Monday, March 23, 2020

Old Poem at The Stinging Fly

Here is an old poem of mine, “Beautiful People,” published in The Stinging Fly in 2000, then in my collection Ancestor Worship (Salmon Poetry, 2007). I believe I wrote this in 1999 or so, during the time of the Galway Film Fleadh, to an old friend. Posting it now, as The Stinging Fly has just electronically archived their old issues...

Friday, March 20, 2020

Four Poems at Live Encounters

I have four new(ish) poems up at Live Encounters journal, online here and images here:

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Chapbook Forthcoming from Adjunct Press

My poem chapbook manuscript Tropospheric Clouds was accepted by the great Milwaukee-based Adjunct Press and is forthcoming this summer.  Many thanks.

This is the manuscript I referred to at the end of my interview at California Journal of Poetics, where I was asked about my latest writing projects, and replied “At the moment, I’m writing an ongoing, I suppose weird surrealistic poem, in which I try to compose without a lot of conscious control, actually not always easy. Whereas some of my more recent poetry is concerned with form (albeit, I would say, in an oblique way), this is more free-form.”

Look for Tropospheric Clouds later this summer.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Reading at Louisville Conference

I am reading poems as part of a creative panel at this year’s Louisville Conference on Literature & Culture since 1900. It takes place on 2/21, Friday morning, 9:00am.  If you are at the conference by then, I hope to see you there.

Friday, January 31, 2020

William Carlos Williams’s “The Farmer”

William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All (1923) is oft commented-upon and analyzed, the long poem and prose text producing a number of his most famous poems (e.g. “Spring and All,” “To Elsie,” “The Red Wheelbarrow,” “At the Ballgame”) – though of course none of these were so titled in the collection itself, except being numbered by Roman numerals.  Less often discussed (this being relative, as what WCW poem has been left unanalyzed?) is number III, “The Farmer.”  Immediately preceding the poem, a prose chapter ends with the sentence, “I myself seek to enter the lists with these few notes jotted down in the midst of the action, under distracting circumstances  —to remind myself (see p. 177, par. 6 [so rendered in the Collected Poems]) of the truth.”  The reference produces the earlier sentences, “The reader knows himself as he was twenty years ago and he has also in a mind a vision of what he would be, some day.  Oh, some day!  But the thing he never knows and never dares to know is what he is at the exact moment that he is.”  Having dropped this only slightly mysterious wisdom on the reader, which seems appropriate to mention as a preamble, the poem begins.  (BTW, my analysis of WCW’s “The Farmer”originally came out of my graduate course-work with Professor Jon Thompson; I present it here with some more recent editing and writing, coming back to the poem anew.)

In “The Farmer,” Williams offers nothing less than a vision of the nature of art.  For Williams, the farmer is not a figure representing any supposed harmony between man and nature (as, for example, a traditional pastoral poem might assert), but rather he is more akin to an artist – a painter, a composer, or especially a poet.  Though Williams utilizes images of the natural world, in doing so he is not attempting to symbolically integrate the farmer with nature, but rather to show him at odds with it.  Here, the farmer and the natural world are in a sense hostile to each other.  The farmer must physically sow the earth, just as the poet must score their pages with words, or the painter their canvas with paint.  Williams expresses this in the violence and harshness of his images, and in the parallels he draws between the farmer and the artist.  The farmer/artist is an “antagonist,” as he wrangles with his medium and surroundings, and Williams suggests that there is an aspect of violence or antagonism in the creative process as well as in the agricultural.  Yet despite the violence inherent in such enterprises, both the farmer and the artist ultimately produce something valuable – art, crops – which, with this poem, Williams implies are both necessary sustenance for human life.

“The Farmer” opens with the image of the farmer himself, “in deep thought.”  The farmer in deep thought “is pacing through the rain.”  So far Williams has offered us nothing to make us suspect he’s going to do anything other than present a quaint image of country life.  However, the farmer here is not just “in deep thought,” but is also pacing “among his blank fields,” considering them – not unlike an artist before his blank canvas, or a poet before a blank sheet of paper, on the verge of creative action.  In fact, as Williams lets us know just a couple of lines later, he has “in his head / the harvest already planted.”  The farmer is a visionary; he sees the fields planted (planned) in his mind before he actually goes about it.  He looks on the fields as a medium, waiting to be acted upon, as an artist also interacts with their medium.

Williams goes on to delineate the natural world in which the farmer is situated, with this heavy-duty imagist passage: “A cold wind ruffles the water / among the browned weeds.”  Something, an active force (a cold wind), is acting upon something else (the water), which like the fields lies there passively.  The “browned weeds” add a vague sexual element.  “On all sides,” he then continues, “the world rolls coldly away: / black orchards / darkened by March clouds— / leaving room for thought.”  The surrounding world now takes on a hostile, menacing aspect – cold, black, and dark.  And it “rolls away,” in the sense of “away from.”  There is a disjuncture between the figure of the farmer and the natural world, humankind and nature at odds.  But this disjuncture provides the opportunity for thought.  Indeed it is human beings’ consciousness which in many respects sets them apart from the natural world, and it is also what gives them the capacity for art (suppposedly, anyway – we now know that other animals are capable of art as well).  Along with this, however, comes an awareness, and an enactment, of a sort of Heraclitean strife.  This is not a picture of harmony, or of the farmer at one with the cosmos.  Rather, the farmer must mold the materials, the earth, the fields, and make them into something other than what they are in their natural state, and doing so often seems to requires violent means.

The image of “the brushwood / bristling by / the rainsluiced wagonroad” echoes the earlier image of the “cold wind ruffl[ing] the water / among the browned weeds.”  The “wagonroad,” presumably a muddy dirt road, is “rainsluiced” – in other words cut into by the running liquid – thus deepening the impression of the violent nature of the poem’s subject matter.  The brushwood is “bristling,” adding a further charge of strife and dissension.  Williams specifically contextualizes the farmer in relation to all of this – the passage actually reads, “Down past the brushwood/ bristling by / the rainsluiced wagonroad / looms the artist figure of / the farmer…”  The farmer is not a disinterested personage.  He is intimately involved (he “looms” over the whole scene), and, for Williams, cannot pretend otherwise.  But it is not enough for Williams to say something as simple as, “A farmer is like an artist…”  No, the poem is also about the nature of art itself.  What Williams is actually saying, then, is that there is a certain aspect of violence in poetry as well.  The poet not only marks up the blank pages with ink and words is asserting theirself in the world, and actively inserting the poem into the world.

Having established that the farmer is an “artist figure,” Williams concludes the poem with two more words: “…looms the artist figure of / the farmer—composing / —antagonist”.  (The words being “composing” and “antagonist.”)  The meaning of “composing” should now be obvious.  Williams drives home the idea of the farmer as a poet – both figures needing to take action in order to accomplish their intentions in the material world.  The more important word, though, is “antagonist.”  Both words are set apart by the use of the long dash, but it is “antagonist” which closes the poem, and which earns the distinction of owning a line unto itself.  As an “antagonist,” the farmer, again, is neither disinterested, nor is he part of a harmony between nature and man.  The farmer does violence to the earth in his sowing, just as – Williams is clearly saying here – the artistic act is also a violent act.  He has agency, and he uses it – the poet marking paper with pen, the painter marking a canvas with particular strokes of paint, the wind ruffling the water, the rain sluicing the dirt road, the farmer sowing and planting the earth.  The artist is not neutral, the poet is not neutral, and the farmer is not neutral.  Each takes what they need through violent action.  The world of this poem is nothing other than a world of forces at odds with each other, endlessly clashing, yet, in this respect, productive.

Though it is not stated (it doesn’t need to be), the farmer in his wrangle with the earth ultimately produces food.  The poet of course produces poetry, and as a poet himself, Williams suggests poetry is on the level of food.  For Williams, poetry is just as much a necessary product of his artistic labor as edible crops are of a farmer’s sowing.  In this sense, “The Farmer” can be seen to anticipate WCW’s own more famous lines in the much later “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” (1955): “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Minor Threat show, 6/26/83

 Minor Threat at Great Gildersleeves, New York City, June 26, 1983. Ian MacKaye on right, back to the camera. I am in this photo, center of the stage in leather jacket, my face partly obscured by the headstock of Brian Bakers bass. YDI and the Mob opened up. What a great show. I briefly chatted with Henry Rollins of Black Flag, who was in the audience. Years fly by.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

George Oppen’s “if it all went up in smoke”

To continue with George Oppen: His poetry seems to get even more obscure, or perhaps oblique is the better word, by the time of later collections such as Primitive (1978).  “If it all went up in smoke” is a case in point.  It is a poem which conveys its meaning through association and resonance, in which Oppen comments on the origin of poetry, especially as it relates to the American scene.  Poetry, for Oppen, remains tied to nature, though it exists not merely in the placid contemplation of the natural world, but in the “savage” energy it embodies.  Thus, for Oppen the poem is akin to the kind of wild energy that is inherent in uncultivated nature.  This is a force so vital that it cannot be completely dissipated, but only transformed.  Despite the fact that the American landscape has been conquered and tamed, our perception of that landscape as “savage” remains (having long been cast as such in the literature of early English and European explorers and settlers, for example), and can still be tapped into as poetic inspiration.  Yet Oppen moves against the easy Romantic idea of the poet “communing” with nature, where humans and nature are supposed to be able to harmoniously merge.  He suggests that poetry springs not particularly from such a communing, but from the juxtaposition of wildness and civilization, where humans must approach nature from the vantage point of human society.  (In this, he presages some of the thinking of contemporary eco-criticism in regard to the supposed split between nature and society.)

Oppen begins the poem with a statement, or proposition: “if it all went up in smoke // that smoke / would remain” – suggesting the idea that energy cannot be destroyed, but only transformed.  These opening lines (which incorporate the poem’s title, a technique Oppen uses in many of the poems in this collection) are set off by their being put in italics, as if to highlight their importance as an underlying theme.  If America is Oppen’s “forever savage country,” then he is suggesting in this statement that although the American wilderness may now have largely been conquered, its “savageness” still remains in some way.  In this case it takes the form of poetry.  After the initial offering of the italicized theme, Oppen says that “the forever / savage country poem’s light [is] borrowed // light of the landscape…”  This is what first clues us in that the poem is about poetry itself, and that poetry is being connected to nature.  The poem’s “light” – its energy or essence perhaps – is for Oppen still rooted in nature.  “Savage country” specifically implies the sense of nature as being distinct from civilization (the etymology of the word “savage” is ultimately the Latin silvāticus: silva, “woods,” plus the adjectival suffix -āticus).  Thus, poetry for Oppen “borrows” something of this untamed, natural, wild energy found in the forest or the wilderness. 

However, Oppen complicates what could have been a rather simplistic or even Romantic vision of the relation of poetry to nature.  As we have seen, the poem borrows, but transforms for its own purposes.  Oppen as poet consciously co-opts the energy of nature and transforms it into something else (poetry).  They are not equivalent, though they are connected.  That natural energy no longer exists in its original state but has become something else (the “smoke” “remains”).  After describing poetry as “borrowed light of the landscape,” Oppen continues: “and one’s footprints praise” – which explicitly introduces humankind.  We see the human sense of awe or reverence before nature, an early or almost primitive reverence (as in the collection’s title, Primitive).  Humans praise from within “the close / crowd” (society), and they praise “all / that is strange.”  Nature is perceived as strange from within society – still “forever savage” – and Oppen is making no effort to become mystically united with it.  This strangeness, however, remains “the sources / the wells” of poetry.  In this way, the perceived savageness of nature is brought into society, having been transmuted to poetry, which is also inevitably imbued with a touch of that very savageness.

For Oppen, as he continues in this poem, poetry begins “neither in word / nor meaning but the small / selves haunting // us in the stones…”  It is nothing more than that, but “is less / always than that…”  This “less” seems to deliberately undercut the mystique of the poetic process – it is not the grandiose, hieratic conception of the “Poet” put forth by the Romantics.  Poetry is something enacted within human society.  At the same time, there is certainly a relationship between man and the natural world, which we get in the ensuing words: “help me I am / of that people the grass // blades touch…”  Here there is a sense of the fragility of human life in the face of uncivilized nature, but also of a connection in that touching of the grass blades.  For Oppen, there is a dynamism in this relationship, a vitality important not only for life itself but which can also be a catalyst for poetry.  The conclusion of this piece – “and touch in their small // distances the poem / begins” – again implies this connection however “distant.”  So, poetry for Oppen is not simply inspired by the Romantic contemplation of nature, but arises from the particular relationship of the poet (existing within society) to nature, and in the way he engages nature’s “savage” aspect from the vantage point of “society” – and especially their interpenetration.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Two Poems in Coal City Review

I have two new poems in the latest issue of Coal City Review, number 43, 2019. CCR (ISSN 10062-5011), based in Lawrence, Kansas, is a print-only literary journal in the old-school mode, which you have to order through the mail. Nice to get this the other day, and my thanks to editor Brian Daldorph.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

On George Oppen’s “Part of the Forest”

My analysis of George Oppen’s poem “Part of the Forest” came out of my graduate course-work with Professor Jon Thompson.

“Part of the Forest,” from Oppen’s 1962 collection The Materials, offers a particular vision of masculinity.  It is a negative kind of masculinity, however, which Oppen portrays as both alienating to the individuals it affects and damaging to what he sees as the important communal values of human society – love and family.  Furthermore, it is a way of being that diminishes one’s very humanity.  The male figure in the poem has not only lost his ability to use language, but as a denizen of the forest (as in the poem’s title) he becomes something more akin to an animal than a man.  In presenting this vision of maleness, Oppen is inherently critiquing the America from which it springs.  Its expression – the beer-drinking, car-driving loner – can be seen to echo the image of the cowboy, for example, the rugged frontiersman who seemingly has little need for human fellowship, an image central to the American myth.  For Oppen in “Part of the Forest,” however, this is an image which is ultimately destructive both to the sense of community which any society requires in order to thrive, as well as to the individuals within that society.

The poem is constructed as a series of images, separate vignettes that contrast and play off each other.  It begins with a vision of lovers “who recall that / Moment of moonlight. . . .”  The second stanza, though, presents the reader with a sudden shift: someone (male, we glean slightly later) alone with a tree, and thus presumably in the forest of the poem’s title.  “To be alone,” Oppen writes, “is to be lost. . . .”  The third stanza lets us know that the tree in question “is an oak.” The oak is traditionally associated with strength, impassivity, and this resonates with the willful isolation of the male figure here.  Following the word oak there is a colon: “It is an oak: the word / Terrifying spoken to the oak—”  These lines are obscure, but the word that Oppen is apparently referring to is the word “oak” itself, as if speaking it in isolation, alone in the forest and devoid of human interaction – addressing the word only to the tree which it signifies – it is as if this act strips the word of its meaning, thus alienating its speaker from the comforts of society, and from language itself. So I wrote in 2007. Rereading the poem, it appears to me that the oak is not meant to accord so much with the masculinist narrative of America, but instead represents a kind of equanimity of being in nature that is foreclosed to the lone male figure for whom the word “oak” means something vastly different from that which is the oak itself. The oak’s “roots / Are there” – but not so for the male figure who we soon see must always speed around in his car.

“Young men therefore are determined to be men,” begins the following stanza, and to be men in the almost stereotypical ways of being a man in America: “Beer bottle and a closed door / . . . Or car.”  At this point, about halfway through the poem, a sort of narrative takes shape.  The reader is now with the young man in a car, as if taking flight.  A town is approached, and the car, the man, must slow down for a woman: “kids / In hand. She is // A family.”  The woman and the family are here presented as something undesirable, an impediment to the car’s progress along the road, or merely a brief dalliance.  What seems to be Oppen’s voice then interjects, suddenly presenting a differing viewpoint: “Isn’t tenderness, God knows, / This long boned girl—”  But for the man all this “is a kind of war. . . .”  He is at odds with the idea of the woman and a family.  In the setting of the family, the man is likened to “A tower // In the suburb” – in other words he is isolate and stands aloof.  The poem then ends with “the road again. The car’s / Companion.”  And unlike with the romanticism of, say, Kerouac, Oppen is certainly not suggesting that this is a good thing.

“Part of the Forest,” then, is a meditation on male alienation, an alienation that Oppen implies is unhealthy.  He is critical of this version of maleness, which springs from a particular type of American myth – a cool reserve, beer bottle, a car, the road, a tower of one, the “strong silent type” – which we often see in older male film leads, for example, or which in fact permeates most of American society, what we might now call toxic masculinity.  The man who allows himself to be inculcated with these qualities, Oppen is saying, cuts himself off from love.  His opening vision of lovers recalling a moment of moonlight is not what is in store for that man alone and lost on the road.  The moment of moonlight is a “lit instant,” which suggests the light and the enlightenment of love, while the forest suggests darkness, a lack of clarity, confusion for the man, though perhaps its mystery could have offered its own kind of enlightenment if the man were attuned to it.  Likewise, the tenderness of the “long boned girl” is out of reach, along with the satisfaction of genuine relationships (yes, it is a hetero-normative framework, but perhaps there is a latent critique of this in the poem as well).  For this sort of man, at least, the tower in the suburb is a kind of prison, from which he is impelled to escape in order to get back out on the road, doomed to wander forever in his car.  It is not so much that the suburb itself is desirable, but the man has trapped himself in a set of untenable choices: the suburb, the road, the forest?  He can be happy nowhere now.

So Oppen doesn’t just give us a meditation on a particular kind of masculinity, but a critique of it as well.  He enumerates certain masculine values in this poem – silence, isolation, the classic cowboy almost (but with the automobile in place of the horse) – all of these being male images which for Oppen are negative values damaging one’s ability to achieve fulfillment.  The male figure seems to have lost control over his destiny.  He is identified with the car, and it is the car which now seems to dictate what the man will do.  In the fifth stanza, when they approach the town, it is the car, “the big machine,” which does the “negotiat[ing],” not the man.  Or rather, the town is approached by the car – the passive voice further diminishing the idea of either the car or the man as having the freedom of will that his investment in masculinity promised.

The male figure here is unable to carry on a successful relationship with the woman, and thus, Oppen implies, unable to play a real part in the human community (“lost”).  In this regard it should also be remembered that early on in the poem he has metaphorically lost his capacity for language; he cannot communicate.  Next to the oak, the idea of speaking becomes something terrifying.  And because the man is in this way mute, he is forever, as the title says, “part of the forest,” yet even there denied the camaraderie of the oak.  Contrasted with all of this are Oppen’s brief visions of lovers under moonlight, a tender woman, a family, all of which are unavailable to a man who cannot express feeling.  This alienation is not, Oppen argues, in any way desirable, but is instead a kind of warping straitjacket, which makes the man something less than human.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Bill Hughes, The Electric Compartments & The Burning Buildings at Dawn

I did the layout (cover and text) for Bill Hughes’s new poetry collection, The Electric Compartments & The Burning Buildings at Dawn, out now from Six Gallery Press.  His poems are surrealistic, visionary, and as André Breton would say, marvelous. The cover paintings are by John Menesini.

Order the book here:

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Poem in The Indianapolis Review

My poem “Palindrome: A Torrent / A Torpor” appears in Issue 10 (Fall 2019) of The Indianapolis Review and can be read here:

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Poem in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment

My poem “A Trans-Historical Interview between Poets (after the Irish text Immacallam an Dá Thuarad)” appears in the Autumn 2019 issue of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 26, no. 4. ISLE is the peer-reviewed journal of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). The poem is open-access archived online and can be read here.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Poem at Silver Pinion

Horace Pippin, Holy Mountain IV (unfinished, oil on canvas, 26×36", 1946)
My ekphrastic poem in homage to the painter Horace Pippin is now up at Silver Pinion. Thank you to Silver Pinion and to Horace Pippin. Read the poem here:

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Gabriel Rosenstock Poem as Song

I once translated a poem by Gabriel Rosenstock, “Conair an Cheoil” (from Irish to English, collected online here), which has now been set to music by Garth Baxter and sung by mezzo-soprano Christine Thomas, with Andrew Stewart on piano. See/listen here:

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Review in Poetry Ireland - Trumpet

My review of Ailbhe Darcy & SJ Fowler, Ciarán O’Driscoll, and Anatoly Kudryavitsky — titled “Fission/Fusion: Surrealism Now” — appears in the latest issue (no. 8, July 2019) of Poetry Ireland / Éigse Éireann’s magazine Trumpet, pp. 6-9.  Info here:

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Review-Essay in American Literary History

My review-essay “Poetry and the War(s)” is published in the latest issue of American Literary History, vol. 31, no. 3, Fall, 2019, pp. 540-49, DOI: 10.1093/alh/ajz022. In it, I engage with three recent books of criticism on war poetry — American Poetry and the First World War by Tim Dayton, Cambridge University Press, 2018; News of War: Civilian Poetry 1936-1945 by Rachel Galvin, Oxford University Press, 2018; and A Shadow on Our Hearts: Soldier-Poetry, Morality, and the American War in Vietnam by Adam Gilbert, University of Massachusetts Press, 2018. ALH has made the essay available to read for free online, here:

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Baseball Poem in Aethlon

My poem “Baseball” in Aethlon XXXV:1 / Fall 2017 - Winter 2018 (which is the current issue, just out now). Thanks to the editor Ron Smith and all involved.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

On A. R. Ammons, “Corson’s Inlet” & “Poetics”

Thinking again about the nature of “nature” poetry, I recently reread a poem by A. R. Ammons, “Corson’s Inlet.” I cannot say that I have studied Ammons’s complete oeuvre in depth, and only own the 2006 Library of America Selected Poems (ed. Lehman).  (Incidentally, this was a quite well-done series of books, with covers designed by the great graphic artists Mark Melnick and Chip Kidd.)

“Corson’s Inlet” (pp. 18-22) has always seemed to me a kind of ars poetica, not just a nature poem per se.  It opens with the speaker walking the dunes and shore at Corson’s Inlet, NJ, meditating on connections between the natural world, poetry, and thought.  The speaker, presumably a version of Ammons himself, almost immediately begins to draw comparisons between the course of his walk and his poetics.  In line 13, for example, he describes the walk as “liberating,” releasing him from “forms,” and in lines 15-16 from “straight lines” and “binds / of thought.”  The parallel with poetic form and with lines of poetry will not be lost.  Thus Ammons is making a statement — his poetry will not rely on regular line lengths, syllable counts, on predetermined forms or the like, as these are restrictive “boxes” and “binds.”

Instead, his form will be unpredictable like nature.  The poem will unfold organically.  What meaning there is in the poem will run “like a stream” (he says in line 22).  While there is certainly metaphor in this, Ammons lets nature itself be the metaphor for his poetics.  The world, and wild nature, is “irregular” (he says in line 38) and does not lend itself to tidy conclusions.  Nor can the poet realistically expect to arrive at any sense of certainty, as he alludes to in lines 41+:

I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries,
shutting out and shutting in, separating inside
      from outside: I have drawn no lines…
Lying behind this what might be described as a Heraclitean view of the world, and just as we “cannot step into the same river twice,” so in lines 46-48,
manifold events of sand
change the dune’s shape that will not be the same shape
Ammons’ response is to accept this indeterminacy in his own writing.  As he says in lines 49-52,
so I am willing to go along, to accept
the becoming
thought, to stake off no beginnings or ends, establish
       no walls…
His poetry will reflect the organic flow of thought, as well as the constantly changing nature of the world.  Like the natural environment, “Corson’s Inlet” is “irregular,” using free verse with no discernible pattern.  Another example of how this stance is reflected in his poetry can be seen in the section from lines 55 onward:
     change in that transition is clear
     as any sharpness: but “sharpness” spread out,
allowed to occur over a wider range
than mental lines can keep…
He is talking about “transitions” of thought as it responds to the material world, I think, but also about “transitions” in poetry — in other words, how the poem will be constructed, how it will flow together as a piece of writing.  There are no “lines” in nature, no hard and fast borders denoting where one thing leaves off and another begins — no “beginnings or ends” or “walls,” Ammons writes in line 51.  For him, there is only a constant state of flux.

Nonetheless, one way the poem hopes to reflect these transitions is through Ammons’s technique of using a colon to mark a separation between one image and the next (as seen in lines 59-69, where a series of images follow each other, with the colon marking each succession in the text) — but the colon also marks the connection of these images to each other in the flow of natural events and the speaker’s thought.  In lines 79-82, he uses the colon to juxtapose the image of the swallows with what they might suggest on another, more abstract level (“an order held / in constant change”).  The swallows can be viewed either as a collection of individual swallows, or “as one event” (lines 82-84).

A poem might aspire, as Ammons puts it in line 92, to “the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness,” but he also realizes that this is only a tentative position, that “outcomes of actions” cannot be predictable (he says in lines 107-08).  Indeed, the universe embodies infinite possibilities (lines 109-13), and thus, as he goes on to say in lines 114-16, there can be

     no forcing of image, plan
or thought:
no propaganda, no humbling of reality to precept…
Ammons’s poetry is a poetry of open-endedness, rather than of closed forms.  In line 121, he eschews the “easy victory” of traditional formal poetry (identified in the “narrow orders, limited tightness” of line 120), knowing that the deeper nature of the world is anything other than such “narrowness” of form might imply.

In some sense, poetry, of course, is inescapably form.  So Ammons admits in his conclusion to “Corson’s Inlet” that he has no choice but to try

     to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening
scope, but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
     that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.
This statement suggests that, at least in Ammons’ view, a new poem must also create poetry itself anew, that a poet cannot simply rely on the predictable patterns of form but must allow the poem to find its own form in response to nature and the changing world it grapples with.  Ammons asserts that that world is necessarily disordered and in a state of ongoing change and that, therefore, instead of trying to show one’s poetic mastery by imposing a predetermined form over it, the poet must listen to nature, must listen to language itself, and allow him- or herself to “go with the flow” of that flux: “I have perceived nothing completely” — a nor can one ever, for all is mediated by the particular dynamics of the mind.

It is interesting to compare this poem with another Ammons piece, which is overtly an ars poetica, being titled “Poetics” (pp. 26-27).  It does very similar things.  Where, in “Corson’s Inlet,” the poem runs “like a stream,” here it is “spiralling from a center” (line 3).  Ammons opens himself to “the shape / things will take to come forth in” (4-5), yet when they do, as the birch tree in lines 6-10, it is merely or even “totally its apparent self.”  The poem, for Ammons, is not only the shape of the poem as written down, “but the / uninterfering means on paper” (17-18) — and more important is that the poet be

to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours. (20-24)
In other words, it is not about the individual poet, the supposedly autonomous individual artist (as “great,” or what have you) but in fact more about forgetting the self, the ego, and opening up outwardly to — let’s call it the “cosmos,” at the risk of sounding over-serious and for lack of a less grandiose word.

NB: This essay incorporates thoughts of mine going as far back as 2008, and I thank Peter Makuck for first turning me on to “Corson’s Inlet” as a particular Ammons poem to look at.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Review of Kate Behrens, Penumbra

My review of Kate Behrens’s latest collection Penumbra (Two Rivers Press, 2019) is up at Empty Mirror. Here is a brief snippet:
Numerous birds appear in this collection. What are they? Messengers, transmigrating spirits perhaps, and/or real birds. One particular bird poem that I like a lot here is “Thrush.” The thrush in this poem is perhaps the thrush in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring,” only now the “same just older thrush, / thrust upwards from sheer. . . / sheerer. . .” (Behrens’s deployment of ellipses is perhaps a revival of a usage that seemed to have gone out of fashion). There is a similar kind of intense soundplay to Hopkins (“thrush”/“thrust”) and a similar attempt to grasp a fleeting joy—Behrens’s poem ends with the thrush’s return, provoking “Ebullience. It wipes us out.”
The full review can be read here:

Monday, May 13, 2019

Poem at Scoundrel Time

My poem “Elegy for the Republic” appears at Scoundrel Time. Many thanks to poetry editor Daisy Fried for publishing it.

Read it here: