Steve Fellner on Accessibility in Poetry

Steve Fellner posted on accessibility in poetry this past Friday. While Fellner's qualms with accessibility take a turn towards comparative queer theory, he deftly uses rhetorical question to raise many points about what we mean by "accessibility" and just what, exactly, we want to access. I responded with a quick post on my thoughts regarding the poet's responsibilities. You can read it at the bottom of his post.

What's the Reader's Role?

So it's been something around nine months since I made my last contribution to the Plumbline School. Let's just call it a sabbatical from blogging and move on.

Like my last post, I'm going to take the lazy way out and do a re-blog. I just finished reading a good post on what makes a poem over at Jim Murdoch's blog. Rather than re-hash what he said, I'll just point you toward it. Murdoch, a novelist, makes some excellent points about the reader's tasks when it comes to poetry. Be sure to read the whole thing, and also check out the links at the bottom of his post.


How to Read a Poem

I gave the following one-page handout to my Intro to Poetry students on Monday. It of course contains all sorts of assumptions about the nature of poetic language that I don't spell out -- it it a set of instructions, not a theoretical statement.

Instructions: Begin, in so far as it’s possible, without preconceptions and do not rush to make a judgment about whether you like or dislike a poem, or whether it’s good or bad; most of all, do not dismiss mysteries or difficulties as weird or incomprehensible (at least) until you have worked through the steps below. Read the poem aloud. Now read it again to yourself without (yet) trying to understand it in order to get a feel for the whole thing. As you go through the steps below, write notes on the page the poem is printed on, or in your reading journal.

1. Read the sentences (not the lines) for the basic, literal meaning of the poem. What is the setting? Who is speaking? What is the tone? (Tone is usually defined as the speaker’s attitude toward the subject matter as revealed through the speaker’s word choices, rhythms, etc.) Are there words you don’t know the meanings of? If so, look them up. Does the title of the poem offer a key to the situation the poem describes or enacts?

2. After you understand the basic meaning of the text, including the definitions of any unfamiliar words, look at the images (clusters of words that represent a sense impression: sight, sound, taste, etc). Do the images suggest anything more than their literal meaning? Do they rise above simple description? Are there patterns of images? Does the author use figurative language, i.e., metaphors or similes, etc? If so, what is the effect of these figures?

3. Stick to the actual text of the poem and do not import “explanations” for things you don’t quite understand from outside the poem. Not yet, anyway. For instance, say you are reading a poem in which the speaker seems to shift from one subject to another without transition. It might be tempting to say, “Well, maybe the speaker is drunk.” But unless there is a glass of whisky in the poem, you have no warrant to make such an assumption. Sometimes you have to simply “bracket” certain parts of the poem and save them for later analysis; this is far better than trying to “solve” every mystery on first (or second) reading.

4. Now look at the ways in which the lines break up or coincide with the poem’s sentences. Does this patterning affect the rhythm (and thus the tone) of the poem? Is the poem broken into stanzas? If so, are the stanzas integral to the organization of the subject matter? Do the lines of the poem seem to have a regular number of syllables? (Alternatively, do stanza contain lines that vary in syllable count according to some pattern?) Do the lines have a regular number of stressed syllables and if so are they evenly distributed in the line? If the lines do not show patterning of syllables or stresses, is there some other principle of patterning at work? Does the poem contain rhymes? If it does, do they fall into a particular pattern? If there is a pattern, is it simple or elaborate? What are the effects on the reader’s understanding of the patterns you have discovered?

5. Are there any hints about the larger context in which the poem was created? Time period? Author’s biography? Major historical or cultural events? Does the poem allude to other works of literature?

6. Now read the poem aloud again. At this point you are prepared to begin to make judgments about the poem’s meaning. Whether you “like” the poem or not is of interest to you personally, but not very important in the larger scheme of things. (Another way of saying this would be: Until you have read a lot of poems in the manner outlined above, your like or dislike of a particular poem is uninformed and thus not very valuable to the wider conversation about poems.) At this point it can be useful to write a brief summary of the poem in your reading journal.


Spirit of Poetry, Companion of Conscience

Helen Vendler, in a piece in the NY Times Book Review yesterday, on a newly-edited selected poems of Wallace Stevens, quote this passage from an award speech Stevens gave before the Poetry Society of America (when he was 72) :

"Individual poets, whatever their imperfections may be, are driven all their lives by that inner companion of the conscience which is, after all, the genius of poetry in their hearts and minds. I speak of a companion of the conscience because to every faithful poet, the faithful poem is an act of conscience."

This chimed somewhat, for me, with a previous post ("Ethos of Wayfaring").


Best of My Summer Reading

Body Traffic by Stephen Dobyns (contains some great poems about aging, some very original looks at various body parts, and a sequence of sonnets about Cezanne that's really about writing poetry)
And by Michael Blumenthal (wow, I'd never heard of this guy before a friend recommended the book. Lyrical, discursive, classical and innovative at the same time, truly hybrid in the way that the Norton Hybrid poets fail to be, mostly)
Money for Sunsets by Elizabeth J. Colen -- This was Denise Duhamel's judge's choice for Steel Toe Books' contest this summer. In the foreword, Duhamel compares Colen's prose poems to David Lynch's Twin Peaks and Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons
Zephyr by Susan Browne -- This was my editor's choice for Steel Toe Books' contest this summer. Press release here: http://www.wku.edu/~tom.hunley/steeltoebooks/news.htm

Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio -- Great exercises and discussions. I plan to use this and Michael Theune's Structure and Surprise with my grad students this fall.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn -- The most twisted, constantly-surprising, disturbing thing I've read in a long time. It's the kind of strangeness that Chuck Fight Club and Brett Easton Ellis strain after, but I never felt like Dunn was straining, just presenting her own way-out vision of the world.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Euginedes -- Dreamy, lyrical, mysterious, and a nice quick read

Strange Drapes Valentine #54

On the luciferic side
of the issue the drinkers
and talkers and other kinds of
ecstatic folks I go back and
forth between the Vikings

and the monks of the kells
the holy inlets where the
elves and pale sylphs
were last observed
and written down

and those who don’t trust words
lost in the art of sailing around
them and the plunder of time
and place the more violent
side of the argument takes.

I'm Just a Poor Wayfaring Stranger

I'm glad to see the blog starting up again. As I mentioned in comments to Henry's post, I'd like to urge my fellow Plumbliners to pitch in and contribute. I'd be willing to commit to posting something at least once a week and would invite other members of the blog to make a similar commitment-- if once a week is too often, then twice a month. Whatever suits. I make the request because I have found the discussions we began with useful and stimulating and I'm looking for more of the same. I'm just a poor wayfaring stranger looking for a few companions to join with me. By the way, I'm not looking and I don't think Henry is either, for any kind of party-line agreement here. There are some fundamental tendancies most of the Plumbliners share, but those patterns of agreement are, I suspect, pretty loose. Here is a challenge, then: I invite each of the plumbliners, over the coming couple of weeks, to post a statemnt of their poetics, however brief or elaborate; or, if that's too much or too abstract, then how about following Henry with a list of recent reading, perhaps with a bit of annotating hinting at how the reading connects up with one's larger ideas about poetry. I'll put something up along these lines within a day or two of posting this.


Hybrid Nation

Am reading fine book by J. Stephen Russell, Chaucer & the Trivium (along with trying to read original Canterbury Tales).

Russell analyzes the differences between modern & medieval thinking. He talks about the influence, on the medievals' sense of language, of a dual, hierarchical culture (Latin & vernacular). & of the importance of systematic, Aristotelian logic : the 10 defining "categories" of a thing, & their adaptation to medieval school-learning (by Boethius, Porphyry, others). Here's a quote :

"What emerges from this dense enumeration is a pair of distinctions. First, of course, are species, genera, and individuals, material that was amplified in [Porphyry's] Isagogue. Second is the distinction between 'of' and 'in', that between necessary (essential) attributes and accidental ones.

"This second distinction is, with only a bit of overdramatization, the cornerstone of medieval philosophy, the taxonomy that held (and, some would say, still holds) the world together." (Russell, p. 35)

The difference between of (what can be said of a thing) and in (what is integral to the identity or substance of - definitive of - a thing). Substances and accidents - how important this concept was to the Middle Ages is indicated by these lines of Dante's final vision, at the end of the Divina Commedia (Paradiso 33) :

I saw that in its depth far down is lying
Bound up with love together in one volume,
What through the universe in leaves is scattered;
Substance, and accident, and their operations,
All interfused together in such wise
That what I speak of is one simple light.

Today hybrid cars are all the rage (focusing our attention on the species "automobile", to the neglect of the genus [mass] "transportation"), as well as hybrid poetry (see the Norton anthology American Hybrid - a politic fusion of "old & new") & hybrid art forms (or product diversification) of all kinds...

I wonder if there's a way to recuperate this distinction (between "of" & "in") for poetry criticism. Today the "impure" holds the positive valence, whereas the "pure" is under suspicion (logocentrism, racial "purity", essentialism, etc.). But the political manipulation of racial hatreds, for example, could be analyzed as a version of logical category-confusion (ie. the "purity of the (German, white, black, take your pick) race" posits a substantial aspect (race) for what is in truth an accident (race is an accidental aspect of the genus human being). & the proposition of "hybrid" poetries - ie. Ron Silliman : "there is no such thing as poetry, there are only kinds of poetry" (I'm quoting from memory) - referring to such things as, I guess, slam, post-avant, "SOQ", elliptical, neo-objectivism, Slow Poetry, Investigative Poetics, conceptual, flarf, & all the other USA schools-tribes, etc. etc. - might also be a kind of category-confusion. Cui bono? Who benefits? Is it possible that these hybrid forms offer a sort of brand diversification, a way simultaneously to make inroads in, & to maintain (or re-vivify), the academic industry of teaching poetry-writing? & in the pursuit of "accidental" qualities, are we obscuring (or denying) poetry's more basic, integral substance?

[crossposted to HG Poetics]

My plummy summer reading

Following up on Joseph's idea. Recently read or reading :

the newspaper (NY Times, Providence Journal)
New Yorker
The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
a mystery by Josephine Tey
Saint Louis (in French) by Jacques le Goff
Canterbury Tales, by Chaucer
Chaucer & the Trivium, by J. S. Russell

(No, I don't smoke a pipe, wear tweed, or work for Left Overbie University...)


Ethos of Wayfaring

Have been pretty absent & absent-minded around the Plumbline lately. Partly due to personal circumstances (a strange summer), & partly due to somewhat of an impasse in my thoughts about "plumbing" (constipation, Henry?).

Joseph D. & Mairi have offered us some models, here, for moving beyond a general terminology of "the middle" - showing how "plumbline" values are manifested in particular poets & their poems. I've been too scattered to do that, myself. & too involved in poetry website discussions/squabbles (especially at the Poetry magazine Harriet site) - among various hotheads, wannabees, nobodies, & cranks (like me).

But this morning it occurred to me that I might be able to salvage something for the plumbline from a few of those controversies - if only to add another layer of generalization to our field of interest....

Two of the topics of interest (to me) on those websites have been 1) the rise of "hybrid" forms of experimental poetics - Flarf, Conceptual Poetry, etc.; and 2) the nagging debates over the purpose & value of the "poetry teaching industry" (MFAs, etc.).

I would like to try to propose a statement of (my) principles which addresses BOTH of these topics, together, in a unified way. I've done this in a piecemeal way in various comment streams on said websites; but here's how I would summarize my position :

1) Poetry is One Thing (with tremendous variations). It is not whatever anybody decides to name as poetry. For example, when Kenneth Goldsmith, the main proponent of "Conceptual Poetry", copies an entire day's issue of the NY Times, and calls it "conceptual poetry" - I would, au contraire, describe this as an oxymoron, or contradiction, rather than a description. It is not poetry. Poetry is a verbal art with its own distinct characteristics (some of which Aristotle began to analyze, way back when).

2. Poetry and poetic making are inseparable from experience at large. The aphorism which Keats assigned to the Grecian urn - "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty; - this is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" - is a perennial challenge to every artist and maker : ie., where & by what means comes to pass the conjunction of beauty and truth, art and experience? (& this is perhaps one of the bases underlying our "plumbline" concept of the poem as an equilibrium, a balance of forces).

3. With #2 above clearly in mind : the social vocation & role of the poet can be best summarized as the companion. The aspects of artist, craftsperson, fabulist, musician, performer, scholar, etc. - all these are subsumed under the primary role of something like wise fellowship. The poet is our companion - Whitman's camerado/camerada - on the "road of life". A poem is a testimony : bears witness to felt & comprehended experience. A poem which achieves the status of art - which fulfills its aesthetic purpose - is one which faithfully comprehends & reflects some aspect or value of that shared experience. (& to say this is not, on the other hand, to rule out the most baroque & parodic fabulations & gleeful take-offs & lethal/tragic ironies & vicious satires & zithery re-makings of same.)

It seems to me that when this (traditional) ethos of the poet - the poet's social role - is better understood, then some of the gnarly ethical problems of "teaching" poetry & writing might be re-formulated (& maybe redeemed). Writing will be subsumed under the ethos of language-use in general; poetry-writing will be integrated with the study and practice of literary history; "creativity" and "self-expression" will be re-valued in relation to elementary education (& arts education) as a whole.

One need only reflect on some of the great "engaged" poets of the last century - Spanish, Russian, Italian, French - Char, Montale, Akhmatova... we could each make our own list - to recognize a common thread in their verse : an evocation, an expression, of the shared experience of living through those brutal & tumultuous decades. The ethos they represent seems distinct from the image of the poet as experimentalist or craftsperson; and the influence of ethos seems like a kind of undercurrent which has all kinds of implications for literary style...