Saturday, September 26, 2009

Exam

I'm taking an exam all this weekend, one of three that I need for my Ph.D. program. The first exam covered the genre of poetry, and this one covers 19th century British literature. Two things should be apparent here. One: you will be having a much more relaxing weekend than I am. And two: these exams could be improved if we could trim the categories just a smidge.

I’m not sure how this one will go, but the first exam ended up being one of the most rewarding weekends.  Instead of fixating on what else I want to read or learn, it was a relief to spend an entire three days writing down what I already know. A right of passage in some way.

Since I’m yammering all weekend about poems and prose, I thought it might be healthy to simply post one of my favorite poems from the 19th century and not say another word about it. It's "The Darkling Thrush" by Thomas Hardy.

I leant upon a coppice gate      
When Frost was spectre-gray, 
And Winter's dregs made desolate      
The weakening eye of day. 
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky      
Like strings of broken lyres, 
And all mankind that haunted nigh      
Had sought their household fires.   

The land's sharp features seemed to be      
The Century's corpse outleant, 
His crypt the cloudy canopy,      
The wind his death-lament. 
The ancient pulse of germ and birth      
Was shrunken hard and dry, 
And every spirit upon earth      
Seemed fervourless as I.  

At once a voice arose among      
The bleak twigs overhead 
In a full-hearted evensong      
Of joy illimited; 
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,      
In blast-beruffled plume, 
Had chosen thus to fling his soul      
Upon the growing gloom.  

So little cause for carolings      
Of such ecstatic sound 
Was written on terrestrial things      
Afar or nigh around, 
That I could think there trembled through      
His happy good-night air 
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew      
And I was unaware.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Losing my Voice


Voice. I lost mine this week.

I loved losing it.

Granted, I felt drab since I had to nod and smile as if I possessed no thought other than agreement. My dog indulged her scatological cravings since I couldn’t yell for her to not eat whatever deadness she found in the yard. And the flu-snot that caused the voicelessness of course created a general feeling of grodiness.

But I liked the limitation of losing my voice. I liked how I had to respond to the world a bit differently: less interaction; more smiles; phone off.  Overall, a return to the internal.

I began rereading Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”—that thirty-eight page poem that consumes the worlds of the Bront√ęs, a breakup, depression, parent-child relationships—and then redelivers all these worlds as one.  How to keep a long poem hinged together and engaging is difficult—and Carson uses a few different techniques such as the triadic stanza and section breaks to do so. On this reading, I found the flat voice held it all together, too. I know some readers complain about this flatness in some of her lines—and the introduction of the book even addresses that issue by saying that she can seem “unpoetic.”  The flatness in this poem works because it lends a tonal quality of isolation and depression that reinforces the subject of the poem. And she often follows up the flatness with quick transitions to another space: be it the interior to the exterior or a physical space such as from the moors to the kitchen. What I mean by that is one result of flatness is clarity, so when a jolting transition happens, it's easy to follow. Here is a short example where the speaker is visiting her mother and her mother is prattling on.  The transitions are quick between what the mother is saying and what the speaker is thinking, but since Carson delivers all of this in such a clear, flat voice, we can follow it. And if you haven’t had a chance to read this entire poem, you can find it in Carson's book Glass, Irony, and God published by New Directions Books.

Excerpt from "The Glass Essay" by Anne Carson:


“Mice in the teatowel drawer again.

Little pellets. Chew off


The corners of the napkins, if they knew

What paper napkins cost nowadays.

Rain tonight.

 

Rain tomorrow.

That volcano in the Philippines at it again. What’s her name

Anderson died no not Shirley

 

The opera singer. Negress.

Cancer.

Not eating your garnish, you don’t like pimento?”


Monday, September 14, 2009

Workshops and Woodchucks


Classes have begun in full, and I’ve decided to audit one last poetry workshop. That word “workshop” has always tugged at me partly because of its similarity to “woodchucks.” Once I think about that, I start creating asinine substitutions to the woodchuck tongue twister such as: How much work would a workshop shop if a workshop could shop work? And then I wonder if that's such an asinine question. How much work should a workshop shop?

A few years ago I started writing that dreaded workshop poem—partly out of the pressure of a weekly due date. As I talked about in Town Creek Poetry Review: “I became quite skilled at writing that 12-18 line poem with a couple of arresting images to jump start it followed by dash of meaning (often about the impossibility of meaning) and eureka, poem.” I like how in this workshop our professor Art Smith requires that we bring in two poems every two weeks. This seems like a good strategy to counter the workshop poem as it will allow for more risk and experimentation since we won’t feel the need to impress with both. If one fails, great. There’s another.

But this issue of failure and the workshop is an important one. Richard Jackson wrote a great article called “Sketch for a New Poetry Workshop” where he talked about how workshops often miss the point.  “The last thing that often gets discussed is the art of the poem.  Or sometimes the opposite happens: the discussion plunges into talk about particular words, line breaks, images, or the like, with no sense of the poem as an artistic whole, a made thing.” I agree with Jackson and definitely want to hear my poem discussed as a whole as well as in the particular. To be more specific, I want to hear when others think my poem just needs to be chucked. I write enough so that admitting to a poem failing doesn’t bother me.  That just means I’ve written outside my comfort level, so the risk of failure might be a bit higher. There are problems with what I’m suggesting. Many writers could say that the poet is the one who needs to determine when to abandon a work. Also, if I assess in any honesty how bad my poems were when I started writing, I’d have to admit that every poem should have been abandoned. Somewhere in that process of polishing up the bad poems, I started to write some decent ones. Maybe what I’m saying is that now I would like to hear my poem as a whole discussed before issues of line breaks and clarity. 

I’m not sure what the ideal workshop would be because each writer in there would imagine a different ideal. And this ideal changes over time. I’ve thought that in a workshop I run, I would ask each poet to begin by posing the question he/she is wondering about with the poem. Still, despite all these questions of how to run a workshop, I keep coming back to the workshop itself—which says a lot. I’m looking forward to workshopping away with my fellow poets. It looks like we have a good crew with Darren Jackson, Kierstyn Lamour, Michael Hudson, Rebecca Warren, and some newcomers to the program whom I excited to get to know: Jaron Birkan, Sean McDougle, Christian Gerard and Birkin Gilmore. 

PS This picture is from the fiction workshop last fall.