Looting Versailles

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

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...