical sense range? What defines your tradition? Nationality, language, aesthetic posture? What aspect of your poetic idiolect or tradition most distinguishes you from your closest poetic collaborators?

My sense of poetic tradition stretches back, let’s say, to Amergin. Or Beowulf. In the same sense that as a musician, when I record or write a piece of music, I realize that it can (and probably will) be compared to every piece ever written, and that the music consumer has the option to buy my album, or Madonna, or Sir Georg Solti conducting Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Gregorian chants, Limp Bizkit, Public Enemy, etc. In other words, my poetic tradition is one of transmission — and that transmission requires a receiver. Fact is, the receiver has a myriad of choices from Chaucer to Gunn, for example, when wanting to read poetry. Certainly, language defines my tradition, in that I write in English and am not fluent in any other language. My perceptions of poetry not originally in English are limited by their translators and translations. As far as aesthetic posture, I feel I am more or less of the Celtic Bardic tradition. My poetry is supposed work, when it works, at multiple levels. Spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, rhythmically, sonically, politically, universally, and personally. I think the aspect of my “poetic idiolect” that distinguishes it from my poetic collaborators is my emphasis, whether in non-metered or metered speech, on the way the poem sounds when you read it. An oral emphasis, with a basis in recitation and communication of an idea, mood, story or image on at least one of the previously identified levels.

2. How would you define contemporary poetic practice? (Say, the typical poem that would be published alonside one of your in a magazine where you are published.) How does this practice relate to the tradition defined above? Does poetry of the “past” (however you define the past for these purposes) occupy a different corner of your mind?

The kind of poets that work in the tradition I have defined above are very rarely “published”. To me, if I am true to my tradition in the strictest sense, poetry that is not directly shared is like religion, in that it describes a spiritual path that has ended. The kind of poets who slog along with me in this kind of tradition are not typically well-known outside their small circle of influence. They write poems for a specific purpose, for specific people, for specific occasions. To inspire, instruct, entertain. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to be published on a much grander scale, and have a resulting larger influence. But that would mean a lot more work for me, in that the poems I would then be required to write would have to involve the issues of a lot more people.

Regarding poetry of the past, I’m not sure whether I don’t understand the question, or whether it has no meaning to me. As far as I’m concerned, poetry is one of the few direct means by which culture is transmitted from generation to generation, across time — and time does not start or stop. I don’t consider William Carlos Williams to be a more modern poet than William Shakespeare. Both writers reflected, more or less, the aesthetic nature of their times. However, there is a difference between having your writing reflect your times, and having your writing wallow in those times. Just because education is poor in America right now, and that language skills are on the decline, and that less than 10% of Americans read on a daily basis, doesn’t mean that your poetry should be directed at only the majority, and therefore potentially the lowest common denominator. You write for your peers, to a large degree, and depending on who your peers are, that may embrace or reject some or all of either the past, present or future.

3. Whom, among poets you most admire, do you understand least? What is hindering a greater understanding of this poet?

The poets that I most admire are probably, in no particular order, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, e e cummings, William Butler Yeats, Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman. I don’t think I misunderstand any of them in any substantial respect; of course, they each being dead makes direct communication more difficult, and there is nothing more of a hinderance to understanding of a poet than a critical or academic appraisal without the benefit of participation from the subject being criticized or taught. I always have felt that I should admire Ezra Pound, but have found it difficult to do so through his work directly. I am more inspired by his work through others.

4. Are we over-invested in poetic “hero worship”? Is it necessary to have a poetic “pantheon”? How does the poetic pantheon relate to the notion of an academic “canon”? Are they mirror opposites, rivals?

Poets are worshipped? In this day and age? By whom, except by critics and other poets? Don’t make me laugh. There are NOT, to my knowledge, any schoolchildren learning elocution by reciting poetry anymore. Kings no longer take a lower seat when compared to a Bard. Certainly, I think the cult of celebrity that so preoccupies American culture has to some degree affected, or infected, literature in general and poetry in specific. The canonization of Sylvia Plath by scores of angst-filled, proto-feminist teenage girls is one example; the worship of Jim Morrison by would-be hedonist, testosterone-driven, deliberately misunderstood, suburban teenage boys is another. An academic canon is another story altogether. Let’s face it. The poets you read in a classroom are selected because the instructor feels they are important. Bottom line. If you get an instructor that gets it, whatever you think it is, those poets speak to you, your caste, class, aspirations, politics and aesthetics. If not, you end up hating both the teacher and their canon.

I do think it is important to have a personal poetic pantheon, if only to ask yourself the question, “How would X have said this?” and act accordingly (either by imitation or avoidance).

5. Is “total absorption in poetry” benign? How about “poetry as a way of life”?

I’m not sure what this question means. However, I would tend to argue that living your “way of life as poetry” is more benign than living poetry as a way of life. This boils down to one’s own philosophical basis for living. Is there a separation between magic and mundane? Are they connected in any way at all? Is there really a mundane, or is everything magical? Is there really magic, or is everything mundane? How you answer these questions determines whether or not you are totally absorbed in ANYTHING, let alone poetry. I don’t think you CAN be totally absorbed in poetry unless you are immersed, absorbed, drenched, and absolutely soaked in Life. Is that benign? Not to the myriad of corporate and fundamentalist line-drawers who want to avoid, fear, conquer and/or eliminate anything outside their safe, predictable boxes.

6. Do you see poetry as a part of a larger “literature,” or is poetry itself the more capacious categtory?

Both. But that may be a trick answer.

7. Are humor, irony, and wit (in whatever combination) a sine qua non? Or conversely, is humor a defense mechanism that more often than not protects us from what we really want to say?

Humor, irony and wit depend entirely upon a shared perception between the writer and the audience. For example, a poem about a black man putting on a hood and attending a KKK meeting would probably not be ironic to KKK members reading the poem. So much of humor and wit in our modern culture is based on putting others down to make ourselves feel better. In poetry, once the immediacy of an audience that is on the same wavelength as the writer has dissipated, oftentimes that humor loses its meaning. Humor can be both a shield of protection, and the sword that pierces that insulating armor. Quite often, those whose business it is to write, teach and critique poetry take themselves far too seriously, as if, in contrast to the facts, poetry was an integral part of today’s world. Often, the puncturing rapier of a witty rejoinder is enough to “wake up the sleeping consciousness” of another person, a neighborhood, a political party, a nation, a race. Sadly, exchanging humorous barbs with another individual who doesn’t see the value of laughing at one’s self can often result in anger, violence, bloodshed and war.

8. Is the poem the thing, or the larger poetic project?

Personally, I find that each poem is an end in and of itself. Larger “poetic projects” for me come about as a result of finding commonalities between individual poems and recognizing that they provide different perspectives on a shared goal. It might be different if I were writing a specific “set” of poems with the definite goal of publishing them as a book. But I’m not so sure.

9. What is the single most significant thing anyone has ever said about poetry?

Maybe John Cage, in Thirteen Words: I have nothing to say and I am saying it; that is poetry. Or, and I can’t remember the exact source, but I think it was in reference to Wallace Stevens, “Every great poet has had a day job.”

10. Which of these questions asks you to define yourself along lines of division not of your own making, in the most irksome way? How close do these questions come to the way in which you habitually think about poetry? What other question would you add to this list?

I think the only question I might add is “How important is personal contact, or friendship, with other poetic peers to your ability to persist as a poet?”

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Outside the Morphology of Poetics

For about two years, I have immersed myself in the classic forms of Poetry, forcing myself when I write to use common stanza forms with their dictates of rhyme and meter. I felt this was a necessary exercise to “formalize” my training as a poet – after all, one can’t begin except at the beginning. The imposition of form, particularly with respect to the traditional Welsh meters, I felt was essential in determining whether or not I could in fact have qualified as a “bard” in the traditional, Celtic Druid sense.

And I feel that I have achieved a certain degree of success in this endeavor, not the least of which is the creation of roughly a poem a day for two years – some of which have been collected into a manuscript that is currently under consideration for the Walt Whitman award.

It may seem strange that a collection of sonnet forms is what I submitted for this competition, particularly since Walt Whitman himself was a champion of new forms, so to speak, and did not adhere to the sonnet, or any other form, on a regular basis. But the point was that Whitman, although one of my earliest poetic influences, was not the only luminary on my horizon. There have been others who used form that heavily influenced my development, although my real impetus to focus my writing was my discovery (really, at the age of 28) of Henry Miller, who I owe a great debt of consciousness regarding writing, and Allen Ginsberg, whose biography by Barry Miles I am currently reading, and jazz by virtue of attending Berklee College of Music.

My initial attempts were to create my own beat Poetry – and being under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, various hallocinogenics and other mind-altering substances and conversations only served to fuel that fire. It was later, in Memphis, where the drug of choice was coffee, that my real experimentation began – using form as a vehicle for modifying sentence structure, creating new words, stringing thoughts Joyce-like in endless streams of consciousness, playing with the sound of language as integral to its meaning, and so on. And so began the manic creation of reams of paper filled with words. At the time, too, I considered myself a songwriter; so to contrast the freeform, Ornette Coleman style of “free jazz” Poetry, there were structured songs that used, like Willie Nelson is wont to do, ten-dollar words. And the constant abstraction wrought by needing to write regularly, in order to have something to present on a weekly basis at readings, to discuss among fellow poets, and to keep my mind (racing on caffeine) occupied.

Now, I find myself weaned of the frantic pace of living that ultimately deteriorated my health to a degree, and while I still write manically at times, these episodes are more structured. I use smaller words, I discovered the other day; so today I deliberated introduced the word “sinew” into a poem. At times, Robert Frost is like a lighthouse – a clear signal in the storm, and at the same time, a marker at the end of a dangerous shoreline. And Blake. One of my earliest influences, I discover by reading Ginsberg’s biography another parallel to that mystic soul. It’s like my appreciation of David Crosby. Ginsberg, Crosby, Yeats, Dylan, Joyce – with each of them there are aspects of their childhoods, their philosophies, their paths, that are mirrored in my own, but not mirrored or traced, because I had no foreknowledge of their presence on them; more like we sought for Truth using the same instinctual guides.

But back to Poetry. The point of all that is that while my work has been shaped and honed and pointed by form and meter, and these things will always affect, influence and inform my work, that they are merely lines to choose to color within, or blur, or ignore altogether.

BTW, can anyone recommend a good overview of the theoretics of modern Poetry? Besides, say, TS Eliot’s commentaries, or Stevens’ A Necessary Angel?

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Thoughts on Poetry

I extract this comment from a thread on my Poetry at Poetryslamming, not because I want to draw attention to the person who wrote it, but rather because I think that forum is not the place to engage in a debate, at least at this time. The gist of it is that this person thought my Poetry boring – which I thought a valid comment, but wanted clarification, as follows:

Are the poems boring because you are not interested in the subject matter, or because they did not make you interested in the subject matter, or because they simply did not convey their content in a manner that was exciting to you?

Their response was:

Yeah. You got it. Pretty much all three, or some combination thereof. Because it is both short and exemplary of your other two, let’s look at the last poem Rilke.

(Here’s the poem, for reference’s sake):


Where did you find the most inspiration,
as each line cut like a diamond-edged drill
through layers of effluvia that still
the seeking heart? Was it your frustration
with a cold and unfeeling world, that sought
to silence any expression of joy
in the blossoming soul of a young boy
whose only sinful act was being caught
worshipping beauty in ordinary
things? Was it a way to battle against
each day’s regimen of daily dross,
the hardness that can infect one’s very
core and so cheapen the experience
of living that its end is no great loss?

10 AUG 2003

They went on to say:

Number one, the language is flat. Chock full of too many large, grand, vague, general, etc. abstractions:
inspiration, layers, effluvia, heart, frustration, world, sought, silence, expression, joy, soul, beauty, things, battle, hardness, infect, experience, living, loss
These words I find especially boring. They are not specific. They are not interesting. I cannot see them. They are cliche.
As for subject matter, it’s very difficult for me to care what a poem is about when the language is this bland and abstract.
To improve your Poetry, I suggest you try to write about these things (loss, experience, beauty, frustration, joy, etc.) without actually referring to them. For example, in the third stanza,
worshipping beauty in ordinary
instead of saying “ordinary things”, which is vague and abstract and nearly meaningless, why not list a few actual ordinary things? I.e., what ordinary things did the boy worship? Make a list if you want, and if your list is effective, I as the reader will be able to tell they are indeed ordinary without having you tell me. A mental spark will fizzle in my brain and I will think to myself, “Ah! That boys only sin was worshipping ordinary things! How unjust and fucked up.”
That is, it is much easier for me to be interested in, empathize with, care for, not be bored with, etc. a boy who worshipped the beauty of
two yellow monopoly die,
a red ribbon in that girl’s hair,
the frown of a goose,
and the pitcher of water on the stove about to spill
than a boy who worshipped the beauty of “ordinary things.”
And I’d suggest the same thing for each day’s regimen of daily dross. As in, what is the regimen? What is the daily dross against which he battles? Give me examples.
In general, replace every single abstraction in that centered and italicized list of abstractions with a specific image that conveys the meaning of the abstraction.
Once you do that, I think your Poetry will be much less boring to me, regardless of subject matter.

Now, let me start off by saying that Rilke is not in my opinion a great poem. It has its weaknesses, I’ll admit – the first being that it is an immediate visceral response to having read some Rainer Maria Rilke. But it got me thinking about Poetry in general, and here are my thoughts.

First of all, Poetry to me is, as Francis Bacon described painting, “a distillation of images”. Distillation is the process by which the essence of a thing is extracted from its parts. In that process, the defined form and substance of a thing is eradicated to extract something that is, but is not, a concrete representation of a thing. Think of rose oil, distilled from the petals and other flower parts of a rose. Once you have the oil, the rose itself as a defined, separate thing is no more. What you have left is its “essence”, that suggests the original rose, but in no way actually could be used to identify that particular specimen. That abstraction, if you will, is used to suggest, to provide in memory and by association, a quite different thing than if I were to hand you a rose. To me, that abstraction, the large, grand, the vague and general are absolutely ESSENTIAL to Poetry. If a pure, concrete, absolute description is what you are after, what you have is prose, not Poetry. The point of Poetry, to me, is not to provide absolute images that do not require anything of the reader to interpret. To say that a poem must include, like a grocery list, an itemization of “things that are ordinary” so that the reader can say, oh, yes, those are ordinary things, limits the scope of the poem. After all, the point is not that THESE things are ordinary, but rather that each of us, in our own individual lives, considers a widely varied and perhaps unusual set of things to be ordinary versus magical or special. And the daily dross that each of us encounters, that must be swept away in order to find the kernel of meaning in our own lives? It is as different from person to person as one snowflake from another. To put specific examples into words is to dilute, to weaken, the meaning that is required to be provided by the individual reader. The point is, that words such as “inspiration, layers, effluvia, heart, frustration, world, sought, silence, expression, joy, soul, beauty, things, battle, hardness, infect, experience, living, loss” have must have specific meanings to the reader, that may be completely different from that of the poet – and I’m sure are quite different for me than they were for Rilke, who is after all the subject of the poem. To know Rilke’s history is to have an inkling of what “daily dross” or “ordinary” might have meant to him, but that context is only secondary to the meaning that they have for you, the reader. Who has not found something quite ugly, ordinary, mundane or commonplace that when put into the perspective of a day’s events has become a Grail, of sorts? Even if it is unique and magical for only a moment, it is, like in the Little Prince, no longer just any rose, because it has been named, and it is yours.

The bottom line, I guess, is that for me, if a poem doesn’t keep your interest simply because it doesn’t tell you what to feel, how to interpret, or which square inch of the snapshot to focus on, then it is not the fault of the poem. My interpretation is that Poetry is not supposed to do those things — it is about possibilities, not actualities. It is about our potential, rather than our past. The abstract, rather than the concrete. For Poetry is the basis by which culture is defined, inherited and ultimately evolved and transcended. It deals not so much with how things are, their definition and shape, the rigid lines of meaning that describe the box in which our experience is caged, but rather how to bend the bars, blur those lines, and step beyond.

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Optimistic anapestics

When the world
is so full
that it fails
to react
to the tears
of a child,
it has lost
any hope;

and when cries in the night
go unheard and are lost
in the noise of the street,
we have shut out the light.

There is much that we don’t understand,
yet we claim that we know truth from lies.
With our words, we explain many things,
but the truth is that we are not wise.

If you look out your door seeing just friend or foe,
you will find battle lines in each new place you go;
and you’ll fight, wrong or right, without end ’til you die
without knowing real peace or true friendship at all.

Yet a smile will repair many wounds, and may bring back the lost
from the dark, foul abyss where they wander and suffer in pain;
and they may find their sense, and return to their lives once again.
If a small thing like that can restore humankind, do it now.

25 AUG 2003

Continuing the discussion regarding rhythm, here’s my latest exercise result – taking an increasing number of feet with the anapest foot (da da DUM) in progressive stanzas.

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The Width of a Circle

Each thing that starts must have an end;
for every wax there is a wend
that once begun, moves to its finish.
Every birth has bury in it.

Like the moon face cycles through,
and new leaves sprout, then leave the bough,
things initiate and finish,
come to light and then must vanish.

Thus is nature, likewise man:
we rise and fall in a life’s span
and fight against the start of dying –
constantly, ’til we die trying.

In this circle is no starting
or conclusion, loss or parting;
you find neither foot or head
but instead, peace and acceptance.

Each couplet in this poem demonstrates a different rhyme: perfect, near, eye, half, masculine, feminine, end and internal, respectively.

21 AUG 2003

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Iambs and Trochees


the world
to sane,
I will
not fail
to write.

These words, though just
small things, can burst
through walls; there must
be words of peace.

Inside my head the world
is pure, and thoughts, like rain
that falls to earth in spring
can cleanse the hearts of men.

To me, there is no better act
than this: to heal the wounds of hate
by writing of the joys of life
to feed the hungry soul’s delight.

Upon the page these words seem small and weak,
but in their pale disguise they hide a strength
that breaks the bonds of man’s insane desire
and lifts aspiring minds above despair.

How can these words release the world from strife and woe?
With what strange force does language steel our broken hearts?
A glimpse of hope for future times — strong poet stock
that with their arts, seek beauty and forsake the dark.

Perhaps it is just wistful whimsy, still it could yet come to pass
that the bold rhetoric of failure is replaced with song
and some new speech of love and beauty may dethrone the damned
expression of the cynic’s pen, and rule a juster race.


Can you
Hear that

Pound the drum, and
Light the signal
Fires! Tonight we
Fight for freedom!

On the field of valor
we shall triumph over
all that come to meet us.
Can you taste the glory?

Never mind the pain and bleeding
Suck it up and just keep swinging
Listen, if you stop, you’ll hear it —
Celebration for the victors.

Find your rhythm and stick to it bravely
Cowards never taste of life so fully
Just remember all your children growing
They shall take your torch and keep it burning

Don’t cry out, the enemy is drawing nearer
Bite your sword, the metal will revive your spirit
Give me your long knife, I’ll cut your tunic from you
And your family seal, I’ll give to your proud widow

They will toast your deeds there by the hearth fire’s glowing embers
Your young sons will lift aloft your bloody battle armor
History will keep your name alive and in our myths and legends
Longer than the seas are wide, until the mountains crumble.

17 AUG 2003

This week (and for the next few weeks) the emphasis is on rhythm. The exercise was to write a poem using iambic feet, with each successive stanza adding an additional foot (first stanza, monometer, last stanza, heptameter).

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