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National Poetry Month, Continued

April may be over, but poetry lives on! Here are some poetry links worth clicking on.

Michael Robbins, a Commonweal contributor, has an essay on James Dickey in the new issue of Poetry. He opens with this rant against collected editions:

I would begin with a word against collected editions — or at least against the current trend of issuing them in gigantic, overpriced formats that resemble the compact OED. You should not be able to stun a moose with anyone’s Complete Poems. In recent years, we’ve had enormous, expensive editions of, inter alios, Robert Lowell, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, Frederick Seidel, James Merrill, Lucille Clifton, Louise Glück, Jack Gilbert, and Denise Levertov. Even so skinny a poet as Philip Larkin, in FSG’s recent (and superfluous) Complete Poems, has bloated beyond recognition. I’m all for having these folks’ oeuvres in print (although I’d also say a word against the fantasies of totality that compel editors to include drafts, revisions, juvenilia, and the like). But what’s wrong with affordable and portable? The Library of America and Faber and Faber, for instance, manage to produce wieldy omnibuses (the former’s, admittedly, not exactly budget-friendly). Another world is possible.

Nina Kang on the "lost art of memorizing poetry":

These days, memorization, like corporal punishment, is something our culture has largely evolved beyond.  We might all know the first verse of Jane Taylor’s “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but beyond that it’s hit and miss. In the age of search engines, perfect recall is no longer prized—just remember a couple key search terms and we’re good to go. Learning to remember has been replaced by learning to skim, and when yesterday’s viral video or trending tweet scrolls below the fold, it leaves barely any imprint on our collective consciousness.

Adam Thirwell on Gottfried Benn, an ex-Nazi poet who is "the equal of Eliot or Montale":

These late poems are extraordinary exercises in bare, forked writing: slouchy, polyglot, nicotine-nervous. They are as splintered as a pile of pick-up sticks—all dying cadences, where the rhythm falters or disintegrates. True, Benn was always a master of crazy tone-shifts. But in the early poems it was all flesh and tropicalia: “The violins green. The harp plinks of May. / Palms blush in the desert simoom.” Now the shifts were smaller, more like the quivers of 
a heart monitor.

About the Author

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY. His book on poetry and theology in the modernist period is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.



Commenting Guidelines

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“The Complete Poetry” of anyone can be too much to bear. Some of my favorite collections of poetry are “selections”: Louise Bogan’s The Blue Estuaries, Philip Booth’s Lifelines, Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise, Lisel Mueller’s Alive Together, Linda Pastan’s Carnival Evening, William Stafford’s The Way It Is.

Anthony --


This is going to be a rant.  But first, thanks for pointing us to Robbins' article about James Dickey.  


Robbins pretty well dismisses a most of Dickey, saying:


"These poets [Dickey et al] shared a somewhat desperate (and somewhat ridiculous) refusal to accept that the cultural authority of the Poet had been eclipsed. If I’ve lapsed into psychological criticism, it is because their poetry was so often nakedly psychological — a sifting of correlatives of moods and inner states."


Indeed, the status of the Poet's in Western culture has been diminished.  But I doubt it's because poems have become purveyors of "correlatives of moods and inner states" as you put it.   Much great old poetry conveys moods and inner states, and it does so in part by using comprehensible grammatical structures, Contrast them with the contemporary poets who have lost their status because they don't understanding that in poems as well as in prose the ordinary grammatical structures of the language are themselves *meanings*, and without sufficient  grammatical structures then poets' individual words and phrases and clauses float about in their poems like dead leaves on puddles.


Granted, modern poetry doesn't have conveying information, historical or otherwise, as their goal --  no "The cat is on the mat" for them.  Rather, today's poets aim to cause feelings in their hearers which mirror the feelings the poets.  When that sort of poetry works, the result is a particular set of "correlative" feelings shared by poet and hearer, a particularly intimate and powerful sort of experience.  This is a very, very different kind of artifact from most older poetry, but at least in the great moderns it's a quite legitimate and valuable sort. 


However, much too much modern stuff falls flat because it doesn't give us enough grammatical  structure to allow us to relate the meanings of the individual words/ phrases/clauses which elicit the images and particular emotions and sets of emotions that the poet intends to cause in us.  


Consider the problem with antecedents in hte first two lines of the Dickey poem Robbins analyses.  


"Pray, beginning sleeper, and let your mind dissolve me as I
Straighten, upright from the overflow crouch:?|   

For starters,  who is that "beginning sleeper"?  What is the antecedent of "your" in "your mind"?  It might be the "beginning sleeper" or it might be the reader himself.  When I read a bit into the sentence. I discover that maybe that sleeper is someone/something  who/which might "dissolve" (kill?) me?  Is the sleeper Death?   Then why, I wonder, is the killer-Death called a "beginning sleeper"?  Or is it?  Or maybe I'm the beginning sleeper and I'm slowly killing myself?  Or what????  Does "the overflow crouch" hold the key? Or not?  

Let's call this lack of clear antecedents an absence of reference, Often it's an absence of a clear grammatical subject -- some *definite* subject for which we can form a definite image.  If the subject is ambiguous, our mind goes in all directions with no reason to settle on anything.  I would even grant that at times ambiguity is valuable, but in typical contemporary poetry ambiguity just results in mushy meaning, which results in mushy images, and hopelessly mushy poetry.

And I've only mentioned lack of subjects.  Consider the lack of punctuation.  It also  also allows the poets to bleed meanings all about, producing not the intended feelings but only frustration and contempt for the so-called "poetry".  And I could go on about other lacks of structure that result in poetic porridge.  So there. 

Why do the critics and the teachers put up with this stuff?  If they were more critical then the less gifted might keep what they do private.  Maybe that would be a good thing.  We wouldn't have to slog through so much mush to find the pearls.  (Slog though mush for pearls?  Bad metaphor.)

P. S.  Sorry that is so badly edited.  Couldn't stand to read through it again.

Chris, I agree about Selected over Complete poems. The exception, though, is Auden. You really need the collected works to appreciate how varied and wonderful he is, and the Selected Poems cut some of his best.

Anne, I agree with much of what you say: modern poetry often does disdain explicit sense-making (we have the modernists to thank for that!), and a lot of contemporary poetry is lazily unclear.

I'd say one thing, however: unclear referents and tortured grammar aren't just an invention of contemporary poetry; they're part of what makes poetry poetry--that is, what makes it different from prose. Emily Dickinson is more difficult than almost any contemporary poet, and she's so difficult in part because of unclear antecedents and syntax and pronouns. The key, though, is that she's productively difficult: she's unclear with a purpose.

So, do I think you're right about much modern poetry being mushy? Yes. But lots of older poetry is mush, too, and lots of modern poetry is productively unclear as well. Think of Wallace Stevens, or A. R. Ammons, or Tracy K. Smith, who I mentioned a few weeks ago. Throughout her collection, she uses "it" without any clear referent, and that's because she wants to gesture towards that which can't be precisely expressed in language: death, God, the cosmos, etc.


Anthony, I don’t know that one needs the complete poetry of Auden to appreciate his range. W. S. Merwin has quite a range and he’s often mentioned (justifiably) as a possible Nobel laureate. But I wonder if the Library of America needed to issue three fat volumes of his collected poetry. Complete editions are okay for public and university libraries, but when I go to a bookshelf at home, I reach for volumes that can be comfortably held or easily packed for travel.


I’m especially drawn to quiet, plainspoken poets. In addition to poets mentioned in my prior comment, I like Wendell Berry, Robert Creeley, Stanley Kunitz, Mark Strand, Thomas McGrath, Philip Levine, Ted Kooser, and Billy Collins. (I also like Alan Dugan, but not Charles Bukowski.) I’d argue that Dickinson and Merwin are at their best when they are clearer. Sometimes they seem almost willfully obscure.


Anthony --


Thank you for reading my rant. I'm glad you agree with some of it.  But --


I'm not  asking that poetry always make sense.  Eliciting an emotion by means of a senseless sequences of words or even just silly sounds is quite alright with me IF the emotion is worth my effort.  One of my favorite poems is e.e. cummings' "anyone lived in a pretty how town".  On the face of it, it's pretty nonsensical, though not entirely.  But it's held together by a great rhythm which echoes what happens to be the *quite ordinary grammatical structure* of the poem.  Yes, there are crazy subject,s, weird predicates, with one part of speech playing the part of a different part of speech but we don't care.  We get the simple message and the *feeling* that those ordinary lives were worth living however imperfect they were.  Great poem.


What I object to so strongly is when the referents of the nouns and most especially the pronouns are so indefinite that we have to rack our brains to discover which among the many possible referents that come to mind will best serve the purpose of the poem.  Consider an analogous possibility:  a musician is writing out the notes of a melody, and at the beginning instead of writing down the first note, he writes in five different notes one on top the other (so it looks like a chord).  Then he writes in the next note -- together with four other notes one on top the other.  Has he begun writing his melody?  No, he's writing  noise.   That's how I think of poems with indefinite meanings -- they're poetic noise.  And that goes for some of Her Highness Emily Dickinson's stuff too.  So there. 


The best poets either overcome the problems of indefiniteness or they're worth struggling over it.  Yes, Stevens leaps to mind.  (He's my favorite modern, actually, and, true, I often don't' understand him.)   But the lesser ones just aren't worth the effort.


Thanks for recommending your favorites.  And I'll re-consider the ones I already don't like :-)

Oops -- that's Chris who made the recommendations.

Thanks, Chris.



e. e. cummings wrote so many wonderful poems. Have you heard this exquisite rendition of “All in 

Green Went My Love Riding” sung by Joan Baez?:


No, haven't heard it, and too deaf to hear it now.  She does have a voice born  to sing cummings, doesn't she? 

Which performers were made for singing which poets?  Glenn Campbell sings Keats? Paul McCartney sings Lewis Carroll?  Pavarotti sings Shakespeare? 

I don't know that Baez is "born to sing" cummings, but I really do like her rendition of "All in Green..." In fact, the whole album ("Baptism") is excellent. I also like Natalie Merchant's recent concept album, "Leave Your Sleep" (she does a terrific rendition of cummings' "Maggie and Milly and Molly and May"). Greg Brown released a great album covering a number of Blake's songs of  innocence and experience. One of my favorite prayer poems is Wendell Berry's "To the Holy Spirit" -- it's been set to wonderful music by Malcolm Dalglish. It doubles one's pleasure to hear beautiful poetry sung. 


Thanks again for another thoughtful response. All of your points are well taken, and I agree with most if not all in principle. I suspect I just think more modern poetry is worth struggling over than you do. 

Another contemporary poet worth struggling over, especially if you love Stevens: Timothy Donnelly. Here's one sample:

Chris --  It's good to know that composers are setting poems to music that can be sung by non-opera singers.  That wasn't done in my day.  (All I can think of Schwartzkopf in recital trilling some Shubert -- very silly song, actually.)

Anthony -- Thanks for the Donnelly.  Now that's poetry!  Yes, is is somewhat Stevensish -- urban, relaxed, things revealing deeper things   

Anthony --- It's not that I think that modern poetry is intrinsically inferior to the old stuff.  On the contrary.  God know that a lot of the old poetry could use some serious editing of the blather too often found there.  I guess I just want the best of all possible worlds -- e..g., Chaucer,  Shakespeare, George Herbert, Auden, Stevens, Claudel, Rumi, plus lots of stray poems from stray authors. Not that I've read a great deal of poetry.  But I do love some of it even as the junky stuff puts me off.  Sadly, I suspect that's true of a lot of people. 

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