Saturday, March 31, 2007

A Blog Post of Interest

Robert Philen has an incisive recent post on his blog about "Art That's More Interesting to Think About Than to Experience." We've all had the experience of an artwork that was neither particularly interesting nor pleasurable but was interesting to think about or talk about, and of finding that those thoughts were more interesting than the artwork which incited them.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Robert Lowell and the Massachusetts 54th

For the Union Dead

Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam*

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gently tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die—
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year—
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns…

Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his “niggers.”

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the “Rock of Ages”
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble.
he waits
for the blessèd break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

*The epigraph translates as, “They gave up all to serve the public thing.” More generally, "res publica" means "the republic" or "the state," but I like the larger implications the more literal translation makes available.

Robert Lowell is not among my favorite poets, but he wrote a handful of poems that I consider true masterpieces, among them “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” “Skunk Hour,” and my favorite for a number of reasons, “For the Union Dead.” Lowell’s early and, I think, more interesting poems, written under the aegis of such mentors as Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, were heavily influenced by Donne and the other Metaphysicals, by Dylan Thomas, and by Hart Crane (whose fascination with the sea as both haven and danger is echoed in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”). He later turned away from this mode toward the more discursive, speech-like poems of his so-called confessional period, though his confessions were as well rehearsed and carefully crafted as the most blatantly artificial speeches of a masked actor. I find most of these poems too talky and prosaic. But “For the Union Dead” (originally called “Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th”), whose title rebukes or at least responds to Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” which mourns an imaginary Southern chivalry, has always deeply moved me.

Ezra Pound defined the epic as a poem containing history, in which case this poem, containing and shaping history, is a little epic. It never makes its judgment of its current moment (and ours) discursively explicit, and the reproach is stronger for its reticence. The poem is almost numerological in its historical engagement. It commemorates the Massachusetts 54th Regiment; the South Boston Aquarium closed in 1954; and Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that led among other things to the hotly contested integration of Little Rock High School that the speaker watches on television, was handed down in 1954.

In my beginning is my end. Like a moebius or ouroboros, the poem circles around, ending where it begins. The speaker starts as a child pressing his face against glass, enthralled by the life on the other side, and ends that way too. The South Boston Aquarium is closed; where water was, is now a desert as much spiritual as material, “a Sahara of snow.” As a child the speaker pressed his nose against the glass of the tanks, watching the “cowed, compliant fish,” the life caged on the other side of glass. The speaker draws his hand back from the glass, drawing back to a present in which once again he is pressed against a barrier, “the new barbed and galvanized//fence on the Boston Common.” Now, though, instead of life, there is a parody of life on the other side, “yellow dinosaur steamshovels,” still caged, but artificial. They grunt as they devour “tons of mush and grass,” not for sustenance, but to gouge out an underground parking garage, which is implicitly a hell, an “underworld.” Instead of nature reproducing itself, parking spaces replicate themselves through Boston.

“Puritan-pumpkin colored girders” prop up “the tingling Statehouse,” and prop up the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ bronze relief of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first black regiment organized in a free state. (Colonel Shaw and the regiment were the subjects of the 1989 film Glory, starring Matthew Broderick as Shaw, for his role in which Denzel Washington won his first Academy Award.) Shaw, an ardent abolitionist from a family of staunch abolitionists, was killed with most of his men in the assault they led on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, which was never taken by the Union armies. Like the Statehouse, the relief is “shaking,” as the principles it celebrated are undermined, physically by the excavations, symbolically by the spread of materialism and commerce the new parking garage embodies.

“Two months after marching through Boston,/half the regiment was dead,” but their spirits and the ideal of freedom for which they fought lived on: “at the dedication” in 1897, [philosopher and psychologist] William James [brother of novelist Henry James] “could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.” Now their monument stands as a rebuke to the city: “Their monument sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat,” reminding us of the closed aquarium and its long-dead fish, another emblem of life now out of reach. Colonel Shaw still points the way, even if no one follows any longer: “Its Colonel is as lean/as a compass needle.” Wincing at pleasure (an heir to the Puritans whose only legacy is the orange girders) and suffocating for privacy, he has become a public monument. He no longer has any personal privacy, but he is also suffocated by the “privacy” of an era with no public ideals, in which the “public thing” for which he and his men gave their lives means nothing. “He is out of bounds now”: he and the values he represents are beyond the pale, and he is literally cordoned-off by the fencing surrounding the construction site. Echoing Yeats’ “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” he celebrates humanity’s capacity “to choose life and die.”

All over New England, the churches commemorate the American Revolution, a more honorable rebellion than the South’s struggle to sustain and expand slavery. But the flags over the cemeteries of the Grand Army of the Republic, a patriotic organization of Union veterans, are frayed. The statues of the “abstract Union Soldier,” a contrast to the specificity of Shaw’s monument, wear away each year; they grow younger as the past is forgotten.

The Confederate soldiers defending Fort Wagner threw Shaw’s body into the same ditch with his men, thinking it an insult to bury a white man with a bunch of “niggers.” But Shaw’s father wanted no other monument, knowing that Shaw would have wanted to be laid to rest with his men, not separated from them. Now, in our degraded era, the ditch is nearer than the idealized monument. In a poem written less than fifteen years after the end of World War II, and which explicitly alludes to that war, the ditch also calls up the ditches into which the corpses of Nazi concentration camp victims were thrown. That is the furthest extreme from the ideals for which Shaw and his men fought and died.

“There are no statues for the last war here,” that is, for World War II. There is only the parodic monument of a billboard for a Mosler Safe, which survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima; its contents, doubtless money and other valuables, outlived the thousands of human victims whose only value was as a demonstration of the consequences of military might. Lowell deliberately chooses an image from the war with Japan, for , unlike the struggle against the Nazis, or against the Confederacy, there was little moral dimension to that war, just a struggle for control over the Pacific and its resources, the first use of the nuclear bomb now turned to the business of selling safes. The safe embodies the venality of the era, just as the black schoolchildren later in the poem enact the revival of Shaw and his men’s struggle for freedom and equality, for what the Declaration of Independence calls life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

“Space is nearer” to us than the principles for which Shaw and his men died, the Soviet Sputnik satellite having been launched in 1957, undermining US convictions of unshakeable superiority. Television is nearer: the speaker presses close to the television images of black schoolchildren integrating Little Rock High School in the same year as Sputnik’s launch, looking at life caged behind glass, in the same way that the child he was pressed up against the glass of the tanks of the aquarium, fascinated but apart. The black schoolchildren, who are only images for him, virtual people on a screen, are as foreign to him as the fish, but they are also more alive than he is.

“The Aquarium is gone.” But now the whole world has become a giant fish tank, ruled by “a savage servility.” The fish, “cowed, compliant,” are outside, caged not by glass or barbed wire but by cowardice and complacency. By now they’re just machines, no longer even alive: “giant finned cars nose forward like fish,” their motion greased by the petroleum that fuels them.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A Few Solutions for the Creative Writing Classroom

Steve Fellner's comments on my most recent post on creative writing pedagogy, "A Few Issues in the Creative Writing Classroom,", as well as K. Silem Mohammad's "Breaking the Self-Affirmation Barrier," a response to my post "What Is Creative Writing For?" in which he lays out some of the things that he thinks that an ideal creative writing course or curriculum should do, have prompted me to post another portion of my essay on the teaching of creative writing. While complaining about student shortcomings and about the difficulty of teaching in general has become an academic genre, I thought it might be useful to talk about some of the things that I do to address the problems I have discussed. Once again, I hope that this will be a productive contribution to the conversation.

Making reading, both of contemporary poetry and of the poetic tradition, central to the workshop process expands the realm of poetic possibilities for students by exposing them to work that can challenge their assumptions about what poetry is, can be, and should be. “Canonical” work, when actually read, can be as unsettling and exploratory as explicitly avant-garde work. Indeed, there is no such homogeneous literary past as the singular term “canon” suggests—the idea of a monolithic canon is a pedagogical fiction, throwing together works that if taken seriously often cancel one another out. Nor is there any such absolute divide between traditional and experimental: if actually read, T.S. Eliot’s poems are as radical now as when they were first written. Such avowed opponents as John Hollander and Charles Bernstein, however antithetical their ideological positions (their material positions as holders of endowed academic chairs are remarkably similar), share the conviction that the matter of poems is words and their relations, even if neither is always faithful to that conviction.

By emphasizing and making explicit the contextual and intertextual nature of all writing (did I invent the words I am using now? did I create this syntax or produce this grammar?), and by exposing students to the polymorphous and often contentious nature of literatures in the plural, the integration of critical reading into creative writing helps check the tendency to be influenced at second or third hand by writers whom one has not read, and broadens the field of conscious affiliations and repudiations available to each student’s work. As I often remind my students, one can learn as much from seeing what one doesn’t want to do as from discovering what one does want to do.

Form, like theory, is a resource, including the resource of restriction: the French poet and critic Paul Valéry wrote that the artist is he whose imagination is stimulated by constraints, and poetry is as much about what is not written as about what is. Whatever forms a student ultimately chooses for his or her own work, she should be aware of as many of the possibilities available to her as possible, and of the uses to which these have been put in the past and are being put now. Of course, in order for this to happen she or he must become aware of the active presence of form as such, and of its inescapability—as Eliot might have said, there is form that works and form that doesn’t work, but there is never formlessness, just as true randomness always falls into patterns.

There is no single past or present of any artistic medium, but rather many, both coexisting and competing. It’s the duty of every writer to maintain and expand rather than diminish the medium’s formal capacities. It’s the duty of every teacher of writing to make those capacities as available as possible to his or her students.

In discussing student work, I try to show students that reading critically and reading for pleasure are indissoluble or at least complementary, that the first leads to and enhances the second. When I read a poem, by a student, in a literary journal, in a collection of poems by a single author, or in an anthology, I want to enjoy the poem, to immerse myself in the poem’s world. The problems that constructive criticism points out are impediments to that enjoyment, literal stumbling blocks to my attempts to approach the poem and immerse myself in it. Thus such criticism is in the service of pleasure, to increase the reader’s pleasure in a poem and the clarity and intensity of the experience that the poem provides. This doesn’t mean that the poem must be pleasant in its subject matter or even in its techniques, but that it should provide the pleasure of a fully achieved aesthetic accomplishment, whatever its other aims. Nor does this preclude the possibility that a poem can and sometimes should be asked to try to accomplish more than it aims at, that a reader should expect it to provide a richer or deeper experience than its original conception proposes. As the brilliant poet and teacher Michael Anania once told me, one of the tasks of the creative writing instructor is to say, “You’ve done this very well. What else can you do?”

My creative writing courses emphasize the interdependence of writing and reading, stressing poetry as a practice of language. To misquote Mallarmé, poems are made out of words, not out of emotions (though words both entail and embody emotions). Poetry arises from the engagement with poetry; emulation and even imitation are an integral part of writing, as they are of so many other activities. Ezra Pound wrote that technique is the test of a writer’s sincerity; T.S. Eliot, that no verse is free for the writer who wants to do a good job. I try to remind students that in poetry language is not a means but an end; that language itself can speak, can tell us (including the writer) things we didn’t already know. The poem can be a new experience in itself, not simply a commentary on experience.

Many of my exercises are designed to distract students from what they have to say and to open up the possibility that the poem might have something of its own to say (rather than simply being a vehicle for their thoughts and feelings). While their attention is on the restrictions and conditions of an assignment, something interesting that they didn’t plan on or expect might sneak up on them. As W.H. Auden wrote, of two aspiring poets, one of whom writes to say something, the other of whom writes to capture what words have to say, it is the second who will become the better writer. I try to steer my students toward such listening.

Making reading and responding to reading central to the poetry workshop provides a common frame of reference and a common vocabulary, especially since even those students who have read some poetry have very rarely read the same poetry. Among other things, this can help students transform personal opinions into considered arguments, by providing a context for their thoughts and reactions. Instead of discussing “metaphor” in the abstract, for example, we can look at the ways Stevens uses metaphors as figures of thought and landscape in “Credences of Summer” or “The Snow Man.” With undergraduates, who have often read very little, my aim is to introduce them to conceptions of what a poem is and can be outside of the very limited models of pop music lyrics and the poems of Jim Morrison or Jewel. With graduate students, who often have a prematurely fixed view of the kinds of writers they are and the kinds of writing to which they are willing to respond, my aim is to encourage them to question their preconceptions by introducing them to work that challenges their assumptions of what poetry is or should be.

When having students read more complex or challenging work, I urge them to first allow themselves to experience it, immersing themselves in its language and its imagery, before irritably reaching after certainty—to postpone their will to understand or master the poem in favor of exploring the world that the poem offers. Just as in life we often have experiences whose impact is clear but whose meaning only becomes apparent later if at all, so is often the case in reading poems.

In my poetry workshops at least half of the students’ poems are responses to assigned readings chosen on the basis of work that will expand their ideas of what is possible in poetry and of work that highlights specific aspects of writing poems (such as Stevens’s embodiment of ideas in images, or Ann Lauterbach’s use of syntax as a structural principle, or Carl Phillips’ distanced, objectified treatment of personal material). I want students to think of the readings as a tool box from which they can draw techniques and resources for their own poems, and also to realize that they can make use of a poet’s work (including by clarifying for themselves things they don’t want to do) even if they don’t necessarily “like” it (and that a second or third reading of a work may yield different impressions than a first glance will).

I also have students write prose pages on their responses to the readings, articulating what they see in the poems of others and what they are trying to do in their own poems. It is crucial that students be able to think and write about what they are doing when they write poems; the development of this self-critical consciousness tends to be neglected in creative writing courses and programs.

Revision (or as Adrienne Rich calls it, re-vision, seeing one’s work anew) is also a central part of my workshops. I allow and encourage students to revise anything they turn in over the course of the semester. This both alleviates students’ fixation on grades (since they know that they always have an opportunity to improve a grade with which they are unhappy) and encourages them to take responsibility for their own writing. Integrating revision into the class structure reminds students how much of writing is rewriting, that nothing they have written is etched in stone, and moves them away from the “first thought, best thought” mindset so prevalent among young writers.

Such an engagement with poems (as distinct from an abstract notion of “poetry”) can produce a sense of participation with poetry as a practice (a practice with a history as well as a present) and as a discipline, not simply as a mode of unconsidered or even self-conscious “self-expression.” It can also help students realize that “self-expression” is a much more complex thing than it may at first appear, and that clichés and vagueness (not the same thing as ambiguity or well-deployed abstraction) are obstacles to any accurate and effective expression. My larger aim is to steer students toward the production of aesthetic objects with an independent existence in the world.

Most students will not become writers, nor do most even aim at that (something that we often forget in our teaching and discussion of creative writing, seeking to reproduce ourselves or our self-image as writers). But such a heightened attention to language can make them better and more involved readers, and will improve all their writing, be it letters or academic essays or business reports. I also hope that it may at least help to make them less susceptible to the seductions of dead and false language that surround us in all areas of life and serve as impediments to actually living, as opposed to merely existing.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Auden on His Centenary

W.H. Auden was one of the most important influences on my development as a poet, and the centenary of his birth has prompted me to return to his poetry in depth. The intensity and energy of much of his early poetry is almost overwhelming. This work has sometimes been overshadowed by that of his later, American period, which is more discursive, more informal, colloquial, and occasional, though always metrically masterful. But while Auden wrote some fine poems later on, it is the early work that matters most to me. Though Auden suppressed and distorted much of it, it is this work for which I remember him in his centennial year.

Auden and his circle, including C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, all currently under-rated when read at all (at least in the US; I don’t know their current standing in England) were among the first Anglophone poets for whom the modern, urban, technological world was neither alien, frightening, exotic, nor evil. As Edward Mendelson writes, perhaps overstating the case, “Auden was the first poet writing in English who felt at home in the twentieth century. He welcomed into his poetry all the disordered conditions of his time, all its variety of language and event” (Auden, Selected Poems ix). The Auden group experimented with both form and subject matter, intertwining private intimacies with public address, engaging both politics and poetics, and incorporating the contemporary city as a real, inhabited environment, not, as so often in Eliot, as a primarily symbolic or allegorical presence. Coming of age in the Great Depression, Auden and his fellows looked out at an England of industrial stagnation and mass unemployment, not Eliot’s spiritual, metaphorical Waste Land but a literal waste land of poverty and “depressed areas.” Mixing Marx, Freud, and later a more grounded, less mystical and ritualistic religious sensibility than Eliot’s, Auden sought both to diagnose and to heal the ills of his era, though poetry, as he acknowledged, makes nothing happen. “His continuing subject was the task of the present moment: erotic and political tasks in his early poems, ethical and religious ones later” (ibid.).

I have always been drawn to the psychological landscapes of Auden’s early poetry, the loneliness and desire embodied in its craggy limestone wastes, desolate cityscapes, and cryptic vignettes of mysterious wars in which opposing soldiers steal moments of intimacy during lulls in the fighting. Edward Mendelson describes them very well, though he evaluates negatively exactly those elements that powerfully resonated for me: “These first poems often have the air of gnomic fragments; they seem to be elements of some…private myth whose individual details never quite resolve themselves into a unified narrative. The same qualities of division and irresolution that mark the poems also mark the world they describe, a world where doomed heroes [or anti-heroes] look down in isolation on an equally doomed society….The elusiveness and indecipherability of the early poems are part of their meaning; they enact the isolation they describe” (op. cit. xii). This work vividly exemplifies Eliot’s principle of the objective correlative, in which some concrete scene contains and embodies an otherwise unmanageable emotional content. Auden’s poems’ overtly homosexual undertones (the paradoxical formulation is intentional) seduced me as well. Love was a secret agent operating in the shadows and interstices, always in danger of being exposed and betrayed.

In form and diction, Auden’s work is capacious and elastic, combining poetic wit, irony, juxtaposition, and collage learned from Eliot, narrative and historical scope learned from Thomas Hardy, metrical and verbal techniques learned from Anglo-Saxon poetry, John Skelton, Hopkins, and Wilfred Owen, and the popular rhythms of English music halls and American blues. It is a case study in poetry’s capacity to incorporate any subject matter and any vocabulary, its capacity to take in and transform the most apparently recalcitrant materials while still leaving them as themselves.

The poetry and much of the prose that Auden wrote before his 1940 move to America has been collected in The English Auden, now sadly out of print. For an excellent study of Auden and his literary, intellectual, social, and historical context, see Samuel Hynes, The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s, published by Princeton University Press in 1976 and also now out of print. I also recommend Edward Mendelson’s literary biography Early Auden, originally published in 1981.

The Watershed

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to the wood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine
At Cashwell raises water; for ten years
It lay in flooded workings until this,
Its latter office, grudgingly performed,
And further here and there, though many dead
Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen
Taken from recent winters; two there were
Cleaned out a damaged shaft by hand, clutching
The winch the gale would tear them from; one died
During a storm, the fells impassable,
Not at his village, but in wooden shape
Through long abandoned levels nosed his way
And in his final valley went to ground.

Go home now, stranger, proud of your young stock,
Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed:
This land, cut off, will not communicate,
Be no accessory content to one
Aimless for faces rather there than here.
Beams from your car may cross a bedroom wall,
They wake no sleeper; you may hear the wind
Arriving driven from the ignorant sea
To hurt itself on pane, on bark of elm
Where sap unbaffled rises, being spring;
But seldom this. Near you, taller than grass,
Ears poise before decision, scenting danger.

The Letter

From the very first coming down
Into a new valley with a frown
Because of the sun and a lost way,
You certainly remain: to-day
I, crouching behind a sheep-pen, heard
Travel across a sudden bird,
Cry out against the storm, and found
The year’s arc a completed round
And love’s worn circuit re-begun,
Endless with no dissenting turn.
Shall see, shall pass, as we have seen
The swallow on the tile, Spring’s green
Preliminary shiver, passed
A solitary truck, the last
Of shunting in the Autumn. But now
To interrupt the homely brow,
Thought warmed to evening through and through
Your letter comes, speaking as you,
Speaking of much but not to come.

Nor speech is close nor fingers numb,
If love not seldom has received
An unjust answer, was deceived.
I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love,
Nor question overmuch the nod,
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.

The Secret Agent

Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
To this new district, but who would get it?
He, the trained spy, had walked into the trap
For a bogus guide, seduced with the old tricks.

At Greenhearth was a fine site for a dam
And easy power, had they pushed the rail
Some stations nearer. They ignored his wires.
The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.

The street music seemed gracious now to one
For weeks up in the desert. Woken by water
Running away in the dark, he often had
Reproached the night for a companion
Dreamed of already. They would shoot, of course,
Parting easily who were never joined.

Taller To-day

Taller to-day, we remember similar evenings,
Walking together in the windless orchard
Where the brook runs over the gravel, far from the glacier.

Again in the room with the sofa hiding the grate,
Look down to the river when the rain is over,
See him turn to the window, hearing our last
Of Captain Ferguson.

It is seen how excellent hands have turned to commonness.
One staring too long, went blind in a tower,
One sold all his manors to fight, broke through, and faltered.

Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl
Under the headlands in their windy dwelling
Because the Adversary put too easy questions
On lonely roads.

But happy now, though no nearer each other,
We see the farms lighted all along the valley;
Down at the mill-shed the hammering stops
And men go home.

Noises at dawn will bring
Freedom for some, but not this peace
No bird can contradict: passing, but is sufficient now
For something fulfilled this hour, loved or endured.

The Wanderer

Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.
Upon what man it fall
In spring, day-wishing flowers appearing,
Avalanche sliding, white snow from rock-face,
That he should leave his house,
No cloud-soft hand can hold him, restraint by women;
But ever that man goes
Through place-keepers, through forest trees,
A stranger to strangers over undried sea,
Houses for fishes, suffocating water,
Or lonely on fell as chat,
By pot-holed becks
A bird stone-haunting, an unquiet bird.

There head falls forward, fatigued at evening,
And dreams of home,
Waving from window, spread of welcome,
Kissing of wife under single sheet;
But waking sees
Bird-flocks nameless to him, through doorway voices
Of new men making another love.

Save him from hostile capture,
From sudden tiger’s spring at corner;
Protect his house,
His anxious house where days are counted
From thunderbolt protect,
From gradual ruin spreading like a stain;
Converting number from vague to certain,
Bring joy, bring day of his returning,
Lucky with day approaching, with leaning dawn.


What does the song hope for? And the moved hands
A little way from the birds, the shy, the delightful?
To be bewildered and happy,
Or most of all the knowledge of life?

But the beautiful are content with the sharp notes of the air;
The warmth is enough. O if winter really
Oppose, if the weak snowflake,
What will the wish, what will the dance do?

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Few Issues in the Creative Writing Classroom

Steve Fellner's comments on my last post regarding creative writing pedagogy, and particularly his observation that students (and not only students) often approach poems strictly from the perspective of subject matter and paraphasable meaning, have prompted me to post another piece of my essay on the teaching of creative writing, one that more directly engages classroom issues. Once again, I hope it will spur some useful conversation.

Students come to creative writing courses with three major impediments to learning the art and craft of writing. First, they tend to assume that because they speak English and are at least officially literate (though some lack basic mechanical writing skills), that they know how to write in the sense of writing poems. This is something one encounters to a much lesser degree in other artistic media: because people don’t work with pigments or clay on a daily basis, they don’t have quite the same conviction that they already know how to paint or how to sculpt. (Though it is true that painting or sculpting students often cultivate a premature sense of their own expertise, of what is or is not relevant for them to know how to do.) But because language is used and abused as a medium of exchange in everyday life, students (like people in general) find it very difficult to conceive of it as an artistic medium.

In a literature course, students usually agree that, for example, the professor has not only read Paradise Lost or King Lear, but that she or he knows more about these texts than they do, though they often question the point of such knowledge. But students tend to enter creative writing classes unconvinced that there’s a subject to be taught at all—the class is simply the forum for them to express what’s already inside them, to do what they already know how to do. A common expression of this is the assertion that creative writing is too personal or subjective to judge, criticize, or grade, which makes one wonder why such students have signed up for what is after all a course, one of the bases of which is judging and grading student efforts. Some of the work one has to do in such a class is simply to persuade them that it’s a class at all. A student once said to me, “You act like you know more than everyone else in the room.” I explained that she would have had cause to complain if I didn’t know more than they did (at least about the topic at hand).

There is nothing wrong with writing only for oneself, or for one’s boyfriend or girlfriend, for example, with writing as a purely private act, a hobby like collecting different mixes of one's favorite song. But when one takes a class in creative writing, one is implicitly bringing one’s writing into a public forum, agreeing to its terms of judgment (however various), and placing one’s work in the larger context of what has been written and what is being written. One is staking a claim, however slight and tentative, to a place in literary culture, in writing as an artistic practice. That is, one is deciding not simply to write for oneself. Indeed, one of the most valuable things that students can learn from a creative writing course is to see their work from the outside, to see it as others see it—that is, as a reader. If a student learns actually to read his or her own work (and hopefully that of her or his classmates, and that of the assigned writers), then I have at least in part succeeded.

This leads directly to the second impediment to student learning in creative writing courses: students find it very hard to separate themselves, their thoughts and feelings, or at best the subject of the poem, from the poem on the page, whether it’s a poem they have written or a poem someone else has. Indeed, they are often literally unable to see what they have written, because what they meant to say fills their vision to the exclusion of anything else, very much including the particular words that they have put down on the page. To ask “What does this line say on the literal level?” is too often to hear a long explanation of every thought in the student’s head related to the line in question except those that might illuminate why these particular words occur in this particular order at this particular point in this particular poem. Frequently one receives a narrative of the incident that inspired the poem. These anecdotes can sometimes be more interestingly vivid and specific than the poem, to the extent that I will sometimes tell a student “Write that down. That’s the poem.” Students sometimes don’t even know the definitions of the words that they use, and will frequently dismiss such knowledge as unimportant—since poetry means anything that you want it to mean.

Because students look at their own poems and see not the words they have written but the thoughts, emotions, and experiences the word point to, they tend to write poems as captions to pictures that aren’t there, providing the meaning of something that isn’t present. The meaning is presented without giving the reader the object or situation that would actually be doing the meaning. If they do include images and concrete particulars, they will often not trust those to convey the meaning or “message” without such commentary or explanation.

This also means that students look not only at their own poems but at those of their classmates and those they may be assigned to read purely in terms of what they mean or (assumedly) intend to mean: they like a poem because they like or identify with its subject matter, and dislike a poem because they don’t. The poem is purely a vessel or vehicle of subject matter, any of whose surface complexities are mere impediments to grasping that matter. Any poem that doesn’t have an immediately identifiable topic will often be dismissed as pretentious nonsense, except among those students, often those who dress in black and think of themselves as artistic (I used to do this, so I empathize), who have decided that poems aren’t supposed to mean anything, that nonsense is the definition of poetry. Or the poem will be forced into a more identifiable mold, as when a student wrote of her poem in response to a reading assignment in John Ashbery that “Ashbery’s poems seemed sad, so I wrote a sad poem.”

As any teacher of creative writing knows, students take criticism of their writing as criticism of themselves in a manner and to a degree which usually doesn’t happen in literature courses. To tell a student that her poem about her son, for example, is sentimental can be taken as an attack on her maternal feelings. This also applies to getting students to provide substantive criticism of their peers’ work, which often feels mean to them. About the only work that students feel free to criticize is that which the instructor has assigned, since in general the instructor’s viewpoint counts for less than anyone else’s in the room (after all, he or she is neither a potential date, a dorm-mate, nor a drinking buddy).

To provide students with feedback that is both honest and usable, couched in terms which they can understand, to encourage them to real effort without misleading them about the challenges such effort entails, to point out ways in which their productions are not yet aesthetic objects while not making them feel that they have failed at a task in which they have no hope of success, to point out potentials in their poems without misleading them into thinking that those potentials have already been realized, is a delicate balancing act. Constantly telling students that their work is wonderful (as one former colleague claimed to do, telling them only what she believed they wanted to hear) does them a great educational disservice and makes it more difficult for them to become better writers. Too harshly judging their tentative steps into a realm many of them have never before explored makes them despairing and angry, and ensures that they will never hear anything you say.

This is a problem found at the graduate level as well, where students’ personal investment in their work is mixed with a premature professionalization and a conviction that they are already Poets (very much with the capital P): insecurity and vulnerability commingle with arrogance and a sense of entitlement. A former colleague once explained to me that our English department’s MFA program was a kind of support group; another former colleague in the same program said in a departmental newsletter that she thought of her writing workshops as therapy sessions. Besides pathologizing creativity as a psychological symptom (the idea of the artist as neurotic is commonplace in our society), this notion of art as therapeutic (though administered by those with no training in therapy) is wholly incompatible with the ideal of an MFA program as a place where students seek to improve, expand, and even challenge their writing and their notions of poetry in a context in which writing and reading poetry are taken to be of intrinsic value.

The third impediment to the teaching and learning of creative writing is that students are very resistant to reading. They want to write poems without having read poems (sometimes they profess to actively dislike poetry, or at least not to understand it, while claiming to write poetry themselves), and frequently their only models for poems are pop song lyrics and greeting cards. Far from understanding that poetry comes out of poetry, or that they can learn from reading the poetry of others, often more than one can learn in a single class, they too often see reading as an impediment to their free self-expression. As a student once asked me, “Why are you making us read all this stuff and stifling our creativity?”

Obviously, students in all courses and all disciplines are often resistant to reading, resistant to having to work at all. Many students see attending classes and doing schoolwork as an imposition on their time. (One student rather disarmingly admitted during a class discussion of Shakespeare’s sonnets that “I can understand this when I work at it, but I don’t like having to work.”) And students, like people in general, frequently value their own notions and opinions more than whatever some book might have to tell them. But creative writing students tend to dislike reading not only out of laziness or self-involvement, but out of a sense that it is actively antithetical to their own “creative process.” It rarely occurs to them to ask who would want to read the writings of those who are themselves unwilling to read. Indeed, the idea of audience rarely occurs to them at all.

Friday, March 16, 2007

More on Creative Writing Pedagogy

"Breaking the Self-Affirmation Barrier," a recent very articulate and thought-provoking post on on K. Silem Mohammad's blog, at least partially a response to my recent post "What Is Creative Writing For?" on creative writing pedagogy, has in turn prompted me to post another part of my essay on the teaching of creative writing, one that addresses some of the issues he so saliently brings up, though from a different angle of vision.

Due to the heavily policed institutional borders between creative writing and criticism or literature, the interrelationship of the two is often obscured. Creative writers, seeing themselves as the keepers of the sacred flame of literature, engage in frequent polemics against the invariably destructive encroachments of theory on creativity, while theorists largely ignore or at best disdain the unselfconscious effusions of authors who refuse to accept the news of their death. This state of affairs has always troubled me, for I have never felt the chasm between my writing and my critical intellect (or that between my emotions and my thoughts on which it is based) that so many seem not only to take for granted but determined to enforce on others. Other literary works, both those with which I have felt affinities and those toward which I’ve felt great antipathy, have always been both inspirations for and challenges to my own work and the work I aspired to do. Indeed, I never would have considered writing poetry without the impetus of reading deeply in it, wanting to comprehend, apprehend, and wield the power I found in it. Complementarily, criticism and what is sweepingly and too vaguely called “theory” have been crucial in thinking through and thinking anew my writing. Such critical thinking has been central to my development as a writer, and has helped me work through many an impasse in my work.

Most literary academics have no idea how to read a poem, having imbibed the conviction that close reading or textual explication is reactionary or simply passé without ever having informed themselves just what such reading might entail. While poetry writing programs have burgeoned, poetry has fallen by the wayside as an object of literary study in favor of the examination of novels as social documents.

Many literary scholars and theorists believe that writing cannot or should not be taught, that talent is some immeasurable intangible. Such academics share many students’ sense that there is nothing to teach or be taught in a creative writing class, that writing literature, unlike, presumably, analyzing or theorizing it, requires no knowledge or training. Reified notions of innate genius which have been thoroughly deconstructed with regard to the literatures of the past are still too often unselfconsciously applied by writers and by critics to dismiss the possibility of training the writers of future literatures. Some people have a greater aptitude than others for musical composition or performance, for dance, for science or mathematics, yet no one asserts on that basis that these practices cannot be taught. Nor would many argue against the assertion that both those with more of an inclination and those with less of an inclination toward such pursuits can benefit from such education and training. But among both writers and critics, canards like “Keats never took a writing workshop” are freely tossed about, although the most cursory scan of literary history shows that developing writers and artists have always engaged in formal and informal processes of apprenticeship and training, of learning from and being guided by more experienced artists and writers. Perhaps it is the wider availability these days of such apprenticeships to hoi polloi to which critics of creative writing programs object. Historically, Keats is one of the few poets born in the working classes to have been able to take advantage of such apprenticeship and patronage.

The idea that writing cannot be taught is a more sophisticated version of the emptied-out pseudo-romanticism pervasive in our society: the assumption that everything one needs is inside one, that thought is the enemy of creativity and of feeling in general, that self-awareness is antithetical to art. As Ann Lauterbach has put it, “There’s a familiar split in the notion of what a creative act is. That split, in our culture, involves an idea of creativity as being natural and expressive: a poet has no need to have thought about anything in order to make a poem; the enemy is the analytical. This is a long-standing divisive space, certainly within the academy but also in the culture at large.” But self-awareness, the capacity to step back and analyze not just the world but oneself, is what defines us as human, and art is the material embodiment of that self-awareness, of the capacity to separate oneself from one’s immediate existence and see it as if from the outside. In that regard, art and science, often conceived of as opposites, have a great deal in common: both are about not taking for granted things as they appear, neither the world nor oneself, about investigating and exploring the universe rather than simply existing in it, about delving through the surfaces of things to understand their true workings. Things are not always what or how they seem, and we are among those things.

In English departments there is little or no attention paid to contemporary literature, except for that literature which can be scrutinized (as distinct from being actually read) as a social symptom, minority and women’s literature for the most part. (I must add, though, that as a black gay man who has taught at three different universities and been a student at several more, I have never encountered the caricatured straw institution so prevalent in right-wing anti-academic screeds where minorities are pandered to and Hopi chants are taught instead of Shakespeare.) In most creative writing programs, only contemporary literature is read, and there is a pervasive neglect of the literature of the past (especially of anything written before the twentieth century) among both students and faculty, who tend to consider it irrelevant or even (if they are a bit more intellectually hip) oppressive. This is not to say that individual students may not make efforts to educate themselves, but they are rarely given any context or structure in which to do so, or any incentive for their efforts.

In creative writing courses and programs, student writing is too often expected to emerge from the vacuum of inspiration (a vacuum too easily filled with prepackaged formulations and received ideas, from popular music, television, and movies, among other sources). The intention of the writer is conflated with the intention of the poem, because no other context is provided or produced for the work: thus the role of the creative writing teacher is simply to facilitate the student in finding and perhaps refining his or her own voice. This voice, like the self it stands in and expresses, is assumed to be pre-existent, needing at most to be shaped and developed. (This is a recent and socially constructed notion of selfhood and subjectivity, one that would have been alien, for example, to Shakespeare.) Each student brings an idiosyncratic and haphazard canon and set of assumptions to the class, basing his or her ideas of poetry on what he or she happens to have read or to have heard on the radio (for many students, popular music lyrics are their main model of poetry). Rarely have they read enough to have made informed choices among the possibilities of writing practice or to have questioned choices made solely on the basis of “what I like.” I have heard creative writing instructors say that they specifically exclude outside reading from their classes in order to focus on student work, as if that work came forth with no connection to anything else that had ever been written.

The unacknowledged assumptions underpinning both student reading and student writing (the reification of taste, the valorization of sincerity, the enshrinement of self-expression) block the development of each individual’s writing, leaving students in cul-de-sacs inescapable precisely because they are invisible. Even students engaged in experimental modes tend not to have read anything outside those modes, any of the work that led up to or even negatively instigated that work. Moreover, they are frequently unwilling or unable to recognize what is still radical (in both senses of the word) or experimental about writers like Sir Thomas Wyatt or Christopher Marlowe, should they take the occasion to read them. Many young writers’ conception of “the experimental” seems a concoction of received ideas about “language” poetry (as if other kinds of poetry were made of something other than language) and an attenuated romantic notion of idiosyncratic individualism. Thus such writers are often also ignorant of and uninterested in the historical and intellectual underpinnings of those modes, seeing them only as matters of style. Anti-intellectualism and an indifference to literary history are rife among both mainstream and avant-garde writers.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

How Do You Mean That?: Some Thoughts on Meaning in Poems


What kinds of meanings do poems present to us? What does meaning mean? (There are two ways to read that question.) In the entry “Meaning, Problem of” (whose title is almost a poem in itself) in the (old) Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, author Murray Krieger writes that “especially worrisome is the use of this word in reference to the peculiar kind of symbols employed in poetic discourse. For purposes of economy we shall simply restrict ‘meaning’ to its primitive sense which concerns the reference of verbal symbols and their syntactic relations to the outside world of things and their real relations. This limitation will immediately dismiss that perhaps eccentric sense of ‘meaning,’ in somewhat common usage of late in poetics, which would treat only the aesthetic, intramural coherence among the words of a literary work in accordance with the internal consistency of their closed system of interrelations” (476). With the exception of that “only,” it is exactly this “perhaps eccentric” sense that interests me. It may be just as well that Krieger dismisses it: that leaves me free to discourse upon, around, and beside it.

In his poem "Ars Poetica," Archibald MacLeish famously wrote, in lines that violate their own dictum, “A poem should not mean/But be.” I would amend that to say that a poem should mean by being, that it should be an embodiment and not just the vehicle of meaning. Being and embodiment are kinds of meaning. We are each alive on this earth, after all, and what do I mean, what do you mean? We mean ourselves and everything that we are. Similarly, the poem means itself, though as an object and event in the world it can incorporate and respond to other objects and events in the world (nothing exists in isolation). MacLeish also wrote that “A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit.” That bodily quality is something I look for in others’ poems and strive for in my own.

As T.S. Eliot writes, “If poetry is a form of ‘communication,’ yet that which is to be communicated is the poem itself, and only incidentally the experience and the thought which have gone into it” (from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, excerpted in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode, 80). The poem “has a reality which is not simply the reality of what the writer is trying to ‘express,’ or of his experience of writing it, or of the experience of the reader or of the writer as reader. Consequently the problem of what a poem ‘means’ is a good deal more difficult than it at first appears” (Ibid.).

In this regard I am at least partially an heir to the Romantic poetics of Coleridge (though without his confidence that the real and its figures can “exactly coincide”), as opposed to or at least distinct from the mimetic aesthetics of Plato and Sir Philip Sidney: for me, meaning in poems is organic, not propositional. I am an adherent of the idea of what Cleanth Brooks called “presentational meaning”: the poem is an experience in itself, not a statement about experience (though statements can certainly be part of the experience that is the poem). “Meaning in this sense of the term is made up, mediately or immediately, of all that appears, no matter how great or small its importance” (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 218).

In his “Adagia,” Wallace Stevens writes that “There is no wing like meaning” (Collected Poetry and Prose 903). (Thanks to Mark Granier for reminding me of this quote.) This posits meaning not as an end but as a means: a wing is something with which one travels, which takes one somewhere else. Given that poems are so often seen as vessels of meaning, it’s interesting that this aphorism makes meaning the vehicle, not the destination.

In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, T.S. Eliot goes even further, writing that “The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog. This is a normal situation of which I approve. But the minds of all poets do not work that way; some of them, assuming that there are other minds like their own, become impatient of this ‘meaning’ which seems superfluous, and perceive possibilities of intensity through its elimination…a great deal, in the way of meaning, belongs to prose rather than to poetry” (op. cit. 93). I don’t think that it’s as easy to eliminate meaning as Eliot implies. It’s in our nature to invest objects and events with meaning, especially human products, all of which are suffused with human intention. We cannot look with a disinterested cold eye on anything humans have made. As Adorno reminds us, “Art continues to live up to the postulate of meaning even though it rigorously negates it" (Aesthetic Theory 221). It’s the nature of that meaning that interests me.


Someone recently asked me what one of my poems meant, and I realized that I had never thought about it. I rarely think about what my poems mean, though I often wish to get at something in and with them, to do something by means of them. But that something is part of the experience of the poem, not a gloss on or an explanation of it.

When I am writing a poem, I think about the clarity of the images and the precision and accuracy of the phrasing. I think about the music of words in relation and the rhythms of the phrases, the aural shape of the poem as a whole. I think about the feeling I want the poem to embody, or the feeling that the poem wants to embody. But I rarely think about a paraphrasable meaning, of how I would explicate the poem.

“What an artist has to say is said through figuration; it is never a message carried by figuration” (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 216). T.S. Eliot was once asked what he meant by the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree,” from “Ash Wednesday,” to which he replied, “I meant, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.’” While he was doubtlessly being a bit recalcitrant, he was emphasizing that a poem’s meaning isn’t under or over or even inside its words. It is those words, and the experience of reading them. There are three white leopards under a juniper tree, or at least their verbal simulacrum. If Eliot had wanted you to see or imagine something else, he would have written something else. Even if those leopards are symbolic, they must first be themselves before they can stand in for anything else. To adapt Hugh Kenner’s words to a quite different sense, “has anyone…ever suspected how many lines of Ash-Wednesday [sic] simply meant what they said?...Nothing is so unbelievable as exact truth told in a calm voice” (The Pound Era 277).

While I don’t often think about what a poem, either my own or someone else’s, means, I do think about what’s happening in the poem. Terry Eagleton has written that Eliot wasn’t concerned with what a poem said, but with what it did. And W.H. Auden called poetry a way of happening.

My poems aren’t puzzles to be solved; they don’t have hidden meanings waiting to be uncovered. If a poem is conceived of as a puzzle or a riddle, then once you’ve discovered the key, once you’ve worked out the puzzle, you’re finished with the poem and can get on with your life. That’s not how I approach poems. Perhaps because so many poets, and almost all literary critics, teach, spending their days explaining things, we too often approach poems as problems to be figured out, rather than as experiences to be explored and enjoyed. Pleasure is often left out of consideration, if not actively denigrated. Charles Bernstein, for example, seems to distrust pleasure; his notion of the anti-absorptive seems like a prophylactic to ward off the possibility of being taken in or seduced, of succumbing to the opiate of the literary masses. In this regard what might be called literary leftists resemble too many political leftists: pleasure is regarded with suspicion, and life is just a set of necessary tasks. I recently shared a panel on difficulty in poetry with Robert Collins, co-editor of The Birmingham Poetry Review, on which he pointed out that, though Horace said that poetry should instruct and delight, much experimental poetry insists on instruction to the detriment of delight. I read poems because I like them, not because they’re good for me, though they might well be. If a poem doesn’t give pleasure on a certain level, including the pleasure of being engagingly challenged and surprised, then who cares what it means?

Sometimes when reading a poem I’ll wonder about a line or a phrase, “What the hell does this mean?” (What gives me the most trouble is syntactical difficulty: if I can’t follow the syntax, can’t make sense of the words’ relations to one another, I’m lost.) But that’s usually on the level of literal statement—“What’s being said?”—not the level of interpretation—“What’s the significance of what’s being said?” Explicative and interpretative difficulty are often conflated or confused. When we speak of the meaning of a poem or any utterance, we can be referring to two different things: the literal sense, and the way in which that utterance is intended to be taken. It’s important to be clear about which is which in any given case. If one asks someone about a statement of theirs, “What you do mean by that?” it’s not usually because one doesn’t understand what was said, but because one doesn’t understand its significance, one doesn’t know why it was said.

Poems frame utterances, including utterances that could never be spoken by any plausible or even any imaginable speaker, thus imbuing them with significance. But the significance of an utterance may well be that it’s in a poem, that it’s a piece of language to which we’ve been asked to pay attention, to notice in the way that we don’t usually have the time or inclination to do in our everyday lives: in William Carlos Williams’ words, “This is just to say.” Poems ask us to see them as and for themselves, to see their language as not just expression or communication but as event and object. Meaning is never absent, but meaning isn’t the meaning of the poem. As Hart Crane describes his goal in “General Aims and Theories,” “It is as if the poem gave the reader as he left it a single, new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate, but self-evident as an active principle in the reader’s consciousness henceforward” (Twentieth Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, ed. by Dana Gioia et al., 126).

Monday, March 12, 2007

A Few Posts of Serious Interest

Robert Philen has two recent posts on his blog that are both insightful and articulate in their own right and also directly relate to my earlier post "What Is Progressive Art?" The posts are called "Free Jazz and the End of the History of Jazz" and "The End of the History of Music," and they take a neo-Hegelian approach which applies the teleological theories of visual art critic Clement Greenberg and visual art critic and philosopher Arthur C. Danto to a theory of the history of western art music as the stripping away of what is not essential and unique to it (Greenberg) and as the search for the zero degree of difference between music and noise or sheer sound (Danto). I highly recommend both posts.

I also recommend an earlier post by Robert Philen, "Charlie Parker and Shostakovich: Art, the Artist, and Culture," which deals eloquently with the relation of art to its historical and social context and specifically to the artist's biography, arguing (as I have often done) both against the reduction of the artwork to its context and against the attempt to use that context to explain the artwork.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

What Is Creative Writing For?

Some of the discussion in Joshua Corey's recent posts of creative writing's function as an affirmation of the self, and particularly his quote from a long and eloquent email message from the fine poet G.C. Waldrep, author of Goldbeater's Skin, regarding creative writing pedagogy, has prompted me to post this excerpt from a longer piece I have written on the teaching of creative writing. I hope that it will prove illuminating or at least interesting.

Many students attend college for no reason other than having been told that is what they should do after high school, and perhaps with the hope that they will make more money if they have a college degree. They tend to feel simultaneously resentful (“Here I am stuck in this stupid class”) and entitled (“I’m not in high school anymore, now I’m an adult”). Students often see creative writing classes as the antithesis to their other classes, in which they are forced to absorb and regurgitate all kinds of information in which they have no personal interest or investment. In a creative writing class, they can be themselves, because anything goes in a poem. (The idea that they might not yet have "selves" to "be" does not occur to them, nor does the idea that selfhood might be a process of becoming, not a fixed state of being.) Concomitantly, they also believe that poetry is too subjective to judge, because it’s all opinion and personal preference.

To acknowledge that personal preference and opinion are always factors while still maintaining that specificity, particularity of image and language, precision, concision, and avoidance of cliché are aspects of all good poetry (as sometimes needs to be pointed out, vagueness is not a style) sometimes seems beyond them, especially since they are convinced and have often been taught that if they think something then it must be true. (One great problem in American education isn’t what students don’t know, but what they know that isn’t true.) My partner has a bumper sticker on his office door that reads “Don’t believe everything you think.” It’s a caution that many might profitably take to heart.

We live in a culture which robs people of social, political, and economic agency, making them feel as if their experience counts for nothing, while simultaneously insisting that everyone’s every passing notion and experience is of supreme importance because it happened to them. These two aspects are concomitant with one another, the second offering an imaginary (that is, an ideological) compensation for the first. Much of the boom both in creative writing programs and in slam poetry, performance poetry, stand-up poetry, and the like, has more to do with a cult of the public performance of personality (á la Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer), on the one hand, and with the scarcity of outlets for genuine feeling and expression in our society and an ever-increasing sense of the impotence and insignificance of the individual, on the other hand, than with an interest in poetry as an art form.

The turn to creative writing, and to versions of poetry in particular, is a way of saying “I matter” in a wholly ritualized and conventionalized format, and is wholly understandable (if somewhat misdirected) as such. But again, this has to do not with an interest in the art of poetry, but rather with a sense that poetry is a mode of personal expression unsullied by commerce or social constraints. (And of course poems are shorter and thus apparently easier to write than novels or even short stories, another aspect of their appeal in a society that seeks quick results but shuns effort.) So the recent rise in the popularity of poetry doesn’t contradict poetry’s marginality in our culture any more than does the use of the word “poetry” as an all-purpose honorific: Michael Jordan, as they say, was poetry in motion on the basketball court. I prefer to think that poetry is poetry and basketball is basketball. Indeed, it is one of the functions of art to help us see things as and for themselves.

Canonical poetry, or literary poetry, or Modernist poetry, or post-Modernist poetry, or any poetry grounded in a practice of language and of writing as such, rather than one of personal expressivity and/or identity confirmation, still isn’t much read. Rather, it is disdained as one or another variety of stiff academicism, insular, "elitist" and oppressive, as opposed to the authentic expression of slam poetry or some similar construction. In this model, “creativity” is just another commodity which anyone can procure, on credit if necessary.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Daughter Recites Grief and Is Alive

Michael Palmer has been one of my favorite poets since I first encountered his prose poem “The Flower of Capital” in the early Nineteen-Eighties. I read and reread his 1981 volume Notes for Echo Lake, reprinted in Codes Appearing: Poems 1979-1988, which collects the three books Palmer published in the Nineteen-Eighties. While I have read and enjoyed all of his subsequent books, and some of his previous ones, Notes for Echo Lake remains my touchstone. Among other things, his work helped me negotiate different and more flexible relationships to normative syntax in my own poetry.

The layering and juxtaposition of different historical eras has always compelled me, both in my work and in the work of others. I am particularly fascinated by the recurrent gesture, found in so many poets’ work, of moving forward by going back. We see this in Pound, in Eliot, in H.D. with her classical obsessions and revisions, and in many other poets, Modernist and later.

In this poem Palmer goes back to some of the earliest Greek poetry, the Homeric Hymns. He goes back as well to a story of death and renewal which is one of the founding stories of Western culture, and which is also the story of art: the moment dies (is killed, really) in order that it may be resurrected, that it may live forever in the artwork. The poem, among other things, is a kind of witness, attesting to Persephone’s descent into the underworld, commemorating her return, acting out and embodying her journey in its own process of creation and recurrence, art's arc from life to death and back to life.


“This is how it happened.”—Homeric Hymn to Demeter

This road ends in a field of grain
and drunken crows are filling the air
or how do we know what we know

He spoke holding his severed ear
The sky moves too quickly through the frame
and the smile has been put on sideways

Veiled Hecate lives in three bodies
lit by approximate light
The daughter receives grief and is alive

The daughter recites grief and is alive
as the mother places her in the fire
and the child holds her yellow hair out

wondering why it’s been cut
The bearded tree is the third part
where the ages of the barley hang down

They have loved a secret architecture
that leaves false evidence of itself
and they love to be as three in one

Our visit has lasted an entire winter
and we have half forgotten each word’s name
The sky moves that quickly through the frame

This poem appears in Codes Appearing: Poems 1979-1988, published by New Directions in 2001.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Saving the Appearances

Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory of art as apparition. I would like to rescue that fleeting, fragile, but tough-minded apparition from those who wish to dissipate it into the fog of an ideological mystification or the smoke of an unprofitable write-off.


There is a received wisdom among that small but vocal minority sometimes known as the cultural left (as distinct from any political left) that equates bourgeois high culture with capitalism and its oppressions, though Peter Bürger notes that “whereas art forms owe their birth to a specific social context, they are not tied to the context of their origin or to a social situation that is analogous to it, for the truth is that they can take on different functions in varying social contexts” (69).

Both the current socio-political right and the current intellectual left reduce all values to those of socioeconomic and political performativity, what Horkheimer and Adorno call instrumental reason. As Jean-François Lyotard writes, “Artistic and literary research is doubly threatened, once by the ‘cultural policy’ and once by the art and book market” (76). The “cultural policy” is today much more effectively that of the radical Right than that of Lyotard’s Stalinist specter, though both aim for what Herbert Marcuse described as affirmative culture. Andreas Huyssen notes that “The neo-conservative lament about the politicization of culture…is only ironic in this context since they themselves have a thoroughly political notion of culture” (206).

For the socio-political right, agents of capital whatever ideologies of “traditional values” they may flaunt, all human activities can be reduced to the pursuit or obstruction of profit. For the intellectual left, all can be reduced to the maintenance or subversion of bourgeois ideology. For seemingly wholly opposed ends, both sides participate in and perpetuate advanced capital’s tyranny of the social, which like vulgar Marxism reduces all questions to those of economics. (Given that so many American leftists ignore economics altogether in favor of so-called cultural critique and cultural activism, perhaps such Marxism isn’t so vulgar after all. Talking about money is always considered vulgar, isn’t it?)

The attack on “bourgeois culture” as a purely negative goal seems much more important than the struggle toward an unalienated society to the radical academics whose social guilt leads them, without confronting their privileged positions within an educational system that functions largely as a vehicle of social exclusions, to call their pangs of conscience leftist. Denis Donoghue notes that the Western intelligentsia “show no sign of giving up bourgeois comfort but resent the society that provides it.” (Parenthetically, the concepts of cultural pluralism and cultural activism function largely to displace desires for equality and democracy from the social to the aesthetic realm: a bracketing not everyone can afford.) They forget Lyotard’s caveat that modernity consists in both the discovery of the lack of reality of reality and the invention of other realities (77). There must be a creative as well as a critical dimension. Such invention is one function of art, insofar as a function is demanded of it.

In his discussion of the absence of a “classical” avant-garde (an interestingly paradoxical notion, like the tradition of the new) in the United States, Huyssen implicitly recognizes that bourgeois culture has never played a central legitimating role for U.S. capitalism, for which it has been at worst irrelevant and at best another commodity. As Andrew Joron points out, “Any ‘legitimation function’ would be superfluous: the American machine, with its proudly exposed components of Accumulation and Repression, has no need for such a carapace” (4).

Having no classical institution of art, the U.S. could not develop or receive an equally classical negation of that institution. “Such an iconoclastic attack on cultural institutions…only made sense in countries where ‘high art’ had an essential role to play in legitimizing bourgeois political and social domination….The cultural politics of 20th-century avantgardism would have been meaningless (if not regressive) in the United States, where ‘high art’ was still struggling hard to gain wider legitimacy and to be taken seriously by the public” (167). Huyssen argues that in the U.S. “high art [did become] institutionalized in the burgeoning museum, concert, and paperback culture of the 1950s,” but immediately undercuts this argument by acknowledging that in the U.S. modernism “entered the mainstream via mass reproduction and the culture industry” (193).

In Adorno’s words, “Society today has no use for art and its responses to it are pathological. In this society, art survives as reified cultural heritage and as a source of pleasure for the box-office customer, but ceases to have relevance as an object” (22). He goes on to write that a genuine experience of a work of art is a release, however fleeting and contingent, from the shackles of that society. “Happiness in the presence of works of art is a feeling of having made an abrupt escape” (ibid.).


The historical avant-garde’s attempted sublation of art into the praxis of life eulogized by Peter Bürger in Theory of the Avant-Garde has been fulfilled in the commodity aesthetics which moves beyond marketing objects to marketing experience itself. Capitalism has thus carried out what Marjorie Perloff calls the shift from a material to a situational aesthetic. (In Andrew Joron’s description, “Here in America…‘culture’ has been reduced to a simple play of intensities, to the simultaneously brutal and sentimental pulsions of mass media”[4].) Unlike Perloff, who in his terms might be said to be interested not in the new but merely in the novel, Bürger recognizes that such a sublation might not be wholly salutary. Rather than lifting up the quotidian, it has leveled the aesthetic: “the culture industry has brought about the false elimination of the distance between art and life, and this also allows one to recognize the contradictoriness of the avant-gardiste undertaking” (Bürger 50).

Perloff writes that “The aesthete’s longing to protect art from the encroachments of industry…has dogged the artistic production of our century from the time of the Eiffel Tower to our own. It is the distinction of the avant guerre to have created the first artistic movement that tried to solve this problem, to break down the barriers between ‘high’ and ‘low,’ between, so to speak, the Ivory and the Eiffel towers” (201). In this regard, Perloff agrees with Bürger: both believe (Bürger in a much more self-critical fashion) that such a self-transcendence or self-negating of art as institution can be conducted by formal means, from within the institution of art. Contrarily, Martin Jay notes Habermas’ caveat that “the utopian dedifferentiation of art by itself is insufficient to undo the pathologies of modernization.” Indeed, by itself that dedifferentiation turns exactly into its dystopian opposite.

This is the much-noted aporia of the avant-garde: the historical avant-garde seeks to break down the walls between the institution of art and the praxis of life, but the praxis of life remains one of capitalist instrumentality. Thus, to collapse art into that praxis is to abdicate to capitalist social relations, and to close that space of critical and utopian thought which is the ground from which all such sorties set forth: “the (relative) freedom of art vis-á-vis the praxis of life is at the same time the condition that must be fulfilled if there is to be a critical cognition of reality. An art no longer distinct from the praxis of life but wholly absorbed in it will lose the capacity to criticize, along with its distance” (Bürger 50). To conflate, in critique or otherwise, capitalism and the bourgeois institution of art (as if art were more bourgeois than other institutions, as if art has not always been both complicit with and a reproach to domination) is to cooperate in capital’s colonization of one of the few areas of social life not wholly absorbed by capital, collapsing art into culture and culture into society. (The academic institution commodifies and bureaucratizes creative discourse as much as any gallery or museum does, showing as insatiable an appetite as any television network for the new and improved products—legally described as “intellectual property”—by means of which academic discourse sustains and reproduces itself.) In Bürger’s words, “Given the experience of the false sublation of autonomy, one will need to ask whether a sublation of the autonomy status [of art] can be desirable at all, whether the distance between art and the praxis of life is not requisite for that free space within which alternatives to what exists become conceivable” (54).


Art embodies the other-than, Ernst Bloch’s principle of hope: a surplus, a utopian element that never fails or disappoints precisely because it is not. As an evocation of this possibility, I cite Jameson’s description of “the classical [German] aesthetic, which projects…a Utopian realm of beauty and culture beyond the fallen empirical world of money and business activity, thereby winning a powerful critical and negative value through its capacity to condemn, by its very own existence, the totality of what is, at the same time forfeiting all [capacity for] social or political intervention in what is, by virtue of its constitutive disjunction or autonomy from society and history.” However, I reject Jameson’s valorization of negation, his reduction of the utopian potential of art to critique and refusal. Huyssen realizes that “Out of negation alone, neither a new art nor a new society can be developed” (154). The affirmation of the contrary may operate as a mode of resistance to what Adorno and Horkheimer call the “commendation of the depressing everyday world” (cited in Huyssen 139), but as Huyssen points out, “the very notion of resistance [as set in opposition to affirmation] may be problematic…there are affirmative forms of resistance and resisting forms of affirmation” (221). It is too often forgotten that Adorno’s relentless negativity was in the service of a positive hope, the dream of an unalienated society. “Art is the promise of happiness, a promise that is constantly being broken” (Adorno 196).

The aesthetic, precisely because of its obsolescence, has become a category of possibilities other than (and not simply opposed to) those offered by commodity culture. But I don’t wish to valorize art in purely ideological terms, as Bürger does. By such criteria the “oppositional” poem and the “oppositional” speech are indistinguishable, and the demand for an engaged literature becomes a capitulation to the ontological tyranny of things-as-they-are. As Adorno argues, “In art, direct protest is reactionary. Even critical art has to surrender itself to that which it opposes” (31). (This is not a prohibition on subject matter, as evidenced by Adorno’s praise of Paul Celan.) Bürger’s longing for a “political art” (by which he means an art whose content espouses a particular political tendency: as his argument makes clear, all art, like all other social practices, is inherently political), if fulfilled, can only transform an enabling uselessness into a despairing futility. As Abigail Solomon-Godeau writes of one of Bürger’s examples, “John Heartfield’s covers for AIZ (Arbeiter Illustriete Zeitung) had no discernible effect on the rise of fascism, although he was able to draw upon two important historic conditions unavailable to contemporary artists (a mass audience and a definable left culture)” (Ross 206).

Huyssen writes that “Even under the conditions set by the capitalist culture industry and its distribution apparatus, art ultimately can open up emancipatory avenues only because it is granted autonomy and practical uselessness” (152). I would further assert that art can open up such avenues only by means of its uselessness, its abandonment of and by means-ends rationality. Art embodies and enacts a refusal of performativity by an alterity irreducible to the sum of its determinations.

Art preserves the possibility of liberation because its uselessness marks out a space not colonized by or valued by capital. Its “obsolescence” is also its resistance to being easily consumable; its loss of “relevance” is also a freedom to keep alive certain human possibilities. In Jameson’s words, “the profound vocation of the work of art in a commodity society [is] not to be a commodity, not to be consumed” (395). Art offers an image of what Kant called the kingdom of ends, that other realm of freedom in which things and people exist for and in themselves and not as the means to something else. As Adorno asserts, “The utopia anticipated by artistic form is the idea that things at long last ought to come into their own” (195).


Contrary to the assertions of those whose socially-inflicted sufferings are merely spiritual, art is not a mode of social oppression. As a reservoir of values which society honors only in the breach, it functions exactly contrarily. “By their presence art works signal the possibility of the non-existent; their reality testifies to the feasibility of the unreal, the possible” (Adorno 192). For me growing up in the Bronx ghettoes, art pointed toward freedom; nor were “beauty” or “truth” dirty words. I have been oppressed by many things in my life, but not by art, which enacts potential rather than closure.

Art, like all human activities, occurs within social frameworks and contexts. This should be taken for granted. But this is not what distinguishes art from other social practices and institutions. Art is a social practice, but it is not only a social practice. “Art is never coterminous with ideology” (Adorno 195). Elements of art escape social determination, and it is this excess which defines it as art. One cannot and should not erase an artwork’s social context, but one can't and shouldn't replace the artwork with that context. If art is either condemned as ideology or valued only as oppositionality, then it vanishes as art. As Adorno reminds us, “There is nothing in art that does not derive from the world; and yet all that thus enters art is transformed” (201).

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Christian Lenhardt. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.

Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.

Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1971.

Joron, Andrew. The Cry at Zero: Selected Prose. Denver, CO: Counterpath Press, 2007.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre and the Language of Rupture. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Ross, Andrew. Ed. Universal Abandon?: The Politics of Postmodernism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Introducing Lawrence L. White

Lawrence L. White is a writer of idea-governed poetry who never forgets that the particular is paradise (and paradox as well). Influenced by the perhaps unlikely combination of Wallace Stevens, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, and especially Allen Grossman (both his vatic poetry and his visionary poetics), White has a remarkable capacity to spin out and sustain imagistic and thematic architectonics over the arc of a longer poem, and to combine a fine-grained lyricism with an expansive meditative pulse. The mythy motions of his large-minded poems always make their way through the real words of a real world. His extended ruminations launch themselves from the particulars of an occasion, seeing the Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer’s version of Alice in Wonderland, two crows conversing in a sycamore, or a boating trip across a local urban lake. The gesture toward grand statement is tempered by a grounding and grounded irony, thematic and tonal, that is tonic but never evasive, and also by a hearty appetite for the quotidian: “the body keeps whatever it eats./Almost all of it.”

White’s poems search for the place where personal experience and the transcendental meet and mingle: they don’t seek to rise above the world, but rather to go deeper into it, digging into the ground of meaning to discover (as he puts it) what difference poetry can make against the obscene erasures of death and forgetting. But this implies a ponderous solemnity that the poems, sprightly and lively in their utter seriousness, belie. As the poems remind us again and again, the continual realization that failure is to be taken for granted as the price (the proof?) of the striving toward the sublime still leaves us with the rewards of real life, a substantive sustenance: “the slug of what matter words/Would be forged of.”

Lawrence L. White’s poems have appeared in such journals as The Boston Review, Epoch, and The Literary Review. I featured a substantial selection of his work in my Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries.

Station He.She.You.Me

The sycamore stretched straight,
Its new skin the color of snow,

In a file of sycamores the color of snow,
Lined against the road.

Up in the sycamore two scrannel crows
Talk, cracking the same word, seed
Of a word, slug of what matter words

Would be forged of.

This road goes around the world.


The headlights thrown across the street,

Pollarded sycamores draw stunted fists
Against the careless inquiry. The woman
At the payphone sees the quick headlamps

Tracing tangents, like capes, like
Oars. Free between stations,
She holds off on the cross-country
Numbers. Her fingers stir the rough
Aggregate air, which slips beneath the shrub,
Waits for thicker shadows in the spring,


The stairs, flight squared against flight,
Rose. I turned. She said, “What you have
Taken, take it for what I give.”


The park of the full moon
Of snow the color of the moon
Of light that smells like menthol, clings

Except to the trees,
Branches etched against the anodyne.

Contour lives on lines.
Inside it’s empty, what daylight fills.


Somewhere these same stairs turn
Endlessly upward. Her words

Rise & fall, what was given
Never lost.


A cardinal on a fence. A black squirrel on snow.
After the thaw two crows on matted grass
Made dialogue of one repeated word.


an essay on Švankmajer’s Alice

I thought this was the one time
I would see the film. The colorless screen
Flowered like smoke over the city.

Where she was sitting by the brook,
Throwing stones into the water,
Where she was sitting in her bedroom,
Throwing stones into the teacup,

Investing the soul in boredom,

Of years, hours & days in the room
Of Alice staring at him inside his case, and him
Resisting her with his glass eye,
His label, Lepus cuniculus.

The drawer is a space inside the desk.

In the playhouse made of wooden blocks
Inside the room with the cucumber frame
With rabbit hutches in that,

She sat at the blue pot and ladled sawdust,
Careful to pick out the screws. She can’t eat
Everything. Even the rabbit picked out the screws
When he ate the shavings, to fill in
Him leaking from the ventral slit.

In the drawer full of pins slithering
Each pin rings when the clasp shuts.
The ring holds a spark inside it.

In the drawer of pins the rabbit finds
The pain to seal his leaking cavity.

From which he pulls a watch, 5 to 12,
And hangs it on one hook
Of several screwed into the door
Hanging watches. 20 to 10.
6 past 9. 17 past 3. One place over!
The hare butters the rabbit’s watch.

Wait. Please sir, said Alice
The one time is all the time.
Sir. Please, said Alice.
She closed each door behind her. Space

Contains more space, in the drawer of pins
Or scissors or sharpened nibs,more
Blood in the scissors, ink on the nib,

The way the body keeps whatever it eats.
Or almost all of it. What I remember
I get to keep, until it digests.

Next time it’s my turn. Eat me, Alice.

Green Lake

for Ginny

On Saturday, the weather separates.
Clouds break east and west.
What remains is bare, and sharp.

The face we could not look on,
The face wrapped in blue silk
So fine it prickles, were it not,

Being a costume of the beloved,
Too far, covers us, this weekend.
We love an atmosphere, a shrilling mantle

Trimmed in cumulus extravagance;
Warm, moist air rises on the mountains
Into colder air and blossoms

Mountains of light. The great lovers
Are everywhere to be seen; sun beloved
Of earth, earth beloved of moon,

The wind against the mountains,
The wind voluptuous
In the cottonwoods. But in the embrace,

The leaf remembers a farther pain,
And turns, exclaiming
The color of the sun, though this affection

Is not tender, nor lush. It is more like
Aluminum than gold or saffron or
The yellow iris bordering the lake,

Not the island of flashing cottonwoods,
Whose other side is someplace to observe,
Somewhere to hide from the sky. This we approach.

Let me include the pair in the rented canoe:
That’s my wife in front, the world before her,
She and the world, arranged in depth, before me.

I am about to ask her about the love
These things have for each other. I will not,
In the end, ask her about it at all.

Perched on the lake’s meniscus, a shallow
Warp toward heaven, we are at hand
To the water, marbled as it is,

With fine, unspeakably intricate lines.
In hundreds of bright spots
They signal this bright occasion

For whom? Evenly spaced across the lake,
The swallows dip and hook in their cavort
Over the water. They thread a net,

This swarm of purposes, this carnival
Arrayed across, to snap and gather sparks.
Those coins are money, or maybe food enough.

A jeweled swallow, cutting over the bow,
Bullets on the wind, then lifts a shoulder
To lever up and slide, crosswind, back down

Close to the water’s face. I look at a point,
And cannot see its prize, if it catches
The light’s liquid reflex, or an insect,

If the bullet bird, pulled down again, would know
What binds the light to the water,
Binds the mind, or even why

It chitters tremolos, as if excited
By the excitement of the beloved’s glance
Upon the water, and how this scatters money.

It’s not a brooch or a clasp on her left hand.
She wears a simple circle of this light,
Which I have taken for my light and food.

When she raises the oar to a particular angle,
Her ring ricochets the sun.
It’s telegraphic, speaking to my eye:

You turn away. When would you ever stop
Turning away and away? What snare would catch,
And fix the line?

Listen. Don’t look. Nothing’s to be seen.
Everything’s to be betrayed, but one; the sun,
The source of aluminum and gold.

I listen, looking at a sky. About this blank
A ghost is floating,
A chip of hardened gel inside my eye,

Made visible against the vacancy,
Some stiff amoeba sliding around,
A crude, transparent coin of my own substance.

When I turn my eye toward it, the floater drifts
Away to the edge. When I give up, and turn back,
The floater follows. This is private genius,

My attention pointing in every direction
From where I’m looking. This is one thing
That cannot attract me. It is inside,

And unlike my wife. If I look away from her,
She looks away. Where the horizon bevels,
There is no seeing. Before that are these things.

When we surrender to the wind, and turn
From the island of flashing cottonwoods,
And the mystery of its unseen other side,

We watch the clouds extend mountains,
And the moon,
A pale kite, haul into the wind.

What I can’t hear is what
She hears in her head:
He’s following me.

Grackle Grove

Five needle white pine, grackle drilling into.
Art students, lunchboxes in hand, cross the bridge,
In each box one brick. On the cusp of Crandic’s grade
Grackle chirrups a split-song. Professor Prometheus

Teaches how to hovel bricks,
House fire, in which they’ll forge
Fire-drills that feather flame.
Grackle makes an air-plow, into green frill.

An art student puts one brick atop another,
Day-dreaming his fire-drill aglow, plosive,
Useful. Each time he looks up, that
Grackle, which is not fire, plowing into green—

I have slightly reformatted two poems because I could not reproduce the indentations in the original text.