Tuesday, March 5, 2013


The great poet, Robert Hayden

Look here, see now. I say ‘Dummies’ affectionately. As in all those famous self help books—incl. Roots & Tubers, The Real Josef Stalin, The Party of No, and Offshore Drilling—for Dummies. You’re probably not a Bro, Brah or Bruh if you’re reading this post, you’re probably not populating a Pan-Hellenic Greek Org. such as STD or ABV. No, you’re probably a Good Sport who’s attempting to make headway with difficult reading material, so let’s advance Your Cause and score some Lasting Change. As part of our Joint Exploration, we will link to some very fine poems by Robert Hayden, Li-Young Lee, Harryette Mullen, Lyn Hejinian, Robert Creeley, and P. Inman.

1. First of All, Relax. Can you hear Jeff Spicoli (from Ridgemont High) saying that, after he’s crashed the car? (“Ruh-laaax!”) The fact is, you’re probably trying to navigate poetry as you might navigate fiction, by expecting plot or seeking the familiarity of narrative sentence structure. Perhaps you’re expecting the lyrics to approximate pop music or patter through a regular rhyme scheme. In the end, many contemporary poems operate outside these conventions, and you may need to—train yourself to—read differently.

2. ‘Meaning’ Is Overrated. Let’s start with The Big Picture. Do you understand the Universe? Do you comprehend America? Can you explain why one athlete who prays to God triumphs, while another athlete who prays (just as fervently) to the same Lord, fails? If so, proceed to The End and Receive Cookie. Why demand ‘Sense’ from poetry when you cannot wring ‘Sense’ from a glance out the window? Importantly, there are Other Ways to penetrate a poem, and there are Many Ways in which poetry can Reg-U-Late.

3. Determine Situation. I realize that the Intended Audience may vary from piece to piece, but in general, a diligent reader should be able to establish ‘Basic Footing’ in any poem. Consider Robert Hayden’s masterpiece, “Those Winter Sundays.” Written, arguably, in the sonnet form, it establishes a speaker (presumably male) who voices profound regret at never having thanked his father for all his blue collar devotion, indeed “…Speaking indifferently to him, / who had driven out the cold / and polished my good shoes as well.” The poem’s elegiac address allows for many “lonely offices” at the end: the father’s various toiling places as well as the poet’s austere desk.

4. Assemble a List of Images. You can also ‘enter a poem’ by assembling a constellation of its snapshots. The speaker in Li-Young Lee’s poem, “This Hour and What Is Dead”, calls God an “old furnace”, who “keeps talking / with his mouth of teeth, / a beard stained at feasts, and his breath / of gasoline, airplane, human ash.” Through this imagery, a reader can obviously detect the intense upheaval threatening the speaker’s life. What might one group of images—“blueblack cold”, “cracked hands”, and “banked fires”—suggest about the hardscrabble environs of “Those Winter Sundays”?

5. Don’t Fear Responsible Abstraction. Most Irresponsible Abstraction veers into Cheese. The more a phrase—“the dark depths of my soul”, for example—allows for too many destinations, the more the reader can’t attach any significance to it. On the other hand, take Robert Hayden’s line, “fearing the chronic angers of that house”, where “chronic angers” may refer to the latent tension amongst the house’s inhabitants or the cantankerous noise of a cold house warming. The poet doesn’t include an image there, but the abiding originality of this Responsible Abstraction attaches itself to the speaker’s sense of familial alienation, and nourishes the Elasticity of the (Reader’s) Mind.

6. Discover the Slants. Many poems succeed by offering innovative soundings: where words correspond ‘in Slant’ with words that aren’t, thankfully, their sing-song counterparts. I call your attention to the poet Harryette Mullen, and her abecedarian book, Sleeping with the Dictionary, and to the first sentence of “The Lunar Lutheran”, a poem therein: “In chapels of opals and spice, O Pisces pal, your social pep makes you a friend to all Episcopals.” Just in one sentence alone reside many Slants: chapels/opals; spice/Pisces; opals/social; and O Pisces Pal/Episcopal. Can you see how the rhymes aren’t ‘exact’? Doesn’t that line Bounce? The Hayden poem offers intricate sound-work, as well. Trace the “c”, “ck”, and “a” sounds inside words, alliteratively, and in Slant.

7. Thoughts on Macro-Structure. Lyn Hejinian wrote her masterpiece collection, My Life, originally, in 37 parts of 37 sentences apiece, when she was 37 years old. Eight years later, she added eight more sections, and expanded the previous sections, such that My Life grew to hold 45 sections of 45 sentences apiece. But that’s not all. Consider this excerpt, hosted at the University of Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center. Her writing—parts image, detail, non sequitur, fragment, definition, list, idea, witticism, and so forth, and all of it in prose—comes to resemble a jazz solo, in that the elements provide a “searching foundation” which soars to stunning moments of discovery.

8. Thoughts on Micro-Structure. Try reading Robert Creeley’s poem, “Goodbye”, by (a) stressing words at the ends of lines and (b) insisting upon pauses between stanzas. Creeley’s organizational strategy emphasizes the emotional stances of persons, the beginnings of thought and speech, and the isolations inherent in ill-fitting relationships. Of course pain is painful, by the way. When someone says “the pain is / not unpainful”, doesn’t that smack a bit? “Those Winter Sundays” was included in a recent edition of The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, even as its fourteen lines are broken a bit unusually for a sonnet. Try reading it as you read the Creeley, and weigh the effectiveness of its breaks.

9. A Difficult Poem. A writer named P. Inman is one of my favorite poets. I didn’t always feel that way, though! When I first heard him read his poetry, I was like, “wtf?” But I was wrong about that. I reflect upon my first cup of coffee, or my first jazz listen, and how neither quite worked for me, but now, having cultivated a love for them, both are irreplaceable parts of my routine. The same with experimental poetry, the works of P. Inman included. Consider his poem, “lac[e]y”, which may be a comment on lace, lacey-ness, or the jazz musician Steve Lacy, and all his Lac[e]y-ness. (It’s dedicated to another hero, the English poet Tom Raworth.) Rather than analyze its ‘meaning’ (right?), let’s just state some observations: the lines are short and metered by numerous periods; the poem reads jaggedly; some of the word combinations—“a. taupe. wald.”, for example—suggest more in the way of sound-scrabble; some stretches provide astonishing connections: ‘“let’s. call. / this.’ / my. age. / leaning. into. / some. dream.”; the piece is separated into six stanzas; sometimes an asterisk breaks the stanzas; the piece is further divided into two halves by an unconventional margin; the piece is (visually) unbalanced—sometimes the left half is heavier (with words) than the right and vice versa; the poem is tightly bound to that unusual margin. P. Inman’s poetry at times reminds me how language and sound is about us, a bit on the street, a bit from the radio, a bit on the subway, a bit from memory, a bit from nostalgia, a bit from wit, a bit from optimism. A piece like “lac[e]y” can be enjoyed for its shape, runs of words, ideas, sounds, scraps, persistent introversion, persistent invention, undeniable authenticity, and for sure, its “polk. m’edge.”

10. The End: Receive Cookie. Hey, if you’re a Bro, Brah, or Bruh, and you’ve made it this far, then there’s hope for you yet. This post will hardly address all the nuances of reading poetry, but if you’ve Gleaned a Few Nuggets, as they say, then it’s time to hit The Pub. Incidentally, Hitting the Pub can help you with No. 1, above. (“Ruh-laaax!”) Good luck and please comment if you’d like to correspond about any of this mayhem.

Also see: Blogpost to a Young Poet.


Anonymous said...

Whether you are searching for a Bro or removing a Brah, it is important to remember that this electronic age makes it much easier for Chinese language poets to leave a cookie on your hard drive that may seriously impede offshore drilling.


I'd expect Chinese language poets to leave a fortune cookie on my hard drive, yo. All our fortunes, hence, involve empty calories. Where's the Bruh in all this, I wonder? Is he missing, as in The Missing Bruh Formation? In any event, it's tradition to identify yourself in the comments -- even if a pseudonym. So, are you Nym? Or just a Pseudo Nym? & thank you for your comment -- we at B.A.G. agree. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------BA