Role of the Poet

It’s been hard to think about poetry since our pre- and post-election discussions without considering it in terms of the role of poets in the face of injustice, like we talked about, and since then I’ve been thinking about exactly what those things are, as we didn’t come to many solid conclusions besides the usual thoughts on a poet’s responsibilities to speak out. I don’t really have an answer of what it is that a poet should do, but I wanted to take a minute to ramble and try and sort out some of my thoughts from the past few weeks.
At first, I wanted to look at how poets responded to particularly awful moments in history through their work, so I looked at a lot of poetry from the First and Second World Wars. I got off of that because most of what I was looking at were poems that were written after the fact, or were written to recount the experience of fighting or being in the position of a refugee, and while these are valuable what I was looking for were poems that were written with the purpose of effecting change, and maybe some that had a measurable impact. As you can imagine, those were hard to find, and I don’t know that I found any. I started thinking that it’s maybe asking too much of poetry to expect it to have an immediate or even noticeable effect on the world, and that it might be unfair to judge art based on political intent. Should we all be trying to write poetry that’s explicitly political, with set goals? That’s probably the ethical thing to do, but I’m sure it’s not something that everyone is interested in doing. I started to think about what it means that we’ve started to talk in this class about poetry as a political tool now that the election went the way that it did, even as terrible things were happening around the world all semester — is it hypocritical of us to only be concerned with the political effects of poetry now that we’re personally impacted by a bad situation? What should the poet take it upon themselves to address? Is it still okay to write poetry that doesn’t talk about any of this? After all, it must take some kind of courage to produce work that’s apolitical — that itself, though, is at odds with the idea (which I believe) that art is inherently political, and apolitical art is essentially decoration. I don’t have answers for any of the questions I’ve been thinking about, and the only thing that I can definitively say that a poet has to do is write poetry. Let me know if you have thoughts about anything I’ve brought up.

Writing Exercise: The Image in Succession

francine j. harris’ poem “what you’d find buried in the dirt under charles f. kettering sr. high school” depicts exactly what it says it will in the title, and shows the debris and remnants of student life at a Detroit high school, presented as a series of images in a stream-of-consciousness delivery that almost overloads the reader with the sheer amount of objects and the histories and implications that each of those objects carries. Try to imitate harris in delivering a surplus of images – how can we present a multiplicity of objects or ideas and maintain coherence within that excess? How can we create a linking narrative between images without becoming caught up in any particular image? This exercise can be done with ideas or events serving as the image, but push yourself to try for tangible objects. If you need help starting, look for ten objects that you could hold in your hands in the book you are following and describe the context in which they might all be found together, and proceed from there.

Honey, I Love

Although it’s probably less sophisticated than the kinds of texts we usually talk about in this class,  I’ve been thinking about doing a blog post on children’s poetry for a while, so when I got Eloise Greenfield’s 1978 book of children’s poems Honey, I Love and other love poems in the mail from my mom it seemed like a sign. Honey, I Love was one of the first books of poetry we read in my first grade class, so I wanted to see if I could approach it from a new perspective beyond simple enjoyment, thirteen years later. The book is a collection of sixteen poems having to do mostly with the love the speaker, a young black girl growing up in the 70s, has for her family and friends, and some of her meditations on travel and poetry.  Most of the poems span a page or two and are spoken in a declarative tone, the way little kids talk, so as I went through Honey, I Love
I took note of “Aunt Roberta,” one of the shortest poems in the collection and the only one phrased entirely as a question.

What do people think about
When they sit and dream
All wrapped up in quiet
and old sweaters
And don’t even hear me ’til I
Slam the door?

Although audience is something we’ve all been told to keep in mind, I’m not sure how consciously I make an effort to appeal to a certain audience when I write. “Aunt Roberta” seems to me to have been developed with an audience very much in mind — the language and line breaks would be easily understandable to a child reader. At the same time, though, the poem doesn’t seem childish, and there does appear to be method in how the line breaks are utilized: “Slam the door” being on its own line, for instance, emphasizes the silence broken and recalls the sounds itself. The poem as a whole being phrased as question I find interesting, not only  contextually with its being the only such piece in the collection, but for how well it creates a realistic narrative voice in replicating the sort of question that a child might ask. The narrator draws no conclusions, leaving the interpretation of meaning entirely up to the reader, and doesn’t even use specific names (Aunt Roberta only being named in the title), which invites the reader to project their own experience into the question asked of them.

The Proper and Perfect Symbol

Pound spends only a sentence discussing symbols in the Credo section of “A Few Dont’s,” but his direction that “if a man use ‘symbols’ he must use them so that their symbolic function does not obtrude” was something I spent a while thinking about, both in agreement with Pound in the necessity for symbols that function as well at face value as they do in representing something else, and in doubt of his “proper and perfect” solution to the obtruding function being the “natural object.” Letting a symbol’s representative function supersede its literal role in a poem is something that I myself am guilty of having done, so I think that Pound’s encouragement to balance the two is justified. A warning to avoid the reverse situation would have been equally valid too; not elaborating enough on a symbol to make clear that it is in fact representative of something can leave a poem with dead weight that never comes to mean anything.
Pound’s use of “the natural object” as the proper and perfect symbol” to solve to unmatched literal and symbolic functions, however, did not strike me as the catch-all solution he writes it as. The person who Pound describes, to whom “a hawk is a hawk,” probably does not exist. I understand that Pound means that symbols should function in the poem equally well for the experienced reader as they do for someone for whom the symbol is just an object with no connotations, but I don’t think it would be easy to find a person who carries no connotations with a natural object – chances are that any natural object that Pound could choose has the possibility of being misconstrued by someone whose personal experiences or enculturation give them a different understanding of that object. There is also the issue of Pound’s suggestion being on the vague side – what exactly is “the natural object?” I tend to think of natural objects as being the things you find in a forest, but Pound gives us no qualifiers, which makes locating the natural object difficult.

Taking Apart: The Harlem Dancer

When we talked about the sonnet early in the semester, I mentioned Claude McKay’s “The Harlem Dancer” as an example of the form. Seeing as I’ve already taken apart “The Tropics in New York,” another McKay piece, for the blog and that I am also afraid of change, I decided to take apart “The Harlem Dancer” and see why it is effective as a sonnet. It goes as follows:

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls
Luxuriant fell; and tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze;
But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.

When I brought it up the first time, I said that it worked because it juxtaposes the seediness of a strip club with the connotationsof the sonnet, which has a way of lending gravity to what it discusses by virtue of its history as a form, and Lytton added that it would also be interesting to consider the poem through the lens of an African-American poet of the twentieth century utilizing a form very much associated with a white European Renaissance tradition. I still think both of these are valid interpretations, but they focus on content more than form, so I want to look at how the form of the poem itself shapes the meaning. The pacing inherent in iambic pentameter creates tension with the content of this piece – while the words suggest a lively atmosphere, with men “tossing coins in praise,” laughing, and “devour[ing]” the dancer’s form, the sonnet’s use of iambic pentameter counteracts this. The ten-syllable lines read slowly and deliberately, almost contemplatively, giving dignity to the dancer in spite of her surroundings. The seriousness that the measured meter implies also bolster’s the sonnet’s ending volta, making it seem like not so much of an abrupt thematic turn because the poem has already acclimated the audience, through meter, to the seriousness of the subject.

Even More Thoughts on Erasure Poetry: port on

FullSizeRenderThis erasure (sorry about the quality, by the way) was intended to be part of my report on form, but I wasn’t able to get to it then, so I thought I’d put it up in a blog post. Because this erasure was originally just supposed to be a quick demonstration of how any material can be used in erasure poetry, I didn’t go into this with an overarching vision of what I wanted the poem to be, so each of the steps that became the stanzas were erased in isolation. If there’s something that I would say that I was trying to do, though, it would be to subvert the intention of the original author by, as well as I could with the words I was given, reversing Lytton’s instructions. The step that told us to think about form in ways other than would be obvious, which I turned into “think about form / form    would be / obvious.” Instead of considering finer points of form, the poem dismisses the question of form entirely as something obvious. Instead of the larger sense of poetry that the sheet originally asks for, the new poem asks for the reader to “offer a            help us / give us a        one poem.” Generally, I think I was trying to unsettle the assured tone of an assignment whose questions act to instruct its intended reader on how to do something and turn it into something whose questions feel more abstract and asked of the reader because the speaker itself is unsure both of the answers and what it should be considering in the first place.

More Thoughts on Found Poems

Like everything else with which I’m mildly interested, I’ve developed an attachment to erasure poetry since researching it for the presentation on form, so when I saw Nicole’s last post on the morality of found poetry I felt that I should give my take on the issue in a comment on her post, but that got too long and I had to turn it into its own post, which is as follows:
Equating a poet’s remixing (for lack of a better term) of poetry by other writers to plagiarism seems to me the same as calling a person who digs through trash heaps for discarded materials to turn into a collage. The issue of there being “only so many words to play with in so many combinations” doesn’t strike me as a reason that someone would want to create a piece in any subsection of found poetry – there are, at last Google search, 1,025,109.8 words in the English language, and the combinations and permutations of those words are something that I don’t think any Creative Writing major is equipped to think about. The point of found poetry is to find new meaning from existing words, and giving it the status of something that is made when its author cannot think of ways to put together new words feels to me like a devaluing of the work of the poet who takes texts which in many cases (erasures of Dante, Dickens, Milton, etc.) have the cultural connotations of being fixed and untouchable and makes them newly relevant and meaningful.

As to the issue of ownership of poetry and the removal of the original author, this seems to me to be one of the main goals of found poetry. This concern that was brought up in the post reminded me really strongly of something addressed in David Richter’s book How We Read: “Today’s authors may capitalistically consider their words as a form of private property, but that was not always the case. In the Middle Ages, for instance, many writers and artists worked anonymously, just as the craftsmen who built the cathedrals did. The valorization of the Author as a public figure in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is, for the philosopher Michel Foucault, a pathology of our era — along with the concept of the ownership of discourse and other intellectual property. For Foucault, the idea of the Author becomes a way of restricting access to discourse, of limiting the right to speak or write to a few approved and canonized authors. He predicts that when the modern age passes, all discourse will have “the anonymity of a murmur,” and we will be able to say (and mean) “What does it matter who is speaking?” This is from a section of the book that discusses authorial intent, and it seems to be a good summation of what found poetry is able to do. Bringing issues of copyright and plagiarism to a discussion of found poetry seems to miss the point – this kind of poetry is meant to circumvent those ideas. To say that found poetry is allowed by  “creative spirit inherent in poetry” seems too specific — the creative spirit that is attached to all forms of expression allows this.

Taking Apart: “The Municipal Gum”

After reading “Australia, 1970” I wanted to find more Australia-themed poetry, and a coincidental Google search shows that the English first spotted it 246 years ago today, so that seemed like a sign, and I went and found poetry by Oodgeroo Noonucall, who was the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of verse. I was particularly drawn to “Municipal Gum,” which was published in 1966 and is as follows:

Gumtree in the city street,
Hard bitumen around your feet,
Rather you should be
In the cool world of leafy forest halls
And wild bird calls
Here you seems to me
Like that poor cart-horse
Castrated, broken, a thing wronged,
Strapped and buckled, its hell prolonged,
Whose hung head and listless mien express
Its hopelessness.
Municipal gum, it is dolorous
To see you thus
Set in your black grass of bitumen–
O fellow citizen,
What have they done to us?

“Municipal Gum” deals with the out of place-ness of a gum tree in the middle of an urban environment, and that same dislocation in the poem’s speaker, who links themselves to the tree by calling the two of them “us” and addressing it as a “fellow citizen,” and that feeling is heightened significantly by the irregularity of the poem’s rhyme scheme and meter. The piece uses a rhyme scheme – AABCCBBDEEFFGGHHG – that switches once the rhyming pattern becomes expected, reintroduces rhymes from earlier in the poem, makes frequent use of near-rhymes, and at one point includes a line that rhymes with no other line in the poem, all of which coalesces so that they create an uncertain, confused tone within the poem. There is an equally offputting quality about the way that the sudden switches in meter occur – a line like “Municipal gum, it is dolorous” might be expected to be followed by a line of the same length and meter, but it is immediately succeeded by “To see you thus,” which is much shorter and uses a different meter – at the same time that it breaks a pattern, though, the poem rhymes, continuing to bolster a sense of uncomfortable continuity in the piece. Speech sounds also act as an extension of this poem’s tone, with guttural noises and consonance denoting negative elements in the poem – the section of the poem that compares the gumtree to an abused draft animal especially makes use of these techniques: Like that poor cart-horse / Castrated, broken, a thing wronged, / Strapped and buckled, its hell prolonged.” The ideal world, the “cool world of leafy forest halls,” on the other hand makes more use of assonance and uses  softer and less contrasting consonants than appear in other parts of the poem. The use of sound in “Municipal Gum” seems to me like a good example of a poem conveying equal amount of emotion through form as through content, which, coupled with a physically short poem, makes this piece resonant without having to speak for long at all.

Live Commentary Poetry Translation

I’d been thinking about  trying to translate poetry, so Lytton’s email a few weeks ago about translating work into English for Multicultural Night was a cool surprise. Spanish is my first language, so that’s what what I decided to work with on this one, and I assumed that the hardest part of translating poetry would be literally getting the words of the text into the desired language and that I’d therefore find this whole thing to be not very difficult. I’m very quickly realizing that I was wrong – not about the getting the words from Spanish into English, but in preserving the meaning and feel of the poem as I do that. Grammatically, Spanish is looser with verb placement than English is, so if I keep the word order as it is, some sentences won’t make sense. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but I’m generally trying to keep my translation as close to the source material as possible, so this is complicating that. There’s very little punctuation in this poem too, which works fine with the kind of language the author is using, which suggests stops via its structure and the conventions of Spanish writing, but doesn’t do the same thing at all in English.
I’m also realizing, especially after hearing a recording of the poet reading this piece, that the poem plays a lot with the use of speech sounds that imitate the wind, and it’s hard to move those sounds into English. The poem, a lot of which is focused on the sky, uses as one of the images a rook flying through the sky. In this line, the author has used a lot of vowels that sound especially wind-like when combined with the j’s and sibilant noises the line includes. In English, however, this sentence uses a lot more consonants and sounds pretty weight – a word like rook doesn’t remind me of flight. This airiness is something I think is really crucial to the success of the poem in its original language, and I don’t know that my translation will be faithful to the original piece in the effect on the reader if these sounds are entirely lost. On the other hand, I know I’m going to have to change the words around a lot if my criteria for choosing them is how they sound, and then I won’t  able to be entirely faithful to the original in content, so I’m hesitant about going either way. It seems almost as if I’m learning a lesson from this.

Reactions: “Some Notes on Organic Form”

Having been over Levertov’s essay a few times, I can’t say that I’m totally sold on what it presents me with. Initially, I was intrigued by Levertov’s “partial definition” of organic poetry as “a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man’s creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories,” thinking that the author was drawing connections between organic poetry and archetypal criticism, which is something I’ve been reading about lately and find myself increasingly drawn to. If Levertov is stating that poetry, like the rest of human art, continually explores and examines specific facets of a larger awareness, then I’m in agreement, but as her argument progresses she begins to lose me. Firstly, what’s the distinction between organic poetry and everything else? As I understand it, Levertov’s description of art drawn from a “form beyond forms” can apply to all art, so it seems that any poetry can be designated as organic poetry. Levertov’s continuation from this point is where “Some Notes on Organic Form” starts becoming troublesome – she describes exactly how an organic poet would “go about such a poetry,” which seems inherently presumptuous to me. There are, obviously, similarities among the poems of specific eras or literary movements that can be pointed out, but to assume that a poet’s creative process follows a precise path because they belong to one of these eras or movements is a much larger leap. When you consider that organic form might be all poetry, then Levertov is claiming to be aware of every poet’s process.
My issues with “Some Notes” weren’t helped by the fact that Levertov chooses to write about the organic poet’s experience in language that felt to me as romanticizing the process: “first there must be an experience, a sequence or constellation of perceptions of sufficient interest, felt by the poet intensely enough to demand of him their equivalence in words: he is brought to speech.” I can understand the moments of inspiration that Levertov talks about, but I’m also aware that many of the poems that I have written started out with completely different subjects and motivations than they ended on. The author says that “condition of being a poet is that periodically such a cross section, or constellation, of experiences (in which one or another element may predominate) demands, or wakes in him this demand: the poem,” to which I would respond that the only condition of being a poet is being someone who produces work that can be called poetry. Later in the “Some Notes,” Levertov does make what I think are valid points about rhyme and echo as well as the interactions of content and form, but to generalize about the experience of all poets – and in saying “the condition of being a poet,” Levertov is talking about all poets – doesn’t feel particularly useful.