Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ambition: For the work, or for the self? The roots of writers' original sin and redemption redefined.

The Pushcart Prize. Even typing it now, I get goose pimples. The two dozen poems and forty to fifty-something combined stories and essays (technically creative non-fiction pieces) in the annual anthology are selected from over six thousand candidates, representing the best writing from each of more than one thousand small presses and journals each year in the opinions of their editors. Just being nominated is an honor worthy of inclusion on one's curriculum vitae. And no matter what one's aesthetic sensibilities, there is no doubt that the winners are among the most substantive literary works published during the previous year.

The issue of recognition of the work of art as separate from recognition of the artist is dealt with in two of the winning essays in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology: "How To Succeed In Po Biz" by Kim Addonizio, and "God's Truth Is Life" by Christian Wiman. Both should be required reading for anyone writing anything other than a shopping list or the occasional birthday message inside a blank card for Brownie points gained from your lover or your mother.

"I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself," writes Wiman, "but I'm not sure I believe in that anymore." "If a poet's ambition were truly for the work and nothing else," Wiman continues, "he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making, but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self..."

If casting doubt on the possibility of pure altruism were the only rubric of faith that Wiman could muster, he would come off as simplistic, and his piece as another whining essay from the sidelines of fine art. But through vignettes of his and other poets' experiences, intertwined with personal reflection about the relationship between art and life, Wiman succeeds in creating parables that elucidate our journey into our own practice of writing as a spiritual (not religious) path:

"Still, there is something that any artist is in pursuit of, and is answerable to, some nexus of one's being, one's material, and Being itself. The work that emerges from this crisis of consciousness may be judged a failure or a success by the world, and that judgment will still sting or flatter your vanity. Bit it cannot speak to this crisis in which, for which, and of which the work was made. For any artist alert to his own soul, this crisis is the only call that matters. I know no name for it besides God, but people have other names, or no names."

While Wiman is busy dissecting the pickled corpse of ambition in the laboratory, splitting hairs with a precision linguistic scalpel, slicing his way through the flesh to reveal its heart, Kim Addonizio, oiled down with satire, has been dirty dancing with the body poetic, seducing the serpent in the garden, wrestling with the angel in order to receive the blessing of the paid poetry reading she deserves that will launch her career. Now, wearing a sheer Machiavellian nightgown, she joins us for an interview, offering step-by-step advice, in the midst of her mounting insecurities:

"Once a bona fide, i.e., paying invitation has been extended, try to obtain as high a fee as possible. Tell yourself you are worth every penny, but secretly feel the way you did when you were on food stamps--other people need and deserve this more than you. Feel anxious about the upcoming trip because you hate to travel. Feel anxious because you are basically a private person and can't live up to the persona that is floating out there in the world acting tougher and braver than you. You are a writer, after all, and prefer to be alone in your own house with your cat. You don't really like your fellow humans, except for your lover, whose stories and mannerisms can be usefully stolen and put into your writing. When he traveled with a carnival as a young man, he learned to eat fire and to put a nail up his nose. Sensibly, he left the carnival to work in sales, while you suspect that you have become a sideshow act, a fake mermaid shriveling in her tank, uselessly flipper her plastic scales."

After stressing out over the highly implausible (yet actual) events of the presenters not having obtained any of her books for sale, missing her ride from the airport and ending up lost, trying to climb into the window of a private citizen's apartment she has mistaken for the university residence, being cursed at by the father of two teenage girls who come to the window to ask for cigarettes thinking she is a prostitute, and scores more of similar stories, Addonizio tells us:

"Go ahead and have a little more vodka with lemonade, and get slightly drunk by dusk. Try to write a few good lines and then give up in despair. Tell yourself you are foolish, feeling terrible when you have actually been asked to share your work with other people. It is the work that you love, and sometimes you even get paid for it. Tell yourself you are lucky, that people envy you. Tell yourself this is what you toiled and sweated your whole life to be able to do, and now you are doing it, and above all, don't be such a god-damned little baby."

The message is not that we are forced to chose between Christian Wiman and Kim Addonizio--though disparate in style, they are consonant in message. Wiman himself explains the difference in his concluding remark: "It is not that imperfections in the life somehow taint or invalidate perfections of the work. It is, rather, that these things--art and life, or thought and life--are utterly, fatally, and sometimes savingly entwined, and we can know no [person's] work until we know how, whom, and to what end he [or she] did or did not love."


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Poems Connected at the Lips II

According to Philip Levine, when he was given the task of editing the late Larry Levis' "all but completed manuscript" that became Elegy under Levine's guidance, he first thought that Levis was "cannibalizing certain passages from some poems in order to heighten and enlarge other more ambitious poems." But Peter Everwine, Levine's colleague at Fresno State, convinced him the Levis was using "motifs or riffs to unify the collection." It is my assertion that these connective themes and tropes also flow across the covers of previous collections, spilling forwards and backwards, informing and being informed by other poems from other works, much like separate poems that are variations on a theme. The strongest example of this process is found in the two poems, "To a Wren on Calvary" (from The Widening Spell of the Leaves) and "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World" (from Elegy).

Due to its length, I will not reprint here "To a Wren on Calvary," but rather will direct the reader to the following link for reference:

What follows is a reprint of the shorter poem:

The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World

Once, there was a poem. No one read it & the poem
Grew wise. It grew wise & then it grew thin,
No one could see it perched on the woman's
Small shoulders as she went on working beside

The gray conveyor belt with the others.
No one saw the poem take the shape of a wren,
A wren you could look through like a window,
And see all the bitterness of the world

In the long line of shoulders & faces bending
Over the gleaming, machined parts that passed
Before them, the faces transformed by the grace
And ferocity of a wren, a wren you could look

Through, like a lens, to see them working there.
This is not about how she thew herself into the river,
For she didn't, nor is it about the way her breasts
Looked in the moonlight, nor about the moonlight at all.

This is about the surviving curve of the bridge
Where she listened to the river whispering to her,
When the wren flew off & left her there,
With the knowledge of it singing in her blood.

By which the wind avenges. By which the rain avenges.
By which even the limb of a dead tree leaning
Above the white, swirling mouth of an eddy
In the river that once ran beside the factory window

Where she once worked, shall be remembered
When the dead come back, & take their places
Beside her on the line, & the gray conveyor belt
Starts up with its raspy hum again. Like a heaven's.

How to get into these poems? There are so many entry points! Had "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World" never been written, there still would be a plethora of worlds to explore within "To a Wren on Calvary." We could begin with the reversals, each of which seem to be a kind of ideational chiasma: "the unremarkable," rather than the remarkable being that which lasts, the faces of the thieves being covered with wings and their bodies naked, "the quiet flowing into things," for example. Or we could contrast Levis' use of understatement alongside his pragmatographic descriptions, such as the "unremarkable wren" set against "small hawks (or are they other birds?)/...busily unraveling eyelashes & pupils.../I cannot tell whether their blood spurts, or just spills." Or, as in the virtuosic passage in lines 50 ff., which begins unassumingly with auditory meiosis, crescendos through ordinary description and, finally, ends in graphic sounds of violence:

Still . . . as they resumed their quarrel in the quiet air,
I could hear the species cheep in what they said . . .
Until their voices rose. Until the sound of a slap erased
A world, & the woman, in a music stripped of all prayer,

Began sobbing, & the man become bystander cried O Jesus.

The virtuosic is achieved, in part, because of the two worlds that Levis has created--the one on Calvary, and the one taking place on every hill in every city that is populated with people who are trying to love through their hate and hate through their love--and, in part, with the blurring of these two worlds by borrowing images from one and putting them into the other, fitting so perfectly, without explanation or the need to explain--the child camouflaged behind his toy left out on a lawn, while his parents tear at each other with claws and beaks sharper than those of any bird of prey, the boy who "saw at last the clean wings of indifferent/Hunger, & despair?," the father who cries out to Jesus when he sees what he has become as a bystander to (and thus a participant in) the violence around him.

Were this poem the last word from Levis about the world of the thieves dying on Calvary and the world of the neighbor couple and their boy being robbed of their lives "in the town/That once had seemed, like its supporting factories/That manufactured poems & weaponry, Like such a good idea," it might seem enough. But Levis will not let enough alone.

Somewhere between the time this poem was published in The Widening Spell of the Leaves in 1991 and a few weeks before his death in 1999, Larry Levis wrote "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World,"--both an answer to, and a continuation of, "To a Wren on Calvary."

What is immediately noticeable about this new poem, is that its jagged typographical edges have been smoothed down with time. Unlike its predecessor, the poem is written exclusively in quatrains, its lines flush against one another like feathers, without a single one out of place. This is an enactment of the more palpable presence of the wren, despite the indication in the title that it is invisible "to the world." But certainly it is quite visible to the world of the poem, being named no less than six times in twenty-eight lines, compared with only four times in sixty-seven lines previously. What world, then, is blind to "the poem take[n] the shape of a wren" that is "perched on the woman's/Small shoulders as she went on working beside/The gray conveyor belt with the others?"--the wren of ferocity and the wren you could look through (contrasted with the dead wren with its "oily feathers stretched, blent, & lacquered shut/Against the world . . . a world [the poet] couldn't touch" in "To a Wren on Calvary"), the wren that flew off and left the woman standing on the bridge, "With the knowledge of it singing in hr blood."

Is it the world that does not read the poem--meaning the world devoid of the poem, devoid of the "surviving curve of the bridge," the bridge that connects the extraordinary to the ordinary, the bridge that is the poem, that is our salvation as we take our places "beside her on the line, the gray conveyor belt/Start[ing] up with its raspy hum again?"

But the poem that returns is not simply a revised version of the original. It is a closer look at the post-messianic world created in the first poem, the world as it exists for the woman in the second poem, not only after the deaths of the men on the crosses, but after the death of her marriage and (dare say I?) the death of the husband himself. And because the relationship of the second poem to the first is that of one facet, enlarged in the lens of the jeweler's loop, to the whole of the gemstone, the second cannot only be instructed from the first, but it can tech the first, re-examined in light of its uniquely focused and polished material.

Not only, for example, do we see in the "long line of shoulders & faces bending/Over the gleaming, machined parts" the small hawks plucking at the faces of the thieves on Calvary, but in the actions of the birds "unraveling eyelashes & pupils" the dehumanized indifference of factory workers brought on by the drudgery and meaninglessness of their work except to provide them with their next meal. Not only do we hear Calvary's death-whisper in the river that flows below the bridge where the woman stands, we can hear the river's flow and its connectedness to everything in Death's whisper. Not only does the cross of Calvary inform "the limb of a dead tree leaning" in "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World," the image of the dead tree points to a path away from the soteriological sufficiency of the cross.

These examples of dialogue between the two poems grow from Levis' nearly objective position, allowing for multiple voices within him to not only be heard, but to collaborate in the construction of a poem, or in this case, of a larger work that transcends the bounds of one volume of poems and breaks through into another.

"Poetry must be made by all, not by one," said Lautreamont. May we not only listen to all of its voices, but answer them as well as Larry Levis in his "Widening Spell."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Call and Response: Poems Connected at the Lips

All creative acts lie somewhere between the endpoints of conscious debt to and unconscious reliance upon works that precede and inform them. Creating poems is no different: the process is neither a totally collaborative one, nor a unilaterally individual endeavor. All poems in some way collaborate--with a language they inherited rather than created, with other genres of literature or fine art, with pop culture or with the poetic canon as threads beautifully woven into the one giant tapestry, improving it for all time--or, perhaps, thrown against it as mere pieces of inconsequential fuzz to be quickly brushed off, but mostly laid down as one artist's vision, gleaned from multiple, albeit unnamed sources.

But there are poems that speak directly to other poems across time and space, threads purposefully chosen to be woven in with other strands, with the hope of absorbing, if possible, precisely the same light that is shining on them, reflecting back a changed understanding and appreciation of both as a result of the play between them--Conversation Pieces as Kurt Brown calls them in his anthology of the same name.

Within this volume, he includes sections with such titles as "Replies to the Shepherd" (with no less than eight poems written in response to Christopher Marlowe's famous poem beginning "Come live with me, and be my love,/And we will all the pleasures prove,"), "Variations on a Theme," including Michael Waters' "The Inarticulate," a poem that precisely relates the wondrously debilitating effect of reverie alongside William Meredith's "The Illiterate" and a category entitled "In Good Fun" in which William Carlos Williams' sparse and powerful "This Is Just to Say" is placed along side Kenneth Koch's poem with quite lengthy lines beginning with "I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer."

Here is an example of poems written in response to other poems, a one-sided collaboration of one poet answering another,
"The World Is Too Much With Us' written by William Wordsworth in 1807 and "O Taste and See" by Denise Levertov, written a century and a half later:

The World Is Too Much With Us

by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So Might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

O Taste and See

By Denise Levertov

The world is
Not with us enough.
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination's tongue,

grief, mercy, landguage,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

A study of these two poems is a study in contrast. On a typographical level, Wordsworth's sonnet has the spatial prosody that reflects an orderly universe with clear limits between what the poem is and what the poem is not, roughly in the shape of a tightly-framed, two-story house, while Levertov's "O Taste and See" allows the white space of the page to flow through the poem much like tropical breezes blowing through its open doors. And, indeed, on the ideational level, Wordsworth's universe is a precisely constructed two-story universe--one story a realm of fallen humanity, full of meaningless materialism that has robbed us of our spiritual heritage and sensitivity to the other half of the universe (in which is found our redemption), while Levertov's world is the singular fertile ground of a garden, open to "all that lives to the imagination's tongue."

On the sonic level, Wordsworth's sonnet employs a syllabic prosody of ten syllables per ine, many of which are written in precise iambic pentameter, whereas Levertov's "O Taste And See" is not written in verse, but in what Lewis Turco would call the prose mode--what we might call organic form. Finally, on the sensory level, Wordsworth makes liberal use of description, simile and metaphor within each line, while Levertov employs the entire poem as a conceit--one implied metaphor: the world (of living and of writing) is a capacious garden to be enjoyed, rather than a fractured one in need of repair.

It is not in spite of all these differences, but precisely because of them, that "O Taste And See" is a call back to Wordsworth's sonnet, and to us listening through the keyhole, to break down the barriers of perception that separate with the plea not to see anything as off-limits to experience or to write about. By adding a quantum-leap variation to his famous sonnet, Levertov's poem is not only a one-sided collaboration with Wordsworth, but with the work of many other poets, as well. William Carlos Williams' plum from "This Is Just To Say" and his quince from "A Man to a Woman," the Psalmist's ("O taste and see that the Lord is good" and "They that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing'), as well as H.D.'s imagery from "Orchard," make their way into Levertov's poem. And, while not owned outright by the above-mentioned poets, these words, phrases and ideas can be identified as regular workers in their vineyards. Therefore, while their presence in Levertov's garden might not constitute the crime of kidnapping, it might be called a poetic seduction of recognizable figures on fresh ground, where they seem just as at home as with previous suitors.

In a writing slump? Answer a favorite poem from a favorite poet. Answer the worst poem from a poet you hate. Answer your own poem. Too much effort? Then answer the opening line. The ultimate. The penultimate. Answer this article. One you read this morning in your local newspaper. Answer. Write back. Respond to "the call" of language wherever you find it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Our Daily Bread

Philip Levine's The Bread of Time is a must read. It's inside look at Robert Lowell and John Berryman, Detroit industrial working class jobs, Levine's first steps into poetry, his coming of age as a poet, the synthesizing of these and additional experiences, as well as finding Lorca's voice in Poet in New York, are all powerfully written and universally applicable to every poet's journey.

The most interesting sections for me were Levine's discussions of poetic source and influence--a validation of both the way I came to poke at "the burning coal," to steal a phrase from Gerald Stern, and find a poet with whom I share significant experiences in life and a certain tone or temperament in writing. I loved hearing about thirteen-year old Philip's evening ventures into his neighboring, deeply-wooded undeveloped blocks, his climbing into the lower branches of an elm or copper beech tree, leaning back and speaking to the stars, hearing the magnificence of language for the first time from his solo voice before the audience of the universe.

I had a similar experience as a child. My father moved my mother and I from Illinois to northern New Mexico, where he purchased a house in a brand new subdivision, built at the edge of a small oil-boom town, nestled among the high plateaus overlooking the San Juan Valley. Our house was on the last street of the subdivision, and I could walk through our neighbor's back yard, up a hill, and be in John Wayne world, with all of the cactus, sage brush, mountain cedar, dry arroyo beds, box canyons, boulders and cliffs that a nine-year old boy could desire. Being an only child, I roamed those hills, climbed those cliffs, sat on ledges, listened to the rhythms of rattlesnake and sirocco, the music of coyote, and the great voice of silence that inhabited the sand, holding the warmth of day into the cool of night as I lay under the stars and voiced prayers aloud that one day would become lines written on the page.

I was thrilled to read about Levine's experiences in Berrymans' workshop at Iowa, which provoked thought about Levis in Levine's class, and to think about all poets who have studied under other poets--how poetry is this seamless work of art, this one poem, as Malena Morling (translator of Levine into Swedish), puts it. I too was challenge by Berryman, as Levine told about his teacher raising the bar for his class of great poets and poets-to-be (William Dickey, W.D. Snodgrass, Donald Justice, Paul Petrie, Robert Dana, Constance Urdang, Jane Cooper, Donald Finkel, Henri Coulette, among others), stressing that the only way they could improve was to attempt writing something beyond their abilities, something they didn't yet know how to write.

The second aspect I liked so much about The Bread of Time was Levine's search, unfulfilled for so long, for a poet who would show him the way into voicing his truth about the abuses of the Detroit blue-collar industrial complex. Levine identified with the hardships of Keats, but his poetry was not couched in terms he was seeking. Upon first discovering Diego Rivera's frescoes, Levine thought that he might have found the model for poetry he hoped to write. But, as he looked more closely at his art based upon the Ford plant at River Rouge, for example, he realized that there was a beauty, an optimism and a tone in it that did not ring true with his experiences at Chevrolet Gear and Axle. Then Levine stumbled upon these lines by Lorca:

I denounce everyone
who ignores the other half,
the half that can't be redeemed,
who lift their mountains of cement
where the hearts beat
inside forgotten little animals
and where all of us will fall
in the last feast of pneumatic drills.
I spit in all your faces.

Levine credits Lorca's Poet in New York for his being able to write "They Feed They Lion," and more importantly, to believe that he could write his truth about his experiences in his unique voice--something to which we all aspire, and for which we are all seeking help from the poets in our world.

But Levine never copies style. He transforms it into something new. In "Pili's Wall," Levine has stretched what would be a much shorter piece by some poets, into an eight page poem, using short, compact lines, thereby enacting the length of a wall, as well as the pictures that appear on it, with his ten sections, each of which depict a different scene. In places, the poem is almost a list poem, expanding each item in the list into a stanzas, such as "the small sister," "the lost dog," "the shepherd," and even "seven jackdaws" from section II:

I am the one
you never drew
the small sister
jumping rope
just within the circle
of the cypress

the lost dog
howling at shadows
and fleeing the chatter
of stones

the shepherd
alone and herdless
who came one afternoon
sweat running
from his eyes

seven jackdaws
soundless, until the sky
and there was
no place.

But "Pili's Wall" is far more than a list of objects appearing on the wall or on its mental image. Pili herself steps into the the scene and brings the reader with her in section X: "I seem//to be this girl, this Pili, waiting/for children/with particular names...old father,/that seems to/be smiling down//on all of us with particular names."

Little by little, Levine widens the view and the context of the poem appears: a field of cane, stalls of pigs, a hill of olives. The wall is an image that conveys far more than the pictures that are drawn there; it becomes the poems' surface with two sides: sides that within the poem are easy to see, with the geography of the surroundings carefully laid out. With the wall AS the surface of the poem, we the readers, stand on one side, the poem on the other, and we find ourselves moving back and forth across the wall, the images from the poem trailing onto our side of reality, as they are carefully and convincingly brought to life. This is the internal structure and beauty of the poem: an image that carries the poem, as well as an image that stands for the poem, that IS the poem, interacting with us as if we were in the poem, as well--something to consider as we select our images and our images select us.