Response to Madonna’s thoughts about poetry

December 5, 2010

When we had our discussion a few weeks ago about what the definition of poetry should be, I became a little bit frustrated. I don’t think I necessarily have the words to describe, without leaving loopholes, what poetry is, but I balk at the idea of attempting that kind of summary, simply because people tend to poke holes in things with unsound definitions and reasoning. When I heard what Madonna had to say in class/read what she wrote on the blog, it seemed to me that she felt similarly: poetry is not something that really has a definition. She goes further and says that poetry is all around us, and even attempting to put all this gloriousness into words is useless because we don’t ever quite capture what life itself has already done.

But, when I think about it, I don’t like that idea at all. It is vague and abstract, and I’m frustrated by that. To say that poetry is an “elusive thing” is avoiding the question of what poetry is, and saying that people can’t write poetry is patently untrue. Great writers create work that resonates with us, and we have read plenty of it in Contemporary Poetry this semester. Certainly, poetry can’t completely capture sunsets, or a really brilliant view, or the concept of loss,  but nothing does. Looking at a sunset or mountains makes us feel a certain way, as does losing something or someone. We use language to gesture toward these experiences, not to recreate them in totality. The distance between what the poet sees/experiences and the reader is bridged by the poem itself when the reader interprets it. We bring our own thoughts and feelings to bear on a work and go from there. Some poems won’t mean anything to you, but others will be special because those poems say things that you truly understand, not just in an, “Oh, I get that” kind of way. There is a wildly famous and over-quoted part of the play The History Boys by Alan Bennett where the teacher, Hector, explains that “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” I don’t even think it has to be something that you think is “particular to you,” just something that you know and feel and understand.

I think we reduce the act of writing poetry, or writing things in general, if we try to expand the definition of poetry to be anything beautiful or wonderful in the world. I don’t think poetry is a symbol: it’s an attempt to capture some part of the human experience in such a way that it strikes a chord in another person, yes, but it becomes its own object, like Kristin said in her comment under Debbi’s post. I still think poets are trying to capture something, be it a feeling or an experience or an image, but like I said, they’re not trying to make you feel the same way you did when you saw that really great sunset or whatever. The importance is not the recreation of an image, but the connection between the reader and the poet through the poem, the hand reaching out and taking yours.

(These are some pretty unfinished thoughts, so please bear with me.)

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The Poetry Foundation

November 22, 2010

If the goal of [the Poetry Foundation website] is immersion in the genre for students and lovers of poetry, the opportunities that this website affords to that end are plentiful.  The children’s poetry section, which aims to expose children to poetry from a younger age, endorses fun ideas like lunchbox poems and encourages reading aloud to and with one’s children. Even tools like the Learning Lab and Poetry Tours are moving toward the idea that people who are learning about poetry should be engaging with the material upon multiple levels. However, the Poetry Foundation does not go far enough. Until these resources are fleshed out, this website will simply be a limited poetry archive and article source for people who already have a relatively full understanding of the genre. The basic materials for an interactive, poetry-teaching website are there. The tools that exist are getting students to engage with the work’s meaning and rhyme, using their basic comprehension skills. The tools that will help students develop the skills needed for a complete understanding of the genre are not yet in place, and the importance of poetry—why we love it, and the breadth of what it has to offer us—has yet to emerge on this website.

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More on the film adaptation of “Howl”

November 22, 2010

While working on my Poetry on the Web paper, I found this link to an interview done with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the makers of the movie adaptation of “Howl.” It was a pretty interesting article and, perhaps surprisingly, a very positive review of the film. The interview offers some cool insight into the nature of translating poetry/the written word into another kind of media. Another neat thing is that the interview was conducted by a poet, D.A. Powell.

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More slam poems!

November 18, 2010

F@#! Yeah Slam Poems is a blog on Tumblr that a friend of mine runs. If anyone is interested in looking at or listening to more spoken word stuff, this blog is a pretty good resource.

This video that I want to share with you is by Andrea Gibson, one of the more famous lesbian slam poets. Her poetry is about loving women, and what it means to be a woman. It’s occasionally political–this particular poem I’ve attached is about Prop 8 and gay marriage–but mostly she writes about love and girls and sex and queerness. Gibson is very emotive, and she has a slightly cloying voice, but I think she’s neat. I also think she is relatively representative of how a lot of slam poetry is written, performed, and received within the queer community.

Andrea Gibson–“I Do”

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Check Out Rives!

November 17, 2010

Hey all, you should check out Rives. And here’s his incredibly interesting website if you want to poke around, study the way the language changes for a timed performance from the page, see little weird dramas he’s written hidden in the chimes.

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Make sure you watch this one below; it’s very visual.

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Political Poetry

September 27, 2010

Just saw this article and found it interesting to see poetry’s role in a country other than ours. It seems as though poetry isn’t dead as a political act in other places…


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CoPo of the Mo’ 3

September 10, 2010

Bruce Smith does not have the name of someone who aspires to be famous. The last sentence (out of three) of his Wikipedia biography reads, “That’s all, that’s it.” He writes poems; he has been published; he has taught at two universities. But this man understands something about sound and lyricism. His is the kind of poetry that begs, on both knees, to be read aloud. Smith likes to think of poetry as akin to songwriting:

“When the language works to seduce and . . . move us, when it works its blues on us, bounces us and trembles us, makes us swerve from our upright and rational propositions . . . we are thinking and listening at the same time or really listening and not thinking, like a good song does.”

The Poetry Foundation was much more forthcoming about Smith’s biography than Wikipedia. Most importantly, the foundation lists his influences: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. I would be really interested to see what some of the Whitmaniacs, or people familiar with Whitman and Dickinson’s work, think about Smith’s poetry! See, I italicized it so you can’t ignore it!

The poem below, “Obbligato,” is my favorite of the ones listed on the website; I also enjoyed “February Sky,” and, if you don’t mind Googling to find it, you should look up “Goodbye Tuscaloosa.”


Late August was a pressure drop,
rain, a sob in the body,

a handful of air
with a dream in it,

summer was desperate
to paradise itself with blackberry

drupelets and swarms, everything
polychromed, glazed, sprinkler caps

gushing, the stars like sweat
on a boxer’s skin. A voice

from the day says
Tax cuts

for the rich or scratch
what itches or it’s a sax

from Bitches Brew,
and I’m a fool

for these horns
and hues, this maudlin

light. It’s a currency of feeling
in unremembered March.

There’s a war on and snow in the
where we’ve made our desire stop

and start. In the dying school of Bruce
I’m the student who still believes

in the bad taste of the beautiful
and the sadness of songs
made in the ratio
of bruise for bruise.

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A Contemporary Use for Poetry

September 6, 2010

I saw this article the other day and it made me wonder if the contemporary use of poetry is, like Heaney says in “The Redress of Poetry” it can serve both his definitions: 1) “reparation of, satisfaction or compensation for, a wrong sustained or the loss resulting from this” and 2) “to set (a person or a thing) upright again; to raise again to an erect position. Also fig. to set up again, restore, re-establish”. It fulfills the first one in this instance by serving as a means for reparation for the wrong done to those who died and those who have survived to record the experience, here in written format. The second is more figuratively fulfilled through the restoration and re-establishing of the lives of those who have survived; i.e. as a means of coping with the event.

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I know we aren’t reading Heaney, but…

September 5, 2010

Here is a link to an intriguing review of Seamus Heaney’s most recent collection of poetry, Human Chain. The reviewer, Nick Laird, writes:

Human Chain is stranger – and much greater – than a cursory glance would suggest. Though here, as expected, are exquisitely turned poems about rural events and childhood incidents, the collection also revisits (and sometimes redirects) earlier work, and there is a chilly, other-worldly aura hanging over the whole enterprise.”

Along with some dreamy, vaguely hero-worshipful criticism (the kind Gioia might vomit over), there are some pretty intense spoilers in the review: there are excerpts from four or five different poems, intriguing enough to pique my interest, but short enough to irritate. I suppose copywright laws prevent full texts of the poems from being posted in The Telegraph, but extracting what are ostensibly the best bits and telling readers about how great they are seems tantamount to saying, “Oh, you want to read this book? Well, _____ dies.”

Anyway, Laird’s point seems to be that if you are allergic to “passages of enormous lyric power,” you probably shouldn’t read any Heaney, especially not Human Chain. The book comes out in the U.S. on September 14th, and, like a big nerd, I have already pre-ordered it.

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How Beautiful a Fish Can Be

September 1, 2010

This evening is the first time that I have read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish”. Before now, my only contact with the poem was through a spoken performance given in my Literature in Performance class one year ago. When I first heard the poem I couldn’t really focus on it and it was hard for me, a lot of the time, to follow what was being said, i.e. the basic narrative. However, upon this reading, silently, at first I was much more involved in the poem and found myself lost in the splendorous “victory” the speaker feels at catching the fish after it’s having got away so many times.

I loved the way our understanding of the fish built up and up, at first unimpressed by his “grunting weight, / battered and venerable / and homely.” It is almost easy to miss that key word–venerable–in lieu of the numerous derogatory adjectives: “his brown skin…like ancient wallpaper” or “full-blown roses / stained and lost through age”. Again, we are led to a pleasant description–the “full-blown roses” only to be disappointed on the following line through their shriveled metaphoric state. It is easy to find yourself disgusted by the “barnacles,” the skin “infested / with tiny white sea-lice” or the impoverished state of the “rags of green weed” hanging beneath his body.

And yet, Bishop takes us by the hand, walking us through her own evolving perception of the fish. We begin to see that the creature isn’t entirely helpless, that, in fact, if we are not careful in how we handle him, we may be “cut so badly” by his “frightening gills”. His “coarse white flesh,” forcing us to think about the skin of the fish, is described (instead of in scaly terms that might bother many who are unaccustomed to finding beauty in such humble places as fish) as being “packed in like feathers”.

She goes on to describe his eyes as “far larger than mine,” usually taken as a good quality, though she does qualify this line, making them “shallower, and yellowed”. It seems as though the speaker would like to raise the fish to her level, but must ultimately face the truth of reality: she is the fisher, it the catch. This goes on until she has elevated the fish still further, turning the “five big hooks” into “medals with their ribbons / frayed” and the “old pieces of fish-line” into a “beard of wisdom”. From here, she has turned this “homely” fish into a veteran of war and thus her simple catch into a feat deserving of victorious celebration. The “oil” becomes beautiful in her eyes, a “rainbow” that spreads to all around her “until everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!”

And finally, the anti-climactic last line: “And I let the fish go.” At first, we may wonder why the speaker does this. But upon further reflection, and a second reading, we remember that the fish “didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all.” The repetition of the lack of will on the fish’s part along with the short length of the lines adds emphasis to them. We must acknowledge, as the speaker ultimately does, that, if the fish is anthropomorphized into a noble war veteran, he must be treated as such. One can almost see it, swimming in its lake, tired of being caught, tired of being let loose, tired of being the object of human’s pleasure at his own physical expense. And just as quickly as it came, the victory has left.

On another note, related to my introduction, after reading this silently to myself and thinking about all that I have written here and more, I decided to read the poem to a friend of mine. Curiously enough, upon the first reading to them, despite the feeling I put into the reading, they (like me) didn’t follow the narrative. After reading it aloud to them a second time they were better able to understand the poem. But, I wonder why this is. Does it have to do with our disposition towards things that we listen to on a daily basis? Are we as attentive as we should be or as is required to appreciate (or even understand on a more basic level) the things we perceive? Seems like an unrelated and more philosophic point of inquiry, but it never hurts to get the wheels turning a bit. I hope you all enjoyed this poem as much as I did.

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On the Relevance of Poetry

September 1, 2010

I must admit that I am deeply moved by the arguments posited in Adrienne Rich’s What I Found There. Rich reminds us to be careful what we wish for. While many poets, today, lament the perceived impotence of poetic forms, most would probably not feel comfortable in a society where writing poetry could lead to internment in prison or a mental hospital, and even death. And yet, this is the price some have paid, for popularity among the common public, in non-democratic societies.

Dana Gioia argues in his essay, Can Poetry Matter?, that the very freedoms of which we are so proud, (Those that enable free trade and relatively free speech, without fear of reprisal) are at least partially responsible for the public’s loss of interest in poetry. He points to the political and economic climate, referring to the close involvement of academia and the rewards system that permeates the university.   He goes on to blame the close subculture of poetry, mentioning among other things, loss of the critics’ voice.

I do not, however, believe that academia is solely to blame for poetry’s downfall, but that the decline is more closely linked to Adrienne Rich’s argument. As a group, American’s are spoiled. Although, we can say what we like without fear of reprisal, we have lost sight of just how precious that right is. Likewise, as Gioia suggests, we take our poetry and our critic’s voice for granted. Rather than say and print that which is necessary we succumb to the free market pressures of our society, leaving behind a wreckage of barely recognizable self- congratulatory propaganda.

Which leads to Rich’s most important arguments, “We must use what we have to invent what we desire” (215). “A revolutionary poem will not tell you who or when to kill … It reminds you … where and when and how you are living and might live __ it is a wick of desire. .. A revolutionary poem is written out of one individual’s confrontation with her/his own longings … in the belief that its readers … deserve an art as complex, as open to contradictions as themselves” (241). This desire, then, to create a complex and contradictory art that relates common humanity is what will continue to hold poetry in a place of relevance within society and within the hearts and minds of its readers, despite any monetary value, large or small, that our free-trade economy chooses to place upon it, now or at anytime in the future.

Works Cited
Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 1992. 1-21.

Rich, Adrienne. What I found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. NV: ww.Norton, 1993.
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Designed by Tim Sainburg from Brambling Design

Designed by Tim Sainburg from Brambling Design

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Spectrum of Criticism: Brooker v. Heaney

August 31, 2010

Fresh out of class, I wish we didn’t have to leave just as the discussion was getting good.  The vertical line of the spectrum that we created on the board posed a dichotomy that was widely agreed to be “problematic”: poetry existing for the sake of art, beauty, and expression  Vs.  poetry functioning as a factual necessity of life.

Two critics that we didn’t really have a chance to compare directly, Jewel Spears Brooker and Seamus Heaney, both attack this dichotomy directly.

Brooker asserts that there was validity in just attempting to capture experience in words as she asks “Can we look at September 11 in terms of aesthetics alone?”  Brooker offers the possibility that some experiences just wont fit into the words we try to use, but that we, as poets, are still able to try.

Heaney poses poetry not as a simple means of expression, but  as an intrinsic necessity – that poetry satisfies a mysterious vacuum in the world of expression and communication.  He cites Havel: “Poetry is a state of mind, not a state of world.”  This quote pulls another binary argument onto our discussion: the natural process of language  Vs.  true representation of the world. Poetry is fueled by obligation, and even in its flawed nature, it is fundamental in human communication.

Both Brooker and Heaney bend the two ends of our art-or-necessity-axis until they are aligned.  Poetry is the attempt to capture indescribable experience in fixed words, but is it impossible to try and fully succeed, or it is impossible to try and fail?

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The First of a Series of Completely Emotional Responses

August 30, 2010

I have not yet finished reading Dana Gioia’s essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” and already I have been moved to tears. For many years the facts of this essay have remained dormant in the back of my mind, hiding behind the towers of well-known poets and poems–all from authors long deceased not only in body, but in the minds of the majority of people, world-wide.

I have stopped my first reading to take down some thoughts. My heart has been pinned down by the enormous weight of the subject at hand–the decline of poetry in the world, but specifically America. (Even as I write this, I am reminded of poetry’s lack of place, particularly by the reports from FOX News, which have chosen to cover the trial of Paris Hilton, instead of any number of events occurring in the world of poetry today.)
While reading I have had thoughts of grand upheavals in reaction to this article–storming into the first Aubade meeting (Sept. 2 from 5-6:00 p.m.) and demanding that, not only do we go through the necessary steps to reprint this essay at the start of this Fall’s publication, but to change utterly the content of the letter from the editor at the front of the issue and instate a new policy to include critical or insightful reader-responses to the art. Instead the editor’s shout-outs to friends and praise of the work within the publication, an honest statement that not all of the art included is up to par and an entreaty for the readers to vigorously peruse the magazine and decide for themselves what earns its keep. In my dream, this all goes beautifully. Hundreds of students, teachers and those in the community who seek the Fall issue of Aubade write in to praise, to critique, to condemn, to contradict and most importantly to serve as a testament to reader’s attentive observation and interaction with the text.

All of this, whirling the activist dust of my mind into a terrific tornado, banging against the walls of my skull and begging for an explosive release of phonemic breath. And yet the pressure begins to change and I know also that, even if I burst into that meeting, waving the essay about with my hand and insisting, I most likely be asked to leave. I most likely would.
And still, I cannot help but be disturbed. I cannot help but wonder at a solution. I cannot help but hope Gioia will provide one at the close of this essay, but her title is not promising.

I’d like to talk about possible alternatives to the current method of poetic publishing and ask you all if you have any thoughts on possible solutions.
There are some big problems pointed out by this text, among them the regressive nature of the inner circle of readers, publishers and critics; the neglect of poetry by the world at large, especially the realms of media and politics; the stress on quantitative, not qualitative work by writers throughout academia; and many more, and, honestly, I don’t know what to do about them.


I just finished reading the essay and I must say, I was not disappointed. I am glad to see six tips on how to amend the crisis of poetry in our culture.
So, it is here that I would like to open the floor to other suggestions for how to amend the situation, in a similar vein as Gioia’s. Here are some of my own:

1) Memorize your favorite poems. Maybe take 5-10 of your favorite poems and dedicate the time to memorizing them. I’ve done this with only one poem in its entirety and parts of many more, but I’ve found it has added to my appreciation for the lyric qualities of the poem. Not only does this better your personal appreciation of the poem, the poet and poetry in general, but it’s also a cool thing to do on a whim for a group of people (I usually only do so for my close friends and loved ones) but every time I’ve done so it has incited a reaction at worst and at best an interesting conversation.

2) Talk to friends and family about the state of things in the world of poetry. As simple as it sounds, talking to people as if poetry were politics will, I think, increase awareness of it and, hopefully, get people to hold up higher standards for themselves. Let us not be the “jackals,” but let our “snarling” by a call, a command to the Muse for the well to fill, to be over-filled.

That’s all I can think of for now. I’ll add more if I think of something else.

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Poem of the Day Podcast

August 26, 2010

Learn Out Loud is a really brilliant resource. Once you sign up (don’t worry, it’s free), you have access to this vast archive of audio and visual media. The feature that will probably be the most useful to us is the Poem of the Day Podcast. Many contemporary poets have been featured over the last few weeks, Adrienne Rich, Mary Oliver, & Carl Sandburg among them. You have the option to stream the audio online or download it as an MP3 to your iTunes. I am not certain if all of the poems are read by the poets themselves, but the ones I have listened to are; I imagine that the Lord Byron poems were probably not read by him, though. Below is a link to an Elizabeth Bishop poem:

Download Lullaby for the Cat, Elizabeth Bishop

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