Monday, February 11, 2019

Poetry and grammar and usage (2.11.19)

Someone commented at a recent Wednesdays@One exchange that a poem under discussion contained too many conjunctions, articles, relative pronouns and the like.  In other words, the poem didn't read like a poem but like exposition.  The writer was admonished to revise the poem accordingly, in the name of "compression" and "economy."

These are laudable goals in the writing of poems, to be sure, and since our project involved contemplative modes of thought and feeling, and since we used some William Carlos Williams poetry as models (particularly "Fine Work with Pitch and Copper"), comments about excessive use of parts of speech are fair.  But the observation, made in passing, stayed with me this week, in the form of questions about poetry, style and grammar and usage.
  • How free is a poem to ignore points of standard grammar and usage?
  • Is poetry compelled to test the limits we ordinarily place on expository writing?
  • What do "compression" and "economy" look like in a poem?
  • Can adherence to, or departure from, standard rules of grammar be considered a style?
  • At what point in a poem do compression and economy (for our purposes, elimination of parts of speech) result in mere obscurity?
I suppose answers to these questions might be, from top to bottom: very, but at some risk to sound and sense; I wouldn't say compelled, though innovative writing often does; sometimes, these qualities look like scarcity, and sometimes like laziness, and sometimes like ignorance; of course!; at the point where the poet's ear stops working.

If you scroll back to last week's blog entry, then down to the Williams poem, you can see language that is compressed and economical.  Which is to say, the poem is made of a small number of words (71), none of which are overly Latinate.  Concrete nouns predominate (I count 15).  Noun modifiers are used rather sparely, and in at least half the instances are unique and musical, that is, not gratuitous.  The lone simile ("like the sacks of sifted stone") is musical and straightforward, but fresh, the antithesis of ornament.  And the imagery is highly visual, but not dramatic or garishly bright or otherwise showy, the overall effect being a portrait of rest or stasis.

But look closely and you'll also see ample use of conjunctions, definite articles, prepositional phrases (a slew of those), and forms of the weak verb "be" which functions repeatedly as a linking device.  And yet the language of the poem reads and feels highly compressed, economical.

One part of speech that you don't see used in this poem is the relative pronoun, and this is why the language feels so spare.  To the extent that relative pronouns are used in any writing, they "explain," they subordinate or super-ordinate, they contextualize, which is to say, they editorialize, which is also to say, they comment on the main thought of a sentence, and reveal something about the writer.

In "Fine Work with Pitch and Copper," Williams set out to record what he saw--workmen at rest--without inserting himself into the thing described.  Reading this poem, we know nothing of the observer, how he feels about what he sees, what he believes about it, or even from what special vantage he views it.  The observer is not there.  And there lies the feeling of compression and economy you take away from this poem.  Removing the "and's" and "in's" and "by's" and so forth, converting the "is's" and "are's" to action verbs will do nothing to make this poem more economical or "poetic."  In fact, it will only make the poem sound stilted and gauzy.

Here's what can happen in a poem when you do dispense with certain parts of speech:

Spring day wondrous cloud
Across blue horizon,
Casting tall tree in shadow
Fresh green leaves still,
Many small hands in silent prayer.
Brilliant light after rain,
Blue mirrors everywhere,
Spirit of springtime at feet—
Splash splash splash
Green and tan rubber boots.
Feet dry, warm inside.
Reflections of sky in puddle.
Walking on clouds,

Now the author of this piece surely could argue that the language is compressed--of course! In fact, in this poem, whole classes of parts of speech have been jettisoned in a bid for "essence": the joyousness of being alive on a spring day! Have you read poems like this before? They are often in the contemplative vein, but minus articles, coordinating conjunctions, relative clauses, pronouns. No doubt the author of this poem felt that joyousness and reveled in the brightness of cloud and leaf and rain puddle. But one thing the paucity of determiners in this poem makes clear is its clich├ęd emotive quality and predictably upbeat series of visual images.

Poetry often aims for economy of expression, but not by squeezing language dry.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The contemplative poem (2.6.19)

This is the first of a three-part project which we'll pursue throughout the month.

I asked you to “don’t do something, just stand there” for last week’s Wednesdays@One session for a reason.  Our next project, writing the contemplative[1] poem, will draw upon your mindful engagement with an environment.

Your experience writing poems might lead you to ask, Isn’t all (lyric) poetry contemplative? and you’d have an argument to make.  By definition, poetry is contemplative.  When we write it, we focus closely on some idea or object or place or person, etc., and try to express a feeling (in ourselves) or an essence (in the object of our contemplation) through that verbal focusing.  The difference comes, I guess, in what we intend for that poem, how we want it to be “used” by a reader.  Do we want it to be read as a little lecture on life?  As a witness to some societal wrong?  As arts and entertainment?  Or as mere text and sound?  Or do we write it—and prefer to have it read—as the result of deep thought about some idea or thing, without further comment on the usefulness or beauty of that thinking?

A contemplative poem announces: I observe this.  It’s for other poems to say: I mean; or I believe; or I love; or I accuse; etc.

You can write several kinds of contemplative poem:
  • One that explores your relationship to some idea or thing, observer to observed.
  • One that seeks to define or describe the idea or thing, in its fully autonomous nature.
  • One that discovers or arrives at a Truth (insight) through contemplation of some idea or thing.
A related project, which you might revisit on this blog, is the one we did on aesthetic distance.  A poem featured there, Wallace Stevens’ “Study of Two Pears,” is a good example of the second variety of contemplative writing just mentioned.  (See the entry for October, 2018.)  If you re-read that poem, you’ll note nothing about the speaker’s (much less Stevens’) person, taste, feeling, opinion and so on.  The poem is, as the title tells you, a study of two pears.  Here is an example of the third kind of contemplative poem, albeit rendered in dramatic prose:

Hamlet.  Let me see. [Takes the skull.] Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio—a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorred in my imagination is it! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch think, to this favor she must come—make her laugh at that.
                                                                                Hamlet, Act V, Sc. 1.

Here’s a poem of contemplation regarding clouds, by Wislawa Szymborska, and incorporated into a longer narrative poem by Coleman Barks[2]:


I’d have to be really quick
to describe clouds  
a split second’s enough
for them to start becoming something else.

Their trademark:
they don’t repeat a single
shape, shade, pose, arrangement.

Unburdened by memory of any kind,
they float easily over the facts.

What on earth could they bear witness to?
They scatter whenever something happens.

Compared to clouds,
life rests on solid ground,
practically permanent, almost eternal.

Next to clouds,
even a stone seems like a brother,
someone you can trust,
while they’re just distant, flighty cousins.

Let people exist if they want,
and then die, one after another:
clouds simply do not care
what they are up to
down there.

And so their haughty fleet
cruises smoothly over your whole life
and mine, still incomplete.

They aren’t obliged to vanish when we’re gone.
They don’t have to be seen while sailing on.

Which of the three kinds of contemplative poem defined above does this one most closely approximate? Or does it express a little bit of each type?Read the following poem, by Marianne Moore (1935), and consider whether it focuses on a relationship between observer (the poet or voice of the poem) and the observed; on the thing in an of itself; or on some greater Truth that is occasioned by the contemplation of the thing.

No Swan So Fine

“No water so still as the
dead fountains of Versailles.” No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and gondoliering legs, so fine
as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown eyes and toothed gold
collar on to show whose bird it was.

Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth
candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-
tinted buttons, dahlias,
sea-urchins, and everlastings,
it perches on the branching foam
of polished sculptured
flowers—at ease and tall. The king is dead.

Or what about this poem by Theodore Roethke, published in 1948?


I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper-weight,
All the misery of manila folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate gray standard faces.

Contemplation is reverie is spell is brown study is funk. But again, for our purposes, poetically, it manifests as a poem of the relationship between observer and observed, an essence of the thing itself, or as a Truth revealed. 

William Carlos Williams was a master at writing the contemplative poem, the poem of pure observation. Here’s a much-anthologized example:

Fine Work with Pitch and Copper

Now they are resting
in the fleckless light
separately and in unison

like the sacks
of sifted stone stacked
regularly by twos

about the flat roof
ready after lunch
to be opened and strewn

The copper in eight 
foot strips has been
beaten lengthwise

down the center at right
angles and lies ready
to edge the coping

One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it

This poem is supremely descriptive in the way Williams was well-known for: passionate observation.  It is deceptively straightforward, meaning that it reads without apparent difficulty; yet the language is so spare and so exact and explicit that you can imagine the minute choices made in its construction, image by image, line by line.  You can almost feel them.  For me, this poem is a perfect example of the second type of contemplative approach: revealing the thingness of the thing itself.  

A contemplative poem may partake of one or all three of the types I’ve defined (so broadly), but with some effort on your part, a poem might showcase one of these types.

So let’s let this be our next project . . .

Write a poem of contemplation, utilizing your practical observation techniques and skills, in which one of the three types is clearly dominant.  It will not be a political poem, or a poem of memory, or a love poem; it will not address anyone directly; it will not be didactic (will not teach a lesson).  It will be observational, and contemplative.

Happy reveries!

[1] Closely related to but not the same as the meditative poem, meditation being a spiritual and a mental exercise (often involving self-examination), and contemplation being more sensual, as in engaging in sense perception, or processing “data.”  I also don’t want to confuse the issue with Thomas Merton’s assertion, in a 1947 essay in Commonweal, that “the contemplative life is a life entirely occupied with God.”  For this project, let’s take contemplation in the more limited sense of an artistic practice.
[2] “Accordion Sections,” in Hummingbird Sleep: Poems, 2009-2011.  Athens: U of Georgia Press, 2013.

Monday, February 4, 2019

My Interview with Conrad Neumann (b. 1933 - d. 2019)

Conrad Neumann, a longtime member of the Friday Noon Poets group in Chapel Hill, died one week ago at the age of 85.  Thinking about him (I am a latecomer to his circle of friends & admirers), I re-read notes from an interview conducted a few years ago for a book I was researching.  I used those notes to write the following . . .

My Interview with Conrad Neumann

 “You don’t leak poems.  They are not excretions!”

This is what Conrad told me during an interview for a book I was researching a few years ago, a book about people who come to the writing of poetry late in life.  I had asked him about his writing process, how his poems emerged.  He straightened his spine and, with characteristic impishness, offered up this quasi-scientific observation about excretions and the creative process.

He was 83 years old at the time, moved more slowly, more cautiously than he had just a few years earlier, when I met him at Friday Noon Poets.  We drank iced coffee at The Root Cellar, a popular restaurant and deli shop not far from campus in Chapel Hill.  It was noontime and noisy.  I had to shout my questions due to Conrad’s impaired hearing.  Which was a thing at FNP—Conrad’s hearing, or lack of, that and the black box we passed around the FNP conference table, a remote for his hearing aids.  Nobody read or recited a word until that gizmo was close by on the table.

Not that I did much talking beyond a few prompts injected every so often into the middle of Conrad’s running monologue.  The man had a lot to say.  The interview proceeded along a series of blind alleys and broad sunlit plains.  It was coastal, effluvial, layered with sediments of memory, scientific observation, personal story, yarn and bright, arresting imagery.  And a joke or two.

I wanted to know more about the parallels between the scientific and poetic processes.  He was an academic and a scientist, an adventurer and a homespun New Englander.  He’d launched the Marine Sciences curriculum at UNC.  “It never attained department status,” he said, but it kept him in close intellectual contact with one of the wellsprings of his long life.  Conrad was a geologist by training, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in the discipline, but one who’d grown up on Martha’s Vineyard, or, more precisely, upon the Atlantic Ocean around Martha’s Vineyard.  It took the director of Woods Hole to convince Conrad in the 1950s to take up the study of the sea’s geology.

Around us the lunch crowd buzzed and the cappuccino maker hissed.  He started writing poetry because he had something to say after 40 years at sea or near the sea or with his nose in a book about the sea.  He took it up because time had ceased to be a commodity, he told me, an endlessly renewable resource.  And memory is lyrical.  Conrad threw that in, too.

Science and poetry share some ground.  People at the next table listened in, I could tell.  In a university town, you’d think such a statement might be ordinary enough not to get overheard.  “It’s too broad to say that they both take nature as their right subject—I mean, what doesn’t?—but they both ask big questions, and they both fail to answer the big questions satisfactorily time and again, which is what makes science and poetry such human endeavors.”  Now that’s a remark you probably don’t hear so often, even in Chapel Hill.  But, he went on, both disciplines—“and they are disciplines”—are creative; they live and die by inspiration.  Their methods differ, but their ground is the same.

Conrad grew up on Martha’s Vineyard without TV or even radio.  Or even fresh newspapers.  He attended grade school there and worked his first fishing boat there.  In summers, as today, the “summer people” came from Boston and New York.  Always, there was local gossip of this drunken Kennedy and that insufferable Manhattanite careening around the island’s narrow, sandy roads in big convertibles ferried over from the mainland.

His father, Conrad told me, was something of a ghost.  He chased the painterly life in New York City, returning to the Vineyard only now and again.  Not surprisingly, he was very close to his mother and spoke affectionately—well, passionately—of his grandfather, who introduced Conrad to poetry.  The man was a fisherman and farmer, with not much of a formal education but a head full of Longfellow. 

Of course, Conrad recalled more than the Kennedys and convertibles of his Vineyard days.  He remembered big hurricanes.  He remembered Dr. Traynor, a beloved high school teacher who read Conrad’s first poem—about a wave.  He remembered the stink of fish in a barrel and on his clothes, and the treachery of wind at sea.  And particular waves.

As he grew older, Conrad told me—and I wouldn’t have been surprised by now to see the people at the next table taking notes just as I was taking notes, fast as my pen could move—as he grew older and into the rigors and demands and patience of hard science, he came to understand pattern, or what he called “pattern recognition.”  “It’s the ability to envision the world literally, as it is, not as it should be.  That’s science,” he said. “It’s seeing the associations of nature—how one thing or one process or one action depends on another, fits into the pattern.”

That’s when I asked about the relationship between science and the writing of poetry, and when Conrad said, as if explaining something fundamental to a science neophyte, “You don’t leak poems.  They are not excretions!”

For a few more minutes, he shared some funny stories about drinking at sea, with shipmates, from an ashtray, and reciting bawdy poems.  He told me how he met his future wife, Jane (in Bermuda, on a research ship).  “She was sea sick, and nobody wants anybody else around when you’re sea sick.  But I hung around anyway.  She once met Robert Frost.”  And then we finished our iced coffees.  My writing hand ached.  My head, too, from the non-stop free-association and non sequiturs, like being sea sick, I can imagine.


Conrad worked hard on his book, Up-Island Poems.  Some might say he obsessed over its selection, editing and publication, as a scientist might obsess over the details of a field study.  It was also an obsession borne of time no longer being a commodity.  When it came out, you could see immediately the benefits of that obsession—it’s not cobbled together like just any collection of verses.  It’s a book, of poetry.  It tells a lyrical story.  

Looking through my copy as I write this memory of him, I realize he didn’t sign it.  

My loss.  Forever, my loss.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The habits of poetry: practical observation (1.23.19)

Let’s get back to some of the basics of writing poetry, which I will call the habits of poetry.  There are many[1]—habits of observation, habits of practice, habits of envisioning, habits of revising, habits of interpreting or seeking meaning, habits of reading, habits of speaking, habits of responding to inspiration and poetic ideas—some of which are more basic than others.  The more basic the habit, the less it has specifically to do with the writing of poetry, but the more important it may be to writing accomplished poetry.

Habit: Practical observation
One of the most fundamental writing habits for poets is to observe minutely.  Remember Wordsworth’s famous dictum about emotion recollected in tranquility?  Your body is a sensing machine bombarded throughout its waking hours.  This constant bombardment has implications for your emotional and mental life, which can be amplified if you’re a writer of poetry.  Consciously observing elements of that bombardment, separating them out, so to speak, can be a form of recollection in tranquility.

What is “practical observation,” what does it look like, and how does it work?  Some perspectives . . .  
  1. The practice of observation means putting yourself physically in position to observe.  This means, in turn, disconnecting from other activities, like texting, checking your calendar, listening to cable TV (and even to your favorite music!), reading headlines, thinking about what’s for dinner, running errands, drinking coffee, reading, removing the lint from a lapel.  WORRY.  The practice of observation begins with the art (and maybe science?) of just sitting still.  So go somewhere and sit.  It can be a busy-noisy place or a quiet spot.  It can be in your house, at your desk, or in a coffee shop or even a street corner.  This “action” doesn’t have to last all day, or even an hour.  Just a few minutes each day will do, so long as they are an honest few minutes.
  2. The practice of observation looks from the outside like you’re meditating or in a reverie.  You’re sitting still and your eyes may have that far-away gaze (not glaze, mind you, but the look that says you’ve tuned out the daily).  But you are by yourself and “in conversation” with the environment, not tuned into the conversation going on next to you other than to hear that one is underway as part of the totality of sound and gesture of the environment you’ve placed yourself in.  
  3. Beyond just sitting still, the practice of observation is actual, and quite active.  It is focused.  You pay attention to the ambient sound of the room, trying to separate out each component (ticking of a clock, your own breathing, a distant siren, your pen on paper, etc.); you listen for the sounds beneath the sounds you’re hearing.  Or you pay attention to the smells of your immediate environment, good, bad or indifferent; you note fragrances, yes, but you mainly want to note all smells, even the neutral ones.  Or you pay attention to what you see: motion, color, volume, shape, near/far, and the relationships between or among these things.  Or you pay attention to tastes: what’s on your tongue, your lip (could be food, could be balm, could be something foreign, like the eraser of the pencil you’re chewing on).  Or to feel: air pressure in your ear or on your skin; subtle changes in temperature from moment to moment, body part to body part; the feel of the clothes you’re wearing; the pen you may be holding; or the weight of one hand in the other.
Simple in theory and a breeze to describe.  Hard to do.  But with practice, you’ll get better at it, you’ll feel more attentive, more open to the sense data all around you.  You’ll become a field recorder, literally.

Why do this?  What’s in it for you as a writer of poetry?  Paying attention.  If the writing of poetry is a form of that, then actively paying attention to your physical environment is good practice!  Also, by simply sitting still for a few minutes every day, you may begin to establish new “spaces” for yourself where creativity can enter.

Should you write while doing this?  Not necessarily, and probably not first thing.  Leave your notebook closed and your pen on the table.  Don’t do something, just sit there.  This will be strange at first, then weird, then annoying, then boring.  You’ll find your mind wants to wander off to stray thoughts, stuff you need to do, a conversation you had with somebody, the government shutdown, the two people near you talking about their aches and pains.  When you feel this happening, that’s okay.  Try smiling at your mind in a kindly way.  Then focus on a single sense input (not the music playing over the PA system, but something farther away, the sort of stuff that goes on all the time but that we tend to tune out): perhaps how your hand feels when you lay it on the table or desk top—trying feeling each fingertip separately.  

The clock in my library, on top of a wooden book cabinet, resonates through the wood: tick-tock, tick-tock.  It produces this little music all the time, though I don’t always hear it.  Except when I want to focus.  Then I listen for it and it alone.  It rarely intrudes.  I have to invite it.  Maybe it’s a muse.  It’s certainly a musing.

Eventually, you may want to start noting down what goes on around you.  If you do, do so in as unembellished a way as possible.  Just jot down in list form what your senses are delivering to your conscious mind.

Try this exercise for a few minutes every day.

Next week we’ll discuss the process.  If you want to bring a poem in—especially if the practice has led you to a new poem or a revision of an older one—do so, and we’ll share.  Have a good week!

[1] It should be obvious that there are bad as well as good habits.  Our goal should be to minimize the former, maximize the latter.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Adelaide Literary Magazine just published five prose poems

Adelaide just came out with its January issue, with five poems from my manuscript of prose poems, "The Weather in Bluffton, Ind."  Here's the link Adelaide Literary Magazine.  Awfully glad to share space in this issue with Tim Suermondt, Mary Shanley, Dane Myers, and others.

Adelaide is co-edited from New York and Lisbon, Portugal.

Correction: in the author bio, the credit for American Poetry Journal should read The American Journal of Poetry.  

The American Journal of Poetry published "Change of Fortune" this month

Thanks to the editors at for publishing my prose poem, "Change of Fortune," earlier this month.  I am especially honored to share an issue with such poets as Walter Bargen, Norman Dubie, Stephen Dunn, Annie Finch, Gary Fincke, William Logan and Bruce Weigl.

If you haven't checked out this online journal, do so.  It's eclectic, generous with space, and well-designed.  Its editors clearly work incredibly hard to put out a substantial amount of good work each month.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

What only the poets can imagine (1.12.19)

This poem appeared in Epistle to a Godson, a late-life book of poems by W.H. Auden.  The speaker asks an enticing question toward the end, “What can Leo have actually said?”, and then challenges poets (i.e., you and me) to imagine it.

I thought it might make a worthwhile project.  Please answer the question, in a poem, for Wednesday.

An Encounter
                                W.H. Auden

The Year: 452. The Place: the southern
bank of the River Po. The forelook: curtains
on further hopes of a Western and Christian

For Attila and his Hun Horde, slant-eyed, sallow,
the creatures of an animist horse-culture,
dieted on raw meat and goat-cheese, nocent to
    cities and letters,

were tented there, having routed the imperial
armies and preyed the luscious North, which now lay
frauded of mobile goods, old sedentary 
    structures distorted.

Rome was ghastly. What earthly reason was there
why She should now not be theirs for the taking?
The Pope alone kept his cool, to the enemy
    now came in person,

sequenced by psalm-singing brethren: astonished,
Attila stared at a manner of men so
unlike his. “Your name?”, he snapped at their leader.
    “Leo,” he answered, raising

his right hand, the forefinger pointed upwards
the little finger pressed to the thumb, in the
Roman salute: “I ask the King to receive me
    in private audience.”

Their parley was held out of earshot: we only 
know it was brief, that suddenly Attila
wheeled his horse and galloped back to the encampment,
    yelling out orders.

Next morning the site was vacant, they had vanished,
never to vex us again. What can Leo have
actually said? He never told, and the poets
    can only imagine

speeches for those who share a common cosmos:
all we can say is that he rose to the occasion,
that for once, and by His own standards, the Prince
    of this world showed weakness.