An Author's Assemblage: Brief Notes and Notices

The accumulation of posts to this web page serves merely as an author’s assemblage of brief notes and notices: the collection of informal bits of information, quotations, and observations gathered as one way to display a personal reflection of perceptions on poetry, publication, and related selections of material drawn from my perspectives as a poet or professor of literature and creative writing.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Stanley Kunitz on the Poet's Relationship to the Poem

“After a certain period, the poem seems to have no maker at all. Poems gather their own momentum and you feel they’re moving on their own. You are part of the world in which they are born and come to maturity, but they have an identity beyond the person to whom they are confiding because the poem doesn’t really belong to anyone, it belongs to a great tradition. The great tradition includes what I think of as the essential spirit of the poem, which belongs to centuries, and not to any single moment in time.

“You cannot know completely what your obligation is in writing the poem. The primary responsibility is to speak the true word and to distill the complexity of sensitivity that enters into any human experience.

“The poem becomes a vehicle of this so-called persona or soul, whatever you want to call it; it is a crystallization of your unconscious life. It carries a big load!

“The poet doesn’t so much disappear into the poem as become the poem. It is a concentration of faculties, of everything you are or hope to be, and at that moment you have a focus not only on your conscious life, but your unconscious world, and it is as much an expression of your whole being as is conceivable.” —From The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz with Genine Lentine (W.W. Norton, 2005)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Gregory Orr On Romanticism and Personal Lyric Poetry

“Inspired by Rousseau, the Romantics took lyric back from the Overculture. Returning it to its ancient and honorable identity as personal lyric, they used it according to its primordial function of ordering individual lives around emotionally charged experiences and restabilizing the self in a chaotic time.

“It is in the context of the personal lyric and its subset, the transformative lyric, that certain figures emerge; poets who, coping with their own crises and traumas, seized the opportunity to create new selves and new meanings through the making of poems. These poets became poet-heroes by disclosing visionary possibilities that went far beyond their own private situations and revealed hopes and meanings that were broadly useful to others, both contemporaries and those of us who came after. They fulfilled Keats’s dream of being ‘physician to all men.’ Of course, the term ‘all men’ is hyperbolic and, to our postfeminist ears, restrictively sexist. It would be more accurate and thus more complimentary to say that these visionary poets were physicians to broad spectrums of the population who identified with their sense of trauma and confusion and their need for self-transformation.

“Romanticism and its aftermath gave us hero after hero of spiritual renewal through the personal lyric.” —From Poetry as Survival by Gregory Orr (University of Georgia Press, 2002)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Walt Whitman: Multiplicity of Speech in American Language and Literature

“Language, Whitman argued, must express the multiplicity of habits, heritages, and races that make up the American nationality: ‘The immense diversity of race, temperament, character—the copious streams of humanity constantly flowing hither—must reappear in free, rich growth of speech. From no one ethnic source is America sprung: the electric reciprocations of many sticks conspired and conspire. This opulence of race-elements is in the theory of America.’ Into the purity of New England English, Whitman introduced the ethnic and idiomatic color of American speech. His desire to keep language and literature open and responsive to the multiethnic sources of American nationality corresponded to his political desire to keep the country open to the immigrants who, after 1850, began coming to America in ever-increasing numbers.” —From Whitman: The Political Poet by Betsy Erkkila (Oxford University Press, 1989)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Art's Inadequacy in the Face of Horror: Natasha Sajé

“September 11 provides ample opportunity for poets to diminish their ethical standing by generalizing. Again, like the experience of being in a foreign country and noting sights, some poets who observed the devastation (either in person or through media) felt that describing it, culminating in an insight about terror, pain, or destruction, justifies their poems. I have a file of poems replete with images of burning towers, people falling or jumping out of them, fiery planes, and smoke-and-paper-filled streets. Most of these poems are unsatisfying because they merely repeat clichés; moreover, I find many ethically repugnant because of the ease with which they presume to describe the pain of others. The poet is making art out of others’ suffering without any risk or consequence to himself or herself. As Susan Sontag says, ‘No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain’; ‘what matters precisely is who is killed and by whom.’ By glibly generalizing what should be an individual memory, these poems fail morally and aesthetically. ‘It is intolerable to have one’s own suffering twinned with anybody else’s,’ notes Sontag, a presumption that mars many 9-11 poems. Living in New York or being in the towers does not guarantee a good 9-11 poem, neither does having a relative who died, nor being Arab-American. Sontag writes, ‘a narrative seems likely to be more effective [in conveying pain] than an image. Partly it is a question of the length of time one is obliged to look, to feel.’ Sometimes the 9-11 poems fail because their treatment is too glancing: the poet hasn’t gone far enough to understand his or her true subject and reveal something new about it.

“Wislawa Szymborska’s poem ‘Photograph from September 11’ (translated by Clare Cavanaugh) acknowledges the speaker’s inability to describe and, in my mind, is successful. She begins with a common image to such poems, ‘They jumped from the burning floors—’ but then immediately reminds us that she is only looking at a photograph. She tells us that ‘Each is complete / with a particular face / and blood well-hidden,’ and ends by saying, ‘I can do only two things for them— / describe this flight // and not add a last line.’

“Not adding a last line (although, of course, she does: ‘and not add a last line’) indicates Szymborska’s understanding of her inadequacy, of art’s inadequacy in the face of horror. She notes ‘the particular face[s]’ she does not have access to. Even the title acknowledges her limited access and understanding. She does not presume to speak from authority. While she does imagine the flight, the poem is ultimately about the speaker’s own inability to describe it fully. It is her stance of unknowing that permits her to repeat familiar images.” —From “Poetry & Ethics: Writing About Others” by Natasha Sajé in The Writer’s Chronicle (December 2009: Volume 42, Number 3)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

David Kirby on the Wealth of Poetry

“Look, a poem either sends you a bill or writes you a check. You can use up too much of your intellectual and emotional capital, not to mention your good will, and come away feeling had. Or you can pat your billfold and say, ‘Hey, this baby just got a little fatter.’

“When I’m asked by fellow air passengers what I do for a living and reply, ‘I write poems,’ the reaction is often a startled smile, as though they’re thinking Homer! Dante! Milton! (At least that’s what I’m thinking they’re thinking.) And then comes the lean-in, the furrowed brow, the voice thick with compassion as my new friend says, ‘But there isn’t any money in that, is there?’

“There are some pretty snappy comebacks to this one, but what I usually offer is Somerset Maugham’s ‘Poetry is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five.’ Actually, Maugham says ‘money,’ not ‘poetry,’ but that’s the point. Money and poetry both act as catalysts, and they bring together objects and experiences that wouldn’t have anything to do with one another otherwise. Wealth takes many forms, and sometimes it shows up as stanzas.” —From David Kirby’s New York Times review of Amy Gerstler’s book of poems, Dearest Creature

Friday, November 6, 2009

Robert Pinsky on the Influence of Creative Writing Programs

“Creative writing programs have made American poetry more regionally and socially diverse: once, most American poets came from a few east coast colleges. Imagine, Robert Creeley and John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich and Donald Hall, all at Harvard at the same time—we could add Kinnell and Merwin at Princeton, Ginsberg at Columbia. Now, the poets, my generation and younger, seem more likely to come from state universities, small colleges, various parts of the country. For years, a lot of them attended the MFA program at Iowa, Montana, Irvine, etc.—the social and geographical center is no longer local, no longer on a certain social model. Creative writing programs are part of a cultural change that includes the GI Bill, the rise of state universities, maybe the decline of English departments.” —From Michael Shea’s online interview with Robert Pinsky for The Southeast Review

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mark Strand on Measured Verse and Free Verse as Poetic Forms

“I believe that all poetry is formal in that it exists within limits, limits that are either inherited by tradition or limits that language itself imposes. These limits exist in turn within the limits of the individual poet’s conception of what is or is not a poem. For if the would-be poet has no idea what a poem is, then he has no standard for determining or qualifying his actions as a poet; ie, his poem. ‘Form,’ it should be remembered, is a word that has several meanings, some of which are near opposites. Form has to do with the structure or outward appearance of something, but it also has to do with its essence. In discussions of poetry, form is a powerful word for just that reason: structure and essence seem to come together, as do the disposition of words and their meanings.

“It hardly seems worthwhile to point out the shortsightedness of those practitioners who would have us believe that the form of the poem is merely its shape. They argue that there is formal poetry and poetry without form—free verse, in other words; that formal poetry has dimensions that are rhythmic or stanzaic, etc., and consequently measurable, while free verse exists as a sprawl whose disposition is arbitrary and is, as such, nonmeasurable. But if we have learned anything from the poetry of the last twenty or thirty years, it is that free verse is as formal as any other verse. There is ample evidence that it uses a full range of mnemonic devices, the most common being anaphoral and parallelistic structures, both as syntactically restrictive as they are rhythmically binding. I do not want to suggest that measured verse and free verse represent opposing mnemonics. I would rather we considered them together, both being structured or shaped and thus formal, or at least formal in outward, easily described ways.

“Form is manifested most clearly in the apparatus of argument and image or, put another way, plot and figures of speech. This aspect of form is more difficult to discuss because it is less clear-cut; it happens also to be the area in which poems achieve their greatest individuality and where, as a result, they are more personal.” —From “Notes on the Craft of Poetry,” a chapter in Mark Strand’s The Weather of Words (Knopf, 2000)


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