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I met poet Sean Thomas Dougherty back in 1996 when he featured for Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Laura Boss at a Barnes and Noble somewhere near Paterson, New Jersey. Back then I was still working the 12 to 8 shift in a mold making plant. I had not slept well that day, perhaps two hours and some change, and the reading was a thirty mile drive from my apartment. Putting those two factors together, it made sense to stay home and get a couple hours snooze time. Fortunately, reason has never run rough shod over intuition, and something about the name Sean Thomas Dougherty compelled me to forget my sleep deprivation, the thirty mile drive, and the 8 hour shift I was due to punch in on. If you’ve ever worked in a mold base factory, you’ll notice hardly any of the men or women are unscathed. Mangled fingers, slipped disks, an occasional amputation are the rule. Being tired around 3 ton steel, around cutting and grinding machines that eat such steel can be conducive to the loss of body parts. I thought: “so what?” I made the drive. I’m glad I did. Sean Thomas Dougherty was both a solid poet and performer of poetry. The two are not always one. Some poets, some very good poets go out of their way to make sure they don’t “perform.” God forbid! People might mistake them for entertainers! Personally I always thought a poet ought to risk being mistaken for being an entertainer rather than for being a cadaver who can read (though I must admit it might be interesting to hear a corpse recite poetry). Sean did not ham it up, or oversell the poems. He didn’t have to. I knew by his references, by his metaphors, and sound that he had read a great deal of poetry, that he had a far roaming yet accurate ear, and that these poems I was hearing out loud would deepen rather than disappear when I brought the book back with me to the mold making plant and read them at lunch break. I was right again. I wore his book out, and have had the luck to be his friend for 15 years. We have never lived closer than three hundred miles, and so most of the friendship has been conducted through phone calls, an occasional feature, and long face book threads where Sean spins great punk songs from around the world, and is very expansive in his definition of what constitutes punk . Expansive is the right word for everything he does. The poem below is taken from his latest, and I think best book, Sandra Sings the Laundry on the Line (BOA editions). Sean reconciles a lot of conflicting registers and references in his poems—hip hop and punk with Lorca, working class narratives with language theory, whatever “defective means” as Williams said will suffice to make the poem live both on and off the page. I have chosen a love poem... Continue reading
Posted Feb 12, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
“The hypertrophy of information leads to the atrophy of form” – Kenneth Burke In 1927, over 80 years before Zadie Smith warned us of the vapid communications, and the break down of the private self in her well written and lengthy essay on both the movie “The Social Network” and the book “You Are Not A Gatchet” by Jaron Lanier, the philosopher, literary critic Kenneth Burke summed up the distinction between form and information succinctly: information, in and of itself, is inert, non-dramatic, non-relational has none of the glamour of gradual unfolding, or revealing and concealing (intimacy), and its hypertrophy tends to distort people’s ability to create and apprehend form which Burke defined as “the building up and fulfillment of a desire on the part of a reader (auditor, audience, beloved---take your pick). Whether we are talking of set forms (sonnet) or form as a drama, a narrative, a ceremony, a relationship, form unfolds. It creates anticipation, temporarily thwarts or delays fulfillment, leads to a climax, and then to a slow tapering off in the afterglow of the fulfillment. Form is all about desire and fulfillment (or thwarting). The creator of face book claims he wants to eliminate desire (Hello Lacan), and, to follow what Smith writes, he is well on his way to doing it. Information without form is more or less phatic (a word meaning communication not intended to be profound, but to convey a sort of quick and easy fellow feeling). Information that revels in being phatic (the visual information of an Andy Warhol, the verbal information of a strict Dadaist poem) is part and parcel with certain aspects of post-modernism. Yet, if this is so, face book might represent a new sort of consciousness. We must be careful of getting cranky about new forms of consciousness. Zadie Smith likes using 1.0 and 2.0 people. She also likes using the word nerd (everything she says to create her sense of nerd consciousness is also one of the traits of high functioning Asbergers, though she never uses this word. At the danger of using an illness as metaphor, nerd consciousness might be rendered as Asberger’s consciousness—a hyper literalism, a tendency towards obsessive preoccupations, and an inability to catch other people’s emotional cues). People with Asbergers must intuit the emotions of others by rote, by training. They do not “get” fellow feelings. They have feelings, but most of them are closer to the basic emotions of fear, engagement, and seeking. They are sincere, and single minded to the point of seeming ironic. They are not ironic. The most valuable insight in Smith’s review of the movie is how the film maker has mistranslated nerd consciousness into the old plot of a man corrupted by power, status, and success. This is the old trope of the nerd who just wants to get girls. Smith does a good job of showing how this is not the case. What Smith does not point out is that removed from face book and its... Continue reading
Posted Feb 11, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
There are many poets who enjoy disliking William Carlos Williams. He wrote poems that seem distinguished only by their adherence to the tossed off. They make no major claims. They seem jotted off. So why study the man at all? First, it is hard to see Williams because he is everywhere, in all the schools of American poetry. He took the English conversational lyric as invented by Coleridge and developed by Wordsworth, and turned it toward American speech patterns: OK, sure---the sense of a self- consciously casual utterance, language that was wrought from a busy life and ranged between the phatic, the cranky, the ecstatic, the overt, and the obvious. But we must pause at the word obvious. Stating the obvious is not easy. Human beings tend to mistake mystification for intelligence. Abstractions appeal to us. We forget that even "chicken" is an abstraction. It is a word for an animal. It is not the animal. So perhaps we only believe things have meaning when they have been twice abstracted: first by word denoting thing, then by word (which is symbol) implying something else in the verbal universe (word as symbol for thing plus word as symbol for abstracted word: chicken (thing) plus word chicken-symbol---plus chicken as truth justice, and the American way). By this process, every word becomes "and", a conjunction, that which separates as it joins, joining and separating from the thing it denotes and the moral, emotional, intellectual, and historical meanings it connotes. In short, our language becomes a process of mystifications which have lost their original purpose, or have revealed the hidden agenda of all mystifications: power and exclusion. All street lingo, scholastic jargon, all supposed "verbal rigor" is meant to appeal to an initiated, and to exclude the uninitiated (and this includes the language of those who feel excluded). Williams was not against this nearly air-tight law of verbal action. He was practicing a new, or, rather, reconstituted rigor: the rigor of the obvious, contact with words for things as things made out of words---double contact, rather than double abstraction. Williams wanted to make contact with the thing, and then make contact with the thing made out of words. He was not just interested, as in a Haiku, with rendering a thing's thingness, but he also wanted to make contact with it as a verbal construct, as a thing in its own right. He was interested in a poem as a thing made out of words---as an object, an actual artifact, something as tangible as a chicken. Williams was interested in type---in the words as they were placed upon the page. He was interested in the spatial orientation of type---the "just so" latent within the act of typing words upon a page. If we know this about Williams, then we can assume three things that may be important to entering into any Williams poem: 1. Rigorous attention to the obvious. 2. Rigorous attention to the placement of the obvious as a "just so" upon the... Continue reading
Posted Feb 10, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Tribute to a Poet, with Athletic Dedication Joe Weil Leslie Heywood has lived a life of wildly disparate forms of excellence. A nationally ranked runner in high school and college, she has kept up the role of a true scholar athlete by continuing her athletic pursuits while becoming a widely published poet, memoirist, and Literary theorist as well as a distinguished professor. She was a student of Derrida’s and Heywood also has a rock band named for her, two daughters, two large Akitas, and has recently recast herself as one of the pioneers in the melding of evolutionary sciences with the literary arts. I rest my case. Her latest poems weave the rich complexities of family life around deep concerns for our ecological uncertainties. They are lyrical narratives, composed with a strong and rigorous sense of place. Uncertainty and complexity underscore all of Heywood’s triumphs, yet she exhibits in the poem I have included for this post a love and an honesty of perception as tenacious as her training regimen (and, believe me, tenacity in terms of her training regimen is a weak word). I want to add that Leslie Heywood is also known for her keen fashion sense and her ability to beat most mortals at arm wrestling. . The Bonds of Words The summer before second grade My daughter begins to catch up with Herself, her fingers that couldn’t Direct a pen find some hidden Connection like the knobs Along her spine and suddenly That long sweep from z’s to e’s Makes sense, the pen in her fingers Obeying at long last the dictates Of her brain, the neat curves of q’s and p’s. The doubt that had Shadowed the gleam in her eyes Falls away, along with the terror Of swimming, the requests she Submerge her head. I did it, She tells me, her voice fierce, I’m just As good as Keene, her little sister, For whom these mechanical matters Of neurons and form have Always been as easy as breathing, And my eldest, watching me Watch her sister with pride and relief Took the quick flip of her Sister’s neat shoulders, her muscular legs, and my delight in them, As a fatal condemnation of hers. Keene’s our athlete, I’d already said And Caelan would turn away, Lips set, her face a block of stone I was Starting to chisel in a certain way, That way my parents called me the pretty one, my sister the brain So much I still think myself stupid, My sister makes jokes About her nose and hips, Apologies for some step Repeatedly gone wrong. We become the names given us, Even when we know better We cannot turn away. I have done this without meaning to, Without taking proper care, Training my eldest daughter’s body To awkwardness with my words More surely than her soccer coach Might be able to train her Any other way. My words hurt. I am the means by which A sad history repeats. I must take... Continue reading
Posted Feb 9, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
We have no trouble thinking of the difference between thought and feeling, and Jung assures us they are both "judging functions" since both weigh in on our irrational sensations and intuitions. Both thought and feeling shape an existence in which the senses and intuitions, are, indeed, "deranged." Of course Rimbaud advocated a "derangement of the senses" By his time, thought and feeling had become tired, and official. I sometimes times think everything we call modernist, or post-modernist, or "experimental" is merely a shift in priorities between these four functions. Whereas poetry before Rimbaud used the sensations and intuitions to aid and abet agreed upon feeling and thinking states, modernism reversed the trend so that sensation (as with the symbolists), or intuition (as with the Dadaists and French surrealists) made introverted sensation and extroverted intuition the prime functions, with thought and feeling serving cameo roles. This got rid of the tired and agreed upon tropes of thought and feeling (sentiments), but it had one unfortunate effect:: Direct utterance of emotion, not as a feeling state (emotion is not feeling), or as mere sensation, but as some mysterious hybrid of judging and non-judging functions: the barbaric yawp, and not just the barbaric yawp as Whitman expressed it (which, misunderstood, can be confused with a raw rather than a cooked utterance) but the aria (Whitman loved opera) in which the singer and the song merge, an emotional state which is neither feeling nor sensation, but that odd and brackish syntax between them where the body of a life is fully spoken. It can be loathsome to those who have an inherent disdain for anything direct and seemingly artless, yet on the tenth artful poem, we might wish to flee our own "inventiveness" and hear something that belts forth without apology. This is the poetry of Maria Mazziotti Gillan. Its directness may baffle. If one is not careful, and is expecting a nuanced equivocation of "feeling" then one misreads her. She is a voice that has learned to inhabit, and this is how to enjoy her work. It is a voice that has no time to draw attention to decorative effects. It is a voice of presence rather than performance, the voice of an opera singer who has sung long enough to know that six octave ranges will not do you much good if you need just one note and can't be direct enough to nail it.. I have known Maria for 25 years. I have met no one as single minded, or as generous to other poets. In this poem, she achieves the effect of true lamentation. That is no mean accomplishment. What a Liar I Am I have been lying for a long time now, the sicker you get the more I lie to myself most of all. I cannot say how angry I am that this illness is another person in our house, so lies are the only way to get through each day. How hard it is to admit that... Continue reading
Posted Feb 8, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
A poet I always return to the way I might return to a baseball field in spring to watch a good high school outfielder is Robert Francis. Francis is a poet of small triumphs, which is to say, beauty. He notices the thing before him and renders it without his own ego getting in the way. Nothing in the natural world is fodder for his "significant" ideas. At the same time, unlike Haiku junkies who affirm the elephant shadow of their egos by always making sure they are not "there," Francis is not about to abdicate his intelligence, his ability to manipulate, to judge, to express reasoned apraisal. If there is a greater ontology to the outfielder (the brevity of his youth), or to the Lilac bush (its proximity to ruin) he trusts that this ontology will be brought out best by attending to the surfaces. I tell my students: surface becomes intereior. If you have to look for an ontology or meaning below the surfaces, then I suggest you are treating the world around you the way certain guys in my neighborhood treated others who could not pay the vig: you are beating the bushes for "meaning" the bushes might not contain. You are treating the details as wage slaves, and since you don't care for those details except that they "convey"your "truths," they will not have the accuracy to do the work you want them to do. Francis remains a "minor" poet in the best sense: not lesser, but minor, a poet of small triumphs, a poet whose work at its best makes Robert Frost sound a little over-the-top, who makes Galway and Donald seem just a bit fat and sloppy by comparison. All great poets are galaxies of minor poets with the addition of gravitas. Their poems are neccessasry. A great minor poem never traffics in the neccessary. No one asks of beauty that it be significant. Beauty humbles significance. At worst, this can lead to shallowness. At best, it can lead to the remarkable play of light and dapple and shade that shallowness confers: the mountain stream, the dazzle of quick light on rocks. I bring out Francis whenever students think they have original ideas. I tell them "original ideas" is always an oxymoron. Poets write as much from their stupidity as from their intelligence, but I must define stupidity here: all that can halt the smugness of an idea, suspend the smug certainty of the idea, and plot for the fluidity of thought. A person who already "knows" has lost the scholarship of his stupidity. To study what we already know is to review at best. At worst, it is vain redundancy. What is it in the thing we know that still ceases our imagination, that makes us "stupid" with pleasure? Francis is a poet who makes me stupid with pleasure, so I am going to place one of his small gems here, and then see if I can come up with a prompt that... Continue reading
Posted Feb 7, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
What are the Values of Small Triumphs? Joe Weil A poet I always return to the way I might return to a baseball field in spring to watch a good high school outfielder is Robert Francis. Francis is a poet of small triumphs, which is to say, beauty. He notices the thing before him and renders it without his own ego getting in the way. Nothing in the natural world is fodder for his "significant" ideas. At the same time, unlike Haiku junkies who affirm the elephant shadow of their egos by always making sure they are not "there," Francis is not about to abdicate his intelligence, his ability to manipulate, to judge, to express reasoned apraisal. If there is a greater ontology to the outfielder (the brevity of his youth), or to the Lilac bush (its proximity to ruin) he trusts that this ontology will be brought out best by attending to the surfaces. I tell my students: surface becomes intereior. If you have to look for an ontology or meaning below the surfaces, then I suggest you are treating the world around you the way certain guys in my neighborhood treated others who could not pay the vig: you are beating the bushes for "meaning" the bushes might not contain. You are treating the details as wage slaves, and since you don't care for those details except that they "convey"your "truths," they will not have the accuracy to do the work you want them to do. Francis remains a "minor" poet in the best sense: not lesser, but minor, a poet of small triumphs, a poet whose work at its best makes Robert Frost sound a little over-the-top, who makes Galway and Donald seem just a bit fat and sloppy by comparison. All great poets are galaxies of minor poets with the addition of gravitas. Their poems are neccessasry. A great minor poem never traffics in the neccessary. No one asks of beauty that it be significant. Beauty humbles significance. At worst, this can lead to shallowness. At best, it can lead to the remarkable play of light and dapple and shade that shallowness confers: the mountain stream, the dazzle of quick light on rocks. I bring out Francis whenever students think they have original ideas. I tell them "original ideas" is always an oxymoron. Poets write as much from their stupidity as from their intelligence, but I must define stupidity here: all that can halt the smugness of an idea, suspend the smug certainty of the idea, and plot for the fluidity of thought. A person who already "knows" has lost the scholarship of his stupidity. To study what we already know is to review at best. At worst, it is vain redundancy. What is it in the thing we know that still ceases our imagination, that makes us "stupid" with pleasure? Francis is a poet who makes me stupid with pleasure, so I am going to place one of his small gems here, and then see if I can come up with a prompt that goes with it: Time and the Sergeant To take us in, bully and bawl us Out was his official Pleasure. And he was beautifully built for it, That buffed brass hair, that Tuba voice And those magnificent legs on which He rocked he rocked. He never bent a knee. How is the anal oriented humor now? Fresh and exuberant as ever? Or has Old Bastard Time touched Even you, Sergeant, Even you? First, unlike free verse writers who use tercets merely to make a poem look neat and pleasant, Francis' tercets are justified. The word pleasure isolated on its own line in the first tercet tips us off that Francis knows English still carries a charge of durational as well as accentual sound. Pleasure is drawn out enough to be on its own line, and it is the plosive of the B sounds realized (P's and B's are plosives). Notice what he is doing with the B sounds. They get less emphatic, weaker as the poem goes on. The sound aids and abets the meaning because time has done the same thing to the vibrant sergeant. There are three plosives in the first stanza, all on the first syllable of the words. There are six in the second, all except one in the initial syllable. In the third tercet, there is only one---"bent." In the fourth tercet, the plosive has faded to tertiary placement in the third syllable (exuberant). In the final tercet, only the word bastard aptly carries the charge of the plosive. This might not have been conscius, but craft, practiced over the years, becomes muscle memory. He knows what he is doing even if he is not fully conscious of it. The T sounds are also doing great service to the poem. Its theme is an old war horse: how time diminishes, the same theme of transience as in "A Shropshire Athlete Dying Young." So what? The execution of this old trope is magnificent, and the sergeant has been brought to life by the B and T sounds as much as by anything else. So here's the prompt: Take a common trope of poetry: how time diminishes, or sieze the day (Carpe Diem) or how we don't know what we got till it's gone, and yoke it to a single figure who represents it. Make a portrait of some vivid character, and aid and abet that portrait by sound threads. Francis uses the B sounds. Think what consonant sound you can thread through the poem to do the work for you. Justify the stanzaic structures, which is more than just a spatial neatness, so that it aids the meaning of the poem. Try tercets or couplets, or whatever will suffice, but don't let it be what Paul Fussel called "false form." Let the consonant sounds you have picked diminish or increase through out the poem, depending on how it aids the sense. Look how Francis creates the effect of incredulity: "Even you?" Try something like that in the poem. Good luck. Continue reading
Posted Feb 7, 2011 at Pigsnout2's blog
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Feb 3, 2011