The Allusion and the Canonical

To add a bit to the recent discussion between Rose and myself… Given that this is a literary blog, certain truths we may hold to be self-evident. Most of us read a lot. Most of us read a lot of literature. Most of us read a lot of literature by authors who were born before 1900. The same can be said if I specify 1800, 1700, etc. That is, we are, relative to the general run of humanity, a pretty canon-savvy bunch. We can rattle off a few lines of Shakespeare, know the name of Petrarch’s unrequited love, and so forth.

But the point really isn’t how smart everyone is (you’re welcome, though). No, it’s that American formalists often don’t show much imagination when interacting with the great works of imagination from the past. As T. S. Eliot put it in “The Sacred Wood,” “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Too often, when reading the formalist journals, one feels the need to add something to the “bad poets” norm, the “unimaginative poets”–or, to be a bit more precise, the unimaginative poem. That is to say, the frequent “update” poem, in which, say, the Furies become rather stereotypically shallow and vindictive mall rats mocking the (poet-surrogate at a younger age) four-eyed narrator, is probably a bad poem, draining the Furies of their terror while the remaining mythical residue around them prevents the story being told to resonate in its own right. But then there’s the unimaginative poem, where the myth is not complicated or really explored, save for filling what the Spinal Tap album cover sleeve refers to as a “much-needed void.” If you’re Tom Stoppard, you can look at Hamlet from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even as they remain very much Stoppard’s characters. but do we need a sonnet to tell us what Ophelia was thinking, when Shakespeare does a damn fine job of it himself?

The canon, in contemporary metrical poetry, is far too often simply inert, with authors appreciated, myths revered or burlesquely bowdlerized, and blah, blah, blah. Boring. One lacks a sense of the dialectic of allusion, the way in which, done properly, the past and present communicate with one another, the way that Agamemnon comments on the tawdriness of Sweeney’s dinner companions, how Athenian history is harnessed to Mauberley’s lament about the devolution of modern life, the way Shakespeare hovers around Berryman. We need to be more subtle with this stuff, more imaginative than we are now. Far too often, the canon is used as a substitute for the actual alchemy of inspiration.


God(dess) Talk–My Response

First off, if I go on about the Goddesses more than their male counterparts, it is because I just tend to see more of Persephone than Hephaestus in poems nowadays. But him, too.

Secondly, I am by no means saying that mythological material is inappropriate, nor direct engagement with authors of earlier eras. And I thought the myths were cool when I was a kid. I still do. It’s just that… with very few exceptions, the poems I see retelling them are terrible. It’s not that they’re obscure. It’s that they’re bad canon poem crap that makes one long for the source material fiercely. And it’s not the fault of the myths. Because they can be used brilliantly in contemporary poetry. Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is a fantastic example of this. Dig:

APENECK SWEENEY spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swelling to maculate giraffe.

The circles of the stormy moon
Slide westward toward the River Plate,
Death and the Raven drift above
And Sweeney guards the hornèd gate.

Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;
The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees

Slips and pulls the table cloth
Overturns a coffee-cup,
Reorganised upon the floor
She yawns and draws a stocking up;

The silent man in mocha brown
Sprawls at the window-sill and gapes;
The waiter brings in oranges
Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;

The silent vertebrate in brown
Contracts and concentrates, withdraws;
Rachel née Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;

She and the lady in the cape
Are suspect, thought to be in league;
Therefore the man with heavy eyes
Declines the gambit, shows fatigue,

Leaves the room and reappears
Outside the window, leaning in,
Branches of wistaria
Circumscribe a golden grin;

The host with someone indistinct
Converses at the door apart,
The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,

And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud,
And let their liquid siftings fall
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.

That last quatrain just sends the poem into a whole different level. I have read this poem so many times that I should be bored with it, but am not. Agamemnon’s death becomes an ironic comment on what came before, and… well, there’s plenty of criticism already.

What gets me about the way most contemporary formalist poems dealing with Greco-Roman myth is this–it’s not their use of Classical themes, but that they come across, generally, either as rather pale homages to cracking source material or, worse, as something that someone wrote down when he/she had no ideas of his/her own. And the pieces are flat, unrevealing, and just dull as hell, in contradistinction to the source material. There are, naturally, exceptions, but it is my general impression.

But, by God, I hope I did not give the impression that I dislike the use of mythological source material per se or poems set in other historical eras or the like. Such is not the case, and, to my recollection, has never been the case. And you’re misreading me a bit more broadly, Rose. I do not propose what I do as a template for anyone else, and a fair bit of my work, indeed, is implicitly set in the Oklahoman, yes, suburb where I grew up. The comments you are thinking of (presumably from the Evans review) were a reference to the lifestyle of a given poet rather than to a particular subject of poetry. And they were, moreover, semi-jocular, a bit of a jab at a sort of Baudelairean notion of what “the Poet” should be like.

Hope this clarifies a few things.

Erica Dawson’s Big-Eyed Afraid

I wanted to like this book more than I do. Let me explain that. Erica Dawson’s Big-Eyed Afraid (Waywiser, 2007) should be precisely the sort of collection that would reinvigorate American metrical poetry that, with the gone but not forgotten Formalist in the background, has become–with some important exceptions–white, polite, often rather conservative, and inhabited by too many poems where Greek Goddesses discuss Petrarch’s unrequited love for Laura. She has absolute scads of talent, a different swing to her metrics than any other contemporary metrical poet I have encountered, and evidence of a clearly fruitful engagement with that strange beast called “performance poetry”. In short, there is more energy here than in the vast majority of collections–metrical or free verse–one encounters. Take the opening of “Chocolate Thunder”

I was born, Mom says, dancer-
Physiqued, lean leg or arm, or, hand
For five down low, born You the Manned,
Go Girled, and Dad’s wrong Answer

To dead ball dreams. I tore
Shit up, handled the no-look pass
And a jig. Somebody slap my ass.
Now who’s your daddy? Score.

There’s an exuberance one doesn’t see very often… unless you know where to look. And therein lies, I think, one of the great strengths–and weaknesses–of Big-Eyed Afraid. Dawson is drawing on a stream of poetry generally unknown to many “formalist” poets, mostly because they can’t be bothered to go to a few open mics in an urban area in the United States. Dawson’s skill with the demotic, at times crossed with the highly literate reference, as well as her narrators frequently calling attention to their sexiness, backgrounds, and racial history, would not be unfamiliar to aficionados of “performance poetry”. Likewise, many of her tricks in rhyming, notably her frequent rhymes in the middle of a word, would not be terribly out of place.

And so far so good. But too often, the point of Dawson’s poems is that the narrator (who seems to resemble Dawson herself as a general rule), never really gets beyond talking about herself, whether in church as a kid or in the midst of an orgasm as an adult. And while most readers would give up a kidney to have as good a body image as an Erica Dawson poem, the effect, for all the verbal ingenuity of the work, becomes a bit monotonous. While this is, I suppose, “empowering”, with the self being discovered and accepted and loved and all that, by the time the reader hits page 98, he or she is ready for something else. Not Greek Goddesses recapitulating 2,000-year-old stories, necessarily, but maybe something about someone other than her.

But for all of the collection’s self-absorption, it’s good that it exists–and hopefully, it will resonate among the “formalist” audience who constitute much of Waywiser’s American audience. While Dawson does tend to go myopic, the object of study is sensual and vibrant, and her influences from more than one stream of American poetry should be instructive. While Big-Eyed Afraid does not entirely deliver on its potential, its author, in subsequent work, may well do so.

Selling Your Book

One hears, with some regularity, about how poets would sell an assload of books if they just got off their asses and went out there to move a few tens of thousands of copies. Now, one does not hear this from publishers, nor from the general public. Sadly, it is poets themselves who entertain such notions–maybe not to quite this extent, and often in inverse proportion to the amount of stuff they’ve gotten into print. But still. As this is a literary blog, I shall assume that most of the readers of this essay are, in fact, poets, so, I will address this to you.

No science was involved in the writing of this essay; nor was there any systematic process of interviews. No, this is based on firm anecdotal evidence, told to me by various poets in various stages of sobriety over the course of several years, as well as my own experiences. If you get a book deal you’ll be in for something like what I’m about to describe.

Among many poets, there seems to be the idea that if the right work is selected, the accolades and public recognition will come. Bullshit. Unless you’ve got a full-time publicist (and most small presses don’t have one of those, let alone individual poets), it’s a slog. Have a new book out? Get on the radio. Not the top forty station, mind you. The local programming show they run at 10 AM on a Sunday morning on that local station that plays all those godawful pop songs from the 1980s during the week. Someone’s listening, sure. Not a whole mess of people. Maybe one or two will buy your book after hearing you read some pieces on the air. Maybe not. Possibly even probably not. Though they may swing by the local independent bookstore where you dropped off some copies of your book and sort of remember hearing you on the radio and maybe buy a copy. Maybe. In a few cases.

Or you can get yourself booked into a reading as a feature. And they may ask you to do it again. Maybe. A year-and-a-half-from now, because it’s a monthly reading and the venue owner likes to have them booked well in advance. And a few people will probably buy a copy of your book. Well, maybe they will. And if you’re at a reading whose host has some connections, and you hit it off really well, he or she might suggest your name to the local literary festival. Though not for the main slot. They’re flying over Carol Ann Duffy for that, because people have heard of her. No, you’re reading with five other people on Sunday afternoon, a bit after the radio show you appeared on five months before airs. And two of your fellow readers liked your book enough to offer to swap. And perhaps a nice young woman (or nice young man, depending on your gender/sexual orientation) in the audience likes your reading, too, and she (or he, depending on your gender/sexual orientation) might buy the book, and there’s even an outside chance of getting laid, but you’re still talking low sales. (Of the books you swapped, you read the first third of one when you come down with a cold three weeks later, and two years on, you’ll be “meaning to get around to” the other one.) And possibly, someone a bit higher up the food chain, possibly even Ms. Duffy herself, will wander in. Could happen. She’ll tell you she liked your reading and ask you your name, but she was only able to change a ten-pound note in Heathrow and only has a dollar left from the cab ride and can’t buy the book, and besides, she really has to talk to the organizers about something.

And you might even get a review in a prestigious journal. The journal has a subscription base of 2,500 people, of whom 200 subscribed because they’d heard the thing was highbrow but give it a desultory look-over. Five subscribed online while high. Another 250 are shipped out to university libraries. Some 600 are subscriptions from former and would-be contributors largely looking to see what work of theirs might be appropriate to send in, given what’s been running lately. Thirty subscribers graduated from the same creative writing program as the editor, while another ten are undergraduate chums. Then there are the thirty or so contributors of poems, fiction, and critical articles. The reviewer of your book won’t buy a copy; she has the review copy. The editor might, except that the magazine reviews sixteen or so books of poetry a year, and he knows five of those under review, who take priority. Most of the poets look at the issue to check for typos. Ditto the fiction writers. Of the seven contributors who read the review, one buys the book reviewed immediately after yours; two decide that your book doesn’t sound like their thing at all, four think they may well buy the book some day, and one actually buys it when you’re booked for a double-feature together nine months later. The subscribers, of the 400 who make it to the review in the back of the magazine, skim the review as a rule, noting the kind of poetry it is. Of these 156 decide they might be interested, and 16 actually buy it (out of the 27 who decided they should), one of whom because he lives in the same town as your publisher’s second cousin, who owns a bookstore and actually has your book on the shelf.

The launch went well, though, with ten area poets showing up, as well as your sister-in-law who happened to be in town on business. Then there were the seven people who made it from your place of work, as well as fifteen or so people you know socially. You gave away a copy of the book to a local novelist of your acquaintance who launched the book, of course. As well as two representatives from your publisher. Of the 38 people who showed, a whopping twenty bought books, while five others pleaded poverty and said they’d get back to you–and one of them even does.

Announcements on Eratosphere, Sonnet Central, the Gazebo, the Critical Poet, PFFA, Poet & Critic, and Dr. Whup-Ass’s Bitch-Ass Poetry Round-Up net you eighty-six messages of congratulation–and about twenty actual sales. Of course, some of that is because on the Sphere, that fuckwit Cantor posts that message about Rhina Espaillat reading somewhere or another in Toronto, and everyone piles on to congratulate her (even though no one congratulating her lives anywhere near Toronto or plans to go there for her reading), and then some newbie trying to get to fifteen posts by whatever means necessary posts a “Wish I could of made it” message on a month-old Carmine Metrics reading announcement, and within two hours of posting, the goddamn thing is halfway down the page with no responses and two hits, which were you checking for typos and Tim Murphy trying to click on the Rhina link but opening your announcement by accident instead, and you have to bump it back up yourself. Which is embarrassing.

And then, of course, there’s the university reading. Which doesn’t take place in the swank old college downtown, where you went some years ago and a couple members of faculty vaguely remember you. No, you’ve got a friend on the English Faculty of Batshit Community College, an upgraded technical school, half of whose students speak Lithuanian as their first language. But it’s a reading, and you haven’t done very many readings recently—which is why you’ve only sold one book over the past month, and that to an ex-girlfriend (or ex-boyfriend, depending on your gender/sexual orientation) who found you on MySpace when she searched for old flames a few days after she found her husband schtupping her younger sister (switch around pronouns and nouns according to gender/sexual orientation). Though you don’t know about that last bit.

At any rate, the night of the reading arrives, and it’s the first poetry reading ever held at Batshit Community College. So the dean is there, and your friend and two other members of the English faculty are there (the fourth member is at his daughter’s school play), and five students show up. Because your friend has offered his remedial English class (of 45) extra credit for turning up. So you do the reading and ask if there are any questions. There are. Or is. A student asks you why you use so many big words. You say you aren’t sure. The students are poor, as are the faculty, so no one buys a book, though you give one to the dean as a goodwill gesture. Your reading is the last poetry reading ever held at Batshit Community College.

There are, of course, book store readings, generally booked at one of the shrinking number of independent book stores in your area. Most of your friends can’t make it because it’s in the middle of the day, and they have work. Which is fair enough, really. But as you read to an initial crowd of five, some folks do stop and listen. You might sell three or four books.

As for open mikes, they are frequent in the bigger cities… but showing up at an open mike is, to a great degree, self-promotion on the part of each reader—which is to say the overwhelming majority of the audience.. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se. But the role of the featured reader (you) is significantly de-emphasized. And as a consequence, the book may sell a few copies if you’re a regular, but don’t expect masses of sales. There may well be none. Open mikes aren’t designed to sell books.

And then, of course, there are the poetry conferences. So, you spend a crapload of money to get to West Chester, Pennsylvania for the big do. You get your books placed in the bookstore… and are promptly astounded by how many fellow poets of your acquaintance have books and chapbooks. You spend your allotted $50 in one day and from there, swap four or five books with folks who heard you have a new book out (though it’s been nearly a year now). Maybe four sell in the book store.

The point is not to give up hope, but to realize what you’re in for early rather than late, and, perhaps, to be a little less scornful of seemingly low sales among one’s peers. This is not the kind of market that produces blockbusters. Poetry can sell, and indeed does, but the process is generally incremental, if often rewarding.

Rose Kelleher Reviews Gail White’s Easy Marks

Okay, I don’t have much book-reviewing experience, or any qualifications other than as an occasional reader of poetry for pleasure. But I thought I’d take a crack at Gail White’s new book, Easy Marks, because, uh, I like it, and why not.

First, a disclosure: Gail White included a poem of mine in one of her light verse anthologies, “Kiss and Part,” a few years ago. Needless to say, having been published by the prestigious Doggerel Daze has been a huge boost to my career. If it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t be the fabulously wealthy, internationally famous poet I am today. Still, I’ll try to set aside my gratitude and be objective.

Anyway. When the book arrived in the mail, I was all excited. I knew Gail White was known for her light verse, and I figured her book would be the perfect thing to read after a hard day’s work, drinking a glass of wine, bare feet on the coffee table. You know, a mental vacation, like a mystery novel or a comic strip collection. If that sounds like faint praise, well, it’s not. Entertainment is a good thing. Necessary, even.

I was surprised to find that only about half the book (the first half) was devoted to light verse. Surprised, not disappointed. Gail’s (I’ve never met her, and I know it’s more professional to refer to her by her last name, but there’s something about her voice that makes that feel wrong somehow) “light” and “serious” verse are not all that easily sorted into separate folders. Her verse — mostly, but not all, rhymed and metrical — is literate (I had to look up “glaucous”) yet accessible, not too dense to enjoy on a crowded subway. Her best “light” verse has a bitter edge, like Dorothy Parker’s (you know, like Resume and Bric-a-Brac). And her “serious” verse never commits the sin of taking itself too seriously. She can be earnest, she can be erudite, but she’s never pompous.

The problem with a lot of light verse is that, despite its modest goal of being mildly entertaining, it fails to achieve even that: instead it’s corny and old-fashioned, like those comedians who cross their eyes and talk in weird voices. Ba-dump-BUMP. That kind of light verse is always rhymed and metered, relying heavily on cutesy-clumsy rhyme pairs like “loaf’ll/offal,” rather than, say, ideas that are actually original and amusing. ( Ogden Nash often made a point of stretching for rhymes, but in his verse that’s a device, not the whole shtick.) In a couple of her ballades, she maybe leans in that direction, but on the whole Gail’s stuff is a cut above.

The weakest pieces, I think, are ones Quincy would call “canon poems”: poems where some classic fictional character speaks in contemporary idiomatic English, and that’s funny, you see, because it’s unexpected (not!). Like “Queen Gertrude’s Soliloquy”:

I wish he wouldn’t sulk. It’s unbecoming,
and first impressions ought to be our best.
Then I do wish he’d stop that beastly humming
and talking to himself. “Give it a rest–
you’re acting out!” I long to say, but no,
a mother can’t, that’s being interfering….

There aren’t many of those, though, obviously, since, as I said, I like the book. Overall my impression is: here’s the voice of a wry, witty female who’s been around the block; is thoughtful and well-read, but not bookish; was raised Catholic, but isn’t religious; likes beer and tacos, and men, too, though they don’t deserve it, damn them; and doesn’t care if Poetry never publishes her.

But don’t take my word for it, read some examples. Here’s the end of “Breaking Down in the South”:

…but still the fame and glamour
of a Nervous Breakdown hung around their necks
like a name-brand diamond. Now, in middle age,
I’m told my dismal state is just depression,
reactive, mild – here, try a little Prozac.
Dammit, I don’t want drugs. I only want
to be eccentric, batty, somewhat daft,
covered by Aunt Leona’s mental mist.
Again, my generation gets the shaft.
I’m due for a breakdown, and they don’t exist.

Here’s a stanza from “The Jump Off Putney Bridge,” about Mary Wollstonecraft’s failed suicide:

Inhaling Thames was cold and painful,
but less humiliating than being fished
up like a turtle, taken to a pub
and queasily revived. Embarrassing
Moments of the Enlightenment–Grand Prize.

Here’s the delightfully goofy first stanza of “Song, In Imitation of Christina Rossetti, and Beginning with a Line by Edmund Wilson”:

My brain is like a piece of cheese
That quivers with a million mites.
My brain is like a fast ballet
Where all the dancers split their tights.
My brain is like a Ferris wheel
Whose rusted gears have ceased to work.
My brain is bleaker than all these
Because my love is such a jerk.

Here’s the end of “The Disappearance of Mary Magdalene”:

Underground, her faith ran like a waterfall. She lived
a hermit’s life. If women sought her out,
their stories thumped like washing on the rocks,
buckets in wells. Theirs was a gospel word
that shunned the daylight – tales Paul never heard.

And here’s a link to a sonnet of hers I find stunning, “Christmas On Rhodes,” published in the December 2007 issue of Lucid Rhythms:

Then again, I would like a poem like that, being both a fan of the sonnet form, when it’s used well, and a wishy-washy ex-Catholic of the “There is no God, and Mary is His mother” variety. You might dislike it (i.e., you might be Stupid and Soulless and Wrong); if so, you probably won’t like “Easy Marks.” You also won’t like Gail White if you’re one of those men, who seem to be everywhere these days, who have conniption fits whenever an anthology of women poets is published, or a woman makes a humorous generalization about men. These are the same men, ironically, who are always accusing feminists of being whiners. But I digress.

I do have one last petty complaint. There are several typos in the book. One of them is on the title page of the first section: “Dysfuncational Families.” Actually that’s kind of cute, and at first I thought it was deliberate, but it’s not spelled that way in the Table of Contents. Anyway there are several other typos that aren’t cute. Tsk tsk tsk! Editors are supposed to catch those things, and even if they don’t, authors are supposed to proofread the proofs. That’s why they call them proofs. For her punishment, I hereby fine Gail White in the amount of one beer and two tacos, payable to me if and when she’s ever in the Gaithersburg area.

On “Formalism”

This entry probably delivers less than it promises, as it’s not really my take on New Formalism, New Narrative, Expansivism, and the various closely related movements that seem damn near indistinguishable for those of us who were children in the 1980s. Rather, it’s about this stupid fucking tendency of so many reviewers to make a big goddamn deal out of “formalism” every time that a book that deploys meter and rhyme is under review. (This is especially true in the United States–the Irish are generally saner.) While the decision as to whether or not to use meter, rhyme, and all the rest is, of course, an important one–and prosody should be on the table when reviewing–one too often gets the sense that each book of American metrical poetry that comes out is somehow a barometer on the use of meter in poetry in general. Which is a bit odd, as metered poetry has been in the norm in Indo-European poetry, at least, for almost three millenia, whereas free verse has come into its current prominence within the last century, which would seem to me to indicate that metrical poetry can be successfully pulled off in multiple epochs.

But even still, one finds, in way too many reviews, an apparently almost unstoppable need to waffle on about the efficacy of “traditional” prosody–from whatever perspective. This blog takes the position that making too big a goddamn deal out of prosody qua prosody shortchanges the poets. There are technically brilliant collections that are boring as hell, though I have yet to read a prosodically impoverished collection that was any good. (There’s a lot of prosody in good free verse.) If a collection is filled with sonnets, yes, the reviewer should note the fact, as well as evaluate if the author knows what he/she is doing with the sonnet. But we’ve had enough referendums on the sonnet to be spared another one.

Fair enough?

Review of Eileen Sheehan’s Down the Sunlit Hall

Eileen Sheehan is, at the moment, perhaps one of Ireland’s most underrated poets.* Sure, she’s appeared in all the right journals, has a lovely blurb on the back of her book from Nuala Ni Dhomhnail (a leading Irish-language poet, for those who don’t know), and was recently a reader at some boffo Irish Studies conference or other in the U.S. But unfortunately, hers are not the books that tend to be reviewed in Ireland’s little magazines (those that even do reviews), much less in the Irish Times. This is a shame, because Sheehan’s publisher, the Tralee-based Doghouse, has published a list that, though uneven (a few of the offerings straying into the frankly godawful), includes fine poets such as John W. Sexton and Liam Aungier, as well as newcomers worth watching like Barbara Smith and Catherine Ann Cullen.

Sheehan’s second collection (Down the Sunlit Hall, Doghouse 2008 ) confirms her skill as a poet and her capacity to write seductively. These aren’t poems that give you a hard-on, exactly, but are rather the sort of poems that draw you from the enticements of other books clamoring for your attention. Sheehan can be funny, as in the opening of “upended to someplace”:

“Barefoot by lamplight, by curtained midnight. Slipped
in a puddle of dog piss. Landed straight
into the arse-end of tomorrow. Can happen
like that, revelations, things of that nature.”

Or solemn, as in the close to “Threat of Rain:

“we step back
at the sound of earth on wood
back to notice the living

back into our own
diminished lives.”

Or, in poems like “Needing to Be,” Sheehan is both at once. She is not a poet of a single mood, tempo, or, indeed, song. He poems, at times whimsical, but rooted in particulars of time, place, and personality, have distinct formal characteristics but are always distinctly hers.

One wishes that one could say the the same about more contemporary Irish poetry, which suffers from many of the same weaknesses of much contemporary American poetry–the rather bland anecdote rendered in lineated prose and thankfully generally over rather quickly. Sheehan’s free verse still feels like verse rather than a dullish paragraph hacked up with a berserk “Enter” key. She is a poet of the proper kind.

*Personal disclosure–I know the author and think she’s pretty nifty.