Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Adultery" by James Dickey

Yesterday I worked on poem titles, and the only good ones I could come up with were those by other poets. Here’s one of my favorite titles and first line combinations: “Adultery” by James Dickey. “We have all been in rooms / We cannot die in.…”

How can a poet not be envious of that beginning? I admire a lot in this poem, but what I especially admire is the fallible speaker. This first person speaker not only admits to having an affair, but revels in the guilt, in fact ends with “guilt is magical,” and plans to cheat again: “My lover, my dear one, / I will see you next week / When I'm in town.” As I have mentioned in my “Back in Amurika” blog, I’ve grown tired and outright suspicious of the holier-than-others poet persona. This persona adopts a posture similar to Rodin’s The Thinker and sits about until he can deliver up a bite-sized dollop of epiphany. Where’s the unreliable narrator? The arse? Are poets always so good and wise? Naw. Fiction knows how to explore the unreliable narrator. And the following poem is a great example of being brave enough to do so.


by James Dickey

We have all been in rooms

We cannot die in, and they are odd places, and sad.

Often Indians are standing eagle-armed on hills


In the sunrise open wide to the Great Spirit

Or gliding in canoes or cattle are browsing on the walls

Far away gazing down with the eyes of our children


Not far away or there are men driving

The last railspike, which has turned

Gold in their hands. Gigantic forepleasure lives


Among such scenes, and we are alone with it

At last. There is always some weeping

Between us and someone is always checking


A wrist watch by the bed to see how much

Longer we have left. Nothing can come

Of this nothing can come


Of us: of me with my grim techniques

Or you who have sealed your womb

With a ring of convulsive rubber:


Although we come together,

Nothing will come of us. But we would not give

It up, for death is beaten


By praying Indians by distant cows historical

Hammers by hazardous meetings that bridge

A continent. One could never die here


Never die never die

While crying. My lover, my dear one

I will see you next week


When I'm in town. I will call you

If I can. Please get hold of Please don't

Oh God, Please don't any more I can't bear... Listen:


We have done it again we are

Still living. Sit up and smile,

God bless you. Guilt is magical.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Mail Call

What does three months of mail look like? Three bloated, rapacious, blobbish creatures—otherwise known as three brown shopping bags. Ugh. I didn’t start at the top and work my way down, but began by pawing through the bags for literary journals that had arrived over the summer. And I found a couple of surprises. One, I had three poems published in a journal who didn’t ask for permission, so, uh, surprise. I’m just happy they weren’t accepted elsewhere, so no harm done. But also I was sent a copy of The Journal. I’d never heard of this publication from the Ohio State Graduate Programs, and I’m not sure why it came to me, but I was impressed with the poetry there. One of many solid poems in it is “Taxonomy”  by Bob Hicok. This poem is that rare combination of rawness and exactitude. Little example: the speaker shows his mother how “… a knife / heated on the stove made something / of a cactus on the inside of my mouth. / There’s a moment when one animal / recognizes another as its kind.”  I was also happy to see three of my poems in Prairie Schooner and found myself immediately envying the other poems in this summer edition such as the ones by Jehanne Dubrow, Richard Jackson, and Alicia Ostriker.  So, while the bags are still bulging about my dining room, at least I have some good reading in there.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Back in Amurika

After about three months of traveling around, I’m back in the States—or Amurika as my Auntie A calls it. I’m slowly re-entering to this pace and first stayed a week with my boyfriend and his family out in California—in Orange County no less. And, yup, I’ve punched my Big Mac Card, strolled about Fashion Island, and indulged in the beach, feeling rather Americany. And here’s the thing: I love it. When I saw a pet stroller, poppy-pink, I found myself disgusted and intrigued all at once and thought of these lines from Tony Hoagland’s poem “America:”  “…Each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you / And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river / Even while others are drowning underneath you….”  You can say what you want about Hoagland’s poems, and I might agree with you, but I admire how Hoagland is willing to go there, “there” being where most academic poets are too goody-two-shoes to go. In “America” for example, the speaker divulges that he thinks his student is full of crap, reveals a dream about stabbing his father, and admits his hand might play a part in the materialistic dribble that’s our culture. That beats describing suburbia from that distance that keeps one’s hands as clean as the sanitizer on them.  While I have enjoyed some of those type of poems, I’m now reading so many of them that they seem too stock, too safe—too pre-packaged and ready-made.  That is barely okay when it comes to lunch, but in poetry where one cannot sell out—why not take more risks?


Link to “America” by Tony Hoagland from his book What Narcissism Means to Me:

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Is a Song a Poem?

Carrie Brownstein recently posted a music blog on NPR about how songs rarely translate well to paper.  In other words, she's saying words aren’t quite enough; a song, unlike a poem, needs the musical accompaniment and singers to fully deliver it. Undoubtedly. These discussions over whether or not songs can be considered poems seem a bit squishy to me.  I should backtrack here and explain that I created and taught a class at Belmont University in Nashville called The Poetics of Song Lyrics. In that class, one of the first questions we discussed was about this issue: Is a song a poem? While they are linked genres for sure, I definitely see them as two genres. Songs have different audience expectations that—in commercial pop and country music at least—value clarity over obscurity, received form over open form, collective experience over private. Also, the musical instruments—which include the singers' voices—add a layer of emotional and intellectual connection that make a poet’s option of black type on white paper seem gimpy. What I found my students were often trying to argue was that songs were a high art—or could be—in the way that most poetry is considered high art. (And by the way, whoever is strutting around classifying this stuff into high and low is not on my high list.) These music lovers didn’t care for how poets tend to be regarded as Artists while songwriters are too often regarded as dribble-making machines with great make-up artists.


What I do find more interesting, however, than these genre/territory debates is to compare and contrast how poems and songs use the same techniques—such as rhyme or ballad form. I’ve been working on a collection of essays that delve into this exact issue and soliciting English professors and music reviewers alike to weigh in. One contributor, David Caplan, has an interesting essay coming out in Antioch Review that analyzes the history of rhyme and the way it has morphed in the hands of hip-hop artists. That’s the type of stuff that reveals the art in popular songs.