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Brian Bouldrey
Chicago, IL
Brian Bouldrey is the author of 7 books and teaches writing and literature at Northwestern University.
Interests: Don Martin's comic book noises, JoAnne Worley's "Whoopee", Ronald Firbank's fluffernut novels, honky tonk (Red Meat), opera (Britten), rock and/or roll (The Pixies), Truffaut's "400 Blows", Joe Dante's "Gremlins 2: The New Batch", Calatrava's bridges, Le Corbusier's Habitacions, cafeteria Catholicism, frisbee liberalism.
Recent Activity
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In the classroom, in the writing workshop, the killing criticism among undergraduates is the “P” word: Pretentiousness. Some kid says it about a story with a borrowed form or a poem quoting Aristotle, and that workshop is over, that writer is dead in the water, you’ll never see that poem again. To be honest, it’s an accusation that’s leveled at so many aspects of writing—foreign words and praises, philosophic quotes, big words, little words, a code of ethics, a lack of a code of ethics, the evocation of myth (that children would be anti-myth or myth-free terrifies the hell out of me)… if pretentious means to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed, isn’t every writing teacher exhorting their student to “write what you don’t know” (which I do) encouraging pretentiousness? I think there’s more at work here. The history of writing has been the history of reading, and for the longest time, literacy was low and attached to money, privilege, and a classical education. Montaigne knew Greek and Latin and probably that dirty dirty poem by Catullus—but his French, ugh, sounds so pretentious. In our weird idea of warped American democracy, anybody showing signs of uppity privilege looks like a hipster dickhead. “I used to love ideals, but that wasn’t cool,” D.A. Powell writes in the poem below. And so all the work of the knower must ironically become even more encoded—elitist, even—veiled in jargon, sarcasm, and the inarticulate hero saying articulate things (Homer Simpson: “To alcohol! The solution to, and cause of, all life’s problems!” (and by the way, it is commonly believed that quoting Homer Simpson is not pretentious—but that would be a mistake)). Prosody is a kind of encoding, an ordering of the world that is artificial, and therefore, I guess, pretentious. So then along comes free verse, which just, you know, sounds more free, like free love. But the music is hidden there, encoded, just as well. Are there subject matters that poets ought not write about? Because they are unspeakably painful or not to be fully known and therefore the occasion of pretentiousness? Because they are uncouth, inappropriate, not for the dining room? Because a love that dare not speak its name? I have been including illustrations all this week from a beloved 1941 book about Paul Bunyan, Work Giant. It is filled with encoded secret signals about sexuality and only the initiated, only those trained to look for it, can see Paul’s red hanky in his right pocket, the long, shaftlike neck of Babe the Blue Ox. It’s there for you to see, and when you do, you feel good about yourself a little, don’t you? That you have the intelligence and imagination to enter into the elite society of the Private Club of the Pretentious Knowers. I have created a secret club of writers who have encoded a copy of their book to me, with the elite and special inscription, “For Brian, you were great in bed.”... Continue reading
Posted Apr 25, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Meditations on the beauty of obscenity: Obscenity, like comedy and irony, is an undermining of order; its first feel is fun, fun at the expense of somebody serious who needs to be there, gathering in their skirts. We all take turns being the fun one and then the serious one. Tess Gallagher, in “The Lover of Horses” writes about a daughter taking care of a drunken father, “I made up a strong broth, and as I poured the steaming liquid into a Thermos I heard myself utter syllables and other vestiges of language which I could not reproduce if I wanted to.” Later, she writes, “For the rest of the morning I sat under the cedar tree and smoked. My thoughts drifted with its shifting and murmurings, and it struck me what a wonderful thing nature is because it knows the value of silence, the innuendos of silence and what they could mean for a wordbound creature such as I was.” Obscenity, I think, is the freeing consolation for we, the wordbound who cannot always bear the heavy value of silence. The dirtiest poem, according to the internet, is Catullus’ Carmen 16, “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo…”, “I will sodomize you and face-fuck you,/Bottom Aurelius and catamite Furius/ You who think, because my poems/ are sensitive, that I have no shame/ For it's proper for a devoted poet to be moral/ himself but in no way is it necessary for his poems…” Every once in a while, in one of the merrier, more thoughtful dives, I will find Catullus’ poem as graffitti. It means something more vital to me when I read it as graffitti. The word naughty comes from Christian thought about the Fall of Man. Everything has value in God’s creation, and only the wicked can nullify, naught-ify God’s valuable things; the word originally meant, “possessing nothing”. In 1984, when I was editor of the college literary magazine, we received a poem that was a sort of broken haiku, no art to it, really, just a line: “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck our love goes down the scum river.” It was terrible, and obscene, and the editorial committee had a good laugh, but here I am thirty years later, reciting it fondly from memory, and publishing it. My brother is a metalhead and likes to take his children to metal concerts; it’s a family affair. The Jackson County Fair featured a visit by the now-venerable Godsmack, a name that did not please my mother. “I hope you’re not going to see that GODSPANK,” she warned my heedless brother. I love Godspank—it sounds dirtier than the merely sarelegious she disapproved of. Don’t tell my mom, but I think she invented a new obscenity. And that’s a compliment, for there can be a beauty to obscenity; the crime of cursing is the crime of cliché (which is a terrible crime, the poet’s sacrilege). Thomas Bowdler’s name was turned into a verb. He was the one who edited out all the... Continue reading
Posted Apr 23, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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My great friend and longtime editor Miriam got her start, as so many of us do, editing porn. She worked for a group of magazines aimed at the straight male market with names that sound classy (High Society, Swank, Club International, Juggs (everybody wants sex to be something akin to putting on the Ritz—if you want to find a gay bar in Europe, just look for the “gentleman’s club” sign featuring the tuxedo, top hat, and monocle of a silhouetted Mr. Peanut (are we out of all the parentheticals yet?))). Miriam’s job was to “clean up” the letters to the editor, full of reader fantasies and experiences. And yes, as you may have suspected, she was also the author of many of the letters. “There were a lot of real ones,” she reflected on those golden days of yore. “The guys who wrote about liking boobs needed the most work. All those misspellings, the bad grammar, the dull repetitive motorboating.” But the letters written by the perverts? The constructors of auto-erotic Rube Goldberg machines, the purveyors of props made from ordinary household appliances, the dreams of naked cheerleading pyramids and mile-high encounters—“they were always well-written and hardly needed my edits.” Just as I suspected: the perverts are smarter and more creative. I’m not saying Maureen McLane wrote letters to Swank, but I’ve never seen a line of poetry she wrote that I felt the need to edit, even if they are fragmentary, momentary, glimpsed, gone. Perhaps that is because it doesn’t seem as if McLane entirely crafted the rhyme and rhythm of her poems—I love that it is as if she is a force of nature, one that chisels the words and images out of the glaciers or granite she writes about. McLane is always finding the lyricism in the world, or carving it out of the rock and putting it on the page. Like Paul Bunyan, she knows how to move large things around a landscape with ease and elegance. She sits upon the roof of each poetic shanty and squeezes the logs so tightly together that no chinking is necessary. Incarnation Some are gay In an old way. It has its charms. The kids are like Hey…wassup… Except they don’t say Wassup. Hey. The women with children Who are nonetheless Virgins. Mrs. Dalloway. The body a nest Of sockets And unplugged cords. The body without Organs has finally arrived Its wireless folds Almost tangible. Years ago I wanted to die When you made me feel We were fungible, Everything repeatable. Later I floated Like a spirit In a spirit photograph Above my life. I shared a skin with my skin. I was in my life not of. I hovered above. Then I descended A millennial reincarnation Surprising myself o Out of that ghost. Carnations grow In sandy soil. You can touch Them. Hey. And there are things that other people say, which sound like music to her and us, she quotes somebody saying, in “Glacial Erratic”, “I need... Continue reading
Posted Apr 23, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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I am of two minds about pretty much everything—I’ll growl against the Death of the Book but when I have to move my books to a new household, I wish death upon my books. Moving my books makes me ask the great philosophical question of the age, “What is a book?” The object, the thing on the shelf with paper and stitching and all those words, letters like ants toiling in an antfarm. What books do I send away, what books do I keep, in my home, in my office, in the lackadaisical lending library? The ones that fill my home, then, are well-beloved because so ponderous. They are souvenirs. Souvenirs of having spent a period of my life with the book (I will always remember that Christmas with Buddenbrooks; that feverish “vacation” in Cabo with Thom Gunn’s Man with Night Sweats; the nowhere legal proofreading job mostly spent reading Proust with Jessica). Those books are near my bed. So are the ones that I re-read when I’m sick at heart (always poetry when I am sick at heart, ALWAYS, I read poetry like the broken-hearted drunk-dialing old lovers). And there are the books that have been signed by their authors. I like the signature, for the same souvenir reason—Borges said, “When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.” I like to be surrounded by the bodies of these remarkable people. Call me morbid. People are their books, they really are. The book that should have made the author’s career because she is better than those reviews, I cradle in my arms like an ignored child. Among my signed editions, I have a very special collection of souvenirs, books signed in a very special way. They have the frisson of intimacy to them. They say, literally (and I know how that word is thrown around these days, so literally, “literally”), “For Brian-You were great in bed!” And there are, as of this writing, 69 volumes with this inscription. “Never have I experienced such pleasure,” writes Dan Chaon in my copy of Await Your Reply, “You have touched me in places I did not know existed.” “What a magic wand (wink wink),” extols Achy Obejas on the title page of Ruins. Are any of these inscriptions true? Why ask? You are people dedicated to literature. Fiction is epistemologically truer than history. Back off. Let’s just say this collection of “souvenirs” is based on a true story. Many have wanted to jump on the bandwagon. Few have balked. Some have slipped around it with “You were great in bread” and “You were great in bed, wish I had been there.” The most vulgar and enthusiastic signators are the children’s book authors and the academics—they never get to be naughty, and here’s that big chance. But it’s the poets—oh, you poets. You talk like the demons who threaten Buffy the Vampire Slayer before she stabs the shit out of them, all obscure hyperbole, metaphor, and blank... Continue reading
Posted Apr 22, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Oh,thank YOU, Jane, and if readers suspect a little bit of logrolling, you're probably right--take a look at the conversation I had with the most enthusiastic of us all, Jane, Jane: http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2011/09/best-american-poetry-interview-a-conversation-between-brian-bouldrey-jane-hirshfield-pt-1.html
It was my pleasure! Let's do it again some time. Meanwhile, all my eyes are on Jericho Brown and his postings! Thanks to everybody who put up with me!
I'm glad--Creeley and his big g-d car and you are a couple of my favorite enthusiasts! MAAAHK WEH-BAH!
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7 All Right, That’s Enough When I was a kid, one of the albums in my parents’ record collection was Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream and Other Delights”. I would sit listen to it and stare at that cover, the lovely lady Redi-Whipped into a strumpet parfait (incidentally, that was shaving cream on her, mostly, which is something to remember as an artist when you are trying to be “realistic”—artistic truth is made of something other than). My mother must have had an egg timer set in the kitchen, because while I was allowed to look at that album, there were limits. In she’d come and say quietly, “All right, Brian. That’s enough.” Still, she was the first to teach me to take time to dream. The carvings on the porches of a Gothic cathedral are more than dream, more than decoration, but an education. Most people couldn’t read back then, so the images in churches were the guides for storytelling. Most of the friezes and frescos on the cathedral fronts and in the retablos behind the priest were strictly biblical, but cathedrals were made big for some other storytelling, too. The stuff way up there, not front and center, may not be given top priority, but it is, without a doubt, part of the secret history of art, faith, and the world. So far as the early Fathers of the church were concerned, there is no doubt as to the purpose in authorizing wall pictures. St. Basil, in 379, said in a sermon, “Rise up now, I pray you, you famous painters of the good deeds of the army. Make glorious by your art with colors loud or by your cunning, make illustrious the crowned martyr, by me too feebly painted.” Cunning! And Ruskin, fifteen hundred years later, said, “Gaze upon the old cathedral front, where you have smiled so often at the fantastic ignorance of the old sculptors: examine once more those ugly goblins, and formless monsters, and stern statues, anatomiless and rigid; but do not mock at them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone; a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure; but which it must be the first aim of all Europe at this day to regain for her children.” Poor Ruskin. The socialists wouldn’t have him because he was such a religious ninny. The conservatives won’t have him because he’s such a socialist do-gooder. No wonder he longed for inclusion and unity. And any time somebody takes him out of context, he sounds self-righteous, contrived, or dead wrong. It’s hard to grab an isolated quote from Ruskin and not make him sound like a nutjob. He brought a lot of this on himself. He would work so hard defending the indefensible: Goths, leafless trees, frosty fortitude, imperfection, pre-industrial ecology, and just when he wins you over, just when you think you might join him... Continue reading
Posted Dec 10, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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6. What Mozart and Mike Tyson Have in Common Everybody loves the play “Amadeus”, but I don’t. First of all, the story of Antonio Salieri recognizing the genius of Mozart, and being the only one to do so in a world full of mooks who wouldn’t know genius if it hit them with too many notes, and deciding to spend a lifetime to destroy true genius—that’s not only historically untrue, as far as earth history is concerned, it’s not even emotionally or epistemologically true, as far as earth humanity understands it. Ruskin and I love the grotesque in art, but you can go too far with grotesque, and that's for my final installment tomorrow, but for now, all's I'll say is that "Amadeus" is, for me, the dramatic equivalent of this thing Ruskin goes batshit crazy about: I am fairly good at perceiving talent or even genius in a protégée, one of those superserious students I described in my last posting. Some of them have overtaken me. When they do, I experience, of course, what I like to call “The Nausea”, the overwhelming desire to congratulate and vomit on a friend who just got a prize or publication. But the need to hurl quickly subsides, replaced by an inner need to “get the hell to work” and an outer need to do everything I can to spread the word about that genius. I think this is also enthusiasm. I also think the author of Amadeus mis-assesses Mozart as somebody incapable of growth, or growing up. You can hear self-discovery in every Kochel number, and dramatically in his operas, which are, like Kitty Kelly biographies and baby animal videos on YouTube, idiotic and riveting. Take the ridiculous plot of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte”: two guys try to prove their girlfriend is truer than the other’s by pretending to go to war and returning in the disguise of two foreigners out to woo one another’s girls. But the goof pretense of “going to war” doesn’t sit well with the girls: war is serious business, and their boys will probably die. Mozart, himself a dopey guy, almost runs headlong into his own satire, and only through the creation of a light, goofy, playful conceit, does he come to darkness, to seriousness, to some of the saddest music and feeling I’ve found in art, arrived at through a stupid plot point. I used to think this scene, and the farcical final garden pardon of the Contessa at the end of Marriage of Figaro, were unearned emotional moments; I now think these are places that show that fools rush in in order to become wiser men. Click here to watch sad girlfriends say goodbye to stupid boyfriends. How can we observe beauty, then choose, as those Italians do in Mozart’s operas and Forster’s novels, to pass it by? Hazlitt described the quality of Titian’s painting in his essay “On Gusto” (“gusto” being the 19th century word for “enthusiasm”), “Not only do Titian’s heads seem to... Continue reading
Posted Dec 9, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
As the kids these days say, "LOL", Shelley. It's a good idea, but who will fetch me my coffee?
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5. This Posting is Ruskin-Free Here is a story from my life as a teacher at a university with very serious students. Since I've gotten everybody into a churchy mood, I will step into the posting pulpit. Enthusiasms 5:1-8 And it came to pass in those days that one of my disciples, one of those of the occident, dispatched unto me an email begging dispensation, saying, “I’m, like, chairing the dance marathon? And one of our big sponsors? They can only do lunch today? And I need to leave class early?” And you may ask, was this a request or a demand cast as injunction, for what, truly, was the question? And I spake upon him, “Sure. Just leave the class quietly so you don’t disturb the other students.” No matter; my sermons fall upon the matriculators of a certain university, who comport themselves in the robes of ambition and of Abercrombie and of Fitch, and they, perhaps, in exceeding unseasonable maturity, do do lunch (verily, I do say do-do). For this maturity I am most grateful, and there is much feasting in celebration. And it came to pass that ON THAT SAME DAY a second acolyte, this from the orient, bowed unto me and spake, “Will you release me from mine obligations a tad early so that I might attend to my duties regulating the adoption of Chinese orphans, for a major donor from the great city to the south (Chicago, that intertwining serpent that devoured Gog and Magog) has bid take me to see the newborn babes?” And I asked unto him, “Dost thou mean orphan, frequently, or orphan, a child without parent,” and the student, being not of the occident and unfamiliar with the indulgences of Gilbert and of Sullivan, put ear close to his master and asked, most sincerely and without irony, “What?” And lo, THAT SELFSAME DAY, when the flock suffered to be assembled around their devoted teacher, when she of the occident and he of the orient gathered their quills and the syllabi of edicts, it came to pass that a third student, neither of the occident nor of the orient but of the savage southern lands whose designation is barbaric, for the flag of his city state is crimson and not the Pantone 292 of our cloudless sky and state (and yet I forbade the lefties to mock the Samaritan, since only he had paid his tithe of shekels and camels in full), claimed to all at the table that he, too, was engaged on a mission of great mercy, which involved the fates of every member of the association of students as yet to matriculate into the schools of law, congregating as a society with such shared hopes, and if this red-state disciple did not depart, yea, with the student of the orient and she of the occident, these legal larva might spend the rest of their lives attending to the composition of poetry or dwelling in a similar Cimmerian pit of... Continue reading
Posted Dec 8, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Don’t miss Brian Bouldrey’s provocative one-week class where you’ll explore how to banish clichés and discover refreshing new approaches to nature and environmental writing. This class is open to all who have one nature-writing sample to share in the workshop. A great cross-genre experience with discussions of environmental poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. Environmental Writing January 30 - February 3, 2012 Class Size: 15 $500 Level: 1-week Intensive Click here to apply for this workshop There are subgenres of creative nonfiction based on form (familiar essay, memoir), and there are those labeled according to subject (travel, science, food, cultural criticism). With these subject matters often come expectations that can become traps, and even clichés—why, for instance, when we read or write about nature and the environment, does God more often than not show up, all spendthrift and uplifting? Why the spiritual epiphany? This course will look at the traps of mode. While we will always honor Dillard and Thoreau, there are other ways of looking at nature. Have you seen “Randall’s” take on the honey badger, for example? We will look at a variety of texts and video essays that examine and limn nature with other modes, through the eyes of other cultures and other times, in order to free and refresh our writing on nature, the environment, with the intent to banish all the other mode clichés of subject-based creative nonfiction. Readings may include Ruskin, Tanizaki, Joy Williams, A.D. Hope, Coetzee, Marilynn Robinson, Teddy Roosevelt, and video essays by Isabella Rossellini (The Green Porn series) and the notorious Randall. Each day we will write to prompt exercises. Students should have one example of nature or environmental writing to discuss in online workshop. Brian Bouldrey, is the author, most recently, of The Sorrow of the Elves (GemmaMedia, 2011). He has written three nonfiction books: Honorable Bandit: A Walk Across Corsica (University of Wisconsin Press, September 2007), Monster: Adventures in American Machismo (Council Oak Books), and The Autobiography Box (Chronicle Books); three novels, The Genius of Desire (Ballantine), Love, the Magician (Harrington Park), and The Boom Economy (University of Wisconsin Press), and he is the editor of several anthologies. He is recipient of Fellowships from Yaddo and Eastern Frontier Society, and the Joseph Henry Jackson Award from the San Francisco Foundation, a Lambda Literary Award, and the Western Regional Magazine Award. He is the North American Editor of the Open Door literacy series for GemmaMedia. He teaches fiction, creative nonfiction, and literature at Northwestern University. Continue reading
Posted Dec 7, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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4 At Play with the Overly Revealed of the Lord To a certain point, Ruskin celebrated the “booby capital-ism”, too. And see here how he wasn't against "pee-pee capital-ism", either. File under: The Grotesque. Grotesqueness was one of the six things, along with changefulness, savageness, rigidity, redundancy, and naturalism, R-Tool admired in gothic architecture in The Stones of Venice. If I am tolerated to return as a guest-blogger in the future, my plan is to discuss each of these six things as they manifest themselves in good poetry. For the rest of this week, I’ll focus on “grotesqueness”. Grotesque: grotto-esque. A style of painting, sculpture, and ornamentation in which natural forms and monstrous figures are intertwined in bizarre or fanciful combinations. This is from old French and Italian, grottesca, the feminine form of grottesco, “of a grotto”, a grotto being a small cave, a word derived from the Vulgar Latin, “grupta” or “crypta”, which means hidden, to hide. Crypto, crypt, and grotto are all derived from the same Greek root: kruptos. When effort, thought, and emotion are in harmony, as they were in the building of the great cathedrals of Europe, the resulting art makes its deepest and most permanent impression. People say, I wish I lived in the hippie 60’s or I wish I lived in the roaring 20’s, and they must think I’m a freak when I say, I wish I lived in 1140. Those dark-ages days when effort, thought, and emotion were in harmony. Okay, sure, they had a couple of rounds of the Black Plague, and, okay, if you are different from us, we’ll have you ritually tortured and killed, but guess what? Been there, doing that. The 12th century, if I’m reading history books right, enjoyed quite a bit of peace, free-thinking, and opportunity for travel and self-improvement. It was the great era of cathedral building, storytelling, and, by corollary, a lot of boob statues appearing in church. I started taking a lot of pictures of the incongruities found in the Catholic countries of France and Spain, through which I was walking, in which unsacred and sacred items rubbed up against each other in what to me was a rather comical, if quotidian, way: Crucifixes erected over junkyards, basketball hoops bolted into church walls, an air freshener under the Virgin Mary, “Ave Maria” muzak in a bar. A carpenter keeps his lunch cool in a holy water fount and reads the newspaper on the altar while he fixes the church door; gypsies using the cathedral doors as a soccer goal, the statues of two saints are used to tie a clothesline for the drying of underwear. And yes, that really is a chicken in church (I can't stop myself...It's a Church's Chicken!) I call such stuff “Our Lady of the Dumpster”, because years ago I took a picture of a lovely street corner grotto with a statue of the Virgin Mary much cared for, votive candles surrounding her in perpetuity. Below her, in the photo,... Continue reading
Posted Dec 7, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Yes, yes! This is a thing I'm getting at--it's that "sunglasses on" posture that inevitably ossifies into something creeky and merely ironic (and I think we can all agree that there's a big difference between "irony" and "merely ironic"). Enthusiasm is nude waterskiing and Byron with a hangover so bad he has to write "We'll go no more a-roving" about it and liking both language poetry and formal poetry. King David would have loved the internet.
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3. No Pain, No Gain Okay, so what if we just say “enthusiasm” is not the most serious part of making or observing art? I am as guilty as anyone of pushing the serious aspect of art. When I speak of my principle influences as a writer, I say Iris Murdoch, or John Ruskin. But what I really want to say is Joanne Worley (“Whoopee!”) and Don Martin, that MAD magazine cartoonist. “Art is not cozy and it is not mocked,” says Iris Murdoch at the end of The Black Prince, “it sheds the light by which all human things are mended and tells the only truth that ultimately matters; and after art there is, let me assure you all, nothing. Art hurts, dammit, and it doesn’t put much food on the table, either. In Richard Adams’ Watership Down, the herd of homeless rabbits encounter a group of bunnies who are, it turns out, evil bunnies because they live in a warren that is fed well by the local farmer; he sets snares to catch the occasional sacrificial fattened rabbit, and the rabbits are willing to give up one of their numbers now and then rather than waste time foraging. What do these evil, effete bunnies do with all their extra time? They compose—ye gods!—poetry. Silverweed, getting his thanatos on, orates, Where are you going, wind? Far, far away Over the hills, over the edge of the world. Take me with you, wind, high over the sky. I will go with you, I will be rabbit-of-the-wind, Into the sky, the feathery sky and the rabbit. Evil, effete bunnies. Get to fucking work. The problem is, I have always had a problem separating work from play. My favorite vacation is hiking long distances. Sore feet, sunburn, spider webs in the face, but you don’t know about the other stuff, the endorphins running through the body, the druglike high created by dehydration, stinkiness, and apoplexy. And when I hike through old Europe, I love to rest my stinky self in old churches. I don’t know why, except to say that I was raised Catholic and, with a writer’s infantile need for narrative and symbol, Catholicism satisfies that need with all gruesome images and tropes and lives of the saints. I am comforted by Christ on the cross; images of suffering breed beauty, if done right: no pain, no grain. I admit that I sometimes wish I could feel what many non-Catholics feel when they see a particularly gruesome crucifix, as I witnessed through the 6-year-old daughter of some Jewish friends I was traveling with in as we entered a cathedral into that solemn apse, our little novice gaped at a stunningly large and gruesome crucifix, Christ’s eyes rolled back into his head as he hung from the nails. “Mommy,” she shouted, “what happened to him?!” It’s a long story, sweetie. A long story I know pretty much by heart. What, then, does surprise me are the departures from the churchy norm. These... Continue reading
Posted Dec 6, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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2. You Kids Get Off My Lawn Don’t be afraid of John Ruskin. Just think of him as I do, shouting at the neighbor kids who are on his lawn (it’s also useful to think of him as one of the early Game Board Throwers; I get the sense from his writing that he would spend a lot of time playing an aggressive game of Monopoly or Risk, have all of his armies in Australia and Asia or a dozen hotels on Park Place, and suddenly just pick up the board and hurl it across the room. Think of him that way, in church, with his head up his own ass, like this guy.) . Where was I? Oh yes, John Ruskin (hush, child, I know I haven’t mentioned a single poem yet, but right now, I’m setting up dominos. It’s going to be wicked cool when I knock em down. It’s gonna be like, as the poet Doug Anderson says, Apollo building the house while Dionysus sets fire to the curtains. That’s what this blog is gonna be. By Saturday.). But before I talk about Ruskin, I want to talk about the word “yucky”. Adam Gopnik is bringing this word “yucky” back into fashion the way I want to bring Ruskin back into fashion. One of the overarching themes of his new The Table Comes First has to do with the way you might say, “That ground beefheart is yucky”, and then I would say, “I like that ground beefheart” and then you would probably say, “You’re yucky.” Because taste so easily becomes morality. (N.B. I’m still reading Gopnik’s book, and I am paraphrasing a moment on a “Moth” podcast starring the author, so I can’t academically cite a page number with this theme in it. Sue me; it’s finals week and I have to grade 25 essays on the subject of literature and the environment. And also, God invented the blog so you don’t have to cite everything to within an inch of its damn life.) Turning personal tastes into moral code, I think, is true with a lot of aesthetics issues. De gustibus non disputandum est, but we seem to hold to our “schools” in art, literature, music, and so forth as if we were clinging to the last bastion of ethics. I was talking about this just this morning with my colleague Eula Biss, who pointed out that in matters of food, we do seem to respect people who widen their experiences of aesthetic pleasure as much as possible, but in most of the plastic arts, such a lack of belief constrained makes us become, as J.V. Cunningham put it, scatterbrained. (there! A poet! Are you freakin happy?) Ruskin (there, see? I got back to him! We are going forward!) was no exception on this point. He actually argued once that red was a more moral color than other colors. I shit you not, as my mother would say. (It’s in Modern Painters. If you’re looking... Continue reading
Posted Dec 5, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Humility, Concentration, and Gusto. Okay, Mostly Gusto. Poetry is a serious subject. But I am not a serious poet. I am not a poet at all. I am a reader of poetry. Don’t get me wrong: I studied poetry and wrote poetry. Alan Shapiro was once my mentor, and he wrote on a poem, “Brian, this is a foolish piece of work; you have the attention span of a hyperkinetic three year old.” I have cobbled this assessment into a career. But what I lack in seriousness, I make up for with enthusiasm, and this is what my blog intends to address. We must, all of us, as writers, attend to the form we’ve learned and also try to surpass it, break it. We must try to surprise and delight. I talk with other writers about all the rules, grammatical, structural, and legal. The rule of 3’s, Robert’s Rules of Order, the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition. About the gun on the stage and how it has to go off, about splitting infinitives, about how too much enjambment will only look like free verse. Avoid—or embrace—the subjunctive mood. A sem icolon is as ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly. Eat your beets. Don't feed wild animals marshmallows the way birds feed their young. Santayana once said, “A great work of art must strive toward perfection.” And then he wrote, “And it must fail.” Perhaps you’ll be appalled to know that I want to speak about poetry in this way. Victorian writer John Ruskin, in his six tenets of good architecture, interpreted this striving as “Savageness”—a love of rudeness and imperfection. “The demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.” Ruskin believed very much in the exploratory and playful aspects of art. He believed in something we cannot quantify or map, really, in writing: Enthusiasm. Which is weird, because every time I see a picture of him, he looks like he just said, “You kids get off my lawn.” “Enthusiasm” derives from the Greek “enthousiasmos”, that state of inspiration, of being filled or possessed by the god, for which artists might be praised or chastised. In a more secular application we can still speak of enthusiasm as the condition which combines an artist’s concentration, preoccupation, attentiveness, and excitability. In social life it is usually called “intensity”, as in, “Damn, he’s so intense.” It’s a vaguely accusatory description of an artist’s extreme and discomforting alertness. Ruskin was intense. Enthusiasm does not excuse lack of talent and craft. But it has to be present in great writing. E.M. Forster had something to say about enthusiasm, or rather, his characters had something to say, the one who waltz happily, then sadly, through Italy in Where Angels Fear to Tread. One evening, the British tourists of that novel decide to go to an amateur opera in the fictional town of Monteriano. “There was a drop scene, wherein sported many a lady lightly clad, and two more ladies... Continue reading
Posted Dec 4, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Brian Bouldrey is now following The Typepad Team
Dec 2, 2011