From “I Thought You Were a Poet” by Joshua Mehigan:
It seems to me that narcissism is ineluctably at the heart of poetry, maybe of every human enterprise. One-third of people will think I’m an idiot for bothering to state this. Two-thirds will think I’m repugnant for suggesting that poetry isn’t soul magic. But, however magical your soul, doesn’t its unveiling imply a touch of egotism? In lyric poetry, especially, some degree of narcissism seems unavoidable. Even Dickinson and Hopkins sought readers at some point. Now let us observe a moment’s silence for the Unknown Poets, who have defeated narcissism and won oblivion. Then, since there’s nothing to build on there, let us quickly turn in gratitude to their egotistical fellow poets, who reached through self-regard to give the bitter world a little beauty and insight.
from “Self-Consciousness” by Tony Hoagland:
When a person takes the step toward learning more of craft and its history, more of artifice—when, for example, a person crosses the threshold of an MFA program—she chooses to end a childhood in artlessness. She gives up some of the innocent infatuation, the naïveté, the adolescent grandiosity, maybe even some of the natural grace of the beginner. “They are good poets because they don’t know yet how hard it is to write a poem,” I have heard a teacher say, a bit tartly, of her beginning poetry class.
This initiation into knowledge will infect the learner with the virus of self-consciousness. As a consequence of learning of the existence of the poems of W.H. Auden, or Marianne Moore, or Louise Glück, your writing may suddenly seem horribly simplistic, crude as crayon drawings on Masonite. Now the poem, even as you are making it, seems stiff, clumsy, and obvious. Now your work may become, in compensation, coy and encoded.
Yet that very knowledge, which can inhibit and choke, can also inspire and challenge. Self-consciousness is the necessary border crossing of craft, skill, and even of poetic ambition.”
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility,
Do more bewitch me, than when art
is too precise in every part.
— From “Delight in Disorder” by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
On April 1st, US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan held a video discussion with a handful of community colleges to kick off National Poetry Month, known on Twitter as #napomo — or #napowrimo to those celebrating the month by writing poetry.
I kept an ear on the conference while doing some busy-work. Here are a few partial quotes and paraphrases I managed to capture:
- “In order to write well, you must write a lot.”
- It’s important to have a defended space in which to write: people walk through a garden without fences, even if they didn’t mean to.
- “We’re not hearing from you. Have you answered?” (She was addressing technical difficulties with the link to one of the colleges, but I heard something deeper in it.)
- You need to read — read a lot — the entire spectrum: “It’s useful to read things that irritate you as well as what you like…It’s important to read outside your taste.”
- Think of your brain as a fish tank, and the fish are ideas and thoughts. For those fish to be well, the water has to be aerated all the time. Reading everything and anything plunges oxygenated language into the tank of your brain.
- “Our brain tissue is stained by really powerful voices like Emily Dickinson.”
- “Are you hungry to speak?”
- Don’t be impatient to know too much about your voice — have a lot of tolerance for yourself and your experiments.
- Eventually, one is kind of reduced to one’s voice: “Sandblasted enough, the shape of you starts coming out.”
- When you sit down to write, don’t worry about inspiration — “it’s a dirty trick to think you have to wait for inspiration.”
- You have to start, and inspiration may find you, or it may not at all.
- “I always find disagreement particularly provocative, to take exception to something.”
Editing and Revision
She read her poem The Other Shoe:
Oh if it were
only the other
in space before
joining its mate.
If the undropped
with the undropped.
But nothing can
stop the midair
collusion of the
unpaired above us
and weight. We
feel it accumulate.
- “A short poem, but it took a lot of work to get to it…”
- Unless you are Rimbaud, you better figure that you are going to be doing a lot of re-writing.
- The Other Shoe had nine or more previous versions. (She flipped through them quickly; one included an illustration.)
- “In order to make a poem look unworked, I have to work at it a lot.”
- “I don’t find necessarily that my first thought is my best thought at all. Just a first thought…out of which a good thought might grow.”
- She immediately forgets what she writes, which allows her to re-read as a stranger: “I have a bad memory, and have always thought of it as a great advantage.”
- “This is a patient art, in order to gain some excellence in it.”
- Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” took 12 years?
- It took Ryan seven or eight years to find a last line that she liked for her poem He Lit a Fire with Icicles.
Questions & Answers
Student question: “What role do other readers play in your revision process?”
Kay Ryan: “Excellent question! None!”
- She keeps her own counsel.
- Her partner, who died recently, had been the only one to read pre-publication versions of Ryan’s poems: “If she didn’t tell me the bad things, I couldn’t trust her when she said something was beautiful.”
- It’s dangerous to listen to other people and their feedback.
- Working through errors yourself can take you in the direction you need to go.
- On workshop poems — “good in some sense that is incredibly boring.”
- Don’t court obscurity, don’t be consciously intentionally obscure.
- “We have plenty of confusion and ambiguity in this world…Try to get something important across…Try to make clear points.”
- “Publishing is an act of communication…to make someone else feel or think very much as I do.”
- When writing a poem, make sure the substance is in the poem, and not stuck in your mind.
- “Is everything you need to understand the poem available in the poem?”
- Poetry — the most exciting, exacting, demanding work she’s ever found to do with her mind.
- “Every sort of experiment can be a useful experiment.”
Note: If it’s in quotes, I’m 99% sure it’s something Kay Ryan actually said. The rest is stitched together from my short- and mid-term memory.
Note #2: I know, I know: bullet points. Sorry! I’m just trying to get this published quickly, and crafting it into a better format will just delay that.
Leap Before You Look
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.
The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few smart wisecracks every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.
The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.
Much can be said for social savoir-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.
A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.
– W.H. Auden (December 1940)
But is it not this pillowy
principle of repulsion
that produces the
doily edges of oceans
or the arabesques of thought?
from Repulsive Theory by Kay Ryan
Final de Año
Neither the symbolic detail
of a three instead of a two,
nor that rough metaphor
that hails one term dying and another emerging
nor the fulfillment of an astronomical process
muddle and undermine
the high plateau of this night
making us wait
for the twelve irreparable strokes of the bell.
The real cause
is our murky pervasive suspicion
of the enigma of Time,
it is our awe at the miracle
that, though the chances are infinite
and though we are
drops in Heraclitus’ river,
allows something in us to endure,
– Jorge Luis Borges (translated by W.S. Merwin)
Gary Snyder, quoted in the book “Where Inspiration Lives”:
Another key principle in this creative stewardship is waking up to “wild mind.” He clarifies that “wild” in this context does not mean chaotic, excessive, or crazy.
“It means self-organizing,” he says. “It means elegantly self-disciplined, self-regulating, self-maintained. That’s what wilderness is. Nobody has to do the management plan for it. So I say to people, ‘let’s trust in the self-disciplined elegance of wild mind.’ Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking, brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.”
From the back cover of Haiku Year:
“In 1996, seven friends agreed to write one haiku a day and mail them to each other. At the end of the year, they realized that their collection of simple, critical observations had given them a new way to look a the details of their lives.”
The Smiths on
Starbucks’ sound system
another dream over
Bitter stamp taste
Licked for a letter
that will get no reply
People in cars
telling life stories
in red light glances
the father pushing
the kid on the tricycle
when it’s easier to tell him to pedal
we fall asleep
You can even post your own to their guest book.
“The God Abandons Antony” by C.P. Cavafy:
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
Some backstory from Roger Housden:
“In Plutarch’s version, the night before the city falls, Mark Antony hears an invisible troupe of musicians and singers leaving the city. At that moment he passes out, in the realization that the god Bacchus, his protector, and god of music, wine, and festivity, is deserting him, and that he, Antony, is destined to lose the city. Historically, Antony and Cleopatra, on realizing that all is lost, are said to have committed suicide rather than suffer defeat.”
Leonard Cohen also reinterpreted this poem in his song “Alexandra Leaving”.
I went to a lecture by Kenneth Goldsmith last night about UbuWeb, and it was a great reminder of the riches available there. I scribbled a few fragmentary notes.
(All quotes are 99% accurate, though I have re-ordered them a little bit.)
- UbuWeb can be construed as the “Robin Hood” of the Avant Garde. Only a handful of artists have given explicit consent to be featured.
- “If we had to ask permission, UbuWeb wouldn’t exist.”
- “We don’t really fuck with economies — because there’s no economy for this stuff.” (This stuff meaning, the music of Marcel Duchamp or Jean Dubuffet, for example.)
- “We respect legitimate economies.”
- UbuWeb features five terabytes of work from 5,000+ artists.
- When he was working on his collection of Warhol interviews, Goldsmith went to the offices of the Warhol foundation to get permission, and they “laughed him out of the office.” In their view, Warhol’s words are valueless.
- “Download everything you possibly can from UbuWeb — it won’t last forever.”
- “The outsider stuff is becoming the inside.”
- “There’s so much stuff on UbuWeb that I don’t know what’s there.” (Editors help him by managing different sections.)
- UbuWeb is not a democracy: The collection is “highly curated, highly selective.” Most submissions don’t make it on the site.
- UbuWeb has a Facebook page, created by his students, but Kenneth Goldsmith was unequivocal: “I hate Facebook.”
- “I have problems with the idea of quality in Web 2.0.” And donation buttons make him sick.
- From time to time, he gets offers — up to US$50,000 — for the domain ubu.com, from companies who want to sell products that “help you be you!” etc. And he takes great pleasure in replying: “Fuck you: This is reserved for poetry.” (I instantly pictured an orange traffic cone with this response, embossed on a metal plate, sticking out of the top. And the entrepreneurial part of my brain thinks it would make a great embroidered fishing hat…or maybe stickers that could be placed wherever logos lurk?)
- UbuWeb may look institutional, but “it’s made of toothpicks and tissue paper.”
- “I’m not an art historian…there are holes…it’s a horribly-flawed fanzine…the taxonomy is atrocious…it’s an art historian’s nightmare!”
- “We’re in the Summer of Love for the web right now, and it’s not going to last…We’re in the midst of a revolution that’s so large we don’t even recognize it.”
- “Old hippies are the worst in the world” in terms of copyright, control, permissions and sharing. “It’s generational.”
A few gleanings from a look around the site this morning:
- A film about Poême électronique, the collaboration between Edgard Varêse and Le Corbusier at the 1958 World’s Fair
- John Cale — Loop (1966) (links directly to mp3)
- Canntaireachd — “Dating back to the sixteenth century or earlier, canntaireachd developed as the art of “chanting” pibroch (piobaireachd), the classical form of Gaelic bagpipe music.”
- They have a podcast, in collaboration with the Poetry Foundation.
MacArthur Fellow Heather McHugh, in a recent Newshour profile:
“If you look around, the surface of the water is never the same any two moments, much less any two days. Any skyscape is never the same thing. You can’t possibly see it all.
We narrow meaning to make our meanings of it.
For me, the whole point of poetry is to liberate the larger sense. The great paradox of poetry is it’s the smallest unit of language you can make that releases the greatest number of readings.”