Looting Versailles

Looting Versailles
My first book of poems, just released by Alabaster Leaves Publishing

Friday, December 20, 2013

Viewing great art is falling in love

I don't know that the supposition in my header is true, but it seem rational based on a couple of principles I've accepted, some ideas that I gathered from my experiences.

The first idea, that I've stated here several times, is that great art is the art which captures our imagination. To say that another way, it holds our attention, it's visually catchy. It's infectious.

The second idea is a truth I've become aware of just recently: That the act of giving attention is the (one of the?) essential act(s) of love. As a parent, pet owner, friend, I realize what separates whom I care about from strangers is that I pay attention to their lives, AND it's their attention I want. Often a pet will do something loud - cry, make something fall off a ledge - and when I look I see them looking at me, and I say, "Emma, I see you," as if I know that's what they wanted. For me to see them. And what child does not look to see, while playing a toy drum for example, if their parent is watching them? Or while spinning until they fall, will not peek to see if mother sees them being silly? The child and pet depend on the mature person, and they want to know they're loved by feeling their attention. I'd say adults do this with each other to - having another's attention makes you feel cared about, important to someone other than yourself. We want someone other than ourselves to pay attention to ourselves. Hence Facebook, hence blogs ;)

I think I fall short of arguing adequately for attention being an act, possible the act, of love. But in my experience this seems true. And applying this knowledge to my daily interactions at work and home has strengthened my relationships recently, I think. It's practical. That's why I'm a stickler for empirical knowledge lately.

So if idea one and two are true (they may not be for you - they seem very much so for me), then the act of viewing something that holds your attention (great film, great song, great painting) is sort of like love at first sight, the sensation / feeling of it. And who doesn't say about their favorite anything, "I LOVE that movie / song / etc!"

It seems so obvious, but spelled out like that, it's pretty interesting.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Two Poems up at Mock Turtle Zine

Great journal for local poets here in the Dayton, OH area, run by the inimitable, immaculate M.T. Birdsall. Here is a link:


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Taking Aristotle's Lead

(From an email responding to a fellow poet-friend who commented about the difficulty of finding meaning in a rather incoherent poem of mine recently)


Glad you enjoyed the poems! I've thought more recently about poetry - function, outcome of reading it, meaning... I've come to some heady conclusions that I'm not sure would be embraced by others. I think the important point is I believe art is a chance to manifest the impossible (function) and that the outcome is wonder and finally inspiration, and that inspired feeling let's the reader feel more alive, more perceptive and attuned to his surroundings, and like nothing is impossible. I think art, like other great things, can inspire us to self actualize. The reason autobiographical / nonfiction poetry seems to have meaning is because it does, but only by virtue of life itself having meaning, meaning being some sort of tangible knowledge. But what is knowledge but experience? For me, I procure knowledge from my personal experiences by reflecting and journaling, which I feel others do in lines and call it poetry. Is it not poetry? That's a matter of opinion, but I'd argue what really has power is the impossible, and that writing something possible and probable risks being everyday and boring. The impossible made manifest is never boring. 

I actually teased this idea, inspired by Aristotle, a bit further: 
1) The possible-probable art work has little effect but clear meaning, the way a hug in a poem means love and a mom hugging a daughter can be interpreted as the love between child and parent (interpreters look for the universal in the particular, but to do so from one experience-poem seems risky; my universal-ish ideas of life come from a lifetime of experience, and there are always outliers, exceptions to the rules). 
2) the possible-improbable makes great comedy (the ridiculous behavior of comedic characters in sitcoms, the stupidity of cartoon villains ie getting caught in his own trap) or horrible drama like a villain with a gun being struck by lightning letting the hero get away (the audience groans "that would never happen!") I thought humor might hinge on local customs since that is what makes certain behaviors improbable ie farting at a fancy restaurant is funny because it's so "uncivilized" and no one would willfully do it except an absurd comedic character
3) the impossible-probable is art / poetry: the witches and madness of Macbeth (people in impossible situations but the events being considerably reasonable despite that ie lady macbeths suicide), my other example is giving your loved one the moon - it's impossible but probable since lovers give large impressive gifts to each other. Another example: the Grand Canyon loving water: it's impossible for the Grand Canyon to love but reasonable if it did it'd love the Colorado river for making it.
4) impossible improbable: I could only think of children's movies and books ie toy story where toys do comedic things or cars where cars act like funny people. 

I think this is a practical way of breaking down made things with no clear function like a tool (hammer for building) aside from being their for man to experience (art). I take life / experience as my source of meaning, art as my source of inspiration (nothing in this beautiful world is impossible!). 

I hope this clarifies the "why / intention" of my work. I'll put this on my blog today if you want to direct others to it. I'd love to hear your thoughts. If you look up the Wikipedia article on "naive physics" it explains experiments where infants became habituated to an event and then would stare for a long time after a seemingly impossible version of it occurred. As if captivated by something beautiful. 


Sunday, November 17, 2013

I was thinkin' about Alicia Keys (Good Art Makes You Think)

As a goof, I quoted a silly Bob Dylan lyric in the Post's title (I included the part in parentheses for its simplicity and with the hope that someone would Google that phrase and find my blog). 

*** From here you can skip down to the other section buttressed by triple-asterisks if you want the impetus of this post - the two paragraphs leading up to it are really just prologue ***

Anyway, I'm thinking often about how critics like to "interpret" art / poetry, and how there is even a specialty in journalism called Art Journalism (thank you, Art in America). Today, I synthesized that knowledge with my own experience of art and poetry, and came up with this "quality" ("requirement") of great art. 

Before espousing any kind of "rule" of great art, I'd like to state clearly here I never attempted to make any "definition" of poetry until I came up with a foundation, that foundation or most-basic of definitions being "Poetry is an object made of words." That was a major moment for me because I shed then the idea of "universal truths" and the idea that poetry therefore must be made of biographical information and state (directly or indirectly) a meaning that at least I, the poet, am aware of and can restate in prose. 

*** The essence (of the art object) is unfamiliarity, but the effect of experiencing it is 1) you feel it grab your attention / capture your imagination, and 2) (here's the new part) “it makes you think.” The pleasure then comes from having your mind go places within you that feel deep. Maybe, contemplating the poem or piece of art, you come up empty; that is, you don’t find sense, you can’t relate it exactly to your life experiences. But you are happy, happy to have gone deep, and to be seeing and feeling within yourself the depths your consciousness does not normally plumb or reside in. ***

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Couple of bobo-LINKS

This is a great article - I would've benefited from reading it when I first started getting interested in poetry. Of course, it all seems so obvious now having read so much since then.


Thank you, Poetry, for publishing it. Would've been better if my poems were in the issue as well, but that can be forgiven :)

The other was this link:


The link itself doesn't matter, although the book reviewed sounds really interesting. This portion I think would've benefited me when I first started digging deeply into poetry:

And the next time a student praises clich├ęd writing as “easy to relate to,” I’ll have Mark Yakich’s response on the tip of my tongue: “If your main claim to a poem is that you can relate to it, you aren’t reading it sufficiently. Poems are not meant to be related to; they are meant to offer you something you didn’t know, experience, or imagine before.” I’ve muddled through an explanation along those lines countless times; it’s not a new idea. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

My aesthetics briefly

A friend and I were discussing a poem - http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175608 - and it led to a discussion of our aesthetics. She said the poem didn't "make a point," to which I said poetry is not language employed for that matter. She essentially then broadened her definition of point to mean just about anything, and followed by inquiring indirectly into my aesthetics. Here's what I said:

I agree with Shelley that poetry - art for that matter - makes the familiar no longer so. For me, the experience of any art, including poetry and this poem, is strange, and I come away from it with a heightened awareness of my perceptions, of the world. The poem, to borrow Ezra Pound's words, is "charged with meaning" because (in my words) it contains new knowledge. This is why I love Picasso for saying art is the lie that lets us see the truth. I'm not currently big on Rimbaud's poetry, but I understand perfectly how deranging the senses creates "news that stays news" (Pound again).

The poem had beautiful diction and evocative images, the rhetoric kept me listening, it just didn't take any risks. It didn't risk a "close call with nonsense" (to borrow the title of Stephen Berg's interesting collection of criticism) and for me those close calls are like home runs or touchdowns, they're the fireworks.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Newly Published Poems Up Today

Three of my poems were published today in "Futures Trading," a poetry journal. (Link below.) One is a pantoum, the other two in a sonnet form I came up with a couple months ago.

Congrats to Howie Good, who is also featured with me in their latest issue :)


Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Importance of Being Wild

Today I was reading an Ars Poetica by Charles Wright, a favorite poet of mine. It's in an incredible anthology of "Ars Poeticas" by contemporary poets - not all poems are truly statements about the art of poetry, but the poets chose their representative pieces as demonstrating somehow their process or aesthetic, and most are accompanied by some prose statement (though not always clear) explaining their selection.

It's a great book: What Will Suffice http://www.amazon.com/What-Will-Suffice-Contemporary-American/dp/0879056924/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1383492765&sr=8-1&keywords=what+will+suffice

Anyway, what struck me this morning about Charles Wright's work is the overwhelming heaviness and seriousness of it. This immediately clashed my recent valuation of having fun in life. Without getting too into it (because this is a POETRY blog...for now) I've recently felt I am most satisfied with my being if I'm trying to have fun. The exception of trying to have fun would be if someone's suffering before me, or if I'm mourning, grieving - but even then it feels there should be a limit on the funlessness, as I can easily imagine some fun helping to heal someone's suffering, and I can imagine myself mourning a loved one, then reflecting on the meaningful times I had with the dead, which would be fun and help me heal.

When my observation about the seriousness of Wright's work clashed with my fun-loving values, many things came to mind. First off were some other poets I love - Terrance Hayes and Bob Hicok (relatively young examples), John Ashbery and Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams - they all seem to be having fun with their writing. It's fun to read - equal parts fun and meaningful. TS Eliot's work that I'm familiar with is this way as well - the black humor of Prufrock, the wry humor of Tradition and the Individual Talent, some of the tongue in cheek shorter works, the playfulness of his cat book.(I think the abundance of references to "great works," esoteric works, and biblical symbols, can sometimes obscure the humor.) Auden was definitely having fun (which may be why he detested the last line of Sept 1 1939...call that line what you will - saccharine possibly, bathetic).  Paul Muldoon is DEFINITELY having fun - playing with form, within form, at times immoral sexual exploits, diction off the wall. Dickinson and Whitman have fun. Geoffrey Hill, a heavy Brit I don't hear much about more but once read was the premiere English poet - his book is loaded with Eliot-like Christian symbols, but man, there is no dark humor, it is just serious to the bone. Another poet whom I greatly admire and really appreciate is Ezra Pound - he seems to suffer from being too serious. And when he did try to be funny or "light" such as that golden toilet poem, it fell really flat.

Then of course some makers always seem to be having fun - Bob Dylan with his mid-60s triumphs and those outrageous interviews and press conferences; John Ashbery today in interviews. They aren't insincere, they're just having fun - it may be at someone's expense time to time, but usually that person is only the butt for being too serious. In fact, with regards to Bob Dylan, I'd say it was when he started playing and writing to have fun again - Time Out of Mind up to the most recent The Tempest - that was when he was at his best again, no question. I'm sorry, but nobody can convince me John Wesley Harding is good as the three preceding albums, and the JWH album is SO serious. The religious themed album (BIABH was America themed, Hwy 61 had a death / horrorshow motif, BoB was the love themed album). The real fun was had making the basement tapes with the Hawks - unfortunately that work suffers from lack of meaning, and is actually a good example of writing that's fun without meaning.

Ultimately, I called this post The Importance of Being Wild because I think fun is a necessary element to immortal work - Shakespeare is fun, Keats is fun, Chaucer and Spenser tremendously fun! Pope is wickedly fun. Coleridge more fun than Wordsworth but Wordsworth more meaningful. The Cavaliers are fun, Donne one of the greatest in that sense (not sure of those other metaphysical guys). Dryden isn't fun at all, hence nobody reads him anymore. Ovid is wicked fun, same with those other oft translated Romans!

My mind just came to Poe - I'm not sure what to make of him. He certainly was different, and along with Emerson took American poetry in a new direction. Poe is deadly serious tho, and I just don't like his poetry at all. His short fiction is undeniably fun tho! And I think that's what he'll be remembered for. Of course The Raven is fun as hell - I can't forget that landmark poem.

I recently purchased Zukofsky's "A test of Poetry," and afterward read some of his work. I couldn't really get into it - but I know he influenced Creeley, whom I sometimes enjoy, and when I think about, it's his fun poems I love (drive, he sd) more than some of his sincere statements of love which hardly strike me as poetry. And I know George Oppen was an objectivist who has been influential...I like the poem with the deer, and the men on the beam of the building being put up, but those poems strike me as a bit too serious. I'm not sure I can comment on Lorine Niedicker (sp?). Charles Olsen and Robert Duncan - again I'm not sure. I like the techniques of the LANGUAGE poets (i'm not taking the time to type out all the equals signs), but they strike me as too serious, except for Rae Armantrout, who's definitely having fun (i.e. Soft Money). For fun, the New York school is the best - O'Hara chief among them. I think he'll still be read 50-100 years from now.

Wow, I could really go on, thinking who's fun, who isn't. Surprisingly, despite all her anger, I think Plath is / was having fun. Despite the despair of her content, it's so explosively creative, I wonder if poetry was one of the few sources of fun, of happiness for her.

Neruda, Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver - popular poets in terms of sales, all fun.

Rilke seems kind of an outlier - I dont find his work fun the way I do all the others, but I enjoy it, and he's a top seller, critical giant. Celan and Gottfriend Benn are more fun... And Yeats - he kind of oscillated between writing fun pieces and serious pieces. Many of his famous pieces are serious though. Frost was definitely having fun, but it sounds like he took his fun seriously. Perhaps what elevates Yeats and Rilke is a sort of spiritual thread of meaning in their work, not overtly any one religion, but something most can relate to - perhaps they seem to most readers to come closest to unveiling some of life's ultimate mysteries?

Anyway, I have a daughter stealing off my lunch plate and getting close to nap time. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Harold Bloom / Dumbledore / Gandolf. Koch. Komunyakaa.

Okay, Harold Bloom isn't really like Dumbledore, or Gandolf the Gray - but he has that Father Time, wizened kind of look right? And the reason I mention him is I love his anthologies - the best English poems, the best of the best American Poetry with Lehman, the American Religious poems. I'm not sure of his theories on influence or Shakespeare or any of that, but he and I are in sync when it comes to who's  camped from the 20th century on Parnassus (I love the word bivouac). Hart Crane, Ashbery, Stevens - I think I'm more into Dickinson, he's more into Whitman.

Today I was reading The Best of the Best American Poetry again (where he famously dismisses Adrienne Rich's "inclusive" / ethno-poetics anthology of '96) and I was knocked on my ass by the back-to-back poems of Koch and Komunyakaa. Wow.

First of all, "Facing It" by Komunyakaa is really the epitome of Yusef's work; I mean it seems like the poem he was meant to write. There may be no more poignant image than the last one in that poem of the boy having his hair brushed reflected off the Vietnam Memorial - and it's an incredibly realistic image, unlike some of the surrealistic dips he takes in his other writings. Maybe surreal is the wrong word, but Yusef has some duende to his work, there's no question. He's got some darkness, some blues and jazz, the flavor of New Orleans or Kansas City's 18th and Vine. This poem is less of that -- this is like a radio-friendly hit by a band like Radiohead; it's like David Lynch's "Straight Story" - it just seems so off-type for him, but at the same time, only he could've written it. Reading this poem today, I felt its pulse, and recognized it will probably outlive me, and be known by my grandchildren's grandchildren. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15830

Secondly, the poem One Train May Hide Another by Kenneth Koch, whose Art of Poetry taught me a lot when I first started writing (though I'd probably argue against it being a "poem" now), and his letter poems i.e. letter to himself at _ years old, are enjoyable reads. But this poem really flies - it's kind of triggered by a "found poem," a sign that exists at some railroad crossing somewhere in Kenya - and Koch rides that idea down a beautiful, winding river of free association and pure poetry. In fact, I'd say this poem IS representative of what I'd call pure poetry. Much more so than "Facing it." "Facing It" takes on powerful subject matter, combines several powerful images, all very dramatic, emotional weightiness, and WITHOUT really offering any editorial opinion. But the subject matter outshines the poetry, in a way - the subject matter is unavoidable. "One train may hide another" really has no subject - one could argue it's about the idea of being overshadowed - but really it's a more entrancing experience, where you get lifted off the ground by the poem, not the poem's subject. Perhaps I'm not making sense. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15592

They're both tremendous, gigantic, likely immortal poems. Facing It grounded in the reality of war, One train grounded in the fantasy of the imagination but inspired by something from reality - I think THAT is the difference, what makes Koch's feel more pure. But purity doesn't mean better. I don't believe in one poem necessarily being better than another. Poetry is poetry, like funny is funny and beauty is beauty - the degrees are determined by taste, known (well-known) to evolve anyway.

Helen Vendler is another excellent critic, and a bit less overbearing, a lot more humble. And I think there has been some poetry she's championed that I wasn't too fond of. If I met Bloom in person, I'd thank him for championing Ashbery now, Stevens (who probably doesn't need it), and Crane - Crane I worry would fade from memory if not for Bloom. I'm definitely more into contemporary poetry than the romantics and I'm not sure Bloom would say the same. But Keats' Odes, Shelley's Ode to the West Wind, Wordsworth's Preludes and lyrics, Byron's Don Juan and Roving, Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner - all poems that improve our lot in the world. Shelley's Ode for me is Majorly Major - the brilliant combination of Terza Rima with the sonnet. Wordsworth is more philosophical and Keats more fantastic, but Shelley's Ode is really a pinnacle.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Haven't spit at ya' in awhile...

Just some random thoughts:

Pablo Neruda is a masterful image-maker, but a lot of his work is uneven - at least in translation - and at times suffers from that hollowness one risks putting too much weight on the image...some just don't jump off the page, or create the pull of gravitas.

William Carlos Williams wrote great poems, but I think I prefer the philosophical tones of Stevens to Williams' championing of the people - populism gets a bit noxious, but I do admire the veritable foot. His poetry is inventive, important in America's literary tradition.

The best book in my library may be the international poetry anthology by Ecco books - edited by Ilya Kaminsky, a great young poet in his own right, along with Susan Harris. To me this poetry is pure - all of the 20th century, but truly timeless. (http://www.amazon.com/The-Ecco-Anthology-International-Poetry/dp/0061583243)

What impelled me to blog suddenly this afternoon was a thought about great poets, the giants of poetry, often going unappreciated or unknown in their own time - specifically Dickinson, Whitman, Hopkins... To me this situation makes perfect sense. Art must always be new knowledge and completely unfamiliar. Unfortunately what's unfamiliar is uncomfortable or seems unstable, or creates uncertainty, in likely all animals, and editors ARE animals. Whitman said great poets need great readers, but in my experience most people want all poetry to be the same - a PERSONAL, very short narrative focused on sensual details, or some obvious, automatically perceived metaphor. What they don't realize is when everything or everyone is the same, nobody is remembered. It takes courage to be different, to be Dickinson, Whitman, Copernicus, Teddy Roosevelt, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Martin Luther King.

It's a paradox of the literary world that what is great is not familiar, but what's familiar is published.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

On "The Comfort Zone"

Today I did a high-ropes course with some fellow pediatricians. It was a team building exercise, and was described as a way to move us from "our comfort zones" and into "the learning zone" which is outside the comfort zone. Outside the learning zone is "the panic zone." The learning zone was described as a place to go in order to grow, to expand ourselves via experience, to learn, to move forward / progress. When this image - the image of a target, with the bull's-eye as the comfort zone, the next zone as the learning / growth zone, and the one outside of that the panic zone - when this metaphorical image was provided to us, I immediately felt it true against my experience. When I exercise, I always track the amount of weight or the amount of repetitions I do, so next week I can go BEYOND that number, or at least aim to go beyond - and by doing so in the past I've gained size and strength; in short: I've grown. Another area where this applies: Literature, or any art really.

It may not be true for all people, but what I've valued my entire life is art that is outside what I'm comfortable with (used to seeing) and that brings me into "the learning zone," where I'm experiencing something new. This is when my imagination is captured, when I lose a sense of time, when my eyes are dilated and adrenaline is rushing. Keats said we know poetry by the pulse.

When I think of what art may exist in EVERYONE's panic zone, I think of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.

This doesn't change anything about my aesthetic values, which I can sum up really in one word: unfamiliar. But it does give me a nifty image - the bull's-eye - with which I can imagine the idea as a thing.

To be honest, I really think some of the other things people believe poetry can provide - some kind of eternal or noble truth - is best sought in non-fiction, like essays or magazine articles, or science papers. Then I recommend a dose of philosophy to knock you back on your ass. I'm not sure I've said it on my blog so I'll say it now, something I thought of recently and feel sums up nicely what I've learned from experience (as a published poet and physician):

Art opens your eyes and makes you pay attention (increasing awareness / consciousness / self (?) ), and what you see after Art is Science (what is / ontology).

Since most people who read this know me personally, what I say won't be taken as authoritative. So I'll reprint some words from a poetry textbook now in, I believe, it's 17th or 18th printing, Perrine's Sound and Sense:

"If we limit ourselves to looking in poetry for some lesson, message, or noble truth about life, we are bound to be disappointed. This limited approach sees poetry as a kind of sugarcoated pill - a wholesome truth or lesson made palatable by being put into pretty words. What this narrow approach really wants is a sermon - not a poem, but something inspirational."

Unfortunately, in the American education system, we are taught to analyze a poem and write about what it "means." I loathe this so deeply, but find most people really buy it, which depresses me, or used to.  Now I just thank heaven I'm no longer party to that extraordinary popular delusion. And I'm (hopefully) done trying to convert people away from that way of thinking, except I'll still preach my way on this blog :) Isn't that what blogs are for?


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

P. Muldoon, and the art of what is NOT said

I just wanted to write a brief blog praising the art of Paul Muldoon, Irish poet, professor at Oxford and Princeton. I'd consider him a poet's poet, so my kind of poet. He is not accessible, he is difficult. He is colorful diction (the Aussies and Celts don't have to look far for pleasingly-odd words), playful form with off-the-wall rhymes; he is having fun, he is vulgar, high-brow, pastoral, guttural, visceral, drunk - basically, disorienting as hell, WHICH I LOVE. There is more VERVE to his work than in the Heaney I've read (RIP). He reminds me of a brutish, roguish version of James Merrill, with his playing in form and love of sound and color. By color I mean the splash of imagery a word throws on the mental screen. If  you have not, I suggest you read him now.

I also want to comment briefly on a concept mentioned by many poets in interviews (Ashbery, and several of those late 19th / early 20th c. Frenchmen, at least), the idea of poetry being as  much about is NOT said as it is about what IS said. I realized it is unlike poetry to expound on its declarations, because to do so would risk passing over into prose territory. And it is what is NOT said, and the possibilities of what COULD HAVE BEEN said, that creates, I believe, on some level, the multiple possible, multiple ineffable / un-paraphrasable meanings of a line of well-wrought poetry. And I believe in an unconscious way, those multiple meanings are what link the sometimes odd movements of a poem; in fact, I think one can sense a hollowness or emptiness, vacuousness to a poem where the movement truly is random. Which actually does bring me to one more thing I've thought about recently...

During my bike rides and runs the past month or two, I've listened to classical music and jazz  music. What excites me in a song without lyrics is the MOVEMENT of the melody, the unanticipated, splendid places it jumps to along the way. And now when I re-engage with contemporary pop / rock music (or on occasion rap) I realize it isn't the (often horrible) lyrics that move me, but the movement of the melody or background instruments, or all, and their jumping in and out of the piece. Perhaps this is a quality of art that takes place in time - the movement. Perhaps that seems very general and obvious. But I really appreciated it when I listened the past couple months to classical music and jazz music. Not for the first time, mind you, but for the first time since really finding my aesthetic sense via my experiences with poetry. I just received the new Art in America tonight, a magazine of visual art, so I'll see if a piece of "static art" has the same "movement" quality. I can imagine it could, as our eyes dart about quadrant to quadrant or chaotically, in order to experience the piece in its entirety, which mean time does indeed pass.

QUICK NOTE: If you live in the Dayton, OH area, on Sept 14, this Saturday, at 3 pm  I'll be reading from my chapbook and signing / selling copies afterward at Wright Memorial Library on Far Hills Rd in Oakwood (Dayton). If you can come show your support, I'd really appreciate it!

G'night, all.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Some recommendations, some ramblings

I've recently been reading Amy Clampitt's Archaic Figure, which has one of the most phenomenal poems I've read in some time: "An Anatomy of Migraine." Unfortunately I can't find it anywhere online, but if you know me personally and you're interested in reading it, let me know and I'll get you my copy of the book. Clampitt's poems portray scenes, sometimes with people in them, sometimes with those people interacting, and sometimes they interact enough to be called narrative. But always the most striking element of her poetry is her astoundingly creative diction. She reminds me of James Merrill in all the ways I mentioned above.

I've also been reading Lucie Brock-Broido's Master Letters, a volume with the concept of being based on some letters Emily Dickinson wrote before dying which she addressed to "master." (I apologize if this isn't exactly right, I skimmed the preface then quickly got knee deep in incredible poetry, quickly forgetting, or having pushed out of mind, the exact concept of the book.) I believe this is the poet's second volume, written in the mid-90s; I bought it used at the Dayton Library. What. A. Find. Her poetry is flashy, kinetic, mindboggling, heart-wrenching. It's exactly the kind of poetry I love. And I know she still writes and writes well, because I bought the book recognizing her name from some volumes of Poetry I have sitting around. I also know a poem of hers from one year's Best American Poetry volume - she's even in the Best of the Best edited by Harold Bloom. I'd say on all three counts (that I count) - Rhetoric, Diction, Imagery - she succeeds impressively, especially in the rhetoric and diction departments. I highly recommend this poet.

One poet who has surprised me has been Claudia Emerson, because lately I've been reading her Late Wife, which I bought at Half Price Book Store when I saw the Pulitzer gold medallion on the front. I'm generally irked by anecdotal / epiphany poems, and I've seen so many elegiac volumes now that depict life after loss (off the top of my head I can think of Carol Muske-Dukes Sparrow and Mary Jo Bang's Elegy). Both Sparrow and Elegy were good books, as I recall (and a quick review of Elegy on Amazon demonstrates this incredible line: Look at her—It’s as if / The windows of night have been sewn to her eyes.), but now, after encountering it for at least a third time, it feels done to...you know. But she really does it well. The poems really do create something powerful out of what can seem somewhat ordinary. First of all the imagery is both evocative and striking, but then every few lines she'll do a bit of rhetorical magic, combine some words in a novel way, and the effect is a good deal of astonishment. And yes, often like a joke's punchline, the poems end on the most poetic line. Are they often epiphanies? Not really. I recommend this book to readers who are less interested in having their minds twisted, and more interested in a profound, moving / touching, linear and seemingly logical experience - I suppose one could call it narrative. And nothing she says is ever obvious, I suppose I'd say it's the sensation of time passing that is present in her work which I suspect narrative fans want but I could really care less about. (Unless I'm with an uninteresting person, in which case I want to sense time passing expeditiously!)

Last but not least, I FINALLY bought a book by Jean Valentine, whose Door in the Mountain (her selected poems) blew my mind when I first read it two or three years ago. I saw a small volume of hers, the one that followed her selected, at Barnes and Noble recently, titled Little Boat. This one really exploded my mind-grapes, a la Brock-Broido and Clampitt's An Anatomy of Migraine - I mean nearly every page (which can also be said, I think fairly, of Brock-Broido's book, to step back a moment). What sets Jean Valentine apart from the other poets is her frequently deployment of syntactical FRAGMENTS. One feels like they're revisiting Sappho while reading her. And the fragment has been a powerful device since Eliot's masterworks, and a young male poet using it right now to a near gratuitous level (but effectively!) is Ben Lerner (whom I recommend). I think in my own poetry, if I can digress a moment, I fragment time and place, fragment logic, fragment the ground for the reader to stand on, but I have yet to fully commit myself to fragmenting a sentence, aside from one poem from 2011 I decided not to include in my first book but have decided to put in my second. It's something I may toy with someday, but right now Lerner is doing it so well, I'd almost feel guilty. Perhaps if I do it sparingly... I'll think about this. But Jean Valentine's work I can't recommend enough. By far she creates the most mysterious figures with this poem, her language shrouded nearly as densely as Emily Dickinson's - I really mean that. I literally pumped my fist after one or two of her poems, I was so excited by what I read - it was like seeing my Wisconsin Badgers score a touchdown. (Poetic jock!)

I think that's all I have to say tonight - just read these poets when you get the chance. They are excellent in a satisfying variety of ways, all demonstrating the multiple methods with which one can use language to create something beautiful.

Good night.

The French Exit: Randall Jarrell Was Totally Wrong About Philosophy...

The French Exit: Randall Jarrell Was Totally Wrong About Philosophy...: From "Reflections on Wallace Stevens" in Poetry and the Age : The habit of philosophizing in poetry—or of seeming to philoso...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Philosophy: The Mind's Adenosine

It's been a real pleasure lately reading Bob Hicok's new book, Elegy Owed, along with FINALLY engaging the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus by my beloved Rainer Marie Rilke. I've also recently met (the work of) Jake Adam York, a fine poet who left us too soon, and I've lately been jumping into some philosophical writing. My exposure to philosophical ideas has mainly been through Wikipedia, though I have reread portions of Ethics by Aristotle, and I'm making my way through (60% done so far) Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy. I'm also fortunate to have a brother part-way through his graduate studies in philosophy at U Conn, who can (attempt) to guide me through the myriad of issues his field is involved in.

What I value in poetry - having my senses and / or the world reset / refreshed - I find I'm valuing in philosophy: It has re-oriented me a bit by disorienting me; that is, my familiar beliefs and patterns of thought are no longer automatic, and I'm thinking critically about my methods of critical thinking, and every other aspect of my mind. It's almost been like spending several sessions with a therapist: I found disbelief where there should be belief, conjecture where I should admit ignorance, and some semi-conscious resistance (ultimately proven futile) against my true self. Philosophy has exercised a part of my brain that'd grown complacent and proud.

So in this post, I shall recommend reading philosophy, and if you already do, I'm happy to have finally joined you! Interestingly, it's made me feel more well-rounded, as I can now look at the world and feel both understanding AND wonder - I thank poetry and philosophy for the wonder, and philosophy and science for the understanding. (Though the more we understand with science, the more wonderful the world seems!)

Thanks for reading. Passion and courage, compadres!


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Musings on Plath

I was thinking about Sylvia Plath today, and I realized she may not pass the test of time, despite the impact she's had during and after her lifetime.

It seems looking at her career she was very much a product of her time. That is, her poetry was so powerful because the persona she portrayed was the antithesis to how women were expected to be, inwardly and outwardly. She was violent, aggressive, full of rage, suicidal - anything but the image of a domestic housewife. And this was the 1950s, Eisenhower's post-WW2 years -  and I know she was married to a Brit (whose poetry I love) and living in England, but I think the ideals of womanhood were very much ingrained there as well. It was the 1950s that 1960s and '70s feminists were rebelling against. It was the same 1950s our American Beats (Ginsberg, Kerouac) were seen as antithetical to.

The thing is, in the grand scheme of things, is the character of Sylvia Plath so shocking? Medea and Dido were violent women. Now I reach the point where I stopped contemplating earlier...

Medea and Dido are portrayed as sort of harpies, and not as the feminine ideal. Then you have Penelope, the faithful, obedient beauty. Perhaps I was wrong in thinking Plath - whose poetry I love, and was first inspired to write by - would be seen as a sort of flash in the pan. I know Vendler thinks highly of her, Bloom on the other hand not so much.

Along with Sexton, Plath did disrupt the status quo. I don't think that's enough for poetic immortality though, but I'm not saying her poems will not achieve it. I'm simply saying, in the end, that her poetry has had a huge impact on the culture at large, and she's influenced countless writers after her, but as I already was well aware prior to posting this, the future is unpredictable, so "time will say nothing but I told you so...if I could tell you I would let you know." (To quote Auden's great villanelle.)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Three Poets (Female), and Defamiliarizing

Today I was re-visiting Rae Armantrout's Versed, and it struck me how brilliant and daring her style is. After realizing how much I enjoyed art with layers of meaning, I came to realize how much I enjoy what is NOT familiar, and how it's the placing of familiar objects in strange contexts / combinations that makes them both seem new and enjoyable. With Armantrout what I notice is not the de-familiarizing of things via image, but rather of abstract terms. Then I finally understood what they meant by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry: the words are what are being made new, not what they signify.

I wrote a note to my Facebook friends about RA's poetry, recommending it, and another poet came to mind: Kay Ryan. She too features a stark minimalism filled with depth brought on by the strategic word combinations and grammatical / syntactical arrangements used for maximum intensity and estrangement.

Speaking of de-familiarizing, I think I finally understand Rimbaud's statement, "derangement of the senses."

After posting on FB, Gertrude Stein came up under the category of "language poet." I happen to love Tender Buttons, though when I first began reading poetry I found her work unpalatable. In my experience, it took several other poets - countless really - before I could be ready for her. She is (as I said on FB) an acquired taste which can be a slow (and sometimes painful) acquisition. Now that I recognize what poetry can do for me (see below) I am aware of whom I should go to to seek it out. These three poets will make you feel more alive!

Check out the original article where the idea of defamiliarizing was termed: http://www.vahidnab.com/defam.htm

Here is what Shelley says of poetry - "Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar" - in his famous essay where poets are called the unacknowledged legislators of the world. (Auden's retort: Poetry makes nothing happen.)
Here's the essay of Shelley's: http://www.bartleby.com/27/23.html 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Surprise day off from work!

Today I went into work - I'm currently on the Pulmonology service at the children's hospital - and my only patient had been transferred to the PICU where intensivists will take care of them. For me, that meant a day off! While hanging around the resident work station awhile to make sure nothing else was due to come up, I thought more about my post yesterday, about the "language charged with meaning," which stated another way could be stated "poetry is composed of layers of meaning." Layers of meaning to me is a bit clearer.

I was revisiting poems I love. One, Wallace Stevens' The Snowman, to me contains many possible meanings, and toward the end it's filled with emotional ambiguity that really excites, in me, the intellect (probably because the last section has less of the vivid imagery is a bit more abstract). Another poem, very pleasing to read, very impressive to analyze (as Frost points out at readings, "That's a single-sentence sonnet."), is Robert Frost's The Silken Tent. (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-silken-tent/) The strangeness of the metaphor aside, and the beauty of the images and metaphors within the metaphor (ropes for love and thoughts that create a connectedness), what really gets me about this poem is the ending, or as I like to think of it, the poem's punchline. Is there anything more unexpected, more emotionally ambiguous and full of possible interpretations than that idea of bondage?! We're presented with this silken tent metaphor, representing the sturdy soul of this woman, her connection to the earth via love and thought (the ropes) - the woman becomes a sort of symbol of the ideal: virtuous, spiritual - and her life is a form of "bondage" that she's made aware of in the "capriciousness of summer air." So many questions arise: What is the summer air? Is it the ideal we strive for that comes with bondage, or do lesser beings (without such sturdy souls and connectedness with the world) also experience a sort of bondage, and to a comparable or differing degree? He doesn't state it directly, but after letting the line settle for awhile in my mind, it almost seems to say the virtuous life is a form of bondage, and the capriciousness of summer air could be that wild streak we all feel inside at certain times, something the virtuous female character would likely not allow herself to satisfy. But that is just my interpretation of course, and the poem does not immediately release that meaning, but rather the poem had to sit down inside me awhile before it began whispering its possibilities.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Language Charged With Meaning

My wife laughs at my daily "revelations" or "epiphanies," but this one feels pretty major. (How many times will I say that on here?) Today I was writing a Petrarchan sonnet, and I re-read some Natasha Trethaway poetry, along with some Montale from Ecco's / Ilya Kaminsky's great anthology, and something suddenly clicked...

When I enter a book of poetry, I find myself unhappy when I apprehend the meaning of each sentence immediately. (I strongly felt apprehend was more appropriate there than comprehend.) And my favorite poets, or the poets I most aspire to write like - Dickinson, Donne, Ashbery, Stevens, Moore, Shakespeare - they are not so readily understood. It reminded me of Pound's dictum that "literature is language charged with meaning," and I can imagine how it does enrich the language, lending new possibilities to words, preventing language from growing stale, two-dimensional.

The revelation, or what-have-you, that changed my writing forever was that poetry has no definition (I tried for at least a year or two to find one), that a poem is an object made of words. Shortly after that I resolved that beauty, or a pleasing object, is one that "captures my imagination." (I realized that when I recounted how I felt after seeing the latest Batman movie.) Now, to recognize that what I like is a combination of words that makes sense but does not have one clear meaning (the way this sentence does) I think it will help me appraise poetry better, using my own subjective taste of course. And I agree with Pound the best ways to go about making meaning are still logopoeia, phanopoeia (which obviously translates best - see Neruda, Lorca, Rilke) and melopoeia (pity the sound and strange effect of logopoeia may some day be lost when / if English dies).

For the record, I'm rereading Pound's ABCs of Reading, and I'm reminded of Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" essay: I can't think of two more common sense and clearly stated pieces of writing explaining the art of poetry that are more in line with my way of thinking. Pity they'd both detest my Jewish half. Going back to Pound's three methods of meaning making, I think another set of categories offered by Tony Hoagland in Real Sofistikashun is also quite useful: Diction, Rhetoric and Imagery - I can see how this would work well for rating poets like Bishop and Merrill, who are strong in all three categories.


Here is an example of some lines "charged with meaning" - that is, you do not automatically comprehend their meaning, and thus they are mysterious (mystery being the source of what's beautiful, per Einstein) and filled with all kinds of possible meanings:

Dickinson, Poem 640 "I cannot live with You"

The last stanza:
So We must meet apart –  
You there – I – here –  
With just the Door ajar 
That Oceans are – and Prayer – 
And that White Sustenance –  
Despair – - 

Any line of prose would suffice to show the counterpoint. Including that last sentence. (And what does she mean by "white sustenance"?)

I've noticed some poets write all prosaic lines, building up to the last line which is generally a bit more "charged with meaning," almost like the punch line to a joke.

Anyway, these are the types of lines I'm drawn to, and I'm glad I recognize that about myself - I do think it'll help me appraise, as I said earlier. I also recognize others may not share these values. But it does seem a common quality of all immortal poems.

Monday, August 5, 2013

After Robert Hass and Wheat IPA

Guten tag!

Tonight I was reading Robert Hass, and his excellent (supremely excellent) Heroic Simile and Mediation at Lagunitas. I recognized a sound and form of thought I've been seeking in my own work. There is something to be said for allowing the imagination to merge with the intellect without worrying about rationality or making sense, because in the end, upon review, what ends up on the page makes perfect sense, and in a stunning manner!

I realized tonight that making art is an act of love, maybe not unlike my daughter lining her dolls up in a row. In my private notes on aesthetics, I scribbled a thought down about how poetry is a form of choreography, and the items and ideas of the world are set dancing to the music of their names. This rings so true, as crystal clear as a bell.

This strikes me as an important understanding, important as it was to recognize art's defamiliarizing ability, its ability to refresh the world in my eyes. For not only will I regard it all anew, but now also feel connected to all of it.

Bedtime. Hora somni. Gute nacht.

Sunday, August 4, 2013


Hi. My name is Jake Sheff. I'm a resident physician in Ohio training in pediatrics with the USAF, as well as a published poet whose first book was just released today by Alabaster Leaves Publishing, titled Looting Versailles (available currently on Amazon).

I'm not sure what I want this blog to be yet. Maybe each post will be an amalgamation of my most recent "deep thoughts" on poetry aesthetics / theory, or maybe some will be references to an interesting disease I've seen at work. Likely some will be humorous snippets (re: funny lies), others may be a quick nod to a poem or poet I like, or an interesting link online. Aside from medicine and poetry, I read Art in America, National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine and a lot of science articles on the web. I try to read short stories here and there. Novels are tough to get through with my hours at work, though I'm currently making my way (slowly) through Remembrance of Things Past by Proust. I don't watch movies as much as I used to, more TV series, generally on pay channels i.e. Rome, The Sopranos, Dexter, True Blood. Movies used to be a great love of mine, until I started residency and lost the ability to stay awake during one.

Really, I just want a place for self-expression but self-edited self-expression. Hopefully, the antithesis of the typical Facebook status. I will strive to be interesting, cogent, a worthwhile read.

As a captain in the USAF, I'll abstain from political statements.

Mostly, this blog will be a way of having a presence on the internet, now that I have a book available and since I plan on continuing to write poetry and have it published in various outlets.

I hope people will come here and leave messages; I'd like to have conversations with the people that come here, supposing they have come here through reading my poetry and not some other way.

With that, I think I've said what I need to to initiate my blog into the blogosphere. I thought it strange when Dan Rather signed off his final CBS newscast with "Courage," but now as I sign off my first blog post I hear it ringing in my ears. And so it goes...