Looting Versailles

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

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.

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