Wednesday, May 24, 2006

If you love good books, and I know you do, please check out my dear friend Scott Snyder's website for his forthcoming book (due at the end of this very month), Voodoo Heart, an absolutely life-altering collection of stories. It certainly altered my life...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

I’ve been reading some very strange and challenging critical writing today, essays explicating one poem each, and this reading makes me think about the many ways a reader can engage or interact with a poem. Discussing what happens in a poem is only one way of approaching it; in fact, it’s probably just the first step: understanding who is talking and who is being talked about, where they are or what situation they are in. Then one must go deeper, or if deeper is not the right word (because it’s tired to the point of perhaps not meaning much), begin to pick at the overall fabric of the language (tone, diction [high, low, a mixture], then word choices) and then to upturn particular words, trace why the poet chose them, speculate as to their origins in other texts, then give examples of those origins to substantiate those speculations. Whether or not a poet is intending to make certain associations between words in one text and another—even if they just mean to say whatever it is they are saying and not reference anything—they still do, and those associations are part of the fabric of the made poetic object, just as a certain kind of brick is a part of a wall and to describe the wall in detail, one must know about the bricks. So, in that way, the aspects of the poet’s own personality that led her or him to make particular choices are as much under scrutiny as the words on the page (I’m countering New Criticism here, aren’t I?); to explore a poem in as many ways as possible, I can’t see another way to think about it: the poem’s relation to the whole world (of which the poet is certainly a part) is under scrutiny.


Saw an excellent reading tonight at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project: Michael Scharf and Steven Burt. Scharf ripped through his discursive, obsessive, associatively charged poems, leaving off suddenly with a startling cliffhanger in medias res. Burt read a wonderful sestina that impressively and clearly laid out how America got itself into the mess it’s in with the current administration. It was one of the most pleasurable hours of poetry I’ve heard in a long time.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I was in the mood today to read something English (I lived in England for a little while in college and sometimes miss it) and had a copy of ICARUS ON EARTH, a second book by young English poet Jane Griffiths. She was born in 1970 and did England’s version of fancy school in literature (she didn’t do anything like an MFA, it seems, at least from my cursory view) who published her second book with Bloodaxe (I love Bloodaxe books—they publish all kinds of things from translations of major poets like Thomas Transtromer to critical looks at contemporary masters like Paul Muldoon to huge multi-volume collecteds by major English and European writers who are not well known here to books by very young English poets). So I thought I might take a look at some of Griffiths’ work (though understand I’m still in the middle of the book, so some of my thinking my be a bit half-baked).

While England has its share of fragmentary poets (many published by Salt Publishing, and I’m sure by other presses I don’t know about), my tastes, in general, tend toward intensity and narrative. Griffiths’ poems are fairly dense narrative poems that loop around and fold in on themselves. One can certainly hear a love of Frost and maybe Plath. Here’s a poem I like very much, which is part of a series near the beginning of the book called “Origami,” based on the painting that graces the cover of Griffiths’ first book:


Go back, a long way, snout
to beak, barking up a tree
or pacing a short space

of riverbank. Looking to lay
to rest their differences. Led
astray by their own shadows.

As once the fox, thinking to put
a stop to this vaunting parodist
made off with the rooster across

his back—but when the cock crew
and the woman ran out with a torch
what he saw in silhouette against

the barn wall was the rooster
bearing a fox like a cowl. He knew
then there’d be no clean end to it.

At the root of this is an interest in parable and cliché or figures of speech. Note how many of the sentences rely on figures of speech, recast them or find them a new home in a new mythic landscape: “barking up a tree,” “lay/ to rest their differences.” The two animals themselves come right out of fables (this is a preoccupation throughout the collection, which is titled for a sequence that recasts the Icarus myth in contemporary England).

The poem has a strange way of unfolding: it begins with a command (“Go back” into an archetypal vision of history) then proceeds through a list (Griffiths has a penchant for lists, of metaphors, adjectives, etc.) of archetypal situations for these two animals. Then, cued by yet another cliché (“Led/ astray by their own shadows” from “afraid of his own shadow”), the poem tells a little parable about the fox kidnapping (presumably to kill) the rooster to end the rivalry.

What happens next seems ambiguous to me, but interestingly so. It seems that, in the act of making off with the rooster, the rooster crows, waking the woman, who runs out to see what would make the rooster crow in the middle of the night. In the light of the woman’s torch, the shadow the fox (with the rooster on his back) casts appears reversed, with the rooster “bearing a fox like a cowl.” To me, this transfers the action of the poem to the imagination, where fear and guilt take hold. We have to assume, as one must in all fables, that these animals stand in for people—that their sins figure ours. So the poem concludes with a kind of veiled moral: “there’s be no clean end to it.” Meaning that what we do does not end after it’s been done but lives in shadows and fears, in our own imaginings and reimaginings of what’s happened, which are always colored by our fears and needs.

This poem takes a much-trodden yet refreshing path to this moral. I’m glad to know that this sort of work is actively being explored by young poets, who have in their arsenal all the interiority and intensity that has come to characterize contemporary poetry. There’s much more of this in Griffiths’ book. For a good read, I recommend it highly.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

It's fiction, I know, and this is ostensibly a poetry blog, but, if interested, check out my review of Gary Shteyngart's ABSURDISTAN in the Minneapolis City Pages.

I know I haven't written anything of substance in a little while--forgive me; I am planning a wedding--mine--you know. My mind's a bit scattered.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Not much to report. If anyone is interested, note the updated, more user-friendly reviews section to the right, which has links to a few of the reviews I've written.

Hope everyone in the world is well.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Well, I feel quite honored: Simon DeDeo has turned his powerful critical lens on me, for my poem in this excellent 8th issue of typo. Check it out at Rhubard is Susan.

Thanks, Simon.