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Brad Leithauser
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The prospects for American poetry may look highly uncertain. But one thing can be said with assurance about its future: whatever happens, poets will be sitting around lamenting the present state of American poetry. I may well be one of them. In the decades since I began to publish (my first book appeared in '82), one unsettling development seems to have followed another. Chief among these is the disappearance of many poetry publishers--but there's also the disappearance of various magazines, and newspapers, and a slow strangling of reviewing space, etc. Discussions about the direction of poetry (whether it's a couple of poets in a bar comparing professional indignities or a formal symposium entitled Whither Verse?) soon turn wearisome, alas. Like most sane people, I'd much rather hear about the future of pretty much anything--Major League baseball, fast food, even the Democratic Party--than about the future of poetry; the tone is apt to stay less contentious and defensive if you avoid poetry. Still, nobody who writes poetry seriously and devotedly can altogether avoid speculations about a common destination: Where is poetry going? These days it's a question that leads us to broader questions: What's going to happen to newspapers--will most of them still be around in ten years? Magazines? Ultimately, the issue is the printed word--or perhaps it's simply the Word, printed or electronic. In the beginning was the Word, perhaps, but I'm not sure, in an age of film images, the Word will be completely present at the end. Which is to say, I'm less hopeful than many of my poet-friends about the degree to which e-poetry can satisfactorily replace print-poetry. I seem to spend as much time on my computer as most writers do, and I've welcomed opportunities to write for on-line publications--including this invitation to be a one-week guest-blogger for Best American Poetry. And yet--perhaps a generational difficulty--I can't utterly shake a deep-held conviction that "publication" implies a physical object. "Virtual publication" feels somewhat oxymoronic to me, like "virtual sex": neither can be truly itself until a tactile element enters in... We may be ushering in a world where there is no choice about these matters, where poetry--which is able to survive, as Keats demonstrated, when "writ on water"--is chiefly writ on the ever-extendable blackboard of cyberspace. One adapts as one must. Okay, you can no longer be an old-fashioned local newspaperman where there are no longer old-fashioned local newspapers--so find another way to do your reporting. The typewriter repairman moves on, into a future where there are no typewriters, and so does the poet. I teach in an MFA program, and enjoy doing so--even as, perhaps inconsistently, I note with real alarm just how many such programs there are in this country. Surely some of these aspiring poets ought to be studying marine biology or epidemiology or number theory? Generally, the vanishing of a dozen MFA programs would disturb me less than the loss of one more independent bookstore. Theoretically, the presence of so many MFA programs... Continue reading
Posted Jan 23, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Marianne Moore has my vote for the Most Exciting of 20th-century American poets. This would be an award related to but distinct from Most Painfully Underrated (John Crowe Ransom) or Most Consistently Splendid (Elizabeth Bishop) or Most Dangerous to Imitate (e. e. cummings) or Most Valuable on a Daily Basis (Robert Frost). Moore did something poets almost never have the opportunity or ability to do: she invented a whole new architecture, a new and describable prosodic system. You could argue that two poets did this in the 19th century: Gerard Manley Hopkins and Walt Whitman. But with these two marvelous poets the case seems less clear-cut, since the rules of Hopkins's "sprung rhythm" can be arcane and hard to follow, even for his devotees, and Whitman's system isn't strictly speaking systematic: it would be hard to agree upon its operating usages or to predict how it will proceed. (You could also argue that Longfellow's Hiawatha represents a new system, but I don't care enough about the poem--prosodically curious though it is--to litigate on its behalf.) But even if we include both Hopkins and Whitman with Moore, it's still apparent just how rare and difficult is this phenomenon where a poet redesigns the basic blueprints of what a poem can be. (From a taxonomic point of view, nearly all English-language poetry can be classified under a mere half-dozen or so prosodic systems.) To introduce radical shifts in content is a much more common occurrence. You pick up Wordsworth's The Prelude and you say to yourself, "Before him, no English poet ever wrote about childhood in this way" (even as you note that the poem's basic building-block is our old friend--our very old friend--blank verse). Likewise, to introduce radical shifts in tone--the ear-quickening sound of a new timbre--is comparatively common. To venture as a reader from the plod and solemnity of Byron's Childe Harold (completed 1818) to the dash and irreverence of Don Juan (its first two cantos published in 1819) is to see that similar content can be utterly transformed with a change of voice. Everything's the same and yet different, it's all shockingly modern, as Byron suddenly becomes "our" Byron (even as we observe that the two poems are, structurally, all but identical). Moore's system is known as syllabic verse, but she was hardly the first poet to count syllables and to let stresses fall where they might. What she managed to do was to bring to syllabic verse a complement of additional poetic techniques: an idiosyncratic array of indentations, an eschewal of capital letters, a blurring of title and text, a dependence on subtle and off-beat (literally off-beat) rhymes, etc. Together these tools helped to create a complicated and charming verbal contrivance of a sort that English hadn't seen before. Moore wrote some gorgeous poems throughout her career, but it was chiefly in the late thirties and early forties--with a too-small handful of lyrics like "Nevertheless" and "Bird-Witted" and "What Are Years"--that all her prosodic virtues cohered. These are... Continue reading
Posted Jan 22, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
"Make it new!" Ezra Pound urges, leaning imposingly toward you, and you nod knowingly back at him. But the two of you are sitting in a packed bar in the East Village at Happy Hour, and it's a little hard to hear. "Make it nude!" is what you think the old poet is exhorting, which sounds like solid advice, at least in theory, but you're not sure how it applies to you as a young poet. ...Easy enough if only you were a painter. Take the clothes off the model! Or if you were a novelist, or, better yet, a filmmaker--hey, let's everybody strip, get the cameras going, see some action. But in this case, poetry resists easy solutions. Even when you're yearning to sell it out as crassly as possible (Enough daffodils! Enough bloody goddamn skylarks! Let's have some sex!), it often fails to cooperate. The contrast between poet and novelist is instructive. Many of the most influential books of the last century aroused--in different ways--the censor and the lay reader. These were books that got the hormones going in a way poetry rarely can. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley, Joyce's Ulysses... Even Updike's Rabbit, Run raised hot legal and aesthetic issues--the permissibility of the shamelessly wanton in prose that was otherwise decorous and artful. Of course, poetry, too, can make use of "shocking" words or images--but the effect is rarely successfully shocking. Surely one of the reasons Philip Larkin's "This Be the Verse" is so broadly familiar (perhaps the only British poem of the last fifty years that my undergraduate students dependably know) is that it's one of those rare poems where fuck makes an effective appearance. Larkin hits you with it in the opening quatrain: They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you. Yeats evidently considered using the phrase "fuck in the foam" rather than "copulate in the foam" at the close of "News for the Delphic Oracle," but concluded that the f-word would provide more distraction than drive. Poets are notoriously licentious in their personal lives, but it's a rare poem that provides anything of the jolting, juiced-up sort that would send a pubescent boy, slender book under his arm, up to the attic. One of the reasons I've always admired e. e. cummings's sonnet that begins "i like my body..." is that its rawness stays aggressively, perpetually raw, particularly the lines ...i like kissing this and that of you, i like,slowly stroking the,shocking fuzz of your electric fur... (Incidentally, it's amazing how much is achieved here by the illogical, wonderful misplacement of a couple of commas; when I experimentally removed them, while transcribing the poem, the lines went dead.) Poetry resists. It resists the crass, even when we aspire to crassness. And it resists the new, even when we, having at last heard Pound correctly, aspire to make it new. Another way to put... Continue reading
Posted Jan 21, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
{Today's topic is acceleration. For a schedule of my week's blogs, please go to the first of them--Jan 17.} In college I took a year-long survey of British literature in which I probably learned a lot--I had much to learn--though only one classroom moment has stayed vivid in my memory. I recall my professor declaring that Byron's Don Juan may be the quickest poem in the language. This seemed right to me then, and seems right to me now. If true, it's a deeply ironic truth. Quick? But doesn't quick imply small? And the poem is so vast, it takes forever to read. It comprises seventeen spacious cantos, and I suspect most readers, even the well-intentioned, never get much past Canto II. (Canto III has some sizable longueurs.) And the poem is larger still when you envision it not in reality but in conception. It was left unfinished when Byron died, of a fever, at thirty-six. As it stands, the poem leaves so many loose ends that you can imagine it might require twice its present length to tie them all up. Still, this is a behemoth that moves nimbly and briskly. It's an elephant that runs on tiptoe. The poem's sensation of speed is partly the result of Byron's comedy. (No English poet was ever wittier.) Partly it's his slapdash, conversational tone. ("Hail, Muse! et cetera--We left Juan sleeping, / Pillow'd upon a fair and happy breast...") Partly it's his sudden, dismissive transitions. ("But scarce a fee was paid on either side / Before, unluckily, Don Jose died.") The poem may be at its quickest in the shipwreck scene of Canto II. At his mother's command, Juan heads off to exile, following a scandal with a beautiful older woman. But heaven intervenes, and his ship goes down. The howling gales all but pull the poem's stanzaic norm apart. Don Juan is written in ottava rima (a-b-a-b-a-b-c-c), a form which often proceeds with measured stateliness but which here reflects racing and raging chaos, as lines and rhymes all but collapse in upon each other: Again the weather threaten'd,--again blew A gale, and in the fore and after hold Water appear'd; yet, though the people knew All this, the most were patient, and some bold, Until the chains and leathers were worn through Of all our pumps: -- a wreck complete she roll'd, At mercy of the waves, whose mercies are Like human beings during civil war. The storm may be uncontrollable, but Byron has got things in hand. He's a master. A good poet will manage to establish an autonomous pace: his or her poems will move at a rate different from, usually slower than, the average rate at which words move. The better poet goes an additional step, first establishing a pace and then varying it--speeding it up, slowing it down. A good poet builds a contrast between the words within a poem and the words outside it. The better poet lays on another contrast--that between the poem's standard... Continue reading
Posted Jan 20, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
It stares back at you, that singular and signal creature: a poem on a page. What is the very first message it conveys? For it seems you're somehow already in touch with it, even before you've read a word, before you can begin to identify just what sort of species it is. I'm tempted to say the initial message of any poem is Pay attention. Yet this isn't a particularly distinctive or interesting message. Pay attention is what the distant flashing sign on the expressway tells you at the outset, while you're racing toward it but cannot yet decipher its content. Pay attention barks the yapping little watchdog in the picture window; Pay attention cries the skimpy electric-blue bikini on the tan torso down at the other end of the beach; Pay attention warns the blind man's tapping white cane. A poem begins with something weightier. It first says, Slow down. You understand this about a poem even if it's written in an unfamiliar language. You stare at a brief lyric composed in Finnish or Hungarian, and you don't know a word of Finnish or Hungarian. Even so, you grasp that the poet wishes to have the words assessed one by one. The poet wants to see language absorbed more leisurely and thoughtfully than usual. We live in a world where words seem to be spinning through a centrifuge. They whirl past you over vast public address systems, over little hidden speakers in the dash of your car, over unseen satellites, over saloon televisions whose screens are so colossal the patrons look like hunched supplicants--wherever you go, you push against a rushing tide of words. The poem--any serious poem--works against this tide. It seeks to establish a different tempo, one in which words can be savored both singly and collectively. Poetry is all about velocity. A poem might be defined as a verbal attempt to establish a different time signature. My subject today is deceleration. Tomorrow, I'll talk about acceleration. They are of course aspects of the same impulse: a desire to set apart, by means of pace, a small cluster of words, to remove them from the turbid verbal tide that surrounds them, that surrounds us. This notion of poetic velocity is clearly connected to the topics of my two previous blogs: inefficiency and efficiency. But it's separable, I think. A poem's efficiency, its concision, is intimately tied to its content. If you went to hear a Finnish poet read, you couldn't comment on his poetry's concision if you didn't know Finnish. But you could speak about its rapidity or slowness. How do poems decelerate language? Perhaps the most heartening example arises when you begin to read a poem silently and then, mysteriously caught up in its cadences, start to read aloud. You have acceded to the poet's wish. You have temporarily selected a slower medium, whose echoes are outsize and require more space. Poets decelerate language by aggregating phrases that resist any sort of rapid enunciation. Yeats's "Yellow... Continue reading
Posted Jan 19, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Years ago, somebody told me that Marilyn Monroe once remarked that she liked reading poetry because it "saves time." I've never confirmed that she actually said it. If she didn't, I hope no one ever disabuses me, because I'm fond of quoting her. Though Marilyn may surface in a conversation for any number of good reasons, there's something wonderfully, cheeringly unlikely in invoking her for her wisdom. It's a wise remark, in any event. Poetry saves time... Whoever first uttered the phrase was on to something. It has the rightness of an observation that deservedly turns into a maxim. And it has the richness of one of those truths that become truer with the years. Poetry is, potentially, more of a time-saver now than ever before. It sometimes seems to me that modern society--that thing, that all-swallowing presence so vast you can hardly guess at the ends of it--might best be described as a time-saving device. We trim, we truncate, we streamline. Our existences turn airier, filmier. We are translated onto film, and each year the camera--in movies, in commercials, in inpromptu videos--lingers for less time. The cuts come more quickly. Everything blurs. The camera lens (no less than the Moving Finger in the old Persian poem, which "having writ, moves on") has other places to go, other people to see. Meanwhile, as we're manufacturing more time, most everything shrinks. All in the name of efficiency. The Victorian novel is too long. As are--it turns out--most novels. And most poems. Verse vanishes from the pages of magazines, or appears only in bite-sized portions. Somewhere in America next year, soon--perhaps it has already happened--a poet will submit a haiku to a magazine and be told that everyone on the staff loves it and they'd be thrilled to publish it if only the poet will cut a line or two... If you follow this logic to its end, it seems we could all save yet more time by doing away with poetry altogether. You won't miss it, you won't read it, you won't give it much thought. This is a plausible position, and one that all sorts of good people (including a number of my closest friends) have effectively embraced. (By the way, I've never been able to accept William Carlos Williams's stirring assertion that "men die miserably every day" for the lack of what's found in poetry--which sounds like something a poet might write after having had his manuscript rejected.) But I'd urge another point of view. Poetry is a marriage of art and concision. Sometimes it seems the art of concision. Among literary forms, the sonnet strikes me as consistently the most miraculous, and the most miraculous of sonnets are those few that leave you feeling that a coherent and original conception of the cosmos has been inscribed on a miniature tablet: Frost's "Design," or Hopkins's "God's Grandeur," or Milton's "On His Blindness." When Milton angelically declares, "They also serve who only stand and wait," he gives us, in a... Continue reading
Posted Jan 18, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Spontaneity has its time and place--but maybe not now and maybe not here. For poets, anyway, it's usually an overrated virtue. I suppose this is one reason I've always so envied jazz musicians--their world where improvisation flourishes. For them, the off-hand has the upper hand. But attempts by poets to utter extemporaneous poetry are almost always unmemorable--at least, if we're lucky we won't remember them. And I think the same is usually true when poets, whether on workshop panels or in classrooms or in blogs, speak on-the-spot about their craft. Where poetry's concerned, the thought worth saying is typically the one that has been revised and revised. So in this--my first attempt at blogging--I've concluded I'd better provide myself with a little structure at the outset. I plan to meditate briefly each day on a different word or idea. My topic for today--January 17, 2010--is Inefficiency, or Inefficiency and Poetry. The rest of my week will go as follows: Jan 18: Efficiency Jan 19: Deceleration Jan 20: Acceleration Jan 21: Conservatism Jan 22: Innovation On my last day, Jan 23, I'll try to synthesize some of these ideas, and perhaps make a few unverifiable predictions about the future of poetry. Though adopting a framework, I am aware that blogs generally appeal by way of a free-flowing, conversational ease. So I promise now and then to pursue the unsubstantiated and the scarcely relevant, and to attach no footnotes. Belatedly, let me offer all potential readers a warm greeting. I welcome your comments, and would be especially grateful for quotations from poems that seem to corroborate or contradict the points I'll be trying to make. Today's topic is inefficiency, which may engulf us all, since scientists sometimes tell us we live in an entropic universe--one in which attempts to create order inevitably beget greater disorder. There's something unnerving but also comforting to this notion. Surely a poet's not completely unjustified in thinking, "The mess of my personal papers is a reflection of a rich, cosmic verity." But I'm chiefly interested in another sort of inefficiency. I've always been drawn to poets who, despite a reasonably long life, display mastery without prolificity--people like Elizabeth Bishop or Louise Bogan or John Crowe Ransom or Charlotte Mew, each of whose Complete Poems have the graceful heft of someone else's Selected. In tone, in structure, many of their poems show a brilliance and composure that seems extra-human in scale--the serene self-enclosed perdurability of gemstones. But peer into a biography of such a writer and you're apt to uncover tumult and inanition; whole unfulfilled years may elapse without the completion of a single poem. These are poets--bless them--who represent an extreme of unproductivity, but inefficiency is generally the poet's lot. I was once asked (while sitting on one of those workshop panels I dismissed a couple of paragraphs ago) what virtues were most essential for a young poet. Well--I hardly knew where to start. Perseverence? Inspiration? An appetite for experimentation? Then it came to me, something far... Continue reading
Posted Jan 17, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Jan 17, 2010