Saturday, 30 April 2016

Weirdly Arbitrary


James Longenbach defends the syllabic construction of Marianne Moore's poems, in which meter is governed by the number of syllables per line, rather than the number of feet:
Like any kind of aesthetic pattern, a poem’s lines may threaten to seem arbitrary—that’s paradoxically part of their power; but Moore’s syllabic lines have provoked in certain readers the need for either defense or dismissal. In her recent biography of the poet, Holding On Upside Down, Linda Leavell argues that Moore’s prosody was shaped by her experience of the then-new curriculum of the American kindergarten, which encouraged children to develop their imagination through the manipulation of geometrical forms. This argument is about as plausible as the notion that Whitman avoided the pentameter because he never learned to count to five, and in her new introduction to Observations, Leavell maintains, equally implausibly, that the “natural cadence of [Moore’s] sentences, not the line and stanza breaks, determine how the poem should sound.” The cadence of Moore’s sentences is powerful, as “My Apish Cousins” demonstrates, but if line and stanza were not by their nature in productive relationship with a poem’s syntax, determining its sound, then all poets—Moore, Donne, Pound, whomever—would simply write prose. All poetic lines introduce some kind of additional pattern to the already highly patterned syntax of a poem’s sentences, and if Moore’s syllabic lines seem more contrived than Donne’s metrical lines or Pound’s free-verse lines, that’s simply because we’re less accustomed to them; there’s no poetic form more weirdly arbitrary than the sonnet.

Must I Write?


Karen Solie wonders if we're overselling the idea of poetry as a "vocation":
As many brilliant poets have written, there’s not a whole lot to recommend becoming one, practically speaking. It’s not a good plan. So there must be something else involved. Rilke bids us ask: “must I write?” If the answer is “a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of the urge and a testimony to it.” A prescription that might make some of us tired and anxious. I don’t reject or disdain the idea of poetry as a vocation. Some of the poets I most admire speak of their philosophy and practice in this way. But it’s also possible to write beautifully while believing one’s vocation lies equally, or singularly, elsewhere—in teaching, activism, the machine shop, scholarship, music, whatever. It need not mean one’s commitment to the contemplative and technical discipline poetry requires is diminished, need not mean one doesn’t (even if in a fractious, queasy, intermittent way) love it.

But belief in vocation, feeling “called to be an artist,” has also been known to present itself wreathed in a fog of quasi-religious incense, or in a thoroughly modern odor of reverence and authority that nevertheless likewise signals a presumption of, and romantic infatuation with, separateness. With the poet as, somehow, more than. I truly wish the pursuit of poetry as a “destiny” whose “burden and . . . greatness” one accepts were an idea—like hamburgers sandwiched by Krispy Kreme doughnuts—whose time has passed.

Identifying one’s art with vocation can be a mode of solidarity, of belonging in solitude, a comfort, challenge, and discipline uniting intellect and spirit. If poetry is your calling, more power to you. But to Rilke’s admonishment that “to feel that one could live without writing, then one must not attempt it at all,” my first response is I could live without it. Not without reading, no way; but without writing, probably, yes.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Successes and Shortcomings


John McAuliffe praises a new crop of Irish poets, but wonders where the reviewers are:
Such healthy diversity is an impressive turnaround, possibly a consequence of new publishing technologies and cheaper costs, as well as the rise in festival and event nights through which publishers can sell the books. But it also suggests a question about the reception of new poetry: welcome as the emergence of presses with good production values is, is there a review culture which situates and considers these books? How are books’ successes and shortcomings judged, and who is reading them in relation to one another, in relation to poetry’s existing audience in Ireland, as well as to new audiences, and the increasingly international and wired literary culture in which English-language poetry in particular operates? Poetry Ireland Review and its associated publication, Trumpet, do clearly cover critical reviewing, as do other venues, but there are not nearly as many journals as there are publishers of Irish poetry: it would certainly be good to see both more argument and careful reading of the books written by the “Rising Generation” in the “little magazines” and online journals which would match the growth in publication of new poems.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Sunday Poem


KELVIBRIDGE, GLASGOW, 2 P.M. 
Look below: the sable-eddied Kelvin
flowing fast, despite the town’s depression;
never angry, only bloody-minded,
rolling on to reach the red horizon. 
Glaswegians put their trust in how it carries:
they toss into its care the things they use:
lolly sticks and condoms, knives and bottles,
babies’ toys, a jilted lover’s shoes. 
A force that churns has somewhere else to be,
especially when spattered with this light.
Someone got it started; it is free.
To go a little closer must be right. 
And sometimes there’s a child from an estate
pulled from games along the muddy edge,
and this is why the branches bend and wait
and why we always pause upon this bridge.
By Alexandra Oliver, from Let the Empire Down (Biblioasis, 2016)

(Photo by Greig Middlemiss)

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Is Poetry An Escape From Responsibility?


"Not at all," says D. A. Powell:
It is a place where messages of great value and import can be woven in, like the hidden but not-so-hidden calls to freedom and safety that are found throughout the lyrics of spirituals. When enslaved Americans sang “Wade in the Water,” it wasn’t merely about baptism, it was a call to escape captivity by hiding near the river, to cover one’s tracks by stepping into the current where the scent of the runagate or fugitive could be masked from the pursuing hounds. For me poetry has always been a place to put the most urgent messages of existence, because they can pass through undetected. The urgent message can hide in plain sight.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Catch a Tiger


Adrienne Raphel is on the trail of a famous counting rhyme:
“Eeny meeny miny mo” is one of those rhymes that’s ingrained in our cultural limbic system—once we hear the first two syllables, the rest unspools whether we want it to or not. No one knows what eeny or meeny might mean; everybody knows what “eeny meeny” means. It turns up in strange places: in Pulp Fiction, in the Great Vermont Corn Maze, in Justin Bieber songs. But where did eeny meeny come from? Kipling tells us that “Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, and Mo / Were the First Big Four of the Long Ago,” but that’s not such a good lead. What we do know is that once Eeny Meeny appeared on the scene, it was everywhere.

What is Prose Poetry?


Anthony Howell tries to make sense of it:
There is a “throughness” to conventional prose. With it, we travel on through one sentence to the next, and we are building something by going towards it. The writing may well feel “transparent”—we are simply looking through it at the sense. With prose poetry...each sentence comes at you from its own direction. Each is its own whole, an atomic sentence. That is, it may differ from the previous sentence as much as one atom may differ from another. We don’t experience the same drive to get anywhere. This strategy may be used by “language” poets in a particularly abstract way, dislocated from meaning; but in the case of these intense prose poems, a story is being collaged together, a vivid story that hangs together in a disconcerting way, as one might concoct an image of a cow from many different images of cows.