Saturday, May 31, 2008

Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!

In celebration, a favorite poem of mine, from the "Calamus" section of Leaves of Grass:

When I Heard at the Close of the Day

When I heard at the close of the day how my name
     had been received with plaudits in the capitol,
     still it was not a happy night for me that followed;
And else, when I caroused, or when my plans were
     accomplished, still I was not happy;
But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of
     perfect health, refreshed, singing, inhaling the
     ripe breath of autumn,
When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and
     disappear in the morning light,
When I wandered alone over the beach, and, undresing,
     bathed, laughing with the cool waters, and
      saw the sun rise,
And when I thought how my dear friend, my lover,
     was on his way coming, O then I was happy;
O then each breath tasted sweeter—and all that day
      my food nourished me more—And the beautiful
     day passed well,
And the next came with equal joy—And with the
     next, at evening, came my friend;
And that night, while all was still, I heard the waters
     roll slowly continually up the shores,
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands,
     as directed to me, whispering, to congratulate me,
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the
     same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness, in the autumn moonbeams, his face
     was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast—And that
     night I was happy.

While you're at it, check out the Walt Whitman Archive online. Truly a splendid resource.

from With Walt Whitman in Camden, 25 April 1888:

He was a stranger to me—a Russian, I think: clean, earnest, with a beautiful face—but too insistent: he would have me, whether I would or would not, say yes to his political, or revolutionary, program. We had no quarrel—I only made it plain to him that I was not to be impressed into that sort of service. Everybody comes here demanding endorsements: endorse this, endorse that: each man thinks I am radical his way: I suppose I am radical his way, but I am not radical his way alone. Socialists, single tax men, communists, rebels of every sort and all sorts, come here. I don't say they shouldn't come—that it's unreasonable for them to come: the Leaves is responsible for them and for more than them. But I am not economically informed—I do not see the fine—even the coarse—points of difference between the contestants. I said to the Russian today: 'Don't ask me for too many definitions. Be satisfied with my general assurance. My heart is with all you rebels—all of you, today, always, wherever: your flag is my flag. Why should you want me to give you more?' The fellow was sensible—said he had learned a thing or two—and went away. I think Emerson was sweeter with such men than I am—was more patient, was more willing to wait their talk out.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What's Worth Reading

The glib answer is, for the eclectic reader: Almost everything.

But that is glib. The truth is, the vast majority of what's available for reading is not worth the time or effort. This is nothing new; it's almost always been so, not excluding the lost Library of Alexandria, which probably contained a great deal of dry technical writing. Do you really want to read every issue of those magazines on the newstand? Not even magazines that I like to read, generally, like National Geographic, are brilliant every single issue.

Lately I've been overwhelmed with a great huge bloody list of Things To Do that have required all my time and attention, and prevented me from doing much creative work, much music, or much else, to be honest. But I still read. Even if it's just a few pages a day, as the first thing in the morning, as part of my necessary morning quiet time, that time I need in order to start the day properly, and ensure that it goes relatively well. Days I am forced by circumstances to miss my morning quiet time are noticeably more turbulent.

This contemporary scarcity is both curse and blessing. It means I'm not finding time for much new reading. It also means, however, that I once again to turn to books that are old friends, and re-read them. One gains a kind of solace by re-reading a familiar story or essay or book of poems. It's not nostalgia, although it could be; rather, it's the comfort of something familiar and well-loved.

We all have a short list of books that have kept us company our entire lives, that we return to again and again. Part of what I've been doing this past month or so has been closing down my parents' old house, now that they're gone, and moving into my own new home. There is a pile of books I didn't pack into boxes with all the rest, knowing that they would keep me company while everything else was stacked up and waiting to be organized and set into place.

When I travel, I do the same thing. There are a few books that always travel with me, one or two of which I have in ultra-small pocket-size editions for additional ease of carrying along. A copy of Matsuo Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior in the Shambhala Pocket Classics edition lives in my travel bag. Lately a copy of Emily Dickinson's Poems in the same edition has also lived there.

What I'm re-reading, then, is what's worth reading and re-reading again and again. Those few books and authors that one constantly returns to; that one cannot travel without; that one needs to maintain one's sanity when all else is going Crazy Eddie. Here's a partial list, then, of what I've been re-reading this past month:

Thomas Merton: Woods, Shore, Desert
Diane Duane: The Door into Shadow
Hayden Carruth: Selected Essays and Reviews
Federico Garcia Lorca: Ode to Walt Whitman and other poems; Deep Song and other prose
John Welwood, ed.: Ordinary Magic: Everyday life as a spiritual path
Albert Gelpi, ed.: The Wild God of the World: An anthology of Robinson Jeffers
Tim Bergling: Sissyphobia: Gay Men and Effeminate Behavior

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Ars Poetica

Writing poems about poems has a few distinct subsets, it seems to me. On the one hand, it can be the worst sort of self-referential, navel-gazing, confessionalist form of literary recursion, self-serving and self-indulgent. On the other hand, it can be an ars poetica, a genre of poems as ancient as writing itself.

Ars poetica refers to poems that are about "the nature of poetry" or "the art of poetry." Such poems can be a poet's self-justification or reason for writing. They can also be treatises on the nature and practice of poetry, or statements of personal belief, personal myth. Such poems can be very dry and didactic on the one hand, or cringingly self-revealing and confessional on the other. It's rare to read an ars poetica that doesn't take itself too seriously, or try to be profound, or be a definitive statement of the poet's personal aesthetic: As a poet, this is what I believe/know to be true. ("We hold these truths to be self-evident. . . .") Occasionally, one finds an ars poetica that is humorous, doesn't take itself (or the poet, or Poetry itself) too seriously, and leaves one with a sense of what poetry can be but without feeling like one has been beaten over the head about it. And very occasionally, the rarest bird of all, one encounters an ars poetica that is actually a good poem, purely as a poem.

Many (most?) ars poetica poems are dictums: lists, like Archibald MacLeish's, which gave us a list of things that a poem is or is not, famously ending in the oft-contemplated, oft-contested phrase: A poem must not mean / But be.. What a poem is supposed to be is of course open to discovery; while I suspect that MacLeish intended to say something along the lines of (paraphrasing Adrienne Rich some decades after MacLeish) A poem should be an experience itself, rather than being a poem about an experience, MacLeish leaves this unclear; he may also have meant, in the true Modernist sense, that a poem is another kind of art object with its own substantial existence, like a vase that you pick up to look at from all sides.

Many ars poetica poems are definitions: what is a poem, and what isn't. many ars poetica poems are similar lists to MacLeish's. Many rehash or respond to other existing lists, as well.

Far too many ars poetica poems are creeds: Credo in unum cantus. The problem with creeds is that they often become screeds. Or they require an act of faith on the part of the reader, with the poet standing in as preacher, if not prophet; the reader is expected to take the poet's belief on faith. The tone can become self-justifying, even defensive, is the poet is not too sure of herself. This sort of ars poetica, at worst, can become strident, a political poem in the worst sense.

Writing poems about poetry is metalanguage, language re: language. Poetry-as-metalanguage can become a game. (And a finite game, at that, rather than an infinite game.) One sometimes feels that the entire contemporary "post-avant-garde" poetic genre of Language Poetry is a game of metalanguage (the effectiveness and resulting quality of the game's products is a topic we'll get around to, eventually). Metalanguage can be fascinating, even useful in that it holds up a mirror to the art itself, but for the most part it's dull and recursive in the worst sense. Poets talking about their poetries can be paradoxically interesting when done in prose, as in review essays or critical writings, but many poems that attempt to do the same job end up reading like prose anyway. A lot of ars poetica is literary-criticism with line-breaks, and might as well be prose.

Occasionally you get an interesting oblique approach, that uses the poem as metaphor, or creates a meta-meaning by not discussing the topic directly but rather by illustrating the idea via action. In other words, embodying the argument via example, rather than by talking about it. These are often much more interesting ars poetica poems.

Self-justification and self-definition are acts of projection. Most poets succumb to the urge now and then. (Myself included.) It is a form of ego, of course, although there are worse forms. Perhaps the most useful form of ego for an artist or poet to have is the self-confidence in one's own abilities and message that allows one to get up onstage and perform. Inflated ego is almost always a bad thing for artists, not least because it deflects from the art onto the artist, usually to the benefit of neither. A certain amount of ego is necessary and beneficial, when it takes the form of self-confidence and self-respect. It's when the ego starts to believe it's the most important poet at the reading, that trouble soon follows.

Sometimes an ars poetica is a poem with a moral, as has been said of Marianne Moore's poem called, simply, Poetry, which begins:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
          all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
          discovers in
        it after all, a place for the genuine.

This is a poem that functions like an essay, with a thesis, argument, and conclusion. Genuineness is Moore's measure of success. Nonetheless, it's a poem about poetry, not prose about poetry. It works, somehow, as a poem, even though it's language is sparse, spiky, and a little curmudgeonly. (Like Moore herself, one is tempted to mutter.)

The most interesting ars poetica poems, for me, are those that come at the project sideways. Such poems may not even mention Poetry, or the muse (or, worse, why hasn't the bitch-muse been around lately to inspire me?). They enact and embody, rather than lecture or dictate. They demonstrate how the action of being-in-poetry can occur, rather than talking about poetry: they make the ars poetica into a verb. They talk around the topic, rather than addressing ti directly. They might present themselves as illustrative fables rather than didactic theses—lemmas, dilemmas, and counter-lemmas.

I like Sam Hamill's oblique, deflating and self-deprecating poem Arse Poetica, which ends in humor, reducing the highfalutin' expectations of Fine Art Poetry to a glimpse of "Chaucer's bare red bum." Hamill speaks in the middle of his poem about the poet's self-inflation, and its consequences:

You cannot escape
your own original face.
The Greeks called this
excessive ego hubris,

consequence of the sin being
violence brought down
upon one's own head:
karma—pride's other twin.

Hamill's poem is a send-up and critique of the whole genre, while also participating in it. It's not his best, most profound poem; but it does clearly state many things one can find in the rest of his poetry, from the references to Zen truths, to a sense of the historical classics, to a profound awareness of the fragility and ephemerality of life. Very Buddhist sentiments. Karma is indeed pride's other twin, when pride leads one towards self-inflation: the pride that goeth before the fall.

Perhaps the urge to make an ars poetica is because of a sense of (literary) history. A sense of one's own place in the loom of time, where poems and other artworks are markers and signposts and gravestones strewn along the roadside. A marker that the poet, like Kilroy, was here.

I'm guilty of everything I accuse other poets of doing above. Je m'accuse! Here's one of my own ars poeticas, from around a decade ago:

Ars Poetica

Your words must be strong enough
to live on their own:
apart from your hand, your body.

There must be air enough in them
for flutes, clarinets, and eagle-bone whistles.
You’ll have to make room in your lungs.

Words unloved will leave you,
fluttering birds, a startled flock.
But words well-tended will hover close, and tremble.

And here's another, earlier poem, made into a poster (originally undertaken to be carefully typeset and illustrated by yours truly as a presentation piece, a bit of self-marketing). This is more of what I like to read in an ars poetica, something less direct. The poem is very much about poetry, as much as it is about all art-making, and about guidelines for living a proper life:

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Sunday, May 18, 2008


every entrance
glazed with one more open gate—
we step between worlds,

koi spun under their mirrors,
red and silver reflections

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Winter and Summer

Winter just won't let go. After several days in the 80s (F), we're back down in the 50s. Last week, the crabapple trees began to flower. But at the same time, there were sundogs in the sky before sunset; sundogs are usually seen in winter here.

Sundogs, Madison, WI

Flowering trees, Beloit, WI

(These are the trees in the front and back of the house I'm in the process of moving to.)

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Morning Meditations

A small gathering of brief thoughts and quotes that made me stop and think, over the past few months. A rainy spring morning, the rain knocking the tree pollen out of the air, delaying transplanting the marigolds and geraniums, pattern of quiet drops on the roof like river stones tumbling in an eddy pool, mood of inward blossom and bone.

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

St.-Ex. gets it right so often. He distills wisdom into aphorism without preciousness or sentiment. Wisdom as hard as the desert, as clear as the cold star-filled wonder of the desert night sky.

Yesterday I was blindsided by an unexpected surge of feeling around the discussion of suicide. It kept coming up. I remembered those times when I didn't care if I lived or died, when I would put myself in dangerous situations, and left it up to the gods to make the choice for me. I'm still here. Now, though, even on my worst days, those days when something inside grows long claws and growls with red-glowing eyes, I want to be here. There is void enough in living, no need to rush towards death. A truth seen through the eyes of the heart, and a gratitude for the learning.

Stay at your table and listen. Don't even listen, just wait. Be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked.
—Franz Kafka.

The gathering of experiences like fuel for an invisible fire, over which the thin mists of the ancestors still gather for warmth and solace. Sitting waiting for lightning to strike. Going about your daily business, but mindfully, with attentiveness, always paying heed to the smallest tone and bloom. The world reveals itself to you as a glorious presence, and everything catches light and becomes significant, more than it is, a treasure glowing in an opening patch of sunlight, a door through which the actinic light of other worlds shines out. Every moment takes on immense splendor. Nothing is too small to be loved, too mundane to be exalted. The kingdom of heaven is a state of grace, all unexpected, but all we have to do is wait, and here it is. And again, glowing from within, catching light and revealing itself as the thin crust of solidity over an expanding tide of light.

The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.
—from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

Immersion in life, the embrace between wind and dream, the oblique stolidness of flesh. How often we live in our heads rather than our selves. Words about things, rather than the thing itself. Wanting to touch the moon, not just be the finger pointing. In a pool of rain, drops ripple everywhere, then dissolve.

The good writers touch life often. They touch it, they hold it, they embrace, they evoke. You can feel it in your soma, your presence, your flesh. The speaks more truth than the mind. There is the wonder of tale-telling, but as part of life, not as a substitute for it. Writing that is an experience, that creates a unique and fresh experience in the reader, rather than writing that merely chatters about an experience. Too many writers afraid to be touched by life, or to touch life. They use their tools and words to keep life at a safe remove, so that they are neither disturbed nor affected. The illusion of safety: keep your distance.

Not to have a story to live out is to experience nothingness: the primal formlessness of human life below the threshold of narrative structuring.
—Michael Novak, Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove

Harking back to the poet's truth, the bard's truth, the Singer's truth, the truth of the Book of Genesis:

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
—Muriel Rukeyser

Biography is biology: we are made of stories. We construct narrative to be able to tell our stories sequentially.

The only reason for time is so everything doesn't happen at once.
—Albert Einstein

We construct our realities in manageable sequential packets, like quanta of energy ticking by. We want things to be discreet, separated, chopped into grains and granules. We analyze by reducing. In doing so, we lose the glory, the light shining through, the connectivity. It helps to manage, but it doesn't enliven.

Underneath the illusion of narrative is the void of nothingness. Not that there is nothing there, but that there is Mystery there. Awakening is sinking and cooling into that void. Slow down time until it stops; then you can be everywhere at once, at any time. There is light in that void, that arises from the very cells of being. It's not a dim, dark, ignorant place of fear. It's calm and cool and collected.

The worst problem of language-based art is this belief that it must be narrative, must be sequential, must be conventionally comprehensible. We can break free of that, and still have meaning. Tossing meaning out with the sense of narrative can be done two ways: by saying it doesn't matter, since life is meaningless anyway; and by affirming that meaning is something we create for ourselves. That we project onto the screen of the world, the scrim between us and the stage of our actions. Life's a play, indeed, but the stage is sacred space.

We can be non-linear and non-sequential, in a a poetry in which time is loosed and everything happens all at once, without losing our center. We stand in the center of a revolving whirlwind of possibility. We reach out with fingers to touch a facet of a spinning world-jewel as it rotates around us, choosing one or two facets out of which to make our story. Things change, and we change ourselves to make them. Shapechanging begins with changing the shape of the soul, and the shapes of story and body follow from there.

For after all what is man in nature? A nothing in relation to infinity, all in relation to nothing, a central point between nothing and all and infinitely far from understanding either. The ends of things and their beginnings are impregnably concealed from him in an impenetrable secret. He is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn and the infinite in which he is engulfed.
—Blaise Pascal

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Sun and Moon


black birds flit across a sickle moon, indigo sky
dying sun red behind turbulent clouds, leaves fall spinning

white sunlight, transparent, autumn pale
leaves no mark on the body, no weight on the face

cold whitecaps trip and sing across foaming black stones
the lake beyond as bright as the blue, capped by horizon clouds

a flicker of sacred laughter, kissing the trees’ rough skin
you had to work all day to get here; now the light goes, blessing

you climb onto rough stones in surf to embrace the sky
you dress up your feelings and loose them, feathers in wind

at last quiet on boulders, light dance on restless waves
a single yellow leaf touches black stones where they meet water

now forget the city sounds, the typing of the traffic
this shore, wet with light, brings you new islands of seeing
earth reaches up through your feet and holds you to its breast—
into everyday sorrow, palm and word, comes the suddenly miraculous

Not every night a star—
sometimes a moon shuttered by clouds,
a firefly pulsing in mist.

A moth flickers around the yardlight,
briefly eclipsed,
till both sizzle and implode.

Lightning walks strobing the trees, leaving
retinal imprints of blood vessels or radial branches.

Breeze that shreds the fog
in shadows till the rain begins,
oblique, trying to merge with the land.

How many more nights till the moon dies?
Her phoenix dance burning in hearts fire.
Sometimes I see in myself a stone, sometimes a firefly.

How briefly, however brightly
we all of us
flicker from out the darkness.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

An Important Discussion About Poetry Online

There's an important discussion about online poetry going on that's been triggered by an essay which asks the question: how useful and beneficial are online poetry boards to poets, and to poetry in general? A lot of very thoughtful (and some just plain snarky) replies are in the comments thread. For anyone who has ever been involved in the online poetry scene, and/or run afoul of its dark side, this is required reading. There is also a set of links to parallel discussions being generated elsewhere in cyberspace.

The single best summation and overview of the entire situation that I have read so far can be found at one of these parallel discussions, right here. My own experience of online poetry boards largely supports this summation.

The discussion will no doubt keep rippling out through cyberspace. That is a good outcome, I believe, even if it sparks a lot of disagreements. The essay addresses a set of issues that need to be periodically re-examined and kept alive, not swept under the rug.

I'm breaking one of my own unspoken rules with this post: to not make this weblog into one full of links that spot things for readers to go read that they might find interesting. I rely on such blogs as do primarily post links, the best of which have become clearinghouses and guides to the (online literary) zeitgeist of our times. (You can view my shortlist among the links at the side of this page.) My original purpose in starting the Dragoncave was to collect in one place finished essays about creativity and the arts, especially poetry, and some poems, to keep polishing them after they'd been put into this repository, and to start organizing them by theme and concept. A significant number of the short essays on poetics that have been posted here began as posts on discussion threads on some of the poetry boards; what I wrote there I've revised and reformatted for inclusion here. Hence, there is some spiraling around certain themes that have become strange attractors to which I must return. I do normally post links within essays to bring associations to the foreground. One of the joys of hypertext is that you can create virtual footnotes via links that are multi-dimensional and non-linear, that allow readers to go look up an idea perhaps new to them without breaking the flow of the essay itself.

And yes, I've contributed to this discussion on some of those threads; you'll see my name here and there. (So I won't be repeating my views here at the moment; you can read those on the carious threads.) There is a lot of history behind this; I've been involved in online poetry since 1997 or so. (My email address is the only "permanent" address I've had since 1994.) In my experience, this particular discussion about the utility and culture of online poetry boards has been raised numerous times in the past three or four years, only to be ignored, deleted, or suppressed. Some boards are more autocratic than others. Some others avoid drama at all costs, even at the price of the free exchange of views. Small, private boards often seem to meet more of the ideals presented in this discussion than do the large, public boards.

This is a discussion that I believe is relevant not only to the future of poetry, but peripherally to the future of how we will continue to make art. The online poetry world as a paradigm brings out several possibilities of what art-making in the future might look like, affected by the media used and the tools we continue to invent.

Update, two years later:

In an ironic twist of fate, in which the truth of this discussion about poetry criticism becomes even more true, this writer of this essay, in running his own poetry board, turned into the same kind of paranoid control freak which he complained about in his essay. Perhaps it's a case of absolute power corrupting absolutely, but I don't think so. i think it's more a case of human frailty and failing in the face of impossible stress. We all run into things we think we can handle, but are not up to handling, really. The irony here is of course that, as Nietzsche once put it, "If you look too long into the Abyss, the Abyss also looks into you." It's a case of mirroring, or perhaps of unconscious repression.

Anyway, the point is that no one is immune. The outcome, two years later, is that the author of this essay turned into that very thing he hated. I feel nothing but compassion about that, even though I was targeted for banning. None of that really matters.

Nor does any of this strange turn of events mitigate the truth of what was written in that essay. if anything, it just underlines how true this critique of poetry boards really matters, how accurate and insightful it really is. And how it remains relevant.


Thursday, May 01, 2008

Beltane (a poem triptych)


his shoulders,
turning beneath
the pound of the falls

his limbs, as long
and awkward and powerful and restless
as a new-born colt’s

his chest,
a marble sculpture
only time can erode

his sex a rainspout,
God’s design for the apex
of a water-creature’s wave-slipping

his eyes a gray seal’s,
music-loving, lambent,
often mischievous

his grin the radiance
of forest mornings,
the river’s promise to the rocks it breaks

The May Field

the sweaty work
of fastening a belt about
the boy’s middle

the loose shirt
over the limbs: the festival shirt,
bright and flowered,
a bower on the shoulders,
on the breast a third sun rising

new white linen breeches
flash in the sun,
a rhythm of running

he leans over his legs
to lace his buckskin boots,
new-cut for the day’s wandering

he has his lovers,
lads and lasses, and his blanket
will not lie cold by the hearth tonight

born at the dark solstice,
the pride of seventeen summers,
he loves laughter;
his only lack
is darkness’ deep patience,
the barrow-waiting, the long sleep—
but time will bring such shadows,
and the toughening
of his bard’s tongue, an edge to his wit

Night Revels

these fires, tall on the hills,
beacon the day’s end;
heart and bones warmed by dancing,
skin flushed, breath quickened, flames
blush the young ones leaping

the fair festival clothes discarded,
bonfire and naked dance are enough;
some stand blanket-wrapped and watching,
but he tires not

the bower-god’s son,
he horse-prances,
mane-tosses, wild-leaps,
long-laughs, deep-drinks of wine-sweat

even old men who lifelong love their wives
lust for him, tonight,
in this banefire-light,
the rampant green god himself awakened

all night the fires spiral
every hill a flickering star
echoing older lights, these circling lanterns,
the Northern Star

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