Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last year, Dec. 31st,

I wrote,

I am tired of reading bad poems and worse poems and, every once in a while, not-good poems, which cheer me up, because, though not good, they are better than bad and worse. The remedy is in my own hands, of course. I need to spend less time reading new poems online and more time reading old poems in books. The fault is not entirely with the online poetry sites I visit. Most new poems are bad--at every time and in every place. We forget that because history is an editor, and time has winnowed what we know. It is possible that were I to see as many brand-new Elizabethan and Caroline poems as I see Bushy verse, I should be as dismayed by then as I am by now. (I don't really believe that, you know.) But I don't. The moiety of those new poems lined pie pans and lit fires, so I never have to take them into account.

Anyway, it may be that too much brand spanking new poetry, read online or off, is not good for you. I need to find out.

Do I see any reason to revise that? No. Will Obaman verse be better than Bushy verse? Can't see why. The point remains that most new writing is bad. How many novels from the 80s do you remember? In another hundred years, how many will be up there with Middlemarch and Martin Chuzzlewit? Poems are no different. The more new poems you read, the more bad poems you read.

There are compensations. Reading new work keeps you in touch with the Zeitgeist. It gives you a line on the competition. It helps you see what is merely local and temporary--it's what everybody else is doing, too. On the other hand, you don't really need to be kept in touch with the Zeitgist: it's yours by definition. And your competition ought to be Marvell and Ransom, not Scuzzboy631.

Read what entertains and instructs you. Read what helps you with your own work. But keeping au courant is not an end in itself; and when it is, it's mostly a dead end.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Dead Grandpa Fades to Black. Or Green.

from The Complete Dead Grandpa

At last, Dead Grandpa says, the dead
live for the live, not for themselves:
he for life only, they for life in him.

Tonight the grandson feels the wind
irrigate dreams and dreams there is
a little touch of Grandpa in the night.

And just as well. The more he's dead,
the less he is. He's losing mass.
This afterlife is more than life.

Soon he will be rolled round with rocks:
have his wish worth: remember, me,
death is the reason for the long season.

Think forward to a birth, your death,
the end. We can be met as grass
and ignorant and blind and very green.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

All Sorts of Things

This appeared in Candelabrum, a long time ago.

Jane had decided late on Anglo-Saxon.
She drove away to Rochester, to live
with her new friend, and did, until she drove
into a bridge abutment. So I saw
her not again. I never saw the friend.

There must be at least a story there, what happened,
that sounds like a story; but it's missing something.
It wasn't organized; it just occurred.
Where was she going? Does her mother think
she meant to do it? What was this new girlfriend,

and why is it she wasn't in the car?
These are the sorts of things nobody knows,
except for the ones who get to make it up.
So to Jane's mother maybe it makes sense.
And maybe to the friend. And maybe not.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


An email from an annoyed reader who encountered my latest poem ("Manifest Destiny"), complaining of its obscurity. The burden of her grievance is that I must do it on purpose, to show off in some way--to show that I'm superior to ordinary readers or that I know big words (perhaps I have sesquipedalian longings) or that I'm trying to attract attention for bad things because I don't deserve it for good.

It is an old, old plaint. When I hear it, I think, as I so often do, of Jarrell and his "The Obscurity of the Poet," one of my favorite passages of which goes,

If we were in the habit of reading poets their obscurity would not matter; and, once we are out of the habit, their clarity does not help. Matthew Arnold said, with plaintive respect, that there was hardly a sentence in Lear that he hadn't needed to read two or three times...You and I can afford to look at Stalky and Company, at Arnold, with dignified superiority: we know what those passages mean; we know that Shakespeare is never obscure, as if he were some modernist poet gleefully pasting puzzles together in his garret. Yet when we look at a variorum Shakespeare--with its line or two of text at the top of the page, its forty or fifty lines of wild surmise and quarrelsome conjecture at the bottom--we are troubled.

The truth is, my correspondent doesn't really like poetry. I suspect that is true of almost all the people I encounter in poetry places on the Web. They are there for other reasons--good reasons, bad reasons, their own reasons--and those rarely have anything to do with a life filled with the sound of Hopkins and Browning and Landor, Greville and Raleigh and Sidney. They need to pass some time. They require company. They need to be noticed. They need to be healed. They want to feel in touch with matters of aesthetics; and poetry still carries with it shreds and tatters of prestige--as long as you don't look at it too closely or dirty your hands with crumbly old iambs and messy tropes.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Perhaps it was too hot

Yes, I know I am a bit of fine-arts Philistine, so I shall quote a few sentences from the BBC's report of the Turner Prize competition w/o further comment:

The exhibition's curator, Sophie O'Brien, told the BBC it was a "really exciting" year for the prestigious, and often controversial, prize.

She said: "The Turner Prize is about showing things that are intriguing and surprising and interesting."

Wilkes' work features a supermarket checkout, and a female mannequin perched on a toilet with a bowl with left-over bits of dried porridge at her feet.

Last year Mark Wallinger, the artist whose work includes dressing up as a bear, took the prize for his replica of Brian Haw's anti-war protest in Parliament Square.

And from The Times:

One of them, Cathy Wilkes, 42, is a Glaswegian who gathered together a television, a sink with a single human hair and a pram and titled it She's Pregnant Again when she represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2005.

This time, she has placed a mannequin on a lavatory next to two supermarket check-out counters. Four horse-shoes and bits of discarded wood dangle from wires attached to the mannequin's head. They appear to bear no relevance to the check-out counters on which the artist has arranged bowls and spoons, as well as empty jars with the remnants of food. Scattered across the floor are piles of tiles and broken pottery in a plastic bag.

And, after all, what need is there to comment? What can one say after, "Four horse-shoes and bits of discarded wood dangle from wires attached to the mannequin's head"?

From the same genre is Ron Silliman's praise of The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (, which includes the following passage.

Or Tim Atkins’ “Sonnet 20”:

in jet-streams, jet-streams

Certainly a sonnet is possible in which these words fall in these places. Yet is not clear if anything, in fact, is missing.

It's a passage which rings perfectly true, as long as human intelligence never intervenes.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Odd Couple

Katy is standing up for Frank O'Hara and Ernest Dowson ( on August 20th, et seq.), a pair who deserve each other. I can see their shades in Poesy Limbo, reciting to no one in particular:

Pedant and pitiful. O, how his rapt gaze wars
With their stupidity! Know they what dreams divine
Lift his long, laughing reveries like enchanted wine,
And make his melancholy germane to the stars?

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!

Together they are frank and ernest, but I have no taste for either. At least in admiring Dowson (however tongue-in-cheek the admiration may be), she is swimming against the tide. O'Hara is the poet du jour, idol of the moment: a taste for him is cheap, easy, and, to my admittedly limited mind, inexplicable.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bad blog, boring blog

Most blogs about newly-published poems and current writing are bad and boring because most new poems are bad and boring, and trying to inflate them into subjects of real or permanent interest just won't work. It was always so. We forget how many poems have to disappear to create our impression of an era. Donne and Milton and Pope and Swift and Wordsworth and Keats and Frost and Yeats were not representative of their times--that's why we remember them. Elkanah Settle and Archibald McLeish--they were representative. But they wouldn't have been very interesting to monitor on a daily bloggy basis. Those trying to keep us up to date on What's New keep butting their heads against this immoveable wall.

It is of course possible to write sharp and funny disparagements of bad poems, but as a regular exercise, it isn't good for you, and it's wearing. And that's one of the problems with reading/writing about new poems all the time: you know in advance that most of what you're going to read will be bad. How can that be good?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The summer doldrums

seem to have begun in spring.  Global warming, I presume.  It seems quiet and sort of half hearted around the poetry areas where I read.  Perhaps the activity is all taking place in a Room of Requirements or a new branch of the He-Man Woman-Haters' Club*, undisclosed to me.  I attribute the silence here to a general sense of awe, readers struck dumb by wonder.  Occam might suggest a simpler explanation.

*Are allusions to The Little Rascals still generally comprehensible?  If I sing the "Happy Birthday, Mr. Hood" song, will anyone know what he got as a gift?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Emotion recollected in daffodils

I find it difficult to write poetry on the road. I guess I'm a Wordsworth kind of guy: the poetry comes whilst I'm distracted at my desk or during a really boring meeting. I hope I am storing materials which will produce those subsequent poems, though I suspect most of that occurred long ago, and I am still living off the capital, and I can alway write a poem out of sheer will, if I want to, but those aren't the poems one believes in most. Those come later, if they come at all.

At the moment I am noting, once again, that the English robin and the American robin are two completely different birds and wondering why, all those years I was studying English lit, no one ever said so. Important as the robin is to Merrie Old EngLit, no one mentioned it. One of the hazards of an American kid being taught English books by American teachers: I suspect they didn't know either. I think about this every time I'm here, wondering what else I've missed and what a British student, reading Faulkner or Twain, passes by unawares.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Imagine that

In his Preface to The Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth writes,

I might perhaps include all which it is necessary to say upon this subject by affirming, what few persons will deny, that, of two descriptions, either of passions, manners, or characters, each of them equally well executed, the one in prose and the other in verse, the verse will be read a hundred times where the prose is read once.

Imagine that. Wordsworth says it so matter-of-factly, so off-handedly, he must have believed it was so, yet it posits a state of affairs I find almost inconceivable. Commenting on the passage, Randall Jarrell says,

One sees sometimes carved on geology buildings: O Earth, what changes thou hast seen! When a poet finishes reading this passage from Wordsworth, he thinks in miserable awe: O Earth, what changes thou hast seen! Only a hundred and fifty years ago this is what people were like.

Imagine, say, John Grisham sitting around mooning, unable to change out of his pyjamas, thinking miserably, "I wish I could write these stories in verse, so I could attract some readers." Imagine that. I can't.