Saturday 31 May 2014

Defiance or a Dare?

Last year, "stunned" by the amount of revision in Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012, David Williams penned a fascinating post on the nightmare now facing academics who have written about Hill's work:
What is Ricks to do about this, having now written on an apparently obsolete poem (in two books—see also his chapter in Lyon & McDonald)? He can’t revise his own critical work—the object of criticism has been in some way withdrawn. And what about others who have written on the original poem: what about me, hey, and Piers Pennington, and Michael O’Neill, and Peter Pegnall, and Charles Lock, and others? And what about future writers? Are we all bound not only to acknowledge the revision, but also to acknowledge the supremacy of the revision? And will Hill criticism have to endure a long period of deadening debate over the relative authority of the different versions and editions of the poems? And is this, in fact, the last word on all the poems 1952-2012, or should we expect corrections and revisions in the next printing?

Now, the evaluative question I’m avoiding is one on which Hill himself has had some sharp things to say, in a conversation with Peter McDonald [link]about poets revising their own work in later life. He asks Hill at the outset about good poets who have been consistent or prolific self-revisers. Hill says: “I can think off the top of my head of two or three. And all of them disastrous.” J. C. Ransom, W. H. Auden, and M. Moore were all “disastrous” in their late self-revisions, and in each case the revisions were “monstrous misjudgements” borne of “entirely unnecessary guilt,” and so moral as well as aesthetic failures. W. B. Yeats, though, “can be applauded on some but not all of his rewritings,” Hill says. “Reconceived, rethought, rewritten” is how McDonald characterizes Yeats’s late changes.

Section “20″ of Comus certainly has been reconceived, rethought and rewritten in Broken Hierarchies, and my quick look through the Amazon text shows plenty of other major and minor changes in places both expected and unexpected. Is a variorum edition on the cards? Broken Hierarchies is already almost one thousand pages long. A thousand. Is this defiance or a dare?
Williams recently returned to the subject, explaining the confusion created by some altered line-breaks in a poem from Hill's Mercian Hymns.  Read it here.

The Art of Memory Loss

On his popular Poetry Forum blog, Robert Pinsky praises Elise Partridge's cancer poems:
I like the directness, clarity and understatement of these poems. Partridge scrupulously avoids playing for sympathy; but beyond that, in “Chemo Side Effects: Memory” she convinces me that her attention to memory loss is absorbing, rich in detail: a little like the fascination a birder or a nature poet communicates in rich textures of behavior.

Sunday 25 May 2014

Sunday Poem

Wood Violets—tiny islands of white—make up in numbers what they lack in size, as if spring’s first favours went to smallness. In tree tops by the pond Black-crowned Night Herons perch at noon. Washed ashore, shark or tuna line has wound & wound around a driftwood hulk. A Winter Wren sings its high, superlatively speedy song—the days too short & too few for singing everything that should be sung.
Today when I took our cat to the vet, the cage’s rusted door fell off. Rust eats a hole in the wheelbarrow. Rust invades the backyard shed & discolours a rake. Rust weakens the spikes in the backboard of the abandoned basketball net. The shed’s doorlatch, the propane tank, the croquet wickets—rusted. Once I found a lost watch in a park: in this oceanside realm of oxides, rust was gnawing on the hands of time
Half our frontyard is flowers & shrubs. While I guide the lawnmower around, neighbours stop & praise the proliferation. “My wife’s work,” I say, or “It’s Karen’s garden.” A perfectionist, she alone complains she hasn’t nearly enough time to serve it well. At dinner she’s skeptical if I mention more strangers finding pleasure in the garden just as it is—swoops & tangles, fallen blossoms, all that leafy leaping over boundaries. 
wind or mind? bear or hear? mild or wild? wiry or airy? peaks or freaks? drought or draught? endless or budless? expensive or expansive? command or commend? carting or casting? wearing or weaving? flaming or flowing? humble or bumble? reason or season? fertility or futility? world or worlds? me or one? woods or moods? almost or utmost? 
(Selections from editors' uncertain transcriptions of words in the manuscripts of Thoreau's 1848-53 journals) 
Clinging to tall grasses & clover stems, a scattered condominium built of bubbles. Spittlebugs, those Froghopper nymphs, excreted soapy liquid into which the bellows in their abdomens pumped air. Hidden, covered in their own foam, they now drink the plants’ juices—but I only know this, don’t see it with my eyes. I brush past the clover without stopping to knock on the doors of those houses of froth. 
Just below my knee, a bump the size of a small apple swells: a Horse-fly’s work, livid rose, like an inoculation gone bad. I hardly have the hide of a horse. Does the insect’s name mean it hangs around horses, or has the bite of one? While my skin flares & itches, another winged stinger rattles against leaves. Horse-fly, Horse-fly, if I wrote as many poems about you as Issa did about flies & crickets, would you scram? 
We don’t have to see a swarm of krill or fish to know one is there. In Passamaquoddy Bay, the signs meet in one misshapen circle: Sooty & Greater Shearwaters, afloat or in flight—Harbour Porpoises surfacing for a second—a Finback Whale’s dorsal fin sliding that way. At an observation boat’s railing, we too take part, but distantly, with an appetite for watching all those appetites converge in the furious water. 
I found a paddle abandoned in the woods, but no boat or raft—a rusted tin cup, but no jug of water or wine. Later, suspenders hang- ing from a tree, minus the pants. Farther on, a weather-bleached page—torn from its book—caught in a bed of ferns. All those findings weren’t clues to a single story, but bits of many stories. Not much joined me & the strangers except the place we’d all passed through. 
On the Wolfville mudflats terns cry kiri-kiri-kiri, a quick overlapping of thin voices thrown into the wind. We swivel & scan, scan & swivel, but don’t see the long-winged white birds—can’t even be sure if they’re to the left or right, in front or back of us. Avian ventriloquists? But then the excitement’s gone. You say a dozen, I say three or four—overstatement & understatement returning hand-in-hand to Front Street. 
Sunlight falls liberally upon the storm-shattered shells scattered over shore. You might think some fierce-wheeled machine had lumbered back & forth, fragmenting everything brittle—whether blue, pink or creamy white—but tumults of winds & waves & rocks did the work. The air is an ocean of winks. The beach is so aglitter, so much like a dumping ground for broken mirrors, you have to look away.

From Ringing Here & There: A Nature Calendar (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2014) by Brian Bartlett

("Canadian Autumn II" by Melissa McKinnon)

Social Media Poems

In the Author's Note to his new collection, Brian Bartlett explains the technological origins of the prose form he coined.
One 21st-century aspect of Ringing Here & There is that its paragraphs were all posted as Facebook “updates.” Longer than haiku but shorter than sonnets, the entries shared during the first sixteen months were kept necessarily within the 420-character maximum of Facebook postings. I playfully enjoyed the challenge of the length limit, so when that limit was eliminated by the mysterious Facebook powers-that-be, I stubbornly stuck to a visually accustomed sense of the entries’ maximum size, without being confined by a fanatical adherence to 420 or fewer characters. Other than ironically declaring their independence from Facebook by rejecting its change of update lengths, from the beginning the paragraphs had rebelled against many other characteristics of the famous, infamous social-networking forum: they were all first handwritten and revised by pen, usually underwent further revisions after being posted, always included some element of the natural world, were rooted in the paragraph more than the fragment or the sentence, valued the mighty ampersand as a beautifully-shaped concentrator, & subsequently had other lives, such as appearances in literary journals & at public readings or conferences. I began to think of the handwritten drafts as their infancy & childhood; Facebook postings as their adolescence; & later appearances—including in this book—as their maturity. While some of the entries might be called prose poems, I’ve resisted that as a label for them all, considering other terms such as field reports, sketches, commentaries, tributes, laments, micro-narratives, quotations, & collages.

Thursday 22 May 2014

The Nativity of BookThug

It seems I played a part:
“The milieu that BookThug comes out of is the late ’90s and early 2000s, and there’s this famous argument that was going on at the time after Christian Bok won the Griffin.Carmine Starnino had his famous response review to Eunoia, ‘Vowel Movements.’ There was this very curious thing that was going on where people were choosing whether something was good or not based on style.

"So you had the experimental poets over here saying these people were wrong because they were doing what they were doing and then there were the New Formalists … There was The New Canon which Starnino edited and there was Shift and Switch which was edited by Beaulieu and Christie and Rawlings,” Jay Millar told me. “There was this mad grab of defining that was going on, but it had to do with camps. What I was interested in was that poetry is a very vast spectrum between these things, and I don’t think that just because something has a stylistic experimental thing or a stylistic New Formalist thing, that it is better than the other things. There’s good examples of both and there’s a really interesting place in the middle. That’s the most fascinating. The good examples of things on the extremes are also fascinating, for different reasons. That’s kind of the aesthetic that I was interested in curating at BookThug. The discussion between things is much more interesting to me than what everything is, which is why I set up the press the way that I have.”

Monday 19 May 2014


"But so far as the big debate prompted by the [Donald] Allen anthology goes—the debate between the raw and the cooked—let me say that if I had to choose between Robert Lowell and Denise Levertov, I’d pick Robert Lowell. And although Don Allen was a good friend of mine and I admire his book enormously, I think there are plenty of poets in that anthology that aren’t very good. Just because they had the right poetics, you see, doesn’t make them good; that issue has always been a problem for me. I can’t admire poets just because they have the right poetics."
Marjorie Perloff, in conversation with Charles Bernstein, assesses the influential anthology The New American Poetry 1945–1960 

Sunday 18 May 2014

Sunday Poem

I wish I would
like a ship
that all night carries
its beloved captain
sleeping through
no weather
slip past dawn
and wake with nothing
but strange things
that did not happen
to report
but I get up
in the dark
and parachute
quietly down
to the kitchen
to begin
the purely mental
ritual plugging
in of the useless
worry machine
above me
she sleeps
like the innocent
still dreaming older
sister to all
gentle things
the white screen
impassively asks
me to say what
does not matter
does so I shut
it down and think
about the lake
near where I live
it’s a lagoon
getting lighter
like an old blue
just switched on
maybe a Zenith
it has two arms
they stretch
without feeling
east to embrace
an empty park
a little light
then everything
has a shadow
I almost hear
a silent bell
low voices
I brought us
to this old city
the port connects
to the world
where everyone
pretends to know
they live
on an island
waiting for
the giant wave
in some form
maybe radiation
in the yard
the wind blows
the whole black
sky looks down
for an instant
through my sleepy
isolate frame
a complex child
hologram flickers
angrily holding
a green plastic shovel
then disappears
leaving an empty
column waiting
Bill who I knew
was so angry
is dead
whatever he was
going through
I kept away
I never did
I love his poem
he was really good
I keep forgetting
his last name
I always leave
his handmade book
on my desk
not to remember
but because for hours
after everything
everyone says
sounds like a language
I never knew
but now speak
spirit I know
you would have hated
how I think
you would have liked
this music
in another room
pushing the alien
voice into
the millennium
the one you left
so early
you were right
all noble
things are gone
except to struggle
and be loved
From Sun Bear (Anansi, 2014) by Matthew Zapruder 

Saturday 17 May 2014

The Orbit of Mentors and Precursors

In an excerpt from his collection of essays, Career Limiting Moves, Zach Wells is skeptical of "coming of age yearbooks" like Breathing Fire:
The reason these anthologies are consistently disappointing is that poetry, fickle bugger that it is, manifests not in generational collectives and period styles, but in scattered individuals of eccentric talent. Generations are epitomized by shared characteristics, poetry by exceptionality, oddness, iconoclasm. And the generations presented in these books, having been carefully chosen by their elders and mentors, tend towards the reproduction of both the virtues and the flaws of preceding generations.

But if one sets out to be different without an apprenticeship to past masters, one is apt to come off more freak than unique. “Woe to him,” as Lao Tze said, “who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant.” Following in the shadow of poetry’s greats can of course be discomfiting. Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence deals with the psychological upheaval poets—even great ones—undergo trying to escape the orbit of their mentors and precursors. Small wonder some poets prefer to pretend that they have little to learn from the distant poetic past: it makes their jobs a hell of a lot easier.

Most of the contemporary poets I admire have developed a dialectical knack for folding lessons learned from their ancestors into the batter of contemporary settings and idioms. When baked, these experimental mixtures can create surprising and spontaneously fresh conceits, structures and turns of phrase. When there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9), the key to originality is in the choice of antecedents as they combine with the particularity of the individual poet’s experience (including his or her heritage and present cultural milieu), thought and speech patterns. To borrow Auden’s distinction, these poets aren’t concerned so much with “originality” as they are with “authenticity.” They know that if they’re going to write the poems that are theirs to write, they must pick and choose those techniques others have used that best suit their own predilections and limits. Such poets don’t so much find a voice as they forge a style. Respectful deference is rejected in favour of a bold blend of promiscuous intertextual fraternizing and thievery.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Something More

Anita Lahey has a meaty exchange with Phoebe Wang on the subject of poetry and poetry reviewing. Here are some favourite moments: 
When I’m coming to a book, I’m coming first as a reader, and having my own direct reaction to the book and what’s happening in it, and then when I sit down to write about it, I try to place my reaction to the book in a wider context. As opposed to starting with a theory or academic context, I’m starting with my visceral reaction to what I’ve read. I’m trying to be open and frank about what’s happening to me as a reader of that book, with the understanding that the person reading the review would know that—it might be different for them, and likely would be, because they’re a different person. And I think that’s important: I think a lot of the discussion that has been going on about reviewing and the way it’s supposed to work really underestimates readers, their understanding of the relationship between the reviewer and the book, and between them and the reviewer. They’re not blank slates that reviewers are putting their all-powerful assessments onto; they’re close readers in their own right, and will have an understanding that a reviewer is one person with a perspective.
As a writer—and I don’t know if other writers would feel this way—I want to know if my book didn’t work for someone for some reason. That’s something I’m really curious about. Because I want to reach a reader in some way. That’s part of the impulse of writing, to share, so I wouldn’t say that my own personal perspective has given me a perspective on the world of criticism—a hard reading is kind of an honour, in a way, because someone cares deeply enough about what you’re doing to give it the attention and time, and to think about it and read it that closely, and that’s a real gift.
I’m baffled by the debates that go on, that tend to have very narrow ideas of what’s okay, what should be allowed, what we should have left behind by now, or all of these things.They have these discussions in the music world, but we all seem okay with loving and listening to different kinds of music. That doesn’t preclude the fact that there are definitely such things as weak poems and bad poems, but why can’t there be many different kinds of really strong poems, just like there’s lots of different kinds of really strong music?
It’s that thing about poetry: you can never adequately articulate what makes a good poem because the whole magic of a poem is that it’s holding something you can’t articulate. So the best poems are the ones that, when you read them again, you see something that you didn’t see before. There’s room for you in that, because we’re always different in the sense that we’re amassing experience and things all the time, so when we’re going back to something, we’re going back to it slightly different than when we read it before. And if a poem is a good, strong one, it actually responds to that change somehow, so you get something more, or different, or you see something you didn’t like the last time.

Monday 12 May 2014


In a fascinating round-table discussion with Molly Peacock, Robert McGill, and E Martin Nolan, Jason Guriel complains that Canadian poets don't pay enough attention to readers:
I get that we live in an age of very diverse audiences, but I don’t entirely think that’s true. It’s easier to simply say, “We’re never going to get that reader again, anyway, so it’s fine if my poem isn’t calibrated to get someone’s attention.” There’s a way in which Canadian poets are not always orienting themselves toward a reader. I remember reviewing an anthology that Shane Neilson edited called Approaches to Poetry: The Pre-Poem Moment. The anthology featured a number of poets, and printed a poem by each and an essay about how they came to write that poem. I was struck by the poets who were like, “I don’t have any designs on the reader. I don’t have any calculations and I’m not trying to impress anybody.” I remember thinking that a little bit more calculation, a little bit more showmanship, wouldn’t necessarily have been a horrible thing.

Titillating Material

Shoshanna Wingate discusses the experience of working on her first book, Radio Weather:
“There are so many writers, especially when they’re young, who use titillating material as a way of getting attention for their work, and that’s what I was afraid of,” she explained. “I was afraid of using murderers and AIDS and I was afraid that if I didn’t have the skills to do it well, it was just going to be a wreck.

Russell Edson 1935-2014: Reax

Jennifer L. Knox:
Russell Edson has been called the Godfather of the American Prose Poem, but I don’t think that title fits. He did not create the form, nor was he the first to innoculate it with parables from the subconscious’ darkest regions. In his introduction to Great American Prose Poems, From Poe to the Present, David Lehman wrote, “It is a form that sets store by its use of the demotic, its willingness to locate the sources of poetry defiantly far from the spring on Mount Helicon sacred to the muses. It is an insistently modern form. Some would argue that it is, or was, an inherently subversive one”—hence, a form ideal in which to get your freak on, which Edson did in thirteen (stupidly difficult to find) books written from 1951-2009. He also wrote two novels, six books of short stories and “fables,” and three books of plays—a logical extension of his dialogue-driven poetry. Donald Hall said, “Whatever his method of writing, (he) makes surreal poems. Few poets have ever written as Edson does, out of a whole irrational universe—infantile, paranoiac—with its own small curved space complete to itself, impenetrable by other conditions of thought.” That’s more like it: a Universe Maker—a universe of monkeys, boobs, and poop—not the Godfather nor a Champion of the form, as Edson shunned championing things. In a 2004 interview with Mark Tursi in Double Room, he said, “I don’t see poetry as editorial comment…what we can write is so much deeper and more interesting than the empty descriptions we give of ourselves” and of our writing, I’ll add. Most definitely, a Perfector—a topiary gardener, molding seething green clouds into shapes yet unknown...
Cody Walker:
Edson’s poems were rich in sport and glory. And they were singular. Despite his many imitators, it’s difficult to imagine coming across an Edson poem and mistaking it for anything other than an Edson poem. And what a thing to be! An Edson poem! A block of prose in which shadows fall into epileptic fits and corpses are dragged to French restaurants. In which old men eat spoons (and then themselves). In which husbands and wives, guarding themselves against the “hurt of the young,” stockpile guns, and lay traps, “and put bags of acid in the trees.”
J. Robert Lennon:
Edson’s work is about disorganised fun, the kind that values chance and absurdity and sudden, unexpected revisions to the rules that govern physical reality and narrative sense. He was a master of the carefully chosen white space, and he loved the ellipsis—there’s as much going on in his pauses as in his words. He delighted in contradiction (‘He thought, I have no thoughts’) and recursive logic (‘then another old woman visited the first old woman, and spoke of another old woman, who had spoken of still another old woman’). 

Friday 9 May 2014

Good Reader

For Matthew Zapruder, being an editor is like being "a really good, attentive, sympathetic reader":
If I'm really not getting something the writer is doing, I feel like the writer needs to know that. That doesn't mean that they can't do it anyway, because ultimately it's their book. But I feel like my role is to ask questions about things that feel like they are unnecessarily distracting or counter-productive. When you're working on something, you can lose sight of why certain things are there, and there are a lot of things that are vestigial or extraneous. I've had this experience before, both as an editor and as a writer, where I didn't even remember something was in there. They'll ask why something is there, and I'll be like, 'Oh my God, I don't know. That was from twenty drafts ago!' And that can happen to the very best of writers. So I feel like my role is almost a sort of 'cleaner-upper,' for the most part. And a mirror. Or, like I said, to be this ideal—or very good—reader. I feel that's very much my job, to be in that person's service. I think one thing that's important, too, is, when you're an editor, there has to be trust there. The person needs to hear me talk about their work and talk back to them about it so they know that I know what's going on and what's important. Because if they don't feel that way, then why would they take my advice seriously? 

Ancient and Effective

Amanda Jernigan mounts a defense of rhyme:
Somebody-or-other called rhyme "that ancient goddess of happy coincidence," and I like that very much — but rhyme is also closely associated with another ancient goddess: Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. In this age of digitization, it is easy to forget that the real business of living is not to school computers but to school brains — "to school an intelligence and make it a soul," as Keats put it. So what is needed are not technologies that make things memorable to computers but technologies that make them memorable to human beings. Rhyme is one such technology. Metre is another. Ancient and effective, both.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Sunday Poem

It goes through my mind like a train at night,
the train my father rode in the night, his mind
a train of thought far from where he rode. 
When I pull into the seniors' home I like to feel
the car drift in abeyance round the last corner,
another touch to come nearer, the braking slide 
into parking easements and an end. Forty-two
years he leapt among the tracks, nights, to cobble
things together, shuffling boxcars and flat cars, 
dealing their lengths part way into sidings—join
and hinge, muster and release—climbing the ladders
free of his uncouplings. It took some sorting out. 
He listened hard for the word come down
from the Dispatcher. Too heavy now for the staff,
he has to wait for the machine that will hoist him, 
strapped, over to his chair or back to bed again.
A sandbag, his sullen mass slumps into the lift
and rises sloppy and unresisting. He goes with it 
staring in disbelief. I am borne here. For us,
mother and wife are let go, the love-ties
grappled loose in unbroken entanglements, 
our new solitudes gathering and fanning out.
When the sliding door whispers open for me
—in hand his double-double and an apple fritter, 
unlooked-forward-to, like a pill that you take—
I enter with purpose but am halfway off again.
Our family is convergence and divergence both. 
I have a photograph of him in mind, a man
in his prime leaning out from the boxcar's ladder,
signalling ahead the slow recessions, the gaps 
and clearances, the thrown switches and coupler
knuckles ... ten feet and closing, five feet, good.
His grief looks poor on him. Plan was he'd be 
the first to go—with drinks and smokes, half by
his own wishing—and Mum's years would ease
ahead of him by whole decades. But after 
Alzheimer's and a kidney ache, her body still shining
with something fifty about it went off and left him
cajoling his clogged arteries past eighty and beyond. 
We never spoke of this, but I always imagined
those seemingly endless trains he assembled
in the night, a hundred cars and counting, 
how, when the engine pulls up a little
and the cars buckle forward in succession
but have not yet stopped before the hogger guns it, 
it must be that all the fastenings along
let up in turn and spread fresh gaps throughout.
Cars and clusters of cars at once go 
clutching and unclutching down their length.
And I try to picture how, the jolting instress
unravelling, their reciprocal momentums 
would meet and intermingle, the forward push
backing into slows, and the slows pulling off
pulling forward ahead of their kickbacks and jostles, 
and you would hear the whole thing down the line
at once parting and gathering, the entire train
getting on, undecided. But how too, if you really 
listened for it, there would be single cars hidden
in the midst, scudding alone, neither pushed
nor pulled, left gentled into hiatus, coasting free 
an instant in the long line's accordion folds'
uneasy breathing. A hovering out of waiting,
the glide getting on in the inertia, itself still moving. 
He comes to with a jolt. I take in my stride
his pantomimed 'Look who it is!' and we embrace,
our private journeys sallying up behind us 
in opposite directions, gently coupling. Not
a greeting or farewell, but a staying that is
neither between us. He keeps me close, and not 
to come undone, I tell him what I've been
thinking about the train. 'Slack action, it's called,'
he says, and lets his arms fall open around me.
From Slack Action (The Porcupine's Quill, 2013) by Jeffery Donaldson

Vaulting Iambs

Richard Kelly Kemick reviews Richard Greene's Dante's House in the Spring issue of The Fiddlehead (review isn't available online), giving special praise to the title poem:
"Dante's House," the titular piece, is an ambitious long poem written entirely in terza rima and centering around Siena's horse race, Il Palio. Because of the abundance of rhyme and metre within the poem, it is both highly original and oddly familiar. Greene commits himself unflinchingly to the form throughout the entire poem and "Dante's House" has a fierce musicality allowing it to be tremendously re-readable. Greene's ear for metre and adherence to the chain rhyme pattern entangles the reader in the plot of the poem. The form begs to be read aloud, accentuating the vaulting iambs and phonetic chimes. It is the equivalent of that chorus that so subtly creeps into your ear, goading you to chant percussive beats and miming the drum hit, followed by whatever else makes that second sound.

Saturday 3 May 2014

Jock Construct

What could a booming poetry culture look like? Sports:
Poetry should have the same kind of social acceptability and vernacular expertise as sports. After all, most American men, and many women too, are not just sports fans but sports intellectuals, with personal experience playing the games, statistics and facts at the ready, deep historical knowledge — all without ever having taken a course in the subject. People adore sports not as therapy or middlebrow self-betterment but for sports’ own formalist sake: I hate to admit it, but “l’art pour l’art” is a jock construct.