Friday, December 1, 2017

Books that read us

A real book reads us. I have been read by Eliot's poems and by Ulysses and by Remembrance of Things Past and by The Castle for a good many years now, since early youth. Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me and to understand my hidden meanings. Their nature is such that our relationship has been very intimate. 
- Lionel Trilling

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Outside authority no longer means anything to me.

Small and hidden is the door that leads inward, and the entrance is barred by countless prejudices, mistaken assumptions, and fears. Always one wishes to hear of grand political and economic schemes, the very things that have landed every nation in a morass. Therefore it sounds grotesque when anyone speaks of hidden doors, dreams, and a world within. What has this vapid idealism got to do with gigantic economic programs, with the so-called problems of reality?

But I speak not to nations, only to the individual few, for whom it goes without saying that cultural values do not drop down like manna from heaven, but are created by the hands of individuals. If things go wrong in the world, this is because something is wrong with the individual, because something is wrong with me. Therefore, if I am sensible, I shall put myself right first. For this I need – because outside authority no longer means anything to me – a knowledge of the innermost foundations of my being, in order that I may base myself firmly on the eternal facts of the human psyche. - Carl Jung

Monday, October 2, 2017

It's the drama of the scene that excited Yeats

‘Cuchulain Comforted’, written a matter of weeks before Yeats died in January of 1939, is his only use of Dantescan terza rima: it began life as a folktale-ish prose narrative of the kind collected by Lady Gregory. The draft, dictated by Yeats to his wife on 7 January, opens:

“A shade recently arrived went through a valley in the Country of the Dead; he had six mortal wounds, but he had been a tall, strong, handsome man. Other shades looked at him from the trees. Sometimes they went near to him and then went away quickly. At last he sat down, he seemed very tired.”

A week later this became:

A man that had six mortal wounds, a man
Violent and famous, strode among the dead;
Eyes stared out of the branches and were gone.

Then certain Shrouds that muttered head to head
Came and were gone. He leant upon a tree
As though to meditate on wounds and blood.

While the language of the prose sketch verges on the simple, even primitive, that of the poem is laconic and theatrical. Cuchulain is no longer a conventional good-looking hero, ‘tall, strong, handsome’, but a Yeatsian one, ‘Violent and famous’; conventional ‘shades’ become unsettling ‘Shrounds’, as if the dead were so many winding sheets, their weirdness making them fit choric witnesses, as they confer ‘head to head’, of the mortally wounded hero’s singularity. It is the drama of the scene that excites Yeats, and although the poem is about Cuchulain’s loss of agency and individuality, in these opening stanzas he is still enacting his purposefulness, striding among the muttering dead; when he rests it is not because he is ‘very tired’, but ‘to meditate on wounds and blood’.

The narratives dramatized in Yeats’s oeuvre nearly all involve some decisive act of transformation that is in many ways analogous to the process of transforming prose into poetry.

– Mark Ford

Friday, September 1, 2017

Poetry is a game of compassion, and if you give people fun, their hearts will open to you.

I think a lot of writers have lost track of the fact that without pleasure, there is no reason to read on. …at the end of the day, the message you pick as an artist is only your secondary responsibility. Philosophy takes better care of pure thoughts than poetry ever can. So does criticism. What poets do that philosophers cannot is let our readers experience manners of thinking that they would not have access to on their own. The way leaps and transfusions and associations lead a mind from thought to thought. And then, once a reader has experienced a poem’s manner of thinking, the reader can use that manner of thinking in their own head, with their own thoughts, whenever they want. When I read your poems…I get the sensation that I’m making eye contact with someone else a thousand feet away, and we’re both using x-ray sniper scopes that let us see one another’s optic nerves. I hope that I can one day produce that sensation in language myself. Our primary job as poets is to make people more creative, to make them better thinkers, much more than give them any specific set of thoughts.

And good luck convincing anyone, obscurantist poet, to try out your brain if it seems like a hostile place. Poetry is a game of compassion, and if you give people fun, their hearts will open to you.

But maybe it’s a whole lot simpler than all of this. I like making people smile. So shoot me.

My mother often justifies many of my excesses by saying, “But Max, you are a poet!” This somehow comforts me, every time.

But I do believe in distance. And a belief in distance requires, for me at least, an attempt to span that distance, no matter how futile I understand those attempts to be.

In his A Defense of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley says, “Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitude of things.” Maybe, if it’s language, as we use it every day, that fills us with that sense of distance, maybe too it can be poetic language, or more precisely metaphorical language, that might allow us to feel closeness, intimacy, love.

There’s also something to be said for poetry’s inbuilt wisdom when it comes to matters of mortality. I mean, as I mentioned before, no art ends as much as poetry does—line endings, clause, phrase, and sentence endings, stanza endings, section endings, page endings, poem endings, book endings… And for so long, poetry has sought to limn those endings with sonic devices such as rhyme. Plus, poems, like life, are often shockingly short.

- Max Ritvo

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Shakespeare attaining the farthest reaches of luminosity

The exploitation of a few technical forms produces mannerism, while the use of many produces style. A page of Shakespeare can be divided endlessly into technical devices (no doubt, for the most part, spontaneously generated): shifting rhythms within the blank verse, coincidences and contrasts of vowel quantity, metaphors, epigrams, miniature plot processes where in a few lines some subject rises, blossoms, and drops – while above the whole is the march and curve of the central plot itself. Yet even Shakespeare tends to bludgeon us at times with the too frequent use of metaphor, until what was an allurement threatens to become an obstacle. We might say that the hypertrophy of metaphor is Shakespeare at his worst, and fills in those lapses of inspiration when he is keeping things going as best he can until the next flare-up. And thus, as with the music of Bach, if he at times attains the farthest reaches of luminosity and intensity, he never falls beneath the ingenious. - Kenneth Burke, from “The Poetic Process” in Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare edited by Scott L. Newstok

Monday, July 3, 2017

Something is happening.

Something is happening. The new casualness had been introducing itself, casually of course, but suddenly its credentials lay everywhere. It was a new time of being born, looking ahead almost fiercely enough to be the ripe ear, and still keeping discreetly in the early stage of noncommittal promises. It wasn’t the lily-pad stage yet, but there was buzzing everywhere as though the news had already broken out and was flooding the city and the whole country. The next day he rose up from that bed of reflective voluptuousness, determined never again to fall into the richly human excesses that his horizontal state had left him vulnerable to, having decided to grant a personal interview to each member of the enemy that blackened the plain as far as one could see in all directions. And the rumor strengthened with the night. In the morning they had all vanished at least as far as the nearest mountains and probably from the face of the earth. - John Ashbery, from Three Poems

Thursday, June 1, 2017

"Earth, You Have Returned to Me" by Elaine Equi

Can you imagine waking up
every morning on a different planet,
each with its own gravity?

Slogging, wobbling,
wavering. Atilt
and out-of-sync
with all that moves
and doesn’t.

Through years of trial
and mostly error
did I study this unsteady way -

changing pills, adjusting the dosage,
never settling.

A long time we were separate,
O Earth,
but now you have returned to me.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Emily Dickinson overcoming time and space

There is one poem in which a thoroughly inebriated speaker enjoys her lack of control and is not overcome by it: a rare portrait that develops a fantasy of achieved delight.

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of Molten Blue –

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door –
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” –
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun –

     The element of fantasy in this poem is pronounced; so is the presence of the ingénue persona who appears so persistently in Dickinson’s love poems. The two combine to give the poem its childish air. Yet it is precisely that quality of make-believe which permits the speaker, and the poem, to maintain the happiness of which she boasts.
     The poem begins with a riddle. What kind of liquor is never brewed, comes from tankards made of pearl, is far superior to any ordinary, earthly beverage? The answer: air, or dew. Even as the opening stanza clearly contrasts “real” liquor (from “Vats upon the Rhine”) to another sort – not of this earth, imaginary, or symbolic, so as the poem develops its conceit of being drunk upon air, it steadily compares literal and figurative experience, experience in nature and in the mind.
     Surely, air was never brewed; thus it answers the requirements of the riddle. But neither is it literally a liquor. We can interpret the metaphor: to be “Inebriate of Air” is to be exhilarated, excited, overwhelmingly delighted by summer skies. Yet as the poem elaborates this conceit, it is not its symbolism but its drama that engages the reader. When the “Debauchee of Dew” begins her drunken progress from airy inn to airy inn, her activity takes on its own reality, one that overpowers its literal counterpart. This is fantasy, and it is a delightful image. It is, in fact, an image of delight embodied.
     If the extravagance of her emotion is essential to this situation, so is its lasting power. These summer days are “endless.” We recall how important the idea of permanence is to Dickinson’s ideal of delight.
     But summer in nature’s world is never endless, no matter how it may seem in mid-July. In stanza three, time surfaces, only to be triumphantly repudiated by this poem’s speaker. The inebriate of air has her real-life counterparts: bees and butterflies who likewise reel through the sky, with flowers as pubs; like her, drunken on the summery nectar. Yet bees and butterflies are subject to seasonal time; drinking hours are up when autumn comes.
     “I shall but drink the more!” How she gets to overcome time, she doesn’t say. But the final stanza shows her drinking on into eternity. “Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats – / And Saints to windows run – .” The original riddle provides a clue, since the liquor that she drinks from opulent goblets (does “scooped in Pearl” mean that they are decorated with pearl or that the liquid that they hold is like pearl?) never was of this earth. Not “real” alcohol in the first place, its inebriation is likewise not “real”; neither are the actions to which it incites the drinker. Since her activity has always been fantasy, taking place in a mental sky, she has no difficulty perpetuating the fun. Yet her intoxication is more than fun; it is also a sign of power. In this poem, lack of control, diminutive stature, are coyly representative of their opposites, as the final audacious image, of the “little Tippler / Leaning against the – Sun – “ indicates. (In another version of the line Dickinson has the little tippler “From Manzanilla come!” That makes her a world traveler; this more exciting image makes her a space traveler.) She has overcome both space and time by the poem’s conclusion, such is the strength, the power of her emotion.
     This poem is another form of the celebration of delight. It perpetuates and praises the feeling, not through incantation, as in “Mine – by the Right of the White Election!” but through outright fantasy. Both poems, however, achieve their prolongment of the emotional experience with a rhetoric that places the action of the poem in the realm of the imagination and explicitly, almost challengingly, opposes ordinary reality in the process. Here, in the space of the mind, delight can be maintained, delight can be controlled, delight can be praised. A contrast with nature and its kind of time is an essential aspect of the poems which describe delight achieved. – Suzanne Juhasz

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Rusty Morrison rewrites Shakespeare’s Sonnet 52

Sonic fig juice

somatic bitch-boy in the under-words, hissing bestialities –
can’t beat it, cheesy sock-puppet leisure –
witch me, heathen, knock me loud into surgery –
forethoughts buried, dime-joint mind in cellular seizure –
wherefore, sore of fealty to feasibility, stupor-swollen, sucking air –
wince! The poem’s not even nearly half done yet –
yikes! My groaning words, thought-hearses, waste escape valves –
oh capacious germs, can’t sterilize my shtick or sex it –
sewed into quick lime, that old rhymer that shaking-spear gent –
I’ve an oar behind my earlobe, for beating back the talktide –
tumored with orneriness, I am spurious, I am hesitation-blasted –
buy it new here, infatuation is the poem’s best incendiary lie –
howl-beautified in the 50s, come to surrounded by ad-marketing & lyric-dopers –
getting had, tho, is my fav trumpet, singing lag-time, blindly I grope –

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

And fantasy it was

And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word. - Toni Morrison

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A poem by Hanshan

In the house east of here lives an old woman.
Three or four years ago, she got rich.
In the old days she was poorer than me;
Now she laughs at me for not having a penny.
She laughs at me for falling behind;
and I laugh at her for getting ahead.
We laugh as though we'd never stop;
she from the east and I from the west.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

On Humanism

Humanism was the particular glory of the Renaissance. The recovery, translation, and dissemination of the literatures of antiquity created a new excitement, displaying so vividly the accomplishments and therefore the capacities of humankind, with consequences for civilization that are great beyond reckoning. The disciplines that came with this awakening, the mastery of classical languages, the reverent attention to pagan poets and philosophers, the study of ancient history, and the adaptation of ancient forms to modern purposes, all bore the mark of their origins yet served as the robust foundation of education and culture for centuries, until the fairly recent past. In muted, expanded, and adapted forms these Renaissance passions live on among us still in the study of the humanities, which, we are told, are now diminished and threatened. Their utility is in question, it seems, despite their having been at the center of learning throughout the period of the spectacular material and intellectual flourishing of Western civilization. Now we are less interested in equipping and refining thought, more interested in creating and mastering technologies that will yield measurable enhancements of material well-being – for those who create and master them, at least. Now we are less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind, more engrossed in the drama of staying ahead of whatever it is we think is pursuing us. Or perhaps we are just bent on evading the specter entropy. In any case, the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency, many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own. In such an environment the humanities do seem to have little place. They are poor preparation for economic servitude. This spirit is not the consequence but the cause of our present state of affairs. We have as good grounds for exulting in human brilliance as any generation that has ever lived.

. . .

There are so many works of the mind, so much humanity, that to disburden ourselves of ourselves is an understandable temptation. Open a book and a voice speaks. A world, more or less alien or welcoming, emerges to enrich a reader’s store of hypotheses about how life is to be understood. As with scientific hypotheses, even failure is meaningful, a test of the boundaries of credibility. So many voices, so many worlds, we can weary of them. If there were only one human query to be heard in the universe, and it was only the sort of thing we were always inclined to wonder about – Where did all this come from? or, Why could we never refrain from war? – we would hear in it a beauty that would overwhelm us. So frail a sound, so brave, so deeply inflected by the burden of thought, that we would ask, Whose voice is this? We would feel a barely tolerable loneliness, hers and ours. And if there were another hearer, not one of us, how starkly that hearer would apprehend what we are and were.

- Marilynne Robinson