Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Summer Reading; some poetry, some not

This is not about poetry, not directly anyway. Rather it's about where I find stimulating reading not necessarily for the summer. I direct you to the UC Berkeley summer reading list for incoming freshmen. I've found delightful reading from these lists over the years-- Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is one example I remember reading while vacationing on the National Seashore, Cape Cod several years ago. It remains a remarkable reading experience. The books on Berkeley's list say a lot about what incoming freshmen might be expected to know. I hope the promise plays out in reality.

I think too that a Google search may turn up older versions of the list so you may have a lot of choices and will find something palatable, exciting and stimulating. In any event reading some of the books will ultimately enrich your poetry as all good learning will.

While on the topic of reading lists I now call to mind Alan Ginsberg's "Celestial Homework" reading list from a course he taught at Naropa in 1977. If I could I'd read all of it. The link takes you to the list which in turn has links to some of the works online. It's a marvelous way to find some grand and great writing and also a look into Ginsberg's own makeup, that of one whom The New Republic magazine (I think) referred to as a "major minor poet".

In all events, if you want to write, read!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Reader's Digest!

Ok, another confession-- Although omnipresent from my earliest childhood and source of some of my longest-standing bits of humor, despite an eighth grade guidance counselor whose brother was on its staff, as an intellectual venue Reader's Digest is a publication I have long (and probably rightfully) snubbed. In fact, the only writers joke I know is about that magazine. So, caught where there was nothing else to read, I thumbed through the June, 2009 issue and was blindsided by a poem by Sharon Olds; the poem is excellent, good poetry, good Sharon Olds poetry-- AND IN THE READER'S DIGEST.

This is a shift in axis, a change in paradigms, a shaking up of the order. A little research reveals that The Wallace Foundation, associated with the Reader's Digest co-founder Lila Wallace DeWitt, may be the connection here but I'm not sure. CAN YOU HELP ME RESOLVE THIS? I would like to know more about the magazine and its association with and support of the arts, especially poetry.

I am also reminded of my own urging to students that they look for poetry in the most unlikely places, open themselves to all opportunities to find exceptional language and exceptional verse. It seems that I have failed to follow my own urgings.

So, where have you found poetry surprises?

I look forward to your comments and help.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Place, Part 2

I refer you to John Talbot's poem Horace, Odes I .9 Vides ut alta stet found at Poems.com which I hope you visit daily. Talbot's poem gives us another measure of place, one which I think we too often are not conscious of; that is, our own places in the lineage of poetry. Our poems, our poetry, our writing does not come out of nowhere but rather exists as part of the history of poetry.

Some of us learned about and read a lot of poetry in junior high school, high school and college. Some of us continued during our careers whether or not as part of our vocations. All that history we were exposed to conspires to influence how we think about poetry and what we think makes a good poem. In Talbot's case we are told quite plainly that his poem has something to do with Horace's odes. Research will tell us that many poets (including Frost) were influenced by these odes. Hence our own poems are somehow so influenced.

If you research Horace's odes online, particularly the one referenced in Talbot's poem, you will find a selection of translations from the Latin and these are very interesting in helping us understand not only Horace's poem but Talbot's as well. Although not quite as intentionally our own poems are replete with referents as influential as in Talbot's excellent poem. It is an interesting and fruitful exercise to take a poem I've written and ponder every influence I can think of for each line, theme, thought, etc. Once begun the influences come in chunks and from sources that were far, far from my consciousness as I wrote. I also find that this awareness causes me to more consciously insert things from my poetic lineage into what I am writing .

This is another interesting and important sense of place-- our place in the line of poets; and it give us a humbling sense of gravity about our own writings and tells us that we ought not fail to give our own writing its due.

So long for now.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Place Maps

At that most recent meeting of The Manchester Chapter of The Connecticut Poetry Society I decided to speak about "place" and was surprised at how animated and interesting the discussion grew. It seems that the people there had not thought consciously about place in their poems and their lives and wanted to do so.

We identified many places: Physical place at the keyboard or writing pad, the room, the house, the neighborhood (I see my neighbor leave at seven every morning and even that affects how I write at that instant), the community, the city, the state, the country, the world, the cosmos; additionally, psychological place, mood, emotion, time all affect and define the "place" we work from and the places we put into our poems.

One poet wrote of climbing a tree to pick apples. We easily spotted the tree and the ground and the apples and then moved on to childhood which is when the picking occurred, and then she moved us into the factory where her mother had done piece work and where she had acquired rapid enough dexterity with her hands so that at an advanced age she could peel apples faster than her daughter (the poet). The poet was unaware of several of the places she was inhabiting or inserting into the poem as she wrote. This is part of the magic of writing-- that we don't know all that we are putting in to it.

As we write, an increased consciousness of place can deepen our work quickly and efficiently.

Study it; it's worth the effort.

So long for now.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Confessions of an Impractical Poet

Perhaps this should be labeled "Part One of Many" since I will probably contradict myself at other times as well. Contradicting that I must say that I don't think what I'm about to write really contradicts anything. At any rate, monthly on the second Saturday of the months from September through June I conduct meetings of the Manchester Chapter of the Connecticut Poetry Society.. These are somewhat like workshops but without those workshop attributes I find loathsome. These are times when I try to give everyone in the room (6-15 attendees monthly) whatever I can to help them write and understand poetry better. I get high on these efforts. I have stressed earlier the value of camaraderie among writers and that is the biggest payoff of these meetings. The level of talent ranges from zilch to accomplished and the ages are from late twenties to late eighties. It's a sparkling group of people from carpenters to teachers to attorneys and accountants and includes the retired, the working, the unemployed and the disabled.

I'm not sure why I'm telling you about this group other than to emphasize that we need each other. Poetry is a solitary pursuit but does not exist at its best in a vacuum. As Donald Sheehan, Director Emeritus of The Frost Place, says, when our intelligence goes into our hearts the result is a higher intelligence. There is something about these meetings that achieves this and rail though I might about the crappy poetry I find so common, it's not all about intelligence.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Another Take on What Workshops DON'T Do

Came across "Show and Tell" from the June 4 (I think) New Yorker magazine. Although it's largely a book review of Mark McGurl's The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing the author, Louis Menand, spends a good deal of time both attacking and, in the end, talking up (a little) workshops, particularly poetry workshops. Although his approach differs from mine he takes good swipes at the workshops and the notion that they really do anything for writers. What I like is his focus on the problem, as I see it, that "Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem." Where he uses the word "publishable" I would use the phrase "workshop-acceptable". The book itself looks at writing programs and how they have changed the creative writing landscape in the last several decades. It is no doubt worth the reading but I urge you first to read Menand's article.

Menand ends his New Yorker piece by affirming the value of camaraderie found in writing workshops and this I heartily endorse. As I have urged earlier here, if you are going to attend workshops, once you've gone to one or two don't go to learn anything more about writing but rather go to give as much help as you can to the other participants who are not as far along as you.

So long for now.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Notes on the Sublime

I've been reading Keats. Also, I found two articles about melancholy-- unfortunately I cannot locate them online any longer-- which caused me to reconsider Keats and the sublime and how the sublime affects us as poets today. The upshot is that the reason we write is in our relationship with the sublime and its counterpart melancholy. It seems they come together.

Poetry is a reflective art and the act of writing is a profound reflection with a pen. Is is, as reflection is, without direction. That is, the poem in first draft begins without any knowledge of its route or of where it is going. If you know where the poem will go, if you think you know where you want it to go, if you even think you know what it will be about-- YOU MUST QUIT-- until you abandon those notions.

Reflection is an ordered process which we cannot know the ordering of. Writing a poem is a profound, nearly mystical, ordering of reflection. It is a tangent of the abyss loaded with awe and unknowable until the last line. It requires surrender and achieves the sublime but never without the concomitant imbuing of melancholy. This is not joy. It is sublime. The great part about it is that it calls to us and, if we are to get it right, we must attempt to write without ceasing.

Another great feature of writing poetry is that we may actually engage the sublime without ever achieving greatness. The sublime is available to the worst of us writers if we can pursue it honestly and with exacting craft.

So long for now.