Friday, September 29, 2006

Walking in different shoes

I revived the following poem in response to an exercise to write a poem that is outside one's usual style, format, and/or realm of comfort. It's a good exercise, in that it takes one right outside one's head, and makes one write from a perspective new and unfamiliar. For example, if you're a formalist, try writing free verse; if you hate to use meter and rhyme, normally, then write in meter and rhyme; if there is a subject you would normally avoid writing about, go there now; or even try to write from the POV of your opposite gender.

The poem below is one I wrote some years ago, although it fits this exercise idea. I almost never write in metered rhyme, and whenever I have attempted a sonnet, the results almost invariably, well, suck big time. So, this is a very atypical poem for me. (This is not to say that this poem doesn't suck, too.)

Teresa’s Grave, 1813, Spain

There on the hill, as the guns fire ‘round,
he leaves her: her cross, a parceled ground
covered with stones, her silken scarf laid
across her name, which he never said

enough. Bright gunsmoke takes the place
of flowers. He knew that last look
of release was how he’d remember her face,
peaceful, parting. His worst enemy took

what was left of time: her infinite grace,
erect and astride her spirited horse: they raced,
one morning, summers past, for the shrine
across these hills: he has nothing now but time.

A flourish, a fanfare, the silent guns:
still all the earth, now: her race is run.

A bit more about this particular poem:

On occasion, I find myself responding to a piece of literary writing, or a movie, or a myth, a comic book, a graphic novel, a TV movie, an episode of Masterpiece Theatre on PBS, when one of the characters has so come to life for me, that I must respond artistically, with a poem. I like to put myself into the mind of the character, or the event, and then the poem becomes a contemplation of a liminal moment in that character's story, when everything converges. Getting into the head of another, you sort of shapechange into that other, and take on their persona, for awhile. It gets you right out of yourself, in a good way. It's also a way of dialoguing with art that moves me.

I have done a series of Portraits of these character moments; I know who all the characters are, but I'm not sure anyone else would. A lot of the moments I respond to are moments of transcendance, when a character makes a break with the past and stands before a new world of possibility. This poem was never officially part of the Portraits series, but it fits in, in terms of method and means.

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The Books of Water

The Books of Water

archetypes swimming in the trees. oh dark night.
does distance break between time and sparrows?
transition. trembling. timorous clatter of small wings.
pictograms, ravens, clouds, embossed paper, sandstone:
how it unites, when nothing’s left but petals, desiccant, flavorless.

wordflower opening. eye in hand: palms orange, afire.
pointless eroticism of sunlight: koi bathing in what’s breathed.
agony of cliffs, iron-stained: fossil seabed, waves rippling.
chest breaking into white light. sirens of wolves.
returning face of stone people, waking under moons and roads.

temptation of the deep seas: indigo, pelagic, unsounded.
pilgrimage through afterburn. purpling epistles, lost phrases.
underworld papyrus. stone books on wall of night.
scents of ears before flowers, afterimage of absence.
holes in the walls of dikes and seas without shallows.

formless persuasion of rain: watershed, sandbar, plummet.
all the shell asks of the crab is to be left behind.
acidic touch of the dissolving of minerals: making silt.
harmonies of lyre branch and hail strings: storm’s octave.
rivulet’s tail. puddles into ponds, into inns for pilgrim waterbirds.

celebrant. krakon. evocation of orison and shadow.
whalesong below, vibrating the hull skin. waves lap.
a deeper silence. trench, abyss, lumens of angler fish.
ocean, vapor, dew, cloud, rain, river, lake, passage, ocean:
bonded chain of weeping. engines of summer, salamander, mayfly, maple.

calligraphy of snow: the nights of trees.
flock of starlings flees from a single crow.
under hedges, wardens nest: season of voles.
hairnet of stars in the juniper: white snow berries.
tallpines rest, old white-haired bishops: a last sermon.

A poem in a form which I have been working in for some few years now, that as far as I know I invented, and which seems natural to me. Jessica Schneider coined the name durku for the form, a combination of my surname with "haiku." It's an affectionate, humorous, evocative name for the form, which I am not entirely comfortable with, for the reason that my goal as a poet (in this form and elsewhere) is not to be self-promoting, but to become egoless, and let each image and moment evoke its own existence, without the interpretative or disruptive presence of the writer's ego.

My goals as a writer are generally transpersonal rather than confessional, transcendent rather than self-advertising, eternal and timeless even while recording the tiniest details of vision. The paradox, of course, is that I can never totally reach that goal, even as I seek to create a poetry that is less time-bound, more global, less narrative, more imagistic. Yes, the "I" has to be there as an interface and filter; "I" can't get around it; but there is much more to ourselves and our beings than the "I" alone. (Also paradoxically, the form is a reflection of my mind, my idiosyncratic ways of thinking. Like John Cage writing mesostics, I don't know that anyone else could use this form this way.)

The form is fractal, in that it is self-similar on different scales. Each line of each five-line form is haiku-like; each five-line form can be grouped into larger sections of four to six staves; each larger poem consisting of five-line forms can be seen as part of an overall viewpoint, a Book if you will. You can zoom in and zoom out and the tone, effects, and imagery remain similar on each scale. When the sub-sections of a larger set also carry their own subtitles, the subtitles may also add up to a poem. So, there are several layers in each poem, and the poem can be read on several layers.

One of the beauties of fractals is in finding higher levels of order and pattern within seemingly random chaos; in these poems, the images and phrases, often seemingly abrupt and disjointed, combine to form a flow and meaning, a rhythm and music, a cinema of Presence, a continuous music, a pattern laced together in the reader's mind.

As far as I know, this is the first genuinely fractal poetic form. And as I said, as far as I know, I invented it.

About "inventing" the form, I want to reiterate what I've written elsewhere: I generally like to let a poem's form emerge during the writing. I am often into the second stanza, if there are stanzas, before I know what the form is going to be. To me, this process feels organic, emergent, natural. The poem tells me what it wants, rather than being a process where I impose my ideas onto the form beforehand. I started writing poems in this form circa 1998, before I really knew what I was doing, or what I had. It has become, along with haiku and haibun, and the prose-poem, one of the very few forms that I naturally write in. (Most of what I write is so-called free verse.) Gradually, I realized that I indeed had a form, not just one poem in its own unique format. So, it would be as proper to say that I "discovered" the form, or that it was "revealed" to me.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

Notes towards an egoless poetry 1: Visibility of the persona

This is a big topic, and I have to think my way around it in stages. So, I will deal with a few bits at a time.

A great deal of poetry in the past century puts the poet's persona in the foreground. Even though such a persona can still be a construct, in the way a fictional character's persona is a construct, it is often easy to confuse the persona in the poem with the poet's. A great deal of autobiographical, confessional poetry explicitly states the author's intention to be self-revealing. Setting aside for the moment post-modern literary-theoretical concerns about the authenticity of the text, or whether or not an author can be totally self-revealing in a constructed artistic text such as a poem (the ideas of representation, masks, performativity, and simulation), this trend towards self-revelation has come to dominate contemporary poetry—and not necessarily to the betterment of poetry. In fact, it has so come to dominate contemporary poetry that many younger poets apparently do not even realize that there are alternatives to self-expression, self-revelation, or confessionalism in poetry.

A lot of this poetry is about ego. The confessional trend in American poetry, begun by Robert Lowell and his friends and followers, is about self-representation and autobiography. (Is poetry even the best vehicle for autobiography? That debate remains open.) Revelation of the self remains a common trope in post-confessional poetry: workshop poets writing about the minutiae of their personal lives; poets who write poems that spiritually and psychologically explore their own inner selves (which includes a number of the Beat poets, at least sometimes); poems that meditate on daily life, and are inspired by daily life, and reflect upon little more than daily life.

In Poetry Slam hip-hop poetry, a lot of pieces are explicitly about ego-stroking, self-advertising, competitive self-marketing, and presentational positioning. Many of these pieces might work on stage, in front of a cheering crowd, but as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe collection ALOUD: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (ed. by Miguel Algarin & Bob Holman) amply demonstrates, many of these sorts of pieces simply do not work as poems on the page. They might work as texts for verbal performance or dramatic recitation, but they fail as poems; a poem has to work both on the page and read aloud. Go through these Poetry Slam collections and count how many times the word "I" is used: almost all of it is first-person posturing, narrative, and recitation. A lot this poetry is about ego.

It is as if contemporary poetry has been reduced to the single topic of the self. The self seen in mirrors, in closed rooms, with windows. The self endlessly analyzed and discussed, to the point of claustrophobia. Where is the rest of the universe, all those things that transcend the self? To write only of the self, as though only the self exists: this is the very definition of poetic solipsism.

It's time, perhaps, to go beyond the ego in poetry. It's perhaps time to move beyond the self, and into the wider world. It's perhaps time to move beyond the Romantic and Modern ideals of artistic heroic self-expression, and let other forces speak through us. Other forces than our persona-egos, which can include the unconscious (does anyone still practice automatic writing in the manner of the Surrealists?), other voices than our personality-egos, other elements of our personalities than those small elements that are our interface with the world. Perhaps even forces that arise from our unconscious selves, and express themselves as archetypes, gods, and other numinous encounters with Mystery. Perhaps it is time to restore to poetry its original shamanic function and power.

At the very least (and with all due respect to Tony Kushner's angels), I I I I get tired of the incessant I I I I of contemporary poetry. I I I I get tired of the foreground persona in most poems being represented as first-person POV, the I I I I viewpoint being promoted as though it were the only waters in which we could swim. So, I I I I feel (in response or in reaction) the need to explore an egoless poetry.

An egoless poetry, one that removes the incessant "I" of so much contemporary poetry, is something I have been working towards for some years in my own writing, although it's possiblity and method remain constantly in development. By egoless, I mean non-self-centered. By egoless, I mean, in the Zen sense, non-self-involved, non-self-expressive, but an emanence of no-mind. By egoless, in psychological terms, I mean getting at the root of the Self: the cessation of the chattering monkey-mind little self, so that the greater, more integral, more holistic Self can be directly experienced. Shoveling the crap out of the control room, so we can actually see the monitors. One path to this is meditation practice. Another path to this is artistic practice: Art as a Way.

The foreground visibility of a persona in a poem, a character's or the poet's, is one place we can start looking into this, and maybe make some changes.

One can move towards pure description, and away from first-person viewpoint narration. When you have a poem or stanza with no "I" in it, moving it towards impersonal description, then the reader can come to feel they're perceiving the scene directly, with no intermediaries, either the poet's or the narrator's intermediation being in the way of direct perception. The reader, via the poem, experiences the poetic moment directly.

This is an important aspect of haiku writing, this direct perception. Some haiku poets talk about becoming an open eye that sees, with no judgment or discrimination. This is of course where some of the Zen influence on haiku comes in, with precisely this "no-mind."

A master of this style of poetry was Robinson Jeffers. I find that in his poems he is able to give the reader a direct perception of the scene he is describing, and even when he makes a comment, it is as though the land is speaking rather than the poet. Somehoiw, the poet's persona is able to be moved out of the way, and not be a dusty window between the perceiver and the perceived. Jeffers coined the term Inhumanism to describe what he sought. There has been a lot of misunderstanding about this term, with critics assuming he was taking an anti-human stance, when he was not.

Jeffers wrote in his preface to The Double Axe that what he called Inhumanism is a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence. . . . This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist . . . It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy. . . . it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.

I believe what Jeffers was trying to do, with his Inhumanist viewpoint, was seeking to remove the dominating human-narrative elements from poetry (the solipsism he refers to, which also has an ecological interpretation), and emphasize the purely natural world. Then, the characters in the poem become the eagle, the land, the movement of the fog on the sea's edge, and the poet's persona recedes. Jeffers reminds us that we are not apart from nature, we are not divorced from nature; rather, we are part of nature, part of the natural realm, the universe, and no more or less significant than any other part of nature. His stance is a bracing antidote against the self-absorption and autobiographical confessionalism that has so come to dominate poetry for the past century.

I've been working in this direction for some years in my own poetry. I feel it's possible to do a poetry that consists of a series of images and descriptions, out of which the reader organically builds a narrative. We cannot avoid narrative, as long we continue to bind time as linear with our perceptions and expectations. But we can do it cinematically rather than as story-telling. (The movie equivalent is one of those non-narrative, non-dialogue films that consists entirely of images and music; such as Ron Fricke's Baraka and Kronos, or Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi and the other films in that series.) I feel like I've approached this poetry a few times. You can't really get rid of POV entirely, but you can indeed make persona minimal and receding. Viewpoint can become no more than camera-position, and run without an operator.

I tried to do this with my Green Man haibun, posted here awhile ago. Iit starts with an "I" narrator, who dissolves into the greening. The dissolution of the "I" is directly represented in that poem, too, by the dropping of normal, narrative, time-binding syntax.

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A Way of Knowing

Poetry (art, music) as a way of knowing. Of understanding the world, one's self, and one's place in the world. Poetry (art, music) as a way of expressing one's palce in the world, of responding to the world: of giving back to the world.

Two quotes from the masters give us a clue how to approach this:

We must be clear that, when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. —Niels Bohr

Truth cannot be cut up into pieces and arranged in a system. The words can only be used as a figure of speech. —the Buddha

So, we run up against the limits of language, again. Metaphor as a description of the world. Poetry and metaphor as a way of talking about what cannot be described. We get at the edges, if not at the center.

Poetry as a means of understanding? It's an idea that has been proposed before, of course. It gets to the difference between quantitative and qualitative understanding, which I think is also what Bohr is saying. (Schrodinger said some similar things, too.) This comment of the Buddha's also echoes similar comments from Rumi, about the ultimate uselessness of reductive, categorical analysis towards being able to understand anything like the meaning and purpose of life. Why are we alive? The random-evolution theory of scientific rationalism can tell us everything but "why," but this doesn't mean that spiritual answers can tell us anything but why. I think of the neurosugeon who is a person of deep faith, and sees the hand of God in the amazing beauty and complexity of the evolved human brain. I think of scientists (for example, Rupert Sheldrake) who are willing to explore those ideas about existence that most scientists would relegate to metaphysics, or dismiss out of hand—which seems a bit close-minded, for science is nothing if it doesn't keep an open mind and look to the evidence.

Perhaps this is about the poetic (qualitative) response to life. The need to understand why, but also the realization that there may be no answer but Mystery.

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Issues of Translation

Translating poetry from one language to another also means translating culture from one context to another. There are no perfect translations. There are things that are idiomatic to one language—things that can best be said in that language—that can never quite be translated. But translation is worth undertaking, for poets: you learn about your own language, in the process, and you learn how language structures the way we encounter and perceive the world.

There are nowadays many more translations available of poetry from other languages into English, than have been available before. We exist in a time when inter-cultural communication is at a high point of interest, so the demand for new translations is ongoing. So, there are often many translation to choose from.

Given that happy fact, I think the translations that one prefers, beyond the quest for simple accuracy in translation, reveal far more about one's one own personality than one might imagine.

I think the translator's aesthetic matching the reader's expectations and personal aesthetic have a lot to do with this. It remains a subjective terrain, because even the choice to read an annotated literal transliteration is a choice some personality types will immediately go for, while it will baffle and bore others. One reason we keep getting so many news translations is because people get impatient and/or dissatisfied with existing ones, and want to do a better job than anyone else has done before, and also want to express what is being translated through themselves. None of these are bad or wrong motivations for making a new translation.

Ultimately, if you have a very specific idea of what a translation should be and do, you'd better do it yourself, because nothing else is likely to satisfy you. And this too reveals something about oneself, as well.

My current favorite translations of the Tao Te Ching are: 1. the Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English translation, an illustrated classic wherein the photos do as much if not more to get the ideas across as do the words, and part of the imagery is Feng's fresh calligraphy of the Chinese original, as well as English's remarkable photos; and 2. the Ursula LeGuin translation, in which she admits she knows no Chinese, but studied every other translation available, went over the original Chinese character by character in a scholarly manner, then proceeded to write what came forward from her poet's mind; the result is limpid, easy to grasp, as fluid as the water the Tao mentions flowing downhill, and austerely beautiful.

The Corman and Susumu version of Basho's Oko no hosomichi is a pretty good example of balanced notes; each segment of the original is presented on a spread, with artwork, and the original Japanese characters on the verso and the English on the recto. But for sheer page-turning readability, I personally don't think anyone has done better (so far) than Sam Hamill's translations of Basho; they pull me in, make me see the places Basho is describing, and make want me to keep reading.

I often prefer the detailed-notes translations; but I like the notes to be at the end of the book, where they don't interfere with the reading of the poetry. I like to read the footnotes, but I don't like them to interrupt the poetic experience.

There are two main camps in the argument over translation: those that prefer translations to retain as much as possible of the original, and those that prefer to create a new aesthetic experience in the new language; the former tend to be very literal in translation, and the latter tend to create "versions based on" the original, rather than a perfect emulation.

There is something to be said for this latter viewpoint: making a new work in the new language that is readable and able to stand on its own, as poetry. Robert Hass and Stephen Mitchell both make this point, with regard to translating Rilke: if the English version also doesn't work as a poem, on its own, you have not done the original any service, since, while you may have brought the words over accurately and literally, if you sacrificed the spirit of the poem mid-way, so what? Who wants to read a dry, academic, literal translation in English of something that in its original language was inspirational and soaring, renowned for its poetic spirit?

I have seen, again and again, translators who are bilingual argue for a certain stance in translation that can only be called non-translation: no attempt to accomodate the reader in the new language is made, and precision is emphasized over tone and spirit. There also tends to be something a superior attitude about credentials among some in this camp, as they are indeed bilingual and you're not; what this ignores is that languages are dynamic, and even native speakers don't always agree on meaning, interpretation, or aesthetics.

I own numerous translations of the Tao Te Ching and Oko no hosomichi (since I've already mentioned these two examples) that fall into this mode: and none of them make me want to turn the page and keep reading. They have some usefulness as resources for looking up details in the original, and providing minute nuances of interpretations. But they're barely readable as literature. Translation needs to be literature, in the new language as well as the old. Any college grad with a good dictionary and some practice can do a basic literal translation; but most of these literal translations of poems will not become poems in the new language. At least, not in my experience.

So, perhaps it defaults to personal preference. Having a variety of options is a good thing, because people are different, with different preferences. But that's also why I say that your aesthetic choices in translation reveal more about you than you might think, and possibly reveal more about you than they do about the original text.

For example, it has been argued that one reason to do literal translations is a quest for an experience of literature (description of experience) that is outside the box of one's birth language and culture. The contact with foreignness is designed to break us out of the habits of thinking we fall into, all unquestioned.

But this quest for "foreignness," in this context, may be indistinguishable from exoticism (the frisson of meeting the Other) or, perhaps, Orientalism. (cf. Edward Said, Orientalism; and David Maybury-Lewis, The Shock of the Other) At it's worst, it's cultural imperialism; at its most banal, it's postmodern tourism.

It strikes me that what this quest is seeking, is something far Other than one's own, familiar life. It also reminds me that the reason translation is possible at all is that, at root level, we are all human. We share more experiences in common with each other, even across cultural differences, than we don't share: we share life, love, sorrow, the pains of living and the joys of growing and becoming fully human, fully conscious and alive. In other words, all those things that are the topics of poetry. This leads me to think of Jung's concept of the collective unconscious, wherein we all share a pool of archetypes and patterns that rise from within, no matter who we are, no matter where or when we are born. They are our birthright as humans; as is language itself.

If, on the other hand, one is looking for those slight differences between us, in our infinite variety—the elegant way of describing a particular emotion or state of being that might be more refined in one language than another, due to cultural history and circumstances, the geomorphology of metaphor (images ties to places), the genius loci—well, then you might find what you want. Maybe. With luck and fortitude. (I've studied Japanese culture and artistic products, off and on, when I wasn't studying, say, Navajo, for 35 years; yet I'm still a complete beginner.)

Going about translation in a literal way is still never going to be telepathic; there will still be interpretations and grey areas that will obscure and frustrate the desire for total transliterated clarity. The problem with studying a language (and it takes a few years to grow a new persona that thinks in the second or third language) is that the more fluent you become in it, the more you realize that the new language is just as ambiguous, open to interpretation, and labile as your birth language. it's built in to language(s) to be imprecise, because human nature is imprecise and messy. (Attempts to build precise artificial languages notwithstanding; I could point out that even machine and computer languages are open to personal style, and the qualities of elegance and sloppiness. The problem is that humans still write the code. Code very much reflects the personality of the writer. Engineering is still as much an art as it is a science.)

So, if the translator's quest is a quest for absolute meaning and total clarity, we're doomed to repetitive frustration. Such things don't exist—especially, one might add, in poetry. Great poetry across different languages has more in common with great poetry in other languages, than does great poetry with lesser poetry in the same language, or even by the same writer. One of the things that make great poems so memorable is that they have rich layers of meaning and interpretation embedded in them, so one might return to them again and again and still be refreshed by their waters. Taking that into a new language does require that an artist does it, an artist capable of merging, however imperfectly, the two conceptual worlds of the disparate languages, and still make the result into something readable. The best translators of poetry are themselves poets.

For example: have you ever encountered Rilke's late poems written in French? Towards the end of his life, he began writing in French, opening up whole new worlds in his poetry. The best English version of these, in my opinion, is the translation by Arthur Poulin. At one point in my life, I was fluent in French, although I haven't kept it up; but the Poulin translations, published en face, with the French verso and the English recto, bring over both the sense and the music. Poulin has also translated much more of Rilke, but this is where he shines. For the rest of Rilke, in my opinion no has done better, so far, than Stephen Mitchell—for that same reason, he brings across the sense as well as the music. His translations are less slavishly literal than some; but few deliver as rich an experience of Rilke, in English.

At one point in college I had studied enough German to develop the hubris of thinking I could translate one or two favorite Rilke poems myself. I discovered that I could certainly read him in the original, but there was so much there, so many layers and richness and sinewy power, that, yes indeed, I was reduced to interpreting and choosing between possible meanings—and so I ended up with only adequate translations that never fully satisfied me. I am grateful for the learning experience of making the attempt, nonetheless. Perhaps making the attempt, and failing, is something every poet ought to do. It's a good way to learn about some of our limits.

There is no perfect mind to mind translation, without the use of telepathy. Making it as good as it can be, and as musical as a poem can be, even in the new language±that's where the artistry comes in.

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Conscious Craft or Dictation? 2

Continuing on this topic, I dialogued about it earlier this year with poet and friend Ed Wickliffe. The dialogue began when another poet asked: What makes a good poem good? I replied, in part:

What I think is typical of good and great poems is the experience of being aware of something greater than oneself, present, when reading the poem. I realize this is an aesthetic, somatic emphasis, rather than an emphasis on technique or craft alone.

If you try to establish a criteria of greatness based solely on the technical and craft aspects of the writing, you will rapidly run into trouble, as example after example is brought forward of great poems that are not technically perfect, don't have top-notch syntax and grammar and rhetoric, in fact break or defy many of the rules of rhetoric and craft, yet are still sublime, powerful poems. On the other hand, there are thousands of examples of perfectly-crafted, perfectly-written poems that leave one completely cold, unmoved, and bored, and which poems do not linger in the memory.

The greatness of a poem happens in part when the synergy of all the poem's aspects converge to make something greater than the whole. This greater sum of course includes the technical aspects of the poem; but it also transcends them, and is not limited to them. So, one needs to add up all the aspects of the poem, including its re-readability, and its ability to linger in one's memory, in order to locate its nexus of greatness. A truly great poem is one that you get something more out of, each time you re-read it.

I will always argue that the technical aspects of writing—the craft of writing—are there in service of the inspiration. They are very important, yes, and I have never said they are not. But they are not an end in themselves, as, frankly, many writers seem to think they are.

As many masters of their particular arts and crafts have said over the centuries: After you have learned the craft, set it aside. After you have mastered the techniques, forget about them. That is when one becomes a true beginner.

In my opinion, most poets cling to the tools, and never get around to setting them aside, and so never get to that level of real mastery. That level of real mastery is where great poems will start to appear. Before that, it's usually just a happy, non-repeatable accident. So, by all means, learn the technicalities! But then, give them away, and stop clinging to them, as too many poets do.

This problem arises, of course, because one can teach the technical aspects of writing, but one cannot teach how to write a great poem. So, when one is fresh from a writing seminar, full of new tools and ideas, it is easy to mistake the craft for the inspiration, and confuse them with each other.

The Sonnets to Orpheus come to mind. Rainer Maria Rilke had mastered the craft and techniques of poetry for quite some time when these Sonnets came to him, and he threw away all the rules. These poems break all the rules, rules of length, diction, technical form, even rhyme—and yet they remain recognizably sonnets in their essense. That's the paradox of a great poem: it often breaks all the rules learned by the poet in all the years prior to its writing.

If the counter-argument is, "well, Rilke was special, we can't all be like that," I would say that that's a betrayal of one's own poetry, not to at least aspire to that level of mastery. Humility aside, it seems a mountain worth climbing. Maybe we won't all get to that level, but if we don't even make the attempt, how can we expect to ever produce a great poem ourselves? Again, we could be lucky and write one or two great poems by accident. But who wants to do anything by accident, when it's possible to learn to do it with intention, and consciousness fully engaged, fully alive, fully involved in the act of creation?

Note too, that when Rilke wrote about the process of writing he Sonnets, and the last Duino Elegies, he called it a "great giving," and spoke about it in transpersonal, non-ego-centered ways. In the letters he wrote to friends during those fevered days and nights in February 1922, what he expressed was gratitude, rather than pride. Perhaps this, too, is a necessary prerequisite for making a great poem: genuine humility, rather than self-deprecation or false modesty; genuine receptiveness, rather than an attempt to totally Control what appears when the pen hits the page.

Ed replied to the above comments with the following:

Do you mean you never make simultaneous craft decisions when writing? You never think what might work, and what might not work with your subject and voice? You make a columnar poem without intending to? A good enjambment is coincidence? Your rhythm or tempo is accidental? Alliteration is pure chance? A poem is only a crap shoot of random characteristics?

I think we talk meaninglessly when we talk about forgetting craft. The only one who ever forgets craft is the person who knows nothing about it. For example, I would make a terrible blacksmith, but a respectable wordsmith. The difference being that I understand something about the craft of one, but not the other.

Let's say I have this artistic inspiration about a wrought iron sculpture; it's like nothing anyone's ever seen. Too bad I can't make it happen. I don't have the craft skill for it.

To which I replied:

I do agree with you on one important underlying point: never give up the tools too soon. Where that point is reached, wherein one forgets the tools, will vary from person to person. It can take years to reach it.

I've been writing poems for 30 years. I've been driving for the same number of years. I've been playing, composing, and performing music for 40 years. I've been a serious photographer and visual artist for around 20 years. I'm a damn good driver; I've driven around half a million miles in my life, and been involved in only three or four accidents in all that time. Do I think about the mechanics of driving when I'm driving? Absolutely not. That could be a fatal distraction. Instead, I know my vehicle very well, and know exactly how it will respond under almost all road conditions. As for poetry, music, and visual art, I'll leave that up to others to judge.

Have you have ever read anything from the yogic traditions? The descriptions of the process of attaining mastery written in that tradition are sublime. One does indeed forget about the craft aspects, after a certain level of practice, on this road, in the sense that they are no longer in the forefront of consciousness. You forget about them the way you forget about driving a vehicle: you just drive, and your attention is not on how the motor is doing, or if the tires are in perfect form, until and unless the motor fails, and needs your attention.

I guarantee you that no musician, except the very earliest beginner, sits down to play and thinks, "Now I have to put my hands here, now I have to move my hands here." If they did that, beyond the first stages of learning to play music, they wouldn't ever actually make anything like real music. The music starts to happen when we stop thinking about how to move our hands, but trust our hands to move where they must to support what we are hearing.

The practiced blacksmith is thinking about the end result, molding the metal to match what is in his mind. He is not thinking, "now I have to pick up the hammer and strike it exactly like this with exactly this force." He picks up the hammer and hits the metal, just so. Ever actually done any blacksmithing? I have, and carpentry, and stonework, and weaving, and other crafts. The tools become part of you, an extension of your hands, and you do indeed "forget about them," in exactly the same way you forget about the mechanics of walking: you just walk.

To answer the questions, specifically, and I really don't care if anyone believes me or not, but this is the truth, the truth of my experience and artistic practice discipline:

Do you mean you never make simultaneous craft decisions when writing?

Pretty much never. Not absolutely never, of course, no-one would claim that, but they are not in the forefront of consciousness. And I don't stop the process of writing the poem itself, I don't stop to consider them. That is what editing is for, and editing comes later, not during the writing process. Stopping in the middle of writing a poem to make a craft decision can outright kill the mood, and thus kill the poem. Here we approach another statement repeated by many writers and writing teachers: Turn off your internal critic/editor when writing; edit later. This is not to say, never edit at all. Usually even a good first draft needs some detail work.

You never think what might work, and what might not work with your subject and voice?

No, I don't. Nor do I know what the voice is going to be when I start writing. Usually I know what the subject is going to be, and usually the subject is a liminal experience. The question makes writing a poem sound like an intellectual exercise, that one can write an outline for, beforehand.  It isn't at all like that, for me. Again, if there is a problem, the problem-solving comes later, during revision.  

If a poem doesn't work, for one reason or another, I often set it aside and let it percolate, rather than trying immediately to "fix" it; I might also do a fresh take on the same subject, in a new poem. Emptying the mind of pre-conceived thoughts and plans is exactly what it's all about; and this is a form of meditation, of course, the "beginner's mind" that they talk about in those aesthetic disciplines that have been influenced by Zen. (For example: haiku-writing, calligraphy, flower arrangement, archery, room design, and the art of drawing the sword.)

You make a columnar poem without intending to?

All the time. The poem's form tends to shape itself as I write; often enough, the form is a product of the content, and emerges organically during the process of writing. I have written matrix poems, which can be read in multiple directions, not by setting out to write a matrix poem, but because the words seemed to want to come out that way. I almost never set out writing with a form in mind, with the exception of haiku and its related forms (haibun, haiga, tanka, renga). I can spend time as much re-writing a haiku as I might spend editing a longer, no-form poem. What I set out to write with intention and concentration is A Poem—not A Formal Poem, not A Sonnet, just A Poem—and I wait to see what emerges. Since I'm a visual artist, a calligrapher and typographer, I often look at the poem's shape on the page, immediately after writing it down, and do some tweaks; but again, this happens during re-writing and editing, not during the initial writing itself. I grant that the distinction might be unclear to an observer watching me scrawl in my journal.

A good enjambment is coincidence?

I don't believe in coincidence, I believe in synchronicity; but a good enjambment is often instinctual or intuitive. Again, these technical detials can also be improved during revision. The sensation I get, often, is a like physical shift—not at all a verbal experience—of some part of me saying, Start a new line here. After three or four times feeling that sensation, at the beginning of writing, the poem's form tends to emerge. Sometimes I get a visual in advance, an imprint of the layout on the page, but not that often. The point is, enjambment is a somatic experience, not a pre-made intellectual choice. Writing is a physical act, not just an intellectual one.

Your rhythm or tempo is accidental?

I wouldn't say accidental, because I'm a musician and I have a good, well-trained ear. But do I consciously think about it as I write? No. It just flows, or syncopates, as it goes. Sometimes in crit someone will point out that I've written a five-beat line, and my response is a bemused and appreciative, "Oh, I did? Cool. Thanks." Believe me, I personally have encountered hundreds of musicians who never forget the tools, either; so, the road towards mastery is found in all the creative arts.  

Masters of various arts have more in common with each other, despite their varying arts, then they do with non-masters of their same art. One recognizes these people when one meets them. They have an observably similar approach to their work, be it sculpture, poetry, music, or blacksmithing. One can learn a lot just by watching how they work. Some of the opinions I have stated in this thread have been derived from, or bolstered by, watching master craftsmen perform their arts.

Alliteration is pure chance?

Often enough; but again, as a musician, I notice them when they occur, but as an improvising musician I don't necessarily plan them in advance. Again, as the words arise, I write them down. Sometimes, I might change them during revision to emphasize something like alliteration, or some other musical effect. But I find thinking about it in advance to be stifling; and if I think about it when writing, it turns into an intellectual gimmick, a parlor trick, rather than a poem. I think sometimes we forget to make a distinction between what is a writing exercise, and what is a poem. Some of that is intention; some of it is serendipity. But yes, I would say, more of it is "chance" than many poets consider.  

A poem is only a crap shoot of random characteristics?

This reveals a bias, with the loaded term "crap shoot," towards intellectual and conscious control of the craft. No, of course, it's not a crap shoot, because nothing human-produced can ever be totally at-random. (Nor, according to chaos theory, is randomness really possible; chaotic systems exhibit another kind of order, on another level. Attractors are points of recurrent stability within a system, not truly random although never exactly repeated.) Everything I have ever written, everything I have ever learned, have ever heard, goes into the writing of a new poem; one can hardly call that a "crap shoot of random characteristics." But "forgetting the tools" means you're not consciously thinking about them, as I've said above, it doesn't mean they're not present somewhere in you—it means you don't have them in the forefront of your awareness as you set about Making.

So: writing a poem (for me) is not a purely intellectual, conscious-level game. It is a product of the integrated head, heart, and hands of the whole person, not merely a mental exercise. It is emotion, intellect, and soma, working in ballanced alliance together. In fact, I don't think about it at all. I rarely even set out to write a poem; they emerge when they're ready. As i've said before, poetry is not my primary art, music is—heretical as that is state openly on a poetry board, it's the truth.

I make no claims to mastery, and I make no claims towards having written great poems. Others will judge that. But yes, this is indeed what is not-in-my-mind as I write a poem.

The short answer to all this is very simple: Craft can be internalized. And perhaps it should be.

A.E. Housman once commented: Poetry indeed seems to me more physical than intellectual.  A year or two ago, in common with others, I received from America a request that I would define poetry.  I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us.

I think Housman is on to something: poetry is more physical than intellectual. Regardless of the details of the somatic response I might have to a poem, which could differ from person to person, I agree with Housman that most of the memorable great poems I have ever read made me feel a shift happen in my body; I had a physical response, of some kind, if not one identical to Housman's.

Perhaps great poetry makes one feel—somatically, kinesthetically, physically—connected to the poem, its contents, its vision and/or story. But perhaps a great also poem satisfies on more than one level, intellectual and physical, somatic and emotional, mind and body. Perhaps what Housman meant, at root, was that a purely intellectual satisfaction is not enough, by itself. Craft and the technicalities are primarily a function of intellect, and analysis; which is why they are not enough, by themselves, to make a great poem. Or every technically perfect poem would be a great poem, which is obviously not true; thus, there is something else essential, as well.

It seems to me that great poetry, as opposed to merely satisfactory poetry, will "touch" or "move" one (both physical frames of reference) on multiple levels: physical, intellectual, spiritual, emotional. It can stand up to intellectual appreciation, even if it breaks those pesky "rules" of technique and craft again and again. It can also stand up to a purely experiential (somatic) read-through. It's like a totally satisfying meal in the company of convivial friends, where all the senses ar stimulated to satiation, the conversation is sublime, and the mutual affection present is deepened by the experience. Wine and cheese, indeed.

I've always appreciated Yeats' poetic take on this subject. I think it's an ars poetica, without being explicitly stated as such. One of my music composition mentors, George Cacioppo, also wrote a sublime piece of music inspired by this poem, Moves Upon Silence.

William Butler Yeats: Long-Legged Fly

That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope's chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

So, in the end, how do we tell what makes a good or great poem?

Dan Schneider formulates this as follows—and on the whole, based on experience and lots of reading, I tend to agree:

Great poems have a quality in common with each other, that is recognizable if not always definable. Great poems written by different poets have more in common with each other than do great poems and lesser poems written by the same poet. For example, a great poem by Whitman and a great poem by Yeats share more of the same feel, the same sense of sublime beauty, than do a great poem by Whitman and a lesser poem by Whitman.

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Monday, September 04, 2006

the Sea at Moolack

the Sea at Moolack
(a haibun)

At Moolack Beach, along the central Oregon coast, a beach of flat wet sand, spreading out at low tide, while dramatic clouds stack over the sunset. Sky and wet mirror of washed sands both the color of clouded amber, with honey and lemon highlights. Where stream meets sea, a channel of sand, a canyon perfect in every chaotic detail. Abandoned shells of dead crabs. Smooth round river stones, flat, black, sculpted. I pick up a stone, and discover it is perforated by weathering: a dreamstone. And another, white instead of black, white of weathered bone in the desert.

sea and desert
abandon driftwood logs—
gulls cry, lost voices

The lighthouse on land’s end, south downcoast, is framed by rain-veils, but no rain falls here. Waves crash far out, and the shallow sands are molten glass mirrors reflecting the sunset. I stay until I cannot see my own feet, then climb up to the road and continue on my way.

indigo night sky
gapped with broken clouds and stars:
my bed still far away

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Letter to His Fellow Mendicants

Letter to his fellow mendicants
(a haibun)

Speckled indigo fields of mist move across old, rounded hills at dusk. It's been another solid week of rain. I can't seem to feel my hands anymore; I lost my feet to the flood last month. They drifted south with my yellow boots. Now, mold grows in my lungs, and I have coughed pink onto the linens, spat green in the shower. The air is pixelated with spores; you can see parasites everywhere, waiting to sink their roots in. Is this my hair I am sleeping on, this sackcloth, or the fronds of fungi? Has my skin become so scraped down, so melted, that even a lover's touch leaves raw welts? I can't see the light fade anymore. I have to take my pills again.

even at dusk, dusk
gathers and blinds this old crow—
walking-stick clacking

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

News of the Universe

In my ongoing, ever-more-foreground search towards the creation of a poetry that is egoless, nature-based, and transcendant—an antidote to the current domination in poetry of the incessant personal ego, the persona-based "I"—and having recently moved back to Wisconsin where most of my books have been in strorage for two years while I lived and traveled out West, I re-read with pleasure Robert Bly's anthology News of the Universe: Poems of twofold consciousness. (Published by Sierra Club Books in 1980, revised edition 1995.)

Bly is at his best as an anthologist, translator, and literaray critic, and this is one of his most important collections. Regardless of the merits of his own poetic output, which I find to be uneven and occasionally self-indulgent, he has done poetry lasting service as an essayist, reviewer, opinionated critic, and anthologist. His essays that serve as introductions to many of his anthologies should be required reading for contemporary poets. He unfailingly targets those very issues that are at the core of much of what is problematic about contemporary poetry.

His essays that serve as introductions to each section in this anthology, in particular, are getting at what I'm trying to articulate and achieve in a poetry that is emergent, organic, and not rooted in the personal, confessional, self-centered, ego-based poetry of self-expression and literary showmanship. I think it's not only possible, but at this time, necessary.

The central point here is that, for a long time, our culture has decide that human consciousness is the only kind that matters—in fact, is the only kind there is. This is the post-Augustinian position of the world, the flesh and the devil all being equally evil; it is also the post-Cartesian position of the divorce and divide between mind and body, man and nature, soul and material. We dis-spirit the world; we deny it any right to respect and adoration, and we call it evil. We deny consciousness to the entire non-human world. (And then we exploit it, since it has no soul, and doesn't matter.)

Bly quotes the German Romantic poet Novalis, who along with Holderlin and Goethe was one of the early proponents of this connection with nature:

Self-expression is the source of abasement, just as, contrariwise, it is the basis for all true elevation. The first step is introspection—exclusive contemplation of the self. But whoever stops there goes only halfway. The second step must be genuine observation outward—spontaneous, sober observation of the external world.

This phrase, written some two hundred years ago, resounds as timely for much of contemporary poetry. Far too much poetry nowadays never gets to the second step: it remains locked in introspection—even narcissism. Poets describe endlessly their inner landscapes and emotionscapes, but they write little about what Rilke called Things—which are what most of the poems in his New Poems 1906–08 are about. They being with observation, and end in transcendance and immanence. What we perceive as Divine is not only disembodied consciousness—the Cartesian and Augustinian dualistic split between sacred and profane, soul and matter—but in Rilke's poems we see the Divine embodied in the things and peoples of the world about us. A tree at sunset in Evening, an ancient Greek statue in Archaic Torso of Apollo—they speak to us directly, from within themselves, and almost without passing through the writer's own persona. (Although of course Rilke is the source of these Thing-poems, and no one else could have done them quite this way.)

I am drawn to haiku not least because of haiku's ability to be impersonal, universal, even sublimely transcendant. The spiritual essence of haiku takes us out of ourselves, and into the world—this dewdrop world, which is always on the verge of being extinguished, always fading away, in which the only certainty is change. When we let go of trying to force the world to be what we want it to be, and simply follow it along through all its many changes, we step closer to the Tao.

This is a topic I'm still working towards. There's more to say, and more to think about, but let's do it in stages.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

The Stratigraphy of Poem Titles

The question is asked, How do you come up with poem titles?

In the case of many of my best titles for poems, or at least those poem titles I am fondest of among my own writing, most of them started out as lines embedded in the poem, that I later moved up to the title, and pulled out of the body. Usually those are lines further down in the poem, not the first line.

I almost never set out to write a poem with a topic or idea already in mind. So, I usually don't start with a title or topic in mind. I'm going to write a poem about pain, and title it "Pain." No. Most of my poems start with demanding images or situations that appear before the mind's eye, even as visions, sometimes. Most of my poems do not begin with ideas, or topics, or intentional poetic arguments. That's how I set out to write an essay, not a poem.

The title is usually the reader's first contact with the poem: it needs to be what the poem is about, even if it's oblique or layered in meaning. Superficially, titles tell us how to intrepret the poem's meaning. (As if every poem was a cipher to be decoded.) The problem with this is that titles become obvious and blatant, bludgeoning the meaning of the poem into the reader; this is a common beginner's mistake.

Much more resonantly and deeply, a good title will evoke the poem's meaning and contents, but also add another layer to the poem, when you go back and re-read the title after having read the poem.

A great title pulls us into a poem because it is mysterious, evocative, compelling, explicit yet offbeat, and so on. Then when we go back to re-read the title after reading the poem, the title's meaning has changed in our minds, too. Everything has changed, and keeps changing. We see the world through new perspectives. This is what I mean by resonance in poetry: you can always find more layers of meaning, more depths, more turns and changes.

Great titles are usually much more than one-word labels, which are often obvious or give away the whole affair. A poem about pain could be titled "her teeth, gritted" or "white room silent jitters" as well as "pain" or even "the problem of pain." This is where oblique thinking can be very useful: coming at the topic from a different direction, or from the body or an image, rather than an abstract word like "pain." Use a concrete word that describes the pain, that evokes in the reader's shared experience, rather than just bluntly saying "pain": for example, needles, a stab to the thigh, his knee begins screaming again.

So I would recommend this: don't start with the title, and don't make the title be the topic of the poem. Let it emerge during the process of writing.

Sometimes you do start a poem with a great title, that kicks off the writing itself. Lots of poets talk about how single lines came into their heads, and they were off and running. Sometimes those ended up being in the body of the poem, sometimes they end up in the title. (This is one form of poetic inspiration, it seems almost too obvious to mention.)

But sometimes you don't know what a poem is about when you're writing it, until you're writing it, and until you're done writing it. You sometimes discover that as you go along. I rarely ever start a poem with the title: the title comes later, when I know what the poem is about, and that's why I often pull an evocative line from the poem that becomes the title.

This is the essence of letting go of creative control, and just letting the poem happen; some poets never seem to be able to do this. writing using this process doesn't guarantee a good poem will result, of course—but then, neither does the opposite method of planning out everything beforehand, and writing purely from argumentative intention.

Not every poem has to have a title. Don't put yourself into an unnecessary bind by assuming you have to have a title. (Or that your poems have to have any other element, for that matter. For example, assuming a poem has to be in metered rhyme is clearly a fallacy, at this point in time.)

The very best way that I know to get out of a rut is to just write.

Write without purpose, write without goal, without intending to end up with a poem. Especially write without intending to end up with a good or even average poem. (Have you ever set out intending to write a bad poem? That can be a liberating exercise, too.) Write without intention.

Just write, and let the writing take charge of direction, and see where it leads you. It can be like automatic writing, or it can be like spewing out your guts into your journal, or it can be like writing down everything that's going on around you, purely a list of descriptions of your surroundings, and the people in them. Sometimes it's all crap, and sometimes you end up with a little gem you can pull out and turn into a poem. Sometimes you get a single line. Sometimes that can be enough for one day.

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