On Poetry

The Language of Poets: 10 Notable Forms

Poets know form equals function. Even better, poets know form enables function -- which might explain why poets appear more deliberately invested in form than fiction writers. Form is essential to poetry because it requires the union of strangeness and conformity. By nature, poems are acts of selection and deletion. The poet makes her own margins. In fiction, white space is often arbitrary: a clearing of the space amidst dialogue, the breaths between paragraphs. Poems are sculpted art, and it helps to begin them with a sense of form. Edward Hirsch’s The Essential Poet’s Glossary -- what he calls a “shorter and more focused” version of his encyclopedic A Poet’s Glossary -- contains a wide variety of entries. He covers poetic movements and styles, from “abstract poetry” to “zaum,” a “kind of sound poetry, a disruptive poetic language focused on the materiality of words.” A gifted poet himself, Hirsch has long been known as a clear and specific critic. Each entry of this pared volume feels like a tight, concrete prose poem. Lovers of verse are blessed with specific examples and quotable lines. Hirsch’s book sends poets to other books, other poems, and even better -- inspires poets to create new work. My favorite part of Hirsch’s book is his compendium of poetic forms. Many are idiosyncratic and obscure -- adjectives that have never stopped poets before. Each poetic form is an opportunity. A new house for words. In alphabetical order, here are 10 of the most intriguing forms included in Hirsch’s volume. Why not try them yourself? 1. Canzone Petrarch established this form of lyric love poem with stanzas of five or six lines, ending with an envoi -- a half-stanza. Hirsch identifies Dante Alighieri as an admirer of the canzone, and the great poet created his own “maddeningly difficult” permutation of the form, which “uses the same five end-words in each of the five 12-line stanzas, intricately varying the pattern.” See also the recursive wit of Marilyn Hacker's "Canzone:" "sinewy and singular, the tongue / accomplishes what, perhaps, no other organ / can." 2. Epinicion Pindar began the tradition of writing commissioned victory odes for 5th -century B.C.E. athletes. These poems “called for an ecstatic performance that communally reenacted the ritual participation in the divine.” A race or a wrestling match became the occasion for eternal significance. Gods and heroes were intoned. Steph Curry and Serena Williams deserve contemporary epinicia, but so might weekend warriors on the pick-up court hustling to recreate glory days. It would not be the first time that poetry has elevated the mediocre. 3. Ghazal A gorgeous form, originated in 7th-century Arabia and practiced until the present. Hirsch finds meaning in both definitions of the word: “sweet talk” and “the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered in a hunt and knows it must die.” Ahmed Ali notes an “atmosphere of sadness and grief pervades the ghazal.” Agha Shahid Ali calls them “ravishing disunities.” The form has several versions, but in one, there are “five or more autonomous couplets. Each two-line unit is independent, disjunctive.” See Patricia Smith's “Hip-Hop Ghazal:” “As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak, / inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.” 4. Kyrielle A French form with “any number of four-line stanzas, usually rhymed. The last line of the first stanza repeats, sometimes with meaningful variations, as the final line of each quatrain.” Hirsch suggests Thomas Campion’s 1613 poem “With broken heart and contrite sigh” as a text that “fits the letter and law” of the form. Campion repeats “God, be merciful to me” before concluding “God has been merciful to me.” Another useful example: Theodore Roethke’s children’s poem “Dinky:” “O what's the weather in a Beard? / It's windy there, and rather weird, / And when you think the sky has cleared / -- Why, there is Dirty Dinky.” 5. Muwashshah Andalusian Arabic strophic poem that “regularly alternates sections with separate rhymes and others with common rhymes.” Think aa bbaa ccaa and so on. Began in 9th-century Spain and delivered in classical Arabic -- although its final couplet often arrived in more vernacular Spanish. Later, Jewish Andalusian poets adopted the form, which became known as “girdle poems.” Peter Cole describes such a poem as one “in which the rhyming chorus winds about the various strophes of the poem as a gem-studded sash cuts across the body.” 6. Pantoum So much in poetry is lost in translation, including the strict original rhyme of Charles Baudelaire's pantoum “Evening Harmony:” “Now comes the time when swaying on its stem / each flower offers incense to the night; / phrases and fragrances circle in the dark-- / languorous waltz that casts a lingering spell!” The spirit remains. Each line of a pantoum includes between eight and 12 syllables. Hirsch likens the pantoum’s disjunctive nature to the ghazal: “the sentence that makes up the first pair of lines has no immediate logical or narrative connection with the second pair of lines.” At first, the connection is made by rhyme, sound repetition, or even pun, but “there is also an oblique but necessary relationship, and the first statement turns out to be a metaphor for the second one.” The pantoum “is always looking back over its shoulder, and thus is well suited to evoke a sense of times past.” 7. Renga A Japanese form, meaning “linked poem.” First created “around a thousand years ago” as a “party game,” each stanza of a renga links to the preceding section. Poets bounced tanka-like sections off each other, honing “their skills at creating images and linking dissimilar elements.” In the traditional Japanese method, the composition begins with an honored guest writing the opening, followed by an accompaniment by the party’s host. Certain renga shifted from playful to serious, but those light-hearted poetic games still remain. 8. Tenson In the 12th century, Provençal poets debated in verse battles. Each tenson “could take any metrical form, through the respondent was often challenged to reply in the same meter and rhyme scene used by the challenger.” If no literal combatant existed, poets sometimes created imaginary enemies. Yet contemporary poets likely would have no problem finding literary adversaries, and they could follow the model of Dante Alighieri and “his one-time friend Forese Donati,” who exchanged “six rancorous and insulting sonnets.” 9. Triolet Eight-lined poem, with two rhymes and two refrains. The subject is introduced in the first two lines. The fourth line is repeated later; between those repetitions include lines that expand the original subject. The final lines “knit the conclusion.” Repeated lines evolve in meaning and connotation. Hirsch describes the form as “intricate, playful, and melodious,” -- but notes the first English triolets were prayers by 17th-century Benedictine monk Patrick Carey. According to Edmund Gosse, “nothing can be more ingeniously mischievous, more playfully sly, than this tiny trill of epigrammatic melody, turning so simply on its own innocent axis.” Innocent, yes, but also sharp, as in the pen of Sandra McPherson: “She was in love with the same danger / everybody is. Dangerous / as it is to love a stranger, / she was in love.” 10. Villanelle Hirsch includes common and tried forms like sonnets, and although I’ve leaned toward the more unique forms, I can’t ignore the beautiful appeal of the villanelle, a true test of poetic endurance and dexterity (one that tempted and strained Stephen Dedalus). A French form by way of Italian pastoral folk songs, the villanelle contains “nineteen lines divided into six stanza -- five tercets and one quatrain.” The rhyme and repetition is as follows: Elizabeth Bishop and other poets have realized the “compulsive returns” of the villanelle form speak to loss: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Others, like Aimee Nezhukumatathil, have spun the form into fresh designs, as in “After the Auction, I Bid You Good-Bye:” “You elbow me with your corduroy jacket / when a box chock-full of antique marbles comes up. / I can’t hear your whispers above the auctioneer’s racket. / / The clipped speech of the auctioneer cracked / me up when you impersonated him in bed.” The best poets spring headlong into forms, and, faced with forced constraints and concision, make all things new.
On Poetry

Start With These Five New Books of Poetry

You should buy new books of poetry. Sure, there are novels and memoirs that are worth your money, but don’t be averse to verse. Show libraries your love, but buy poetry. Buy poetry for escape and for inscape. Buy poetry to pause the world, to hide from it, to consider all its hues and microscopic wonders. Buy poetry because poets deserve to get paid. Buy poetry and leave copies on your kitchen table. Buy poetry and read it aloud -- to yourself, to someone you love, to someone who loves you but hates poetry. Buy poetry to learn what it means to be surprised and stirred by words. Start with these five new books. There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker “At school they learned that Black people happened.” Parker’s gifted poems shift and pivot. In “The President Has Never Said the Word Black,” she writes: “What kind of bodies are movable / and feasts. What color are visions. // When he opens his mouth / a chameleon is inside, starving.” True to the collection’s title, Beyoncé’s presence is present -- she calls Lady Gaga “Tonight   I make a name for you.” She listens “for prophecies / from my daughter’s sticky mouth” and tells her “Never give them / what they want, when they want it.” She prepares a will: “A vigil will be held in memory of / a prime evening / sweating like ice in a glass.” And there’s other gems like “Another Another Autumn in New York,” when the narrator smirks “I will not be attending the party / tonight, because I am / microwaving multiple Lean Cuisines / and watching Wife Swap.” She smokes, eats a whole box of cupcakes, steps on leaves: [I] “confuse the meanings / of castle and slum, exotic / and erotic,” and “breathe dried honeysuckle / and hope. I live somewhere / imaginary.” So many sweet and sour lines here. One of my favorites comes from “Delicate and Jumpy:” “Soon a beer-colored sky will sneak / up behind the fence. I toss my hair / to the street without permission.” American Purgatory by Rebecca Gayle Howell Every once in a while, poetry needs to say to novels: I’ve been around longer, and I can tell stories better. Howell’s the kind of poet who can announce the apocalypse in a whisper. American Purgatory is set in some charred near-future that looks increasingly like our present, where “persons are held to service and labor.” Where “dust here is big,” and people “work a whore’s hours, but care less.” I love how Howell yokes the mythic with the muddy: “Everything dies, I tell him an old lover said that / to me each night. Slade rises to bend backward, / his hand on his hip, his eyes open straight to the sun.” Howell documents a diseased, dehydrated world through three characters, whose dreams are like threnodies. “From a distance the brushfire looked like veins crossing, / a flame’s thin arm, like electric wires, like Christmas”-- lines that loosen the reader into one character’s dream of “two diamondbacks, a cross / of tails bent to the motion of a lock.” What can they -- we -- do in a world like this? “Above us / geese charge / north on abacus wires strung tight to — what. What sky / are we held by? Who counts our sins.” Whereas by Layli Long Soldier In 2009, then-President Obama signed a resolution “To acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.” The resolution contains a litany of sentences that begin “whereas,” and ends with a disclaimer that “Nothing in this Joint Resolution authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” The resolution was signed in silence. There was no announcement. No ceremony. Long Soldier was angered by the mode and method of the apology, and wrote a book in response to it. Whereas is a poetic document of force, an indictment of bureaucratic language that makes violence passive. She begins a section of “whereas” poems with the statement that she is a citizen of the United States and the Oglala Lakota Nation, and “in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” She begins: “Whereas when offered an apology I watch each movement the shoulders / high or folding, tilt of the head both eyes down or straight through / me, I listen for cracks in knuckles or in the word choice, what is it / that I want? To feel and mind you I feel from the senses -- I read / each muscle, I ask the strength of the gesture to move like a poem.” Long Soldier’s book is diverse in form and function, a beautiful work of book art that needs to be held and museum-shown. Fair Sun by Susan Barba Paging through Barba’s collection, I first opened to “Marathon,” the penultimate poem in the book, and was instantly hooked. “Only the moon over Soldier’s Field Road sees us depart, / quiet until the sun apocalyptic above the hospital / jars us into words at river’s bend, electric pink / feedback feathering the water.” Rare is the pitch-perfect running poem, but Barba captures this New England moment: “Human / technicolor snakes and schoolbuses perambulate / the park and idly limber in preparation to go west.” Barba’s poetry settles on the tongue. “How Should We Live Our Lives?” is a poem worthy of framing. The first stanza follows the title’s question with another: “With love / and trepidation / sign our letters?” More questions follow, before we realize this is an internal conversation that reaches the air: “Daughter, / as you grow up I / will grow old, / a fact that shocks / you, even at age three.” The narrator laments “Love has no part in this.” Barba is masterful at finding the shine in disparate moments: “Yellow coldness, puddles in the mud. / The brush of winter waiting for the sky to dry.” A book to read, and re-read. Blackacre by Monica Youn “The Greeks / had it wrong: / catastrophe // is not a downturn, / not a fall / from grace.” Instead, it is the “sudden /terrible // elevation of / a single point— / one dot // on the topography / of a life.” Youn effortlessly shifts between many forms in Blackacre, but I find myself returning to her columnar poems that careen forward like freshly sharpened arrows. Her sense of poetic lines is keen and clean; her work feels sculpted. And then she stops a reader in her tracks with prose-poems like “Desideratum:” “But what is it that you want?” We are placed in a high-school parking lot, the humidity visible like “sluggish cellophane ripples, epoxy threatening to go solid.” A truck starts, with rope “knotted to its tow hitch,” and that rope “begins to play out, uncoiling, looping, unlooping itself ...hissing in widening arcs across the tarmac.” You -- audience, reader -- “find yourself lurching after it, staggering,” hoping to grab it. Afraid “what that rough plastic rope would do to your hands, what the sudden jerk would do to your shoulder joints, whether, once having grabbed hold, you would ever be able to let go.” I can’t think of a better metaphor for poetry. Poems are a dangerous invitation, but if we can grab hold of the language, we are caught. We are changed.
On Poetry

Poetry in Motion

“Running, friends, is boring,” to tweak a line from John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. I’ve been boring myself -- that is, running regularly -- for more than 20 years now, competitively, then somewhat competitively, then by-no-stretch-of-the-imagination competitively. It’s a generally invigorating but lonely endeavor. Gone are the days when I hit the trails with boisterous teammates, and only rarely do I jog with running companions (otherwise known, somewhat euphemistically, as friends). And as for musical accompaniment? Never, not so much for purist reasons -- “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” etc. -- but because I fear that if I rely even once on an up-beat song to get me through a run, I’ll never be able to lace up without an iPod again. Thus deprived of the pleasurable distraction of conversation, as well the pulsating beats of pop music, I’ve had ample time over the course of thousands of runs to think. Or not to think. Or, as I’ve started doing over the past couple years, reciting poetry to pass the time. There is a tradeoff involved. Moving fast is surprisingly difficult while sputter forth spondees between gasps for air. Some verses, though, causes me to drag my feet more than others. Reciting the metaphysical poets costs me about a minute per mile, not to mention attracting some strange looks from passersby, especially when John Donne is involved: “It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,/ And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.” Gerard Manley Hopkins easily trips up the tongue and brings all progress to a halt: “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings.” Wallace Stevens lifts my spirits but lowers my speed: “Call the roller of big cigars, the muscular one/ And bid him whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds.” Hard to dip under seven-minute pace reciting that. (Then again, the record for running a mile while chugging a beer before each lap is currently 4:39, so anything’s possible.) But speed and prosody can go hand in hand, or rather foot over foot. Extolling the beauty of a bonnie lass in ballad meter (Robert Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose”); or giving oneself over to the pulsating majesty of William Blake’s “The Tyger” or the laconic stoicism of Robert Frost’s traveler (“And miles to go before I sleep”); or eulogizing A.E. Housman’s young athlete in sprightly tetrameter -- “Smart lad to slip betimes away,/ From fields where glory does not stay” -- only costs me about 20 to 30 seconds per mile. (Still too slow, sadly, to win my town the race.) I reserve John Keats for long runs on secluded trails, when I can take my time with the great odes. What pleasant running companions are satiated (if a tad lethargic) Autumn, “sitting careless on a granary floor,/ Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;” the cheerleading nightingale, “pouring forth thy soul abroad/ In such an ecstasy!”; alluring Melancholy, whose “sovereign shrine” is in the “very temple of delight;” and the frustrated Attic youth in his perpetual mad pursuit: “Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss/ Though winning near the goal...” I give a little performance of “La belle dame sans merci” as well, usually at the end of a 14-miler when, haggard and woebegone, I most resemble those “pale kings and princes too/ pale warriors...their starved lips in the gloam/ With horrid warning gaping wide.” I should clarify that both to avoid attention and the psych ward, I generally mutter rather than sing the words. Only rarely do other people notice the impromptu plein air reading they are unwittingly attending. Yet at times I do unleash my inner scop in all his stentorian glory. I generally restrain the juvenile urge to taunt a runner I’ve passed with a nonsensical reworking of George Herbert’s “Love (III)” -- “Sit down and taste my meat!” -- but I can never resist hamming it up in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” specifically when the speaker plunges from the serenity of the “gardens bright” and “sunny spots of greenery” down into the darksome sublime: But Oh, that deep romantic chasm which slanted Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover! A savage place! Such lines demand to be read with the same intensity as woman wailing for her demon lover. And once, when caught in a terrifying summer thunder storm -- the kind where you frantically try to remember whether you should seek shelter under a tree, as far away from a tree as possible, or just sprint through the ankle-deep puddles as fast as possible and hope that your sneakers will absorb any electric charge -- I bellowed Lear’s heath speech: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks! You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts, Singe my white head! The performance slightly mitigated my terror, though, unlike Lear, I taxed the elements with plenty of unkindness. In calmer climes, my recitals are more private affairs. A little Richard Lovelace gets me into the questing spirit and out the door: ...a new mistress now I chase, The first foe in the field; And with a stronger faith embrace, A sword, a horse, a shield. Settling in to my pace, I shift from a martial to pagan mindset, indulging in Andrew Marvell’s pastoral visions or William Wordsworth’s flash mob of daffodils: “Ten thousand I saw at a glance,/ Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” In colder months, Thomas Hardy (“The ancient pulse of germ and birth/ Was shrunken hard and dry”) strangely invigorates the bleak landscape. If Hardy's frail warbler can “fling his soul upon the growing gloom,” then I can drag my blast-beruffled ass over a barren hill. Returning home, I usually cover a roughly 400-meter stretch reserved exclusively for Emily Dickinson poems. If I’m feeling in a good mood, “I taste a liquor never brewed;” burdened, “There’s a certain slant of light/ Winter afternoons/ That oppresses like the heft/ Of cathedral tunes;” or hurting, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” I call it the Dickinson quarter-mile, and the world record is 1:49 with three poems recited. More impressive, in my view, than the beer mile. Speaking of beer, I wish I had some poetry memorized in college, especially during that transition from the shorter distances and weaker fields of high school cross country. One quickly learns that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Perhaps Sir Thomas Wyatt’s bitterly erotic reverie, “They flee from me that sometime did me seek,” would have been à propos, or more to the point: Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind, But as for me, helas, I may no more. The vain travail hath wearied me so sore, I am of them that farthest cometh behind. One especially fitting occasion for a dramatic poetic recitation would have been my first 8K race in Van Cortland Park, during which I collapsed on the top of the aptly named Cemetery Hill and, like Dante Alighieri upon hearing the pitiful tale of Paolo and Francesca, “caddi come corpo morte cade.” Given, however, that I was in no state to channel a foreign tongue, a terse bit from The Waste Land would have been more realistic: “And down we went.” That head-thumping fall might explain why these days I forget poetry as quickly as I memorize it. Short lyrics vanish just as suddenly as longer pieces like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” whose lines I lose and regain as regularly as the waves “draw back, and fling” the pebbles on the shore. “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,/ I summon up remembrance of things past,” I can’t always summon up that remembrance. Despair not, though, for time flies when you are sifting through memory’s bric-a-brac and trying to reconstruct a poem. I once ran a three-mile stretch on a canal path while reassembling William Butler Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole.” By the time I had seized it once again, I felt some of the poet’s pleasure upon viewing Coole’s mysterious, beautiful creatures return Unwearied still, lover by lover, They paddle in the cold Companionable streams of climb the air; Their hearts have not grown old; Passion or conquest, wander where they will, Attend upon them still. That pleasure was tempered by the melancholy realization that I myself would awake some day to find that the lines, like the swans, had flown away. (A brief interpretive water stop: Having a poem by heart lets one explore its construction in a looser, less dutiful way than close-reading. After repeated recitals, this particular poem’s spatial dynamics rose to the fore. “The Wild Swans at Coole” is the first, and most oblique, of the three consecutive poems eulogizing Maj. Robert Gregory, an Irish fighter pilot killed in WWI. In the first two lines, we move from the treetops to the woodland paths; then from still sky to the “brimming” water. “Under” and “upon” (used five times throughout) begin lines in this first stanza, and the rest of the poem dramatizes the constantly shifting relationship between the earth-treading poet, weighed down by his loss, and the nine-and-fifty swans, either drifting on the still water or climbing the air. The action, imagery and even prepositions reinforce the latent symbolic connection between the departing swans, “wheeling in great broken rings/ Upon their clamorous wings,” and the departed fighter pilot, once aloft and now, tragically, underground. And off we go again…) Many of the poems I have floating around my head in various states of repair are amorous, memorable instances of courtly and not-so-courtly love. These naturally come to mind when passing, being passed, or crossing paths with other runners. I wouldn’t describe myself as a lecher necessarily -- “Down, wanton, down!” -- but then again, few people would. So I’ll simply grant that from time I notice the female form in motion and fiddle with my stock of verse accordingly: “Whenas in performance fabric my Julia goes, / Then, then (methinks)/ How sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.” Or if I’m feeling more romantic, some altered Lord Byron: “She jogs in beauty, like the night/ Of cloudless climes and starry skies.” Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew A Woman,” however, needs no such tinkering: “Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one: The shapes a bright container can contain!” During one run, I stumbled upon two ardent lovers in flagrante delicto within what they thought was a secluded grove. These encounters are just as embarrassing for the discovered as the discoverer. The pair looked to be doing a perfectly fine job, but annoyed by being thus importuned, I grumbled A.R. Ammons’s aspersive lines: “One failure on/ Top of another.” That could just be the bitterness of middle-age talking. I am now in the middle of life’s journey. I’ll only get slower, and, if the last five years are any indication (three ankle sprains, calf heart attack -- it’s a thing -- bad hamstring, plantar fasciitis), I can look forward to new and exotic running injuries. But if you should ever come across me on the path and see in my halting stride and grim-faced muttering a defeated man, know that the “viewless wings of poetry” are transporting me and my aching feet to a better place: And altogether elsewhere, vast Herds of reindeer move across Miles and miles of golden moss Silently and very fast. Image Credit: Pixabay.
On Poetry, Post-40 Bloomers, The Millions Interview

Form Reveals Poems for the Machines They Are: The Millions Interviews Saara Myrene Raappana

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Saara Myrene Raappana grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in China, and now lives in western Minnesota where she teaches and is the communications director for MotionPoems. Athena Kildegaard: How did you come to writing poetry? What is your genesis story? Saara Myrene Raappana: I like this idea of a genesis story. I’d like to organize the genesis of me writing poetry into a story. Let’s say that in the beginning there was probably just church -- my father’s a Lutheran pastor, so there was a lot of church, which is really just a lot of people reciting or singing the same poems every week, so I think that meter and anaphora and apostrophe and all that stuff just got rutted into my brain. I don’t remember ever not writing poetry, and maybe that’s why. I also read a LOT. I had no discipline (like, people think that I’m just being modest, but I’m actually showing my younger self quite a bit of generosity), and wasn’t huge on school, and the further I got in secondary school the worse I did, but I always read, and I always wrote. And I think all the kinds of writing teach you to write all the kinds of writing. Same with reading. But to return to the conceit. And in my 18th year, I drove to the local university extension and gave them $200 so I could take classes, for I had neglected to apply to college. And I said: let me not study poetry exclusively, for it is impractical. Let me additionally study things marginally less impractical (human development and literature) while devoting time to what’s almost as impractical. And there were punk rock shows, and experimental noise performances in basements and weird indie magazines and a lot of brightly colored hats. And I heard that it was loud. And there was evening and there was bar time -- a second phase. And I said: let me abandon a lifestyle of watching men play instruments with violent, enviable abandon. And I went to grad school and continued to flail around, undisciplined, and then I found myself with a degree. And there was graduation and reading reading reading reading writing writing reading writing. And I saw that it was better. And there was reading and writing and rejection and acceptance and books and books -- a new phase. AK: You grew up in Upper Peninsula Michigan. I’ve always thought of the UP as being similar in some ways to Maine: a place full of hardscrabble storytellers with their own regional twang. Has the UP voice made its way into your poetic voice and if so, how? SMR: Well, yes, but not necessarily in a dialectish sense. I do have some poems where the voice -- meaning phrases or names or syntax that’s particular to the UP -- appears, but the voice of the UP that appears in probably all of my work is, to play on your word, a voice that’s both hardscrabble and gentlescrabble. By which I mean that the UP is difficult -- physically difficult, especially if snow and ice aren’t your jam -- but also that it’s beset by poverty and isolation and the garbage and spindly, empty, unused buildings and xenophobic ideas that tend to flourish in places like that. But it’s also beautiful -- like, inspirational poster/Pinterest board beautiful; I mean, mind-searing, art-defying beautiful -- both physically and in its crazy history and in the very particular, unique cultures (and languages and traditions and economies) that flourish there, in part because of their isolation. I grew up taking the beauty for granted and dreaming of living elsewhere, and I’ve left and lived all over, and now of course I often ache for the landscape and those unique particulars, and they’re in everything I write. Plus, I believe in writing complicated, difficult, highfalutin' poems, but I want them to be accessible -- I always ask myself if my grandparents (who were smart and valued reading but weren’t educated; they were miners and trappers and construction workers and housewives and maids) would be able to appreciate my poems, and if the answer is no, I revise. I believe in beautiful, demanding, democratic poetry, and that’s Yooper as hell. AK: Your first book is the chapbook Milk Tooth, Levee, Fever. Sometimes first books are the result of many year’s work. Is this true of yours? How did it come into being? Why start with a chapbook? Would you recommend this to other writers? SMR: Yes? I guess -- especially if you consider that I did all that wandering around in the '90s and '00s, and those years are very much in the poems. One of the poems is actually a radical revision of a poem I wrote in grad school and two or three others I drafted for the first time soon after I graduated. For years, I didn’t even consider putting together a chapbook. I’d always seen them as self-published and less-than, but either I was wrong or they’ve gotten much fancier -- I’m not sure which. Probably both. But putting together both chapbooks taught me a lot about what differentiates a manuscript from a bunch of poems. Milk Tooth, Levee, Fever happened in one way -- I had a bunch of poems and realized that they fit together—and A Story of America Goes Walking was a series of poems written as a project, and each process was extremely instructive. So in that sense, yes, I would recommend starting with a chapbook if you’re having trouble manuscripting. The smallness of it made it feel manageable to me in a way that a full manuscript didn’t. AK: What do you think that first book announced to the world? SMR: My understanding of that is limited and evolving, but I hope that it announced that I’m for the usefulness that can be found in what’s broken. I’ll stand for that any day. AK: You use form sometimes. For example, “Winter Correspondence,” is a ghazal. Why are you attracted to forms? How does a poem take on a form in your experience -- do you start out knowing you’ll write in a particular form or does the form reveal itself? If the latter, is this surprising to you? SMR: At this point, I start probably 90 percent of my poems in form -- if not in a specific received form, at the very least in meter and rhyme. It most often falls away in revision (or I move the lines around to hide it because I’m a weirdo like that), but I do love writing in received forms. I’m attracted to the way that they limit the field -- without form, I have hundreds of thousands of words to choose from, and I don’t want the burden of that much freedom. I also love the way that writing in form connects me to other poets and the traditions of poetry. And I love the way that a finished line in a received form -- or a line of free verse that’s still very formy -- absolutely must be the line that it is. You can’t move the break or rephrase or remove words. Form reveals poems for the machines that they are. As for how I start, whether I begin with a particular form, it goes both ways. I’ve heard people say that it’s ridiculous to sit down and say “I’m going to write a sestina now” -- that the poem should reveal its form and or that certain forms are best for certain subjects. And I think that’s true -- for example, I love it when an established rhyme reveals new content; that’s for-reals the dream -- but I’m relatively new to form. I’ve always enjoyed it but didn’t start actively writing in forms until after grad school, so I feel like every time I write in a form I’m learning or relearning it. So sometimes I actually do say “I’m going to write a sestina now,” and then I write a lot of bad sestinas, and those bad sestinas teach me that, for example, sestinas expand where villanelle’s contract, that sestinas tend to want to be about circuitousness or obsession. Or sonnets teach me that pentameter can heighten drama -- things like that. And once I’ve written enough bad versions of a form (and some of those bad poems eventually turn into good poems), that form will start popping up, which is usually a fun surprise. Sometimes, if I can’t get a poem to work, I’ll rewrite it in a few different forms, just to try different solutions. AK: Your beautiful book A Story of America Goes Walking is a collaboration between you and the artist Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton. How did you find one another? How did the collaboration work? SMR: Bekah and I were in Peace Corps together. She and her husband arrived a year before us and lived maybe an hour’s train ride away. She turned two of my poems into broadsides for Shechem Press’s 2012 and 2014 artist broadside series. She’d done cuts and prints for other books for Schechem Press -- Stephen Behrendt’s Refractions is a beautiful book -- but for those, she wasn’t working with each poem individually. She contacted me and said that she wanted to do a project that was more collaborative -- where each poem interacted with a print and vice versa. She’d been reading Thoreau’s “Walking” essay, and she asked if I’d be interested in working with it. I’m actually not very into Thoreau, but I’m about challenges, so yes! We both read the essay over and over and talked a bit about how Thoreau’s vision of America mirrored or contradicted both present-day America and the way we saw America while living in China. We both placed drafts (do visual artists call them drafts?) in a Dropbox folder. At first, she was creating images to go with my poems, but as things progressed, I was responding to her prints. In one case -- “In the Women’s Hospital” -- I had a draft, and I believed in the poem, but I couldn’t crack its form. Seeing her print of an ant trapped in water blight, I realized that it needed anaphora, and the rest of the poem fell into place. A lot of the process was like that -- every time I got stuck on what to do next, the answer was in her work. AK: You are a founding editor of CellPoems. Tell us about that poetry journal. Has this work influenced your own writing in any way? SMR: It started with one of my grad school colleagues -- he had the idea to start a journal of text-messaged poetry. So we text poems to people (140 characters or less, including the title and the poet’s name) every so often. We used to do it weekly, but our technology and budget haven’t kept up with our subscriber volume, so now it’s an occasional surprise thing. It’s definitely influenced my work -- not that I write tiny poems (though I sometimes do), but spending so much time with a Submittable queue has taught me a lot about the difference between a fine poem and a fantastic poem. I’ve learned to always consider both the craft and the stakes of what I’m writing, because one without the other doesn’t work, and if you have neither I’m just not interested, and I’m not saying that I’ve never written something I wasn’t interested in -- I’m saying I try not to. AK: For people who are not avid readers of poetry, how would you describe the “difference between a fine poem and a fantastic one?” SMR: To some degree, of course, it’s subjective and magical -- some poems just grab you for no reason, and you just slip away from others. Like, for example, for years I just couldn’t understand why people lost their minds over Gerard Manley Hopkins, and then one day I heard “Spring and Fall” on a podcast, and it broke Hopkins open for me, and now he’s one of my go-tos. So some part of it is magic and personal, and I can’t pretend to understand that. But the other part, I think, is something we don’t talk much about, which is the stakes of a poem. The ridic brill poet Anna George Meek told me once that someone had talked to her about how (and this is a paraphrase) you can write a perfectly good poem, a publishable poem, but until you enter the wilderness of the poem, it will not be a great poem. And I think that wilderness is where the ice of the poem starts to ride on its own melting or where the top of the reader’s head gets physically taken off or whichever other well-repeated metaphor everyone uses to refer to this unexplainability that I suspect is totally explainable. I know that it’s a combination of craft and stakes, about what the poem is willing to risk.  
On Poetry

Staring into the Soundless Dark: On the Trouble Lurking in Poets’ Bedrooms

1. One of the most celebrated and terrifying poems of the second half of the 20th century -- and one of poetry’s great treatments of insomnia -- is Philip Larkin’s “Aubade.” The 1977 poem describes an experience all of us have at some point, that of waking up much earlier than we’d intended and, unable to get back to sleep, lying in a hazy torment in which all our life’s anxieties are amplified tenfold. The anxiety that hounds Larkin turns out to be the prospect of his own death: I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. In time the curtain-edges will grow light. Till then I see what’s really always there: Unresting death, a whole day nearer now, Making all thought impossible but how And where and when I shall myself die. Arid interrogation: yet the dread Of dying, and being dead, Flashes afresh to hold and horrify. Larkin wants us to see that these states prefigure death itself: death too will be an affair of “soundless dark” in which “all thought [is] impossible” and the individual -- supine, rigid, gaping at nothing in particular -- is quite alone. We are all speeding toward the endless acreage of death, and it’s a paradox of life that we only fully glimpse that fact against the clarifying backdrop of night and darkness. Insomniac poets glimpse it with particular sharpness, and often seem proud of this: afflicted by a crippling illness, they yet occupy a place of lonely, privileged insight, gazing out from an observatory of solitude and sleeplessness at a misguided humanity, lost in a hypnosis of daily tasks that divert it from its destiny. If the rest of his oeuvre is any indication, Larkin had a devilish time with sleep. Poems like “Sad Steps” (which begins, “Groping back to bed after a piss”) testify to the woes he encountered falling and remaining asleep; another, “Love Again,” which starts off, “Wanking at ten past three,” provides a glimpse into one of his time-tested remedies. But in this he is hardly an anomaly: poets are notoriously wretched sleepers, hopeless insomniacs who’ve developed bizarre rituals around bedtime and sleep. The Internet loves a good story about the sleeping habits of geniuses, particularly great writers -- witness the BrainPickings article, “Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity, Visualized,” which probably wafted across your Facebook feed back in 2013 when it was published. Of the 37 writers featured in that piece, though, only around three were poets. And yet poets occupy the most special relationship to sleep. Partly this is because poetry is itself a form of sleep: it beckons readers -- aloud into altered breathing patterns, and its rhythms, as W.B. Yeats once observed, serve “to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.” In other words, poetry’s repeated beats can exert a narcoleptic force that seduces the mind into a state of heightened receptivity, an openness to the dreamlike succession of images the poem initiates. But it’s also because poets have historically developed so many sleep-related idiosyncrasies, so many WTF-caliber bedtime tics, that one begins to wonder whether nighttime anxieties are part and parcel with the trade. Take Lord Byron, who went to bed at dawn and rose at 2 p.m. Prior to sleep, Byron punctually swallowed a single egg yolk whole while standing, then retired to his chambers, where he slept with two loaded pistols at his bedside and a dagger under his pillow. The weaponry served two purposes: to arm him against cuckolded husbands who might invade his bedroom in search of revenge (we’re talking about someone who, during his first two years living in Venice, slept with around 200 women, to say nothing of men and boys); and to offer him a shortcut to oblivion in case he decided to off himself while in bed. An aggressive teeth-grinder during sleep, Byron habitually awoke from nightmares that left him awash in suicidal gloom. “I awoke from a dream!” he recorded in his journal in November 1813, “but she” -- his dead mother, we think -- “did not overtake me. I wish the dead would rest, however. Ugh! how my blood chilled,--and I could not wake—and—and—heigho!” An animal-lover and vegetarian, Byron also kept a pet bear, Bruin, while a student at Cambridge, and according to some accounts the bear lived with him in his lodgings, a sentry while he slept. Vita Sackville-West -- a friend and lover of Virginia Woolf and a poet herself -- combated her insomnia by collecting as many dogs as possible and inviting them into bed with her. Amy Lowell, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926, would check into a hotel and rent out her own room as well as those above, below, and on either side of it. William Wordsworth had younger sister Dorothy read aloud to him; Dante Alighieri, his contemporary Giovanni Boccaccio tells us, kept “vigils” late into the night, frustrating for his wife and children, during which he read, and may have suffered from narcolepsy. Sylvia Plath, during the febrile, end-of-life stretch of creativity that yielded the poems in Ariel (including “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”), began her nightly routine by swallowing one sleeping pill after another, lying back and waiting for them to take hold. Then, “Every morning, when my sleeping pills wear off,” she wrote her mother, “I am up about five, in my study with coffee, writing like mad -- have managed a poem a day before breakfast.” Other poets have turned to nocturnal walking: Emily Brontë walked around and around her dining room table for hours until sleepiness overtook her; Walt Whitman, in “Hours Continuing Long,” tells of a sickening unrequited love that brings him “Hours sleepless, deep in the night, when I go forth, speeding swiftly the country roads, or through the city streets, or pacing miles and miles, stifling plaintive cries.” Still others have used drugs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth’s friend and collaborator, suffered nightmares as a child so frightful and overmastering he woke entire households with his screaming. He attempted to stave these off by repeating a rhyming prayer before sleep: “Four Angels round me spread, Two at my foot & two at my head.” As an adult, notoriously, he used opium, initially to ease the pain from various physical ailments, and later simply as a nighttime relaxant. This fueled additional nightmares that still have the power to harrow, certain of which bear an uncanny resemblance to Byron’s nightmare mentioned above. His notebooks relate one of these, which reads today like a thinly veiled drama of castration anxiety: “A most frightful Dream of a Woman whose features were blended with darkness catching hold of my right eye & attempting to pull it out -- I caught hold of her arm fast -- a horrid feel -- Wordsworth cried out aloud to me hearing my scream -- [ . . . ] When I awoke, my right eyelid swelled.” 2. Whatever the nature of their sleep hang-ups, their poems have furnished these writers with spaces in which to record their nocturnal trials. Quite literally: stanza is Italian for room, station, stopping-place -- and many of the most formally masterful poems possess the structural elegance of floor plans. “Language,” wrote the modernist poet Hart Crane, “has built towers and bridges, but itself is inevitably as fluid as always.” He might’ve added that it builds houses, too, complete with rooms we readers traverse, stanzaic stations we might think of as thought-progressions, sequences of emotion, attics of memories, spatially realized. We dwell for a time in this stanza and then that, breathing the air it stores through its particular respiratory patterns, thinking and feeling in time with the poet. Poets plot paths through these dwelling spaces, and the paths often lead us to, or at least through, bedrooms. John Donne’s 1633 poem “The Sun Rising,” spoken from within a bedroom, indeed under the covers, is an extended complaint addressed to the sun, which Donne chides for interrupting his all-night lovemaking with its intrusive beams. In the end he brags to the sun that its journey round the earth is redundant, since his own bedroom, rightly seen, is a microcosm in which all the truth and goodness and riches in the world are concentrated: “Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; / This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.” Our love nest, he insists, is the real sun, that other one the merest satellite in its orbit. In “The Canonization,” Donne explicitly plays on the conceit of stanzas as rooms, imagining his own poetry as a verbal mausoleum replete with chambers that house -- immortalize -- the memories of his relationship with his lover. “And if unfit for chronicle we prove,” he writes -- he and his love are no conventional saints, after all, and so aren’t fit for hagiography -- “we’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms.” These are the chambers through which we wander as readers, marveling at relics of a love shared by two people long since claimed by death and granting them, in reading the poem aloud, a secular sainthood: through their bedroom ecstasies they’ve martyred themselves to Eros. Over the top? Absolutely. But then, a penchant for the dramatic gesture does come with the poetic territory. Thomas Hardy, who wrote novels such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles but considered himself foremost a poet, lost his long-estranged wife to heart failure and impacted gallstones in 1912, and had her body placed in a coffin at the foot of his bed for the three days and nights leading up to the funeral. “I shall traverse old love’s domain / Never again,” he vowed in “At Castle Boterel” some months later. (He remarried the following year.) Hardy’s work may be the quintessential example of poetry as an architectural construct. A trained architect, Hardy brought a formal rigor to poetic making that drew heavily on the Gothic aesthetic he’d been taught as an apprentice draftsman. In the hewn angularity and symmetry of his stanzas one sees the imprint of an obsessive designer; here are verse-rooms adorned with complexly irregular stress patterns that embellish like molding, tracery, or cornice -- meticulous masonry. 3. Hardy’s morbid, beyond-emo vigils with his wife’s freshly coffined body reinforce how, again and again, poets’ imaginations return to a vision of the bedroom as a sepulcher, a prefiguration of endings -- and of sleep as a forerunner of that vaster slumber toward which we’re all hurtling. Larkin lying in bed at 4 a.m. broods on eternity; Mark Strand writes in Dark Harbor, “The end / Is enacted again and again. And we feel it / In the temptations of sleep”; Edgar Allan Poe is said to have remarked, “Sleep, those little slices of death -- how I abhor them.” Poe’s comment makes explicit a darkly fascinating possibility: that the desperate, thwarted desire of insomniacs to fall asleep is really a cover for a deep-down fear of sleep, itself at bottom a fear of death. “Perhaps my insomnia only conceals a great fear of death,” Franz Kafka (not a poet but a kindred spirit to these other writers) once speculated. “Perhaps I am afraid that the soul -- which in sleep leaves me -- will never return.” Insomniacs, in other words, may harbor a fear of sleep that amounts to a fear of self-loss and an abandonment of control -- a resistance against self-unraveling, both the one that will eventually happen for keeps, and the one that nightly happens and asks each of us at bedtime to do a dry run for death. What if you aren’t quite the same when you wake? And to what alien terrains, what modes of being and desiring that run counter to whoever you thought you were, will sleep waft you? Resisting such self-dissolution, such loss of control, the insomniac hangs on, clinging to consciousness that is the binding agent of identity and our way of retaining our hold on the world. It may be true that, as Greg Johnson has suggested, this holding fast to consciousness -- a clutching at cognizance that fends off self-loss -- is most pronounced in writers. Insomnia for Johnson is the very symbol of the writer’s condition, the “image of his unblinking consciousness, his stubborn refusal to conclude, however briefly, his voracious scrutiny of the world and of his own mental processes.” Johnson points to Emily Dickinson as his prime example of an insomniac poet whose stoical resistance to sleep stemmed from her unwillingness to relinquish consciousness. In one poem Johnson spotlights, Dickinson muses on a gift “given to me by the Gods” -- her poetic genius -- and remarks that she refuses even to sleep “for fear it would be gone.” So she stayed awake (“I would not stop for night,” she boasts in one poem) writing late into the night, the very icon, with Kafka maybe, of nocturnal industry among writers, in a bedroom where she lived a sort of death-in-life -- she seldom left it -- and a burial place where she interred her (largely unpublished) poems, her sole progeny: here, after her death, Dickinson’s family discovered some 1,800 poems written on the backs of envelopes and edges of newspapers, and collected in hand-sewn books she herself had made. What insomniac poets like Dickinson have held onto, though, isn’t just a vigilant watch over reality but a coherence of self. They’ve jealously safeguarded the intactness of their identities -- and in this they are proxies for the rest of us abysmal sleepers. I suspect it’s not coincidental that Coleridge -- that great romantic evangelist of the imagination who defined poetry -- writing as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” -- had such a horrendous time with sleep. During creativity, Coleridge thought, the poet ascends to godlike stature, refashioning reality so that it accords with his own unique vision -- a brash imposition of ego onto the surrounding world that mimics God’s creation of the cosmos in Genesis. But proximity to sleep carries us to the brink of our own psychic disintegration, and, contrary to Coleridge’s formulation, forces us to look forward to a moment in the future when we aren’t. 4. Of course, beds aren’t simply sites of sleep; they’re sites of sex. That numerous poets have approached the business of sex with a trepidation to match their fear of sleep is practically proverbial. John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic who doubled as a poet during his youth and struggled with insomnia, legendarily refused to consummate his marriage to Effie Gray because, as she wrote in a letter, “he was disgusted with my person” -- a comment historians have interpreted to mean that she had body odor, or was menstruating, or, most interestingly, that he was scandalized to discover she had pubic hair. Yeats and T.S. Eliot remained virgins till 30 and 26, respectively; Christina Rossetti, gorgeous and much sought-after as a young woman, never married, and in Goblin Market imagines fleshly pleasure as an addictive, otherworldly fruit capable of depleting and devouring the soul. It’s hard not to speculate that the two anxieties are intertwined. Sleep is an occasion for self-loss, but so is sex. It’s well known that during the Renaissance people began referring to orgasm as a “death” of sorts; to ejaculate was to “expen[d]” a portion of one’s “spirit,” as William Shakespeare memorably phrases it in his Sonnet 129 -- a figure that elegantly gets at the notion of sexual climax as self-departure, an instant in which some of the pith of one’s inner being flees one. To reach bodily bliss was to “expire,” according to one way of reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73; orgasm was “death’s second self,” an interval of perfect oblivion wherein pleasure eclipsed the exigencies of the here and now, blotted out self and world. Here then is the crux of the matter: beds drive home an abstract coupling -- of which many of us are at least dimly aware, whether we can articulate it or not -- of death and sex. Beds are where we go to lose ourselves. Most of us will die in a bed -- the phase just prior to dying is, of course, called one’s deathbed -- and sleep, as so many poets have recognized, is a nightly rehearsal for death. But sex too entails a kind of dying: as one of the surest ways to break the boundaries that normally delineate you, sex like sleep can bring out anti-selves, identities, and impulses you may not have known you harbored. And it can lead to intervals of self-annihilation and a communing with otherness that few other pastimes can. 5. But this might be a thing to embrace rather than fear. The capacity of sleep and sex both to catalyze a death-like self-abandonment has been, historically, what certain poets have most cherished about these phenomena. “Each night, when I go to sleep, I die,” said Mahatma Gandhi, himself an unsung poet. “And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.” Sleep for Gandhi represented a welcome interment from which he might rise at daylight, transfigured if only slightly. For John Keats, meanwhile, the bedroom came to seem, as it had for Larkin and Hardy, a “sepulchre” into which he retired each evening -- yet it was precisely the sepulchral aspect of the bedroom and the deathlike dimension of what happened there that Keats excitedly seized on. “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks,” he wrote fiancée Fanny Brawne, “your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.” Keats dreamed of a concentrated instant that joined mortality and sexual activity, the twin components of human experience that promised to liberate one from the constraints of individual identity. The perspective of Keats and Gandhi -- which looks enthusiastically on the nightly metamorphoses of self that happen under the covers -- may be an altogether healthier one than dread. It may be, too, a perspective consistent with recent advances in microbiology. That is, those who dread self-loss would do well to ask themselves what it is they are holding onto, and whether their endeavor to retain it might not have been doomed from the get-go. We now know, as microbiologist Ed Yong has shown in his gripping I Contain Multitudes, that our bodies play host to trillions of immigrant microbes and quadrillions of viruses that momently multiply on our faces, hands, and in our guts, making up roughly half our being and forcing us to reconsider what we even think of as a self. For that matter, the majority of our own bodies’ cells have a lifespan of just seven to 10 years, and though you might like to think of yours as a permanent construct, the better part of it exists in a state of constant flux. Most of what you think of as “you” gets completely renewed as often as your passport. Yet insomniac writers have been grappling with how to make sense of this fact since at least the Victorian era. Walter Pater, like Ruskin a Victorian essayist who wrote poetry as a young man -- and, when struggling to write, suffered “grey hours of lassitude and insomnia” -- brooded over the prospect that human beings were merely confluences of particles in time and space, continuously in motion. “Such thoughts,” wrote Pater, “seem desolate at first; at times all the bitterness of life seems concentrated in them. They bring the image of one washed out beyond the bar in a sea at an ebb, losing even his personality, as the elements of which he is composed pass into new combinations. Struggling, as he must, to save himself, it is himself that he loses at every moment.” If for Pater this thought was desolate at first, in the most famous paragraphs he wrote -- the “Conclusion” to his Studies in the History of the Renaissance -- he imagined a new perspective, one that likewise looked on life as a billion discrete instants in which the physical world and human identity itself were in ceaseless unrest; where individuals were subject to a “strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves” -- but saw this condition as liberating and galvanizing. Only by recognizing the uniqueness and immediate decay of each moment could we position ourselves to relish it, make it gravid with effort and enjoyment, and so attain “a quickened sense of life.” Death is a moment-to-moment phenomenon; the self shivers with all the ephemerality of a drop of dew, shifting and altering with each instant. Lying awake at night and contemplating our eventual demise, we fret over an event that is already behind us, that has played out unendingly since we came into being and will repeat itself innumerable times in the future. Accepting this, we might more cheerfully brave the windows of self-loss that lie in wait for us in bedrooms: the manifold deaths, the transfigurations these make possible. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
On Poetry

Big Bad Ted Sings Songs for Little Ones

I don't mind saying it: reading Ted Hughes frightens me. Has for years. At first it was just the idea of reading his poetry that frightened me -- the poetry that had, in my disarrayed young mind, killed Sylvia Plath's. The stuff had lethal properties. It took several years, but at last I got around to actually reading his work, in an ugly New Selected Poems. That was when I realized the truth of the matter, past the pat mythology and instinctual aversion: Ted Hughes was about the most frightening poet imaginable. His work invests every corner of existence with menace and unmanageable intensity. I remember reading a few of the early ones -- "Otter," maybe "Pike," definitely "Hawk Roosting" -- and actually having to put the book down. Poetry is not supposed to make you put the book down. So it came as a bit of a shock to find out that Ted Hughes was, in addition to everything else, a marvelous poet for young people. The Collected Poems for Children draws from no less than eight separate collections across his immense and shambolic publishing career. The book is 249 pages long (illustrated, no less!), and could fit on the most risk-averse nursery bookshelf. There are titles like "Bess My Badger" and "The Fox is a Jolly Farmer." How did this happen? It's an interesting mystery. One thing is for certain: Hughes for Kids and Hughes for Adults are very much the same poet. It's all here. We get the same bestiaries, the same zookeeper's menagerie of animal otherness barely kept in its cages, the same repetitious insistence (50 poems about the moon, from Moon Whales and other Moon Poems). It's hypnotic stuff, and crosses and recrosses the line between comforting and disturbing. Presumably there's no problem for the intended audience, who are innocent of the harsher Hughes -- schoolchildren who haven't read, say, "Crow Hill" will feel no twinge during "The Mermaid's Purse." But determining his intended audience is in fact very difficult. Hughes described some of this work as having been written "within the hearing of children." It was not solely for either group. This does not mean it was written for some tweener middleground; this is not what we could grotesquely call YA Poetry. It just had a deeper ambidexterity, it could pitch both ways. Hence the gorgeous Season Songs is included in his big Collected Poems: a few dozen pieces about calf-birth and calf-death, standing knock-kneed but impressive among the other work. Comparing a couple of poems on a single subject may illuminate the differences. "Esther's Tomcat" is Adult Hughes, much-anthologized, from Lupercal. It describes the tom as a brutal "bundle of old rope and iron" laying inert all day, "no mouth and no eyes," until it awakens at dusk. It becomes a figure of legend: the tomcat Is unkillable. From the dog's fury, From gunshot fired point blank he brings His skin whole, and whole From owlish moons of bekittenings Among ashcans. He leaps and lightly Walks upon sleep, his mind on the moon. Nightly over the red round world of men, Over the roofs go his eyes and outcry. Now the poem "Cat," from the children's book The Cat and the Cuckoo. It begins: You need your Cat. When you slump down All tired and flat With too much town With too many lifts Too many doors Too many neon-lit Corridors The cat will help you, the poem concludes: For into your hands Will flow the powers Of the beasts who ignore This world of ours And you'll be refreshed Through the Cat on your lap With a Leopard's yawn And a Tiger's nap. Neither poem is feigned. Neither one is less or more true to Hughes's vision. They both propose the otherness of even domesticated animals as a necessary, powerful counterforce to a totalized human environment.  But the differences are also clear. First, the tone: we would say that "Cat" is somehow too prescriptive, too didactic to work for adults; we don't quite like being talked to in this manner. Next, the rhythm and rhyme: a little too heavy, a little too rounded-off and lolloping, too sweet. It's actually inappropriate for adults. In this case, it's the grown-ups who need to be dealt with gingerly. They need their message delivered with great delicacy, the needed obliquity -- too much all at once and they'll bolt. "Cat," then, no matter how successful it is in its aims, doesn't work by our mature rubric. It doesn't give us what we want, or maybe gives us too much. But there are places in Hughes's work where the difference is finer. Season Songs in particular raises fascinating, perplexing questions. It is collected in the kids' book. The poems are pastoral, lovely, with a vitality that is specifically youthful. But they are also lyrically complex and deeply sad. There's a description of a doomed newborn lamb:                                     By evening He could not stand. It was not That he could not thrive, he was born With everything but the will— That can be deformed, just like a limb. Death was more interesting to him. Life could not get his attention. So he died, with the yellow birth-mucus Still in his cardigan. He did not survive a warm summer night. Now his mother has started crying again. The wind is oceanic in the elms And the blossom is all set. Not a nursery-rhyme, exactly. Elsewhere there are moments of rejoicing that balance this bleakness -- "The grass is happy / To run like the sea, to be glossed like a mink's fur / By the polishing wind." Day begins "[w]hen the swallow snips the string that holds the world in." In other words, the poems contain both joy and pain, in huge concentrations. And the joys and pains that they take on feel particularly original and close to the bone: a rehashing of our earliest awarenesses. The runty lamb will not make it; summer will come again and be beautiful; the injured swift in the yard will undergo "the inevitable balsa death." These are the basic facts into which children must be guided. We adults, on the other hand, have processed these feelings long ago and put them safely aside. Although the experience of reading Season Songs shows that maybe it wasn't as clean a job as we thought. The Collected Poems for Children helps you put a finger on one of Hughes's main traits: all through his career he was, in a sense, the most boylike of poets. (Set that superlative in his trophy case, next to "Most Frightening Poet Imaginable," "Most Handsome," and (according to poet-critic Michael Hofmann) "Greatest English Poet Since Shakespeare.") Calling him boylike may sound like an insult, but it is not at all. It indicates a real feat. Maintaining some kind of childlikeness is needful work for any poet, any person: it means being unacculturated to the world's murderous norms, undimmed by its darkness, unwithered by its onslaught, not ironicized, ironed flat, or inured -- while remaining, everywhere and in all things, absolutely adult and responsible. It's no mean task. (Become as little children, Jesus said, and if Jesus said it, it isn't easy.) Hughes carried out this imperative to remain childlike -- or rather boylike, to make it gendered for this highly gendered poet. He remained forever the small-game trapper, the hill-stalker, the game-warden's younger brother, the tobacconists' son wandering around the shop and reading all of the comic books (of course!). "My first six years shaped everything," Hughes said, pointing especially to those hunts in the Pennines with older brother Gerald. Indeed he viewed his entire poetic enterprise as an outgrowth of that practice of trapping, catching, bagging. This new method would not kill or disturb the creature, but rather preserve it warm and breathing forever. Hughes gave advice to young writers (he was touchingly concerned with the practical, curricular aspects of creative writing in schools) that invoked these processes. "The main thing is to imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it. Do not think it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic. Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it...You will read back through what you have written and you will get a shock. You will have captured a spirit, a creature." It is hard to imagine any writer besides Hughes who could retain such intense connection to what children find fascinating and express it in such superb craft. But it was his secret to work the other way also, to invest his mature writing with the child's vision, that vast imagination and lidless fixity. In doing so, he became a danger to our safe boundaries of poetics. It's unsettling to watch in Hughes the gentle unbroken slope upward from the whimsy of the early children's work to the black horrors of books like Crow -- especially with volumes like Season Songs bridging any supposed lacuna. It's all of a piece, whether he's writing about the mouse in his brother's pocket or a talking bird feeding on corpses. More unnerving yet is the sense that I get, after reading enough of the Collected Poems for Children, of a strange inversion. Suddenly it begins to feel like the real thing. The adult poetry takes on a stench of the put-on, the worked-up, the elliptical, the evasive. The adulterated. Meanwhile the children's work stands hawk-eyed and unblinking. It's an illusion, surely; in a moment the view returns to normal. Only maybe a little changed.
On Poetry

An Essential Human Respect: Reading Walt Whitman During Troubled Times

We live in contentious times.  In these frenzied days, it’s worth returning to Walt Whitman’s book of Civil War poetry, Drum-Taps.  First published in 1865, Drum-Taps reflects on the confrontation of grand visions and the human costs of realizing them.  It suggests the importance of empathy in the face of significant ideological disagreement. The Civil War was in part a great clash of ideas and of visions for what the American republic would be.  Abraham Lincoln underlined the stakes of this disagreement in the Gettysburg Address: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. What the “new birth of freedom” called for in Gettysburg meant might have evolved over time; for instance, the abolition of slavery became increasingly central to the Union’s rhetorical self-defense as the war continued. But, whatever the evolving notion of the Union, it certainly differed in major ways from how many top Confederates saw secession.  In March 1861, in Savannah, Ga., Confederate Vice-President Alexander Hamilton Stephens, a former congressional colleague of Lincoln, outlined his vision for the stakes of the war.  Stephens argued that many of those who founded the nation believed that slavery was “in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.”  According to Stephens, Thomas Jefferson and others believed that slavery would, eventually, end because it violated the principle of equality among men and women.  Stephens claimed the Confederacy offered a corrective to this belief in human equality: Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. Stephens found that the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy was the commitment to racial inequality, and this radical philosophical principle justified, in his view, the dissolution of the Union. Whitman took the side of the Union, the vision of which played a major role in both his poetic and political thinking. In his original preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman called the United States “essentially the greatest poem,” and the visionary project of a poet for Whitman involved the creation of a broader fellowship that transcended the conventional boundaries of society.  He viewed the United States as a vehicle for this enterprise of fellowship. In its record of the Civil War, Drum-Taps homes in on the juxtaposition of vision and the flesh, of aspiration and suffering.  For all the great ambition of the antebellum United States, it contained great pain, and the carnage of the Civil War painted in red, white, and gangrene the price of maintaining the hope of the Union.  Ideas clashed in the Civil War, but men and women bled.  Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust’s 2008 study This Republic of Suffering argues that the magnitude of suffering and death during the Civil War sent shockwaves through American culture; the equivalent of over 600,000 war deaths in 1861-1865 would be over 6 million deaths in 2016. The horror of this legacy of pain influenced Whitman’s life and poetry. His brother George served in the Union army throughout the war, and Whitman himself had a front-row-seat for the carnage of the Civil War during his time as a medical orderly.  He spent countless hours comforting the wounded and sick soldiers in Washington D.C. and elsewhere.  In an 1863 report, he reflected on visiting the wounded at the capital’s Patent Office, which had been converted to a hospital: A few weeks ago the vast area of the second story of that noblest of Washington buildings, the Patent Office, was crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers. They were placed in three very large apartments. I went there several times. It was a strange, solemn and, with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight. Whitman attended to that magnitude of suffering in Drum-Taps.  In one of his notebooks, he claimed that “the expression of American personality through this war is not to be looked for in the great campaign, & the battle-fights. It is to be looked for...in the hospitals, among the wounded.”  In many respects, the poems of Drum-Taps are songs for and of the wounded. One of the most famous poems of the collection, “The Dresser” (later titled “The Wound-Dresser”), narrates the experience of tending to those injured in battle: Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, Straight and swift to my wounded I go, Where they lie on the ground, after the battle brought in; Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground; Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital; To the long rows of cots, up and down, each side, I return; To each and all, one after another, I draw near -- not one do I miss; An attendant follows, holding a tray -- he carries a refuse pail, Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again. That refuse pail, ever filling and emptying, implies the seemingly endlessness of tending to bodies and spirits ravaged by war.  The figures of these soldiers are sacred and exalted -- that “priceless blood” -- but still they suffer. Whitman’s verse does not hide that suffering, or the price it exacts: From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood; Back on his pillow the soldier bends, with curv’d neck, and side-falling head; His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump, And has not yet looked on it. With grim irony, these lines attend to amputations suffered in the name of preserving the Union.  Beyond the specific details of this wound-dressing, we see also the signs of the psychological pain of the amputee, who cannot even bear to look at the site of his dismemberment.  In “The Dresser” and elsewhere, the poetic speaker does not profess an ability to end this suffering or nullify the pain of the sufferers.  Instead, he can only act as a witness to this suffering. While a book of poetry about war, Drum-Taps offers relatively few presentations of battles.  Rather than versifying military maneuvers, Whitman offers a broader catalogue of perspectives -- of mourning parents, thriving cities, moonlit nights, and ford crossings.  This catalogue presents the greater context within which the violence of the war occurs. Short poems -- like sudden perspectival knives -- cut in between many of the longer poems of Drum-Taps.  Some of these poems might not even seem to be about the war at first: Solid, ironical, rolling orb! Master of all, and matter of fact! -- at last I accept your terms; Bringing to practical, vulgar tests, of all my ideal dreams, And of me, as lover and hero. But this sudden flourish of reflection has clear connections to the war.  The ideal dreams and fancies of Whitman and his fellow Americans have become subject to the hard trials of gunpowder, bayonet, and surgeon’s saw.  And these tests of dreams pierce human hearts. Some of Whitman’s early poems about the Civil War at times adopt a triumphalist, celebratory mode.  Written in 1861, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” conjures the explosive excitement of the coming war.  The poem opens with the exhortations “Beat! beat! drums! -- Blow! bugles! blow! / Through the windows -- through doors -- burst like a force of ruthless men.”  With the force of blaring trumpets, tidings of war come to disrupt the conventional comforts of civilian life in peace. We risk simplifying this poem, however, if we view it only as a gilded celebration of war.  The diction of the final stanza, for example, suggests an undercurrent of horror in the thrill of the pounding drums. Beat! beat! drums! -- Blow! bugles! blow! Make no parley -- stop for no expostulation; Mind not the timid -- mind not the weeper or prayer; Mind not the old man beseeching the young man; Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties; Make even the trestles to shake the dead, where they lie awaiting the hearses, So strong you thump, O terrible drums -- so loud you bugles blow. The drums and bugles have no time for argument or sorrow or prayer.  They break up families -- splintering old from young, parents from children -- and seem a prelude to a multitude of bodies, which lie awaiting hearses to bear them away. Near the end of the book, especially with the “sequel” tacked on like a mournful suffix in October 1865, Whitman reflected in depth on the devastation of the war.  After the electric pounding of the visionary drums, the verse surveys a battlefield littered with broken bodies, severed limbs, and pale corpses.  Abraham Lincoln -- especially in a poem such as “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” -- becomes a representative figure: an emblem of the Union’s cost.  Whitman, though, did not stop with Lincoln.  Many of the poems of Drum-Taps reflect on the suffering of the simultaneously anonymous (because unnamed) and personalized (because shown as people with essential dignity) soldiers.  In part through this assertion of common suffering, Drum-Taps aims to unite a divided nation. “Reconcilitation,” the penultimate poem of the original 1865 version of Drum-Taps, offers a meeting of North and South, of living and dead: Word over all, beautiful as the sky! Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost; That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world: …For my enemy is dead -- a man divine as myself is dead; I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin -- I draw near; I bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin. In this moment, Whitman’s verse presents a scene of recognition of an essential humanity across radical differences: that enemy is “a man divine as myself.”  Whatever the differences of cause between these two men -- and these differences may yawn chasm-wide -- they have a common human fellowship. Rather than succumbing to self-righteous demonization, Whitman illustrated the power of a human empathy that transcends ideological bellicosity.  This empathy does not ultimately nullify ideological difference -- Drum-Taps does not call for the defeat of the Union in order to end the war -- but empathy does situate this difference in a more complicated context. There were huge differences between the visions of the Union and the Confederacy, but those differences did not nullify the fact that partisans of both sides were human beings, with the inherent worth shared by all men and women.  Though he opposed the Confederacy, Whitman also sought to show the dignity of the Confederate soldiers not because he believed in their cause but because they were human beings.  In his time nursing wounded soldiers, Whitman cared for both Union and Confederate men.  He wrote, for instance, of watching over a Confederate prisoner of war whose leg was amputated.  Whitman’s empathy as both an artist and a man was not only a gift for those with whom he agreed or whose cause he applauded.  Whitman’s project in Drum-Taps reminds us of the way that poetry (and literature in general) can strive to keep us alert to our deeper bonds. Whitman’s poetry chose the harder path of empathy.  In its portrayal of human suffering, Drum-Taps notes the price exacted by grand -- even noble -- visions in this “soil’d world.”  The collection suggests the importance of leavening a thirsty idealism with an essential human respect. Previously: "Embracing The Other I Am; or, How Walt Whitman Saved My Life" Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
On Poetry, Reviews

The Intimately Epic Poem We Need: On ‘IRL’ by Tommy Pico

Eileen Myles meets Rihanna, and Grindr meets Muse in Tommy Pico’s debut book-length poem, IRL. The poem speaks through the voice of Teebs, a character who shares Pico’s nickname and similarly resides in Brooklyn after growing up on the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay Nation. Teebs both yearns for and is haunted by Muse, an otherworldly abstraction and object of desire, as he navigates the simultaneously desirous and oppressive, simultaneously digital and material world (read an excerpt here). In April 2014, Pico published Absent Mindr, the first poetry chapbook available as an app for smart phones and tablets (read interviews with . It is no surprise that his first full-length publication also experiments in incorporating new technologies of communication with reading practices. As the title immediately invokes, IRL situates itself in the intersection of the poetic and the often-belittled text-speak. The poem is peppered with the language of cyberspace and other forms of shorthand that have taken on a history and meaning of their own. The language showcases both the richness and cutting irony of text-speak that often manifest at the same time. Not only does Pico incorporate text-speak into the poetry, but the language of texting becomes poetry -- beautiful and rich within its own right. The content of the poem grapples with the at times angering, at times guilt-inducing layers of desire, trauma, and bytes of data that comprise contemporary life and that refuse compartmentalization. Teebs navigates his position as a single, queer, indigenous poet in America living within a world that demands an ordering of those words despite a simultaneous experience and singular body. This world is just as populated with the overlapping of text messages, Grindr messages, Instagram DM's as it is with the daily violent effects of colonization, racism, homophobia in the Hamptons, on the Rez, in Brooklyn, all alongside a textually-mediated awareness of broader global crises. Artist Jenny Holzer’s famous truism claimed “All Things Are Delicately Interconnected.” Indeed, Pico’s poem explores the intensity, unavoidability, and depth of interconnection yet complicates a vision of delicacy, an ease of the connection. IRL in its winding, non-linear narrative and associative language enacts just how interconnected each aspect of Teebs’s life is, as is ours, and perhaps increasingly so through new forms of communication and exchange. But this interconnectivity is simultaneous yet fraught with tensions, pain, and even humor. IRL denies the reader the luxury of easily parsed-out moments, memories, violences, and even words -- nothing exists entirely singularly. Teebs feels anxious about responding to an intrusive DM on Instagram, a stream of intrusive comments on his queer body just trying to walk to the train, an intrusive colonizing narrative that violently erases Kumeyaay language and history, and an intrusive guilt about feeling subsumed by these intrusions while simultaneously conflicts in Syria and conflicts back on the rez echo through social media in ways that bring these issues both closer than ever and serve as a guilt-inducing reminder of Teeb’s distance. Just as Teebs exists as the sum of his experiences, identities, interactions, and social media accounts, the words within Pico's short lines mirror how Teebs occupies and moves around these spaces, their ever-muddling borders and boundaries. The playful language constructs simultaneously humorous punchlines and serious meditations on how the moral, emotional, and social spaces we occupy break open and into each other. The poem asks, “Was it Sontag  /or Sonic the Hedgehog / who said just dash dodge/ weave faster than you/ can think” Indeed, in this poem there is no either/or dichotomy, only the multiple and often conflicting layers that comprise the whole. And who doesn’t both chuckle at the pun and ache at the truth of language broken apart and multivalent in a line such as “We are reaching clima- / te change” or  “Money is not a- / mused”?  The digitized, the pop culture, the intimate, the political, and the literary all bleed together, revealing the connective tissue of language that often is as confusing as it is humorous. It is there that the genius of Pico’s puns and language-play live and reveal their cultural, etymological, and aural associations. Pico showcases the associativity of language to create the landscape of the poem, which soars when exploring the connective tissue of thought and experience. And he isn’t afraid to throw a joke or (admittedly cheesy) pun into the mix -- a rare treasure in poetry. But Pico’s writing reminds us: there are limitations. We travel through the poem one word, one line at a time, we follow Teebs' line of thought that -- just like us -- can move from thought to thought but can’t quite think two thoughts concurrently. The line of thought is like the line of poetry -- it bleeds into what came before and what came next but it simply cannot contain everything at one. The man at the bar discusses the controversy over articles on Patricia Lockwood’s writing yet neglects to discuss an article on the crisis in Syria. How does one heal from the impact of ongoing colonial violences on indigenous people, of queer-bashing street harassment, of an unresponsive Muse, when all the while online there’s a buildup of notifications about what has happened with Kim Kardashian, with the Tea Party, for the lost Nigerian schoolgirls, in Ferguson. These moments within the poem speak to a truth about the accompanying anxiety, pain, and even guilt of our limitations within a certain time and space. But within this, Teebs speaks a glimmer of hope -- the potential of poetry and perhaps even enacted within the poem: I like to keep trying new ways of being staked, which gives me context to yr outlet, the Internet. We know wanting to die isn’t the coup in Thailand and Muse isn’t Syria, or ebola, or Craq / de Chevalier. At my best I have the luxury of speaking for my- self. I becomes medium. It is the medium of the "I" that reveals to us the patchwork world of the 98 pages of IRL. The “I” embraces and interrogates the complexities of what it means to live in real life in the 21st century. There is simply so much packed into this poem, while the poem maintains an energy, power, and velocity that carries the reader through to the end. The poem offers a politically sincere and sincerely political meditation on desire, oppression, language, history, and technology without one-note cynicism or kitsch. Last month, Ed Simon discussed which works might be considered American Epic Poetry. Pico’s debut is America’s epic poem-text message that scrutinizes America, poetry, and digital culture. Tommy Pico’s IRL is an intimate and powerful commingling of the personal and the political and isn’t afraid to crack a joke; it is the intimately epic poem we need.
On Poetry

Weaving Images into Verse: Prose for Poets

Poets should write prose. I say this as a former poet, someone whose first two books were poetry collections. Someone who spent hours drafting poems on sheets pressed against an old clipboard before typing and sending them to literary magazines, where they appeared next to other little poems in the silence of print. I say this well aware that suggesting how another should write is akin to telling someone how they should raise their children -- and as a stubborn Italian from New Jersey who is the father of twin daughters, I can appreciate the resistance. And yet. Poets, hear me out. I think that prose and poetry are sisters. My 3-year-old daughters sleep in the same bed. They have separate beds, but they sleep together, sometimes arms intertwined, other times their bodies perpendicular. They are united and identical, although when they have moments of disagreement there is a swell of emotion, like the smallest slight is the deepest betrayal. Poetry is attached to prose in the way that one daughter is attached to the other: connected and yet independent. When Olivia is in another room for more than a minute, Amelia lifts her head from a puzzle, and asks, simply, “Where is she?” Poets will their lines to stop before the margins. To lineate a poem means to make formal and aesthetic decisions about phrases, sounds, and sentiment. And yet the margin remains -- and I’ve never known a poet who isn’t drawn toward that space. Sisters, poetry and prose. In his essay "How Do You Write Poems?" Donald Hall, says “it is considered cold and calculating to write a prose draft of a poem before versifying it.” He rather thinks that “poets usually write a draft in prose when they are too stirred by their subject to pay any attention to metrical art, when they are overcome with excitement and must get something on paper quickly.” Another possibility is that a poet “afflicted by the critical will may write a prose draft because he can stand the sight of bad prose, but not of bad verse.” We like to romantically think that verse, in its ambiguity and passion, is somehow closer to our real emotions -- but Hall reminds us that sometimes practical concerns are foremost. Poets are a forgetful bunch, and to lineate an idea for the sake of not writing a paragraph seems almost sinful. Elizabeth Bishop wrote prose drafts for most of her poems, among them “True Confessions” and the classic “One Art.” Bishop said she wrote prose “on a typewriter,” because “for poetry I use a pen. About halfway through sometimes I’ll type out a few lines to see how they look.” Each handwritten, lineated poem was essentially a second draft for her. Bishop would trade many drafts with Robert Lowell within their correspondence. Lowell said that he first wrote out some of his later poems in prose, although a “written prose draft of the poem doesn’t seem to do much good, too little pain has gone into it; but one really worked on is bound to have phrases that are invaluable. And it’s a nice technical problem: how can you keep phrases and get them into meter?” In fact, in as early as a 1949 letter to Bishop, he speaks of stopping his writing “when I have the first draft of a stanza or first get it so as it looks like poetry,” suggesting some massaging between forms. (Rodney Jones calls this process “translating” prose into poetry). Emily Dickinson might have gone a step further, as Ellen Hart describes: “Dickinson did not visually separate prose and poetry in her letters. Her prose lines and the lines of a poem are similar in length, she did not consistently divide poetry from prose through spacing, and she did not vary margins.” While this is not universally true with Dickinson -- as Harold Bloom notes, an 1880 letter contains tightly lineated verse among epistolary sentences -- Hart is correct that there “are no easily drawn periods in Dickinson’s writing.” Letters and words drift and blend. W.B. Yeats wrote prose statements for his much of his verse. “Among School Children” began as this plan: “Topic for poem -- school children and the thought that life will waste them perhaps that no possible life can fulfill our dreams or even their teacher’s hope. Bring in the old thought that life prepares for what never happens.” For “Coole Park:” “Describe house in first stanza. Here Synge came, Hugh Lane, Shaw Taylor, many names. I too in my timid youth. Coming and going like migratory birds. Then address the swallows fluttering in their dream like circles. Speak of the rarity of the circumstances that bring together such concords of men. Each man more than himself through whom an unknown life speaks. A circle returning into itself.” Even the obscure “Byzantium” began in prose: “Subject for a poem. Death of a friend. Describe Byzantium as it is in the system towards the end of the first Christian millennium. A walking mummy. Flames at the street corners where the soul is purified, birds of hammered gold singing in the golden trees, in the harbor [dolphins] offering their backs to the wailing dead that they may carry them to Paradise.” Imagine Yeats -- that somnambulating Free State senator -- sitting down with his notebook and being so declarative in one sentence and so surreal in the next. In an essay about symbolism, Yeats wrote about how he “weaved” images into verse -- likely meaning that he was transforming a prose draft into poetry -- and it was at that moment he entered into a trance. “In the making and in the understanding of a work of art,” particularly if that art “is full of patterns and symbols and music,” the poet is “lured to the threshold of sleep.” The poet, actually, “may be far beyond” sleep, arriving at some poetic space. Perhaps Yeats was being melodramatic. Perhaps this was merely a revision of his drafting in the service of the narrative in his essay. But I am optimistic that he was on to something. Maybe I’m still a poet after all. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
On Poetry

The Nu-Audacity School of Poetry

From the well-known to the semi-forgotten, the literary isms of the early- to mid-20th century -- from Dadaism to Surrealism to Imagism to Vorticism to Futurism to Objectivism -- set a subsidiary classification template for all subsequent generations of writers. As each ism elucidated, the importance of delineating one’s work from the work of one’s contemporaries was paramount in terms of attention and accolade. Further, grouping with and against other writers was arguably as integral as the creation of the work itself. Simply, isms provided an immediate context of sorts for the 20th-century reader. In the end it little mattered, then, if said context was sanctioned by the writer herself; Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell famously had very different ideas about what Imagism was or could be, and yet both writers are probably read more today because of their enrollment in the school. Let’s be honest -- whether one agrees with their inclusion or not, being a recognizable member of a literary school provides its participant with an attention and focus that the isolated outsider is rarely able to easily obtain. As Too $hort put it, get in where you fit in -- and hopefully you do fit in somewhere. Building off the ism heyday, late-20th and early-21st-century writers group themselves in similar ways -- but there is a significant difference from their Modernist counterparts. For contemporary writers at least, the concept of “The New” seems to be one that needs parading. The New Sincerity. The New Brutalism. The New Narrative. Predating those examples a bit yet of a similar designation-based ilk, Ron Silliman’s concept of The New Sentence. There are poetry reading series’ entitled The New Privacy -- what’s private is public too now, right? -- and post-9/11 poems entitled “The New Intelligence” -- after that atrocity, who we are and how we exist has fundamentally changed, evolved. (If one were so inclined, echoes of Virginia Woolf’s famous “On or about December 1910 human character changed” Modernist declaration might be proffered.) Further, regardless of the specific aesthetics of each group, the underlying onus seems to be that day in, day out, the world and its components are new and essentializing that fact is worth doing. The proverbial shock of the new seems to never grow old. Perhaps it’s inconsequential, then, that the group of writers most commonly known for their sincerity actually characterized and defined themselves by a different name and set of artistic standards, or that, unto a specific group with specific notions about literature, the New Brutalist contingent of writers (of which there are different British and American factions) seem to be inordinately varied. Circa 2016, that single syllable, those three letters -- the first proudly capitalized -- is all that need be touted and with so many (wildly different) writers writing so much (wildly different) work, being part of a group nowadays is just as important as the beliefs that group espouses and/or repudiates. (In this sense it is no different than the ism-obsessed 20th century.) Get in where you fit in indeed. In such a spirit of exclusionary inclusion, then, I’d propose conglomerating a group of writers I’d call the Nu-Audacists, ones whose central tenets, as I see them, are as brazen and arguably repugnant as they are nuanced or refined. For the poets of the Nu-Audacity do not believe in Poetry or at least not in the way that many of their contemporaries seem to believe in it. Their work displays an innate awareness to the shrill absurdity of modern life -- but they are nevertheless not inured to such absurdity or hardened by it. The Nu-Audacists are largely uninterested in academia or assistant professor, tenure-track academic life. They are post-Internet, meaning that although they often utilize the World Wide Web’s myriad lurings they rarely feel the need to comment on that reality; e-poetry is poetry is Twitter. Broadly and luridly, they believe sex exists. Further, their work is not funny or whimsical; they do not affect poetic “poses” like “sincere” or “confessional” beyond those that they are seemingly unconscious of or uncaring about. For mothers the Nu-Audacity school has Eileen Myles, Alice Notley, and Anne Waldman; for fathers Bill Knott, C.A. Conrad, and John Wieners. Their great-uncles are Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch on Saturday night, talking excitedly after the movie before O’Hara goes to the bar and Koch goes home to his wife; their great-grandparents Antonin Artaud and Mina Loy. Finally and most importantly, many of the writers in the Nu-Audacity school would no doubt protest their inclusion in the group. To varying degrees, most are willful outsiders. They neither want nor need my or anyone else’s collectivist-inspired help. And that’s the point -- by refusing to conform in a way that so much of contemporary poetry insists on, they stake their own defiant place in the game. And for the Nu-Audacists poetry is very much a game. Any consideration of getting down on one’s knees and praying to the Muse would be laughed at, scorned. After all, they’re just words, always, little and big, short and long. Besides those poets discussed below, I include among this group figures as disparate as Morgan Parker and Brandon Downing, Ben Fama and Saeed Jones, Sarah Jean Alexander and Danez Smith, Timothy Liu and Sara Sutterlin. (Why "Nu"? It’s a valid question. Mostly because, as seen above, there never actually was a closely-cohered school of quote unquote Sincere or Narrative writers; such rigid designations are imaginary. Calling something New when its antecedent never actually existed in the first place is forever ironic and the school of Nu-Audacity exists within a similar deception -- every worthwhile writer is audacious in some fundamental way and the term thus embraces its redundant nature while simultaneously refuting it. Additionally, most things that begin with the prefix Nu, like Nu-Metal -- think Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Linkin Park -- roundly suck and such a premise would, I think, hold audacious hilarity for certain Nu-Audacity members.) Roundly emblematic of the various Nu-Audacity attributes are Joshua Ware’s second and third collections Vargtimmen / Unwanted Invention (2015). Per the publisher’s press release, as an artifact Vargtimmen / Unwanted Invention is a tệte-bệche, which sounds fancy and (is) French. All that really means, however, is that the book is two books; turn the 69-page Unwanted Invention upside down and you’re faced with the 67-paged Vargtimmen. That, certainly, is a lot of poetry to foist on any reader; in this respect it’s much like Eileen Myles’s 2012 tệte-bệche Snowflake/ different streets. (In Vargtimmen Ware references this fact via the poem “Snowflakes Et Al.”) The major difference, of course, is where Myles, aged 67 and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other accolades, is to many poetry readers a living legend of a sort, one who possesses the necessary readership to publish two collections in a single artifact, Ware is at the beginning of his career. It thus takes a certain panache to assume the interest in Ware’s work is there to warrant publishing so much of it in one solidified volume. (Warranted or not, this confidence isn’t unique to Ware. Other recent multiple-collections-in-one books by younger poets include Dan Hoy’s The Deathbed Editions and Sampson Starkweather’s The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather. It’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that other than Myles I personally am unaware of, young or old, any women who have recently published such weighty non-collected or selected volumes.) Nevertheless, the work in Vargtimmen / Unwanted Invention does hold its place, and, in droves, many of the aforementioned Nu-Audacity traits are prominently displayed. “Out of the Dimly Remembered Whole,” the first poem in Unwanted Invention, begins: fragments of a mustache spruce your upper lip shirt unbuttoned mid-torso, suggesting amateur gay porn or an all-day fuckfest at a seedy bathhouse in NYC its lone entrance tucked back in an alleyway behind a green recycling dumpster Most days no one cobbles together Wyatt and Surrey To write contemporary poems; instead, we pick-and-choose from whatever our search engines offer us. I want to redeem an obsolete style in an effort to create a new history that begins and ends with the memory of something that never existed It’s what we’ll call an aesthetic of unwanted invention For another poet a mustache might merely be hair on an upper lip, a “shirt unbuttoned mid-torso” simply designating the hotness of the weather, but for Ware both circumstances are steamily lascivious; they are rabbit holes that surface on “amateur gay porn/ or an all-day fuckfest at a seedy bathhouse…” From that opening “Out of the Dimly Remembered Whole’s” speaker makes clear their poetic composition method and its hopeful intent. These days reading and studying the work of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt—both 16th-century English poets, the latter of whom is credited with introducing the sonnet form into English –is beyond passé, near useless. Why do that when it’s far easier to “pick-and-choose from whatever/ our search engines offer us?” Because in the end, anyway, what will be eventually created will matter only in the way that nostalgia matters, as something that involves “the memory of something that never existed/ It’s what we’ll call an aesthetic of unwanted invention.” Poetry is thusly an “unwanted invention” of the sort that, unbidden, invades the speaker’s life. But that doesn’t necessarily mean poetry or the poetic matters, at least not in the way it once did. It’s also worth noting that both the Wyatt and Surrey references are contained in the volume’s epigraph, one by John Ashbery. It reads: And one is left sitting in the yard To try to write poetry Using what Wyatt and Surrey left around, Took up and put down again Like so much gorgeous raw material, As though it would always happen in some way But where the speaker of Ashbery’s work seems optimistic with regards to poetry’s province and shelf-life elasticity -- “…so much gorgeous raw material…it would always happen in some way” -- “Out of the Dimly Remembered Whole’s” speaker is anything but. Ware’s poem ends with the following lines: …We wait and wait and wait and wait and, while waiting, cry for that which we left behind until we cry simply for the sake of crying and the comfort habitual behavior affords us In all reality, nothing changes as drastically as we would like to believe On the horizon, a dense mist hangs above the churlish sea an infinite occurrence spelling wonder every time “In all reality, nothing changes/ as drastically as we would like to believe” and this includes the reality of poetry. For a poet of the Nu-Audacity like Ware, no savior will be found via the imaginative word, no substitute for God or Satan, mother or father, gold or glitter. In “Kenneth Koch Is Dead,” a later poem in Unwanted Invention, the assertion is made that “The poetry bubble burst/ shortly after Pindar; since then no one’s really given a fuck” and this playful yet ceaseless fatalism is a central Nu-Audacist tenet. Further reference here can be seen via the entirety of “Prefaces” from Chelsey Minnis’s collection Bad Bad (2007) which, among (many) others, includes gold stars such as “Poetry is for crap since there’s no money or fast cars in it” and “A poet is not to be praised for anything/ If I write something then let me be killed.” Still more “unwanted invention” cynicism resides in the stanzas “I mean I love meaning but I hate words I like sounds/ I used to like words but now I hate them because I love them without reciprocity which means with every day I love them more and more because of hate,” taken from Laura Solomon’s “French Sentences” (contained in her 2011 collection The Hermit) and, found in her 2013 volume Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, the entirety of Jenny Zhang’s “Ya Done Cunt,” wherein, riffing in both the first and second persons, the poem’s speaker’s denigrates the way others write poetry, the way she herself possibly writes poetry and the vapid pseudo-profundity otherwise known as Poetry: she doesn’t like the way you write it’s pretentious yah I know it is that was her talking as you Yah, she’s annoying that was me talking as me about her For the Nu-Audacists, being a poet is nothing to celebrate, at least not in any conventional sense. It’s neither an exalted vocation nor a divine calling. For those in academia it’s simply the means of (hopefully) getting tenure and outside those moldy ivory towers it’s merely a game, one that isn’t -- or shouldn’t -- be taken all that seriously. The fact that “[p]oetry is for crap,” that its “bubble burst”  shortly after the heraldic utterances of the 5th-century Grecian lyric poet Pindar and since then “no one’s really given a fuck” isn’t cause for lamentation or grieving, though. Instead, it’s something to celebrate. The Nu-Audacity school reserves as sacred that which the academy -- or at least those in the “professional” poetry world --  disdain or revile. In Minnis’s Bad Bad an “Anti Vitae” is even included; entries include: 1995 Poems rejected by Paris Review, Poetry Magazine, The New Yorker, New American Writing, Fine Madness, Black Warrior Review, etc. Sit outside local bar and flash cigarette lighter at firefly. Intensely disliked by older female fiction writer. Told that poetry is “loose” by future poet laureate Commitment to waitressing questioned.   2001 Don’t receive NEA grant. Fail to send any new work to literary magazines. Not published in any magazines. This is an “Anti Vitae” in name only, however; upon subsequent inspection it reads more like a humblebrag. And Minnis’s contention is clear -- poets shouldn’t be overly concerned with where they publish or how much; what grants they do or do not receive; even the social and artistic perception of their persons by more established literary figures. Beyond all matters of status or livelihood, they should be preoccupied with writing poems, i.e. playing with words, canoodling with nouns, verbs and syllables. Because ultimately the more one professes to hate what they do the more it’s made clear how invested they are in the doing. (Hatred, of course, implies passion, concern, care. But never indifference.) Featured in Vargtimmen, in the fifth section of his poem “Satanic Intervals” Ware too, like Minnis, articulates the social and market-based forces that seem to shape so much of contemporary poetry, writing: A poem about money is merely an act of finding what will suffice in the mouths of a creation that has escaped its maker. By which I mean $$$. “Satanic Intervals’” speaker later pointedly asks, “Where is the money in all of this?/ & why am I so poor?//The poem is merely a substitute for emotions not becoming of everyday speech. Nothing will suffice./ Everything outside of me is insatiable.” On the transparent face of things most “emotions not becoming of everyday speech” rarely involve money or prestige. Instead, they’re relegated to the fringe side of the street, where creative freedom exists but filthy lucre does not. To trot out an overused saw for the billionth time, “[p]oetry makes nothing happen” and for the school of Nu-Audacity that’s the point -- it shouldn’t have to.  It’s only when writing poems begets economic opportunities and social climbing and clout that poeming goes wrong. Or as Jenny Zhang writes in “Being jealous for the first time today since I woke up one milliseconds ago,” “this is a poet’s poem/written by a degenerate/ illiterate/literal/piece of crap.” Every poet, however, should aspire to such illiteracy and crappiness; it’s the only way to know for certain that the reasoning behind what you’re doing is true, pure. And in our personal brand and self-promotion-obsessed culture that purity is truly audacious. If the Nu-Audacists aren’t interested in climbing the corporate-academic poetry ladder or proselytizing about the glorious aims and scopes of their art, what are they interested in? The internet and sex, mostly. The former topic, then, they take as something that is as integral to writing poetry in the 21st century as paper was to every previous century. Its ramifications and merits need not be discussed -- they simply are. And the latter reads simultaneously boisterous and clinical; lusty yet distant. In the words of the speaker of Mira Gonzalez’s poem “the main purpose of the heart is to make heart sounds,” as featured in her 2013 book i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together: the next time you are driving your car you will think about that day we had sex in my dad’s bed when the bright sun was shining on us through the white curtains and we felt comforted by the inevitably of death Our digitally-enhanced Information Age is one that obfuscates artistic distinction and the two youngest poets of the Nu-Audacist School, Steve Roggenbuck (b.1987; 18.1K Twitter followers) and Mira Gonzalez (b. 1992; 23K Twitter followers), are paradigms for such expansiveness. For Roggenbuck and Gonzalez, poems can be tweets or YouTube videos; they need not exist on the physical page and if they do they certainly need not be published via any traditional means. Circa 2016 none of this might seem particularly audacious -- and yet even today a substantial portion of literary publishing houses and magazines use their online presence as merely a way of touting what they have created in-print. They often tweet and post excerpts from their latest print issues; they host a (sporadically updated) blog featuring a medley of literary-craft based essays and occasionally new literally work. Yet for these outlets there is a wide divide between what they physically and virtually create; different submission processes for print and online publications and different standards for print and online publications. The prevailing cultural sentiment is still that a YouTube video cannot be a form of poetry, nor can a tweet; e-books are less substantive than actual physical artifacts. In essence much of our current literary climate believes, even now, that print is king, and that publishing a dead-tree based book is what every self-respecting writer should aspire to achieve. Recent surveys have shown, however, that certain (younger) members of (1st world) society would rather have a smartphone or computer with a steady internet connection than a car. Meaning for so called millennials, aka the Internet Generation, physical transportation is less important than virtual. And although survey participants were not asked about their predilection for reading or viewing literature on the internet as compared to procuring it from a brick-and-mortal library or bookstore, one can’t help but think that favor would land in the Internet-sourced technological realm rather than its IRL binary. Being destroyers of artistic distinction, however, Roggenbuck and Gonzalez would find the above Internet vs. print meanderings meaningless, moot, as for both writers there’s no such thing as “Internet poetry” or “e-poetry;” there’s only poetry. Or, thinking about it another way, Internet poetry exists in the same way as, say, pastoral poetry exists or poetry of witness; each holds a separate but equal stake unto a broader umbrella. Firmly ensconced in the digital present, Roggenbuck and Gonzalez’s work has little time for the wrinkled arguments of the past. “make something beautiful before you are dead” is the title of Roggenbuck’s most viewed YouTube poem and one much talked about.  It largely consists of him yelling at a self-held camera (more likely his iPhone) while orchestral-by-way-of-electronica music ebbs, arcs and crescendos in the background. “make something beautiful…” features lines as varied as: Two words, jackass: Dog the Bounty Hunter Back in my grandfather’s day they didn’t have YOLO. We have YOLO! We have to harness this gift. I love hugging. I love hugging people. I love stars. Rain is beautiful! Grass is beautiful! Cows are beautiful! Maybe you should stand in the rain. Maybe you should stand in the rain. You’re alive right now! You’re alive right now! I love the world. In the middle of “make something beautiful…” there’s also, fittingly, a collaged video excerpt from the yet-still relevant film Dead Poets Society. In it Robin Williams (as the prep school teacher John Keating) illuminates his students to the fact that “…You are here. That life exists. And identity. That the power for play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” Older viewers might find Keating’s earnestness here maudlin or overwrought but for Roggenbuck it is something to savor and expound into. Because 27 years after the movie’s release life and identity do still exist; the power for play still does rollick on and so many of us still do hope to contribute a verse to it. Other Roggenbuck YouTube videos are in a similar vein as “make something beautiful…;” they are over the top and irreverent; high-energy and enigmatic. Combining stream-of-consciousness riffing, overt sentiment and juxtaposed video footage of both Roggenbuck and others reading their work, some videos are more successful than others. But the best of them are mysteriously gripping and grippingly mysterious in the same way that, for instance, Weldon Kee’s “For My Daughter” is, or Hilda Morley’s “Sea-Map.” In addition to his video and social media work, Roggenbuck writes “regular” print-based poetry collections and he’s also a relentless reader and tourer of his work. (Which isn’t to say he much believes in traditional poetry publication ordinances and processes; a Roggenbuck Tweet from July 5, 2016 states, “i support my individual friends who r poets but i generally do not feel that the small press poetry world is worthy of their attention/labor. for example i think ppl who put much of their writing directly on Twitt (@postcrunk @yunawinter) r making a more exciting impact… even books could still be great..but theres just so many stagnant tropes in poet land. we gota be free.”) But it’s Roggenbuck’s electronic presences that have gained him the most attention, both positive and negative. And just like the other Nu-Audacists the author of “make something beautiful…” simply doesn’t believe in Poetry -- or at least not the kind that doesn’t take into account the fact that the century we live in today is vastly different than every previous one. For Roggenbuck being a poet in 2016 means availing himself of all possible technological stimuli; it’s the only way he’s able to fully inhabit his poetic sense of self. Twitter and YouTube aren’t, poetically or otherwise, things to scoff at. Instead, they’re fertile sources of creative abundance. Mira Gonzalez’s latest volume is a shared collection with the poet and novelist Tao Lin. It’s entitled Selected Tweets and, unsurprisingly, the book wholly consists of selected tweets by Gonzalez and Lin. For a lot of contemporary writers this could be an aesthetic defiance of some fashion, but in her post-internet era Gonzalez rightly views Twitter as an artistic norm rather than an outlier. As she stated in a 2015 interview conducted with the magazine The Fader, “…this book shows how Twitter, and by extension the internet as a whole, is an undeniably valid platform for creative expression. No matter how trivial Twitter might become, the internet is now, and I’m confident it will continue to be, a place for people to display their writing in whatever form that may be. Anyone in your MFA program who is denying that now will probably feel really stupid in 10 years.” Gonzalez later goes on to assert in the interview “…I absolutely view Twitter as an equally valid platform as poetry or prose or fiction. With this book, I hope to show people that there really isn’t any difference in value between poetry and Twitter, the same way you wouldn’t say poetry is more or less valuable than a short story.” We live in the world of now, a now where on average each American citizen checks her phone 46 times a day. (Or even more often, depending on one’s age group.) And what is regularly being checked are websites likes Twitter. Across the cultural spectrum it provides entertainment, art and information in concise, bite-size increments. Readers are found on Twitter and, by virtue of the existence and acclaim of Lin and Gonzalez’s book, eager readers at that. On the face of it, then, her 23,000 followers might not call Gonzalez’s Twitter feed poetry exactly -- but she herself does and that’s enough. Gonzalez’s Twitter account is where most people access her writing, but it’s her first book of poetry, i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together, that initially gained her literary-based prominence. Like the other members of the Nu-Audacity school, the speakers of many of Gonzalez’s poems are alienated by others and vaguely nauseated by themselves; victim of so many “unwanted inventions” that each must now attempt to make whole, wanted. A typical poem in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together deals with matters of isolation and profound anxiety. “ryan gosling,” the second poem in the book, reads: I am becoming hostile and unsympathetic social interaction makes me feel tired and irritated I have alienated myself I don’t have meaningful relationships I don’t have romantic relationships I read a lot of depressing books I like being alone I am a bland person I am an afterthought I am a bag of unsalted pretzels I don’t know I am constantly reaching towards some nebulous goal I am not a mean person I am not a bad person I am only okay Like the speakers of Minnis’ “Prefaces” and “Anti-Vitae” and Zhang’s “Being jealous for the first time today since I woke up one milliseconds ago,” the self-loathing here is near suffocatingly thick. And is it of a confessional bent? An absurdist one? Suicidal? The “voice” of many of Gonzalez’s poem is so deadpan as to be crippling, and yet it also stings uniformly true. The vast majority of the world’s 7+ billion citizens are “only okay;” many of those citizens are also “constantly reaching towards some nebulous goal” that is largely devoid of substantive how’s and why’s. This, of course, makes us want it to achieve said goal -- whatever or whomever it is -- all the more. Gonzalez’ poetry has been accused of being “a paragon of flat writing,” containing an “ambivalence toward emotion.” More specifically, “Gonzalez’s desire to not have a feeling is leaky and uncontained. She attempts to write about the leakiness in an affectless way, trying to use tone and form of the poem to contain the shame of having a feeling. But the poem is itself a leaky vessel, inadequate to the containment or flattening of those messy feelings.” Certainly the work in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together refuses to console its reader in any accommodative way. When, in “mcsweeney’s caused global warming,” Gonzalez ends the poem with the line “I am concentrating on becoming 40mg of adderall right now,” she plays into a certain disaffected, apathetic, ostensibly “neutral” millennial stereotype, one very much focused on the singular syllable “I” and no one and nothing else. At the same time, however, Gonzalez’s poetry is deeply attuned to the fact that it is only during moments of extreme emotionality that we’re rendered “speechless.” The best poems in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together exist within an interstice of exasperation and exhalation. They are grandly luminous in their naiveté, repeatedly. In “symbolic interactionism” Gonzalez writes:      and we will understand that the phrase ‘alone together’ is not an oxymoron anymore and I will resolve to never be happy enough to forgive you and I promise that from now on I will only have emotions that can be perceived as neutral I wonder how it is possible that there are billions of people in the world yet I am the only person on the planet Here, the speaker of the poem is not an inhibited bystander but an astronaut of unfathomable capacity. During certain moments of great joy or despair all of us (consciously or unconsciously) contemplate “how it is possible that there are billions of people in the world” and yet our own indefatigable I is “the only person on the planet.” Certain excesses of self necessitate survival mechanisms that solely deal in neutrality and sterile isolation. Without acknowledging and commenting on one’s flatness of character -- “I will only have emotions that can be/ perceived as neutral” -- one will never be able to move constructively forward as a living, breathing human creature. (“I am neutral of love and neutral of death” writes Chelsey Minnis in her poem “F-Lute.”) Multi-dynamic and impossibly nuanced, our self is always, of course, our selves and Gonzalez’s best poems strive to negotiate the terms and conditions with which one must accept the malleability of being from mood to mood, minute to minute. Her poetry is a “leaky vessel” only in the sense that humanity itself is a leaky vessel—and that reality is something we’ll have to make a frail peace with until we grow up and die. The speakers of many of Gonzalez’s poems in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together don’t know how or if to feel, what they truly want -- but they do know what they’re interested in. And, baldly, that is sex. So when, in “heartbroken people with extreme personality flaws,” Gonzalez writes, “I want to feel orgasms in the tip of my nose and the back of my ear/ in the cartilage between the vertebrae that make up my spinal column” the feeling is not exclusive to “heartbroken’s…” speaker. Being largely concerned with the present era the school of Nu-Audacity is the school of sex tapes and “comefarts”; transparent sexual practices and liking to watch themselves liking to watch. They are unabashedly sex-positive in a way that is poetically refreshing. In this lack of sexual subterfuge they harken back to their poetic mothers and fathers. Eileen Myles’s “I always put my lover’s cunt/ on the crest/ of a wave/ like a flag/ that I can/ pledge my/ allegiance/ to. This is my/ country” (“I always put my pussy”) and John Wieners’s “I spit him out on the floor/ Immensely relieved/ After ejaculating/ Imagining myself up my lover’s ass/ he coming by himself” (“The Loneliness”). Frank O’Hara’s “You are Gorgeous and I’m Coming” and, excerpted from her Feminist Manifesto, Mina Loy’s “The fictitious value of a woman as identified with her physical purity -- is too easy to stand by…therefore the first self-enforced law for the female sex…would be the unconditional surgical destruction of virginity through-out the female population at puberty.” Like those writers, the school of Nu-Audacity refuses to feel sexually ashamed and they further feel an obligation to impart the virtues of sexual freedom and curiosity to their readers. One of the central themes of Ware’s Unwanted Invention is sex’s illusory nature and how the act is both ethereal and all too real. In his poem “Imaginary Portraits” he writes, “Bent over the end of a wood-paneled partition/ and wearing nothing/ but a pair of red cowboy boots…you cannot help but look at ourselves in the mirror/ when singular becomes plural/ and everything is/ double of what is double/ already: naked bodies entwining/ imaginary into real.” And in “Portrait” nine short pages later the red cowboy boots appear once again—but this time they are less a sexual document than a poetic one: In a portrait you wear the red cowboy boots with intricate white-threaded designs stitched into their sides that I fucked you in during a poem written weeks ago in Nebraska. In a portrait you wait for me, as I wait for you while I write this poem so we can fuck at noon in a friend’s apartment. In this case the poetic reality for the speaker of “Portrait” is also a sexual one; “I fucked you in…a poem written weeks ago” and “imaginary into real” both encounters are given the same weight. The difference between “making love” and just plain “fucking” also comes into play in “Portrait” -- its ending lines read “In a portrait/ I document our love. In another portrait/ you document our love. In these portraits/ our twenty-first century digital urns/ we will live forever"-- but the emphasis is on the physical act as much as it is on the romantic implications that are so often tied to it. Fucking can be making love and fucking can be fucking and the school of Nu-Audacity bears witness to both realities. “I show you my virtue when I come farting” is the opening line of Jenny Zhang’s “Comefarts;” midway through the poem the speaker imparts “I was wet because I was wet…I was wet and you didn’t notice it on your leg…I was wet and in my dreams I was wet/ I was wet and asked a stranger to jerk off onto my face.” Virtue is being honest with one’s lover about sexual habits, predilections and desires, coupled with a staunch refusal to mask the sexness of sex, its inherent fucking. For Minnis and Roggenbuck, then, this circumstance is one of professional and personal bemusement. “…poetry//is a suck & fuck//there is a smell of horseshit//and it is so vulture//like you should jack it all off//like adjunct//and lick it up//for nothing like a stipend $” asserts the speaker of Minnis’ “Don’t Do It Some More.” Sardonic and satiric, “Don’t Do It Some More” again offers the valuelessness of academia-tainted poetry, but here a sexual element also pervades. Sure, the “suck and fuck” of poetry legitimately wretches, but it nevertheless is still worth engaging in and writing towards.  As Minnis writes in Bad Bad’s “Preface 65,” “I can fail to be loved but I can’t fail to write this.” And even if a desire to fail exists -- to scream to hell with it, “jack it all off// like adjunct//and lick it up// for nothing…” -- that desire will be subverted by some innate poetic steadfast, steadlong. Unto Steve Roggenbuck’s scope sexual activity is, like his poetry, playful, mischievous. Although his work is not transparently sexual in the same manner as the other Nu-Audacists, sex still plays a role, albeit one that is less erotic than exhibitionist. From his video “why i own a backhoe”: “sometimes I put things up my asshole. I’m like, that hurts in there. But then I just let it sit there for a little longer and…it starts to not hurt.” In order for pain to be felt, though, one must possess a willingness to put “it” up there in the first place—and having done so gratification, either poetical or sexual, might soon follow. Finally, as touched on earlier many of the speakers of Mira Gonzalez’s poems in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together are fervently sex-positive; in this respect her work refreshes in the same manner as does that of Ware and Zhang does. Throughout i will never be beautiful… sex is mentioned in a variety of different ways -- sorrowful and orgasmic, sometimes in the same poem -- but noteworthy is the fact that Gonzalez’s speakers always couch the sexual as liberating. To be alive is to want to have sex and that want is powerful and seductive. Coitus in Gonzalez’s poems can be masochistic; in “induced-compliance paradigm” her speaker states, “I enjoy being bitten during sex/ because of the causal connection/ between the act of biting and/ the feeling of being bitten” and the flat assertion “starving to death during sex is something I would like to do this week” is the final line of “this friday I woke up at 2 pm.” Yet elsewhere in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together sex is investigative, poetically so. See the sly euphoria of the previously noted “I want to feel orgasms in the tip of my nose and the back of my ear/ in the cartilage between the vertebrae that make up my spinal column” and, taken from “mcsweeney’s caused global warming,” the lines: I am going to consume your entire body by lying down on top of you and breathing very hard and we will feel alienated by way of osmosis would you please push your head against my head until we can mutually confirm our place in the universe did you know that I can only have an orgasm when I am lying down on my back also I have never seen snow The sex isn’t always good in Gonzalez’s poetry, certainly. (In fact it’s often quite bad.) But even that failing is candidly, assertively discussed, sans moral judgments or antiquated male or female stereotypes. Sex is in your face in Gonzalez’s work because the same holds true in contemporary culture and to hide that fact or be ashamed by it designates a refusal of self, artistically, culturally, personally. And as Joshua Ware’s “Imaginary Portrait” puts it, “All that is new/ transforms into the marks of misguided lovers/ shaping themselves/ into another season’s aesthetic rituals/ to prolong the poem/ within sex sweat of bodies/ and the breath of wine-socked mouths.” Under perfect circumstances sex is new every single we time we do it and the same holds true for the writing of poems -- the best poets write their first poems every time they sit down. In their most successful works the school of Nu-Audacity elucidates that phenomenon. Recently appearing on the popular podcast Another Round with Heben & Tracy, Jenny Zhang read her poem “I Would Have No Pubes If I Were Truly In Love,” one that features lines such as: I think fucking is P in V but later my mom tells me there’s more Is p pussy and v vagina, I say You must try everything, she says I say it too always striving to be someone’s mirror everyone tells me I am my mother’s mother both of us were born with curly pubes Discussing her work later in the show, one of the hosts asks about “intimacy” in Zhang’s writing, specifically if vis-à-vis her family’s reading of her work she ever feels bashful or “vulgar.” Zhang’s response is telling. In part, she states that, “Being shameless is kind of important [to me] because…as a woman of color in this world I’m constantly being told that I should be ashamed, like I should have some shame, I should…accept how other people see me as like someone who’s not much, who’s not worth much.” Not everyone in the school of Nu-Audacity is a person of color. But all of the school’s members do represent sex -- in all its lurid, vigorous and ultimately positive, affirming and healthy actualities -- in a way that suitably represents our current cultural climate; no matter’s one’s personal tastes or proclivities, sexual openness, honesty and transparency are paramount. The Nu-Audacists know that vague metaphors and similes are sometimes just lazy, especially when it comes to sex, when it comes to fucking. Better to name and, having named, empowered. If only every poet, then, could be similarly audacious. Reviewing Susan Wheeler’s book Smokes in Boston Review all the way back in the netherera of 1998, Stephen Burt introduced the world to a school of poetry he dubbed Ellipticism; gaining prominent advocates and naysayers, it proved to be greatly influential. (The name comes from the grammatical ellipsis, the omission of an unnecessary connection or connections within a sentence.) To Burt’s way of thinking the Elliptical poets sought to “manifest a person-who speaks the poem and reflects the poet-while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-"postmodern": they have read (most of them) Stein's heirs, and the "language writers," and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively "poetic") diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning "I am an X, I am a Y." Ellipticism's favorite established poets are Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, Ashbery, and/or W.H. Auden…The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.” Subsequently expanded on by Burt in his essay “The Elliptical Poets” in an Elliptical-focused issue of the journal American Letters & Commentary in 1999, Ellipticism got a great swathe of attention in the late 90’s and early 00’s poetry world. In Burt’s own words, taken from his 2004 essay “Close Calls With Nonsense:” Some of the feedback I got was jazzily positive, even thankful. Some of the feedback was negative but attentive: readers pointed out (as my essay acknowledged) that some of the poets I grouped together were hardly friends, and that the books which founded the putative school had come out years apart. Outweighing both the supporters and the disputants, however, were the curious: students who planned term papers on the Ellipticals, academics who wanted to hear more about it, poets who wondered if they belonged in the school…I’m not sorry that I wrote “The Elliptical Poets”: if it created new readers for Mark Levine, or [Lucie] Brock-Broido, or [C.D.] Wright, it did what I meant it to do. (In 2009 Burt introduced his vision for a post-Elliptical world, discussing the terse, epigrammatic lyricism he saw as poetically in-vogue in his essay “The New Thing.”) I hash all this up now for several reasons, the first being the similarities and differences I see between the Elliptical and Nu-Audacity schools. Like the Elliptical writers -- a group which also included Karen Volkman, Claudia Rankine, Mary Jo Bang, and Liam Rector -- the Nu-Audacists regularly fluctuate between high and low poetic diction. Steve Roggenbuck’s work is hallmarked by his purposeful misspelling of easy-to-spell words -- see his recent print collection Live My Lief: Selected & New Poems, 2008-15 -- whereas, High-Modernist inspired, Laura Solomon’s poems occasionally shift from English into French or Italian. Her poem “Nicola, Hello!” begins with the stanzas “á quelle heure veux-tu/ me recontrer?// you don’t know me but we speak anyway” and ends with the line “that is the meaning.” (Unlike many of the Modernists, however, Solomon does provide the reader of The Hermit with an English translation at the end of the volume; “á quelle heure veux-tu/ me recontrer?” translates to “when do you want to meet me?”) Another shared trait between the two schools is the telling of “almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones.” Although all of the Nu-Audacists dabble in narrative, none of them could be called narrative poets; the half-stories told in their poems are devoid of firm beginnings, middles or ends and, like a Twitter feed, are perpetually rendered in media res. At the same time, however, the typical Nu-Audacity poem is never muddled down by obscure language. Even if one isn’t at all sure where or how she’s going, there is an identifiable poetic entrance and exit, a readerly way in and out. The differences between the two schools are indicative of the changed cultural and poetical mores. The largest difference, of course, involves Burt’s contention that “[the Ellipticals] want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.” Pre widespread usage of the Internet, in 1998 this Elliptical desire would have made perfect sense; entombed on the printed page, their work could not be television but ideally it could entertain its readers as thoroughly as that visual medium was once able to. For the Nu-Audacity school, however, their work has the potential to be or in fact already is the Internet; positively or negatively, no resemblance notions need be discussed. And this World Wide Web based reality is taken for granted by the school’s members in the same way that Wi-Fi access at your favorite coffee shop is taken for granted. There’s simply no use arguing for or against what already is. The difference in utilization of a poetic sense of self is also markedly different between the Elliptical and Nu-Audacity schools. If for Ellipticism a major goal entailed the manifestation of “a person-who speaks the poem and reflects the poet-while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves,” than for the Nu-Audacists the opposite is the case; their work predominantly strives to be mask-less and gizmo-less. Writing in the midst of revelations by Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, during an era where the private is public and every smartphone holds a thousand different selves, the Nu-Audacity poets offer their transparency as a badge of poetic honor. Their work insists that someone real, someone authentic, wrote the poems and that realness is not a pose or an affectation; it is an actuality. Unlike the Ellipticals they don’t wish “to undermine the coherence of [their] speaking selves” because to do so would be a poetic sabotage of a sort, one that puts more emphasis on artifice than art. In this regard they salute Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto,” specifically his belief that “the poem [should be] squarely between the poet and the person…between two persons instead of two pages.” Even at the risk of writing work that might be considered bad or maudlin, the school of Nu-Audacity desires their individual voices (and collective voice) to burn through. Further, the inadequacy of their chosen art form simultaneously reinforces its essentiality. Because once upon a time poetry wasn’t wholly filled with “stagnant tropes” that all its practitioners consciously or unconsciously adhered to; it was “free” in the same way that Twitter is or YouTube or sex. The writing and publishing of it didn’t have much to do with “professional” success and that lack invigorated the non-rules of the word-game otherwise known as Poetry. Such a freedom is what the school of Nu-Audacity writes toward and believes in. “Poetry is, (and should be,) for the poet, a source of pleasure and satisfaction, not a source of honors… [it] is the gaiety (joy) of language” is how Wallace Stevens put it in his “Adagia” way back in the 20th century, and whether the Nu-Audacists look to Stevens as a sinner or saint his declarations are ones that they themselves hold. Canonical poet Marianne Moore hated it almost 100 years ago and contemporary poet and MacArthur Genius Ben Lerner still hates it. In his aforementioned essay “Close Calls With Nonsense” Stephen Burt already noted that, circa 2004, so many poems also functioned as games, writing that such works are successful when “we can imagine a personality behind them. The poem carries, as people do, a social or regional or ethnic context; it leaps, as a person’s thoughts do, from topic to topic, and it lacks -- as real people usually lack -- a single all-explaining storyline or motive. Being like a person, such a poem can also ask what exactly makes us persons, how we know a person when we see one, or how we tell one another apart.” Poems and poeming existed on the Internet far before Steve Roggenbuck and Mira Gonzalez and graphic sex in a poem isn’t at all new either, to this millennium or any of the previous ones. Not everyone who writes poetry nowadays is in academia, not by a long shot. And in terms of audacity, 20th-century Surrealists like Benjamin Péret used to, spittingly, insult Christian priests to their face due to virulent hatred of the religion; the Futurists espoused destroying, among other things, “museums, libraries, academies of every kind.” So what, in the end, makes the school of Nu-Audacity actually new, actually audacious? Simply this: these poets are writing in ways that embodies and encapsulates the frustrating, abhorrent and ultimately inspiring contemporary world, writing in new ways that no one has written before. And in this way they are Nu and in this way they are Audacious. As lines from Joshua Ware’s poem “I Believe In Everything” articulate: For life to enter a poem makes a poem worth reading but for a poem to enter life means pronouns transform from pro-form to flesh in ways we can never imagine… A poem is not…disappearance but a second life saturated with the ether of the real always present as an invisible aura As Jay-Z said, what more can I say? The poetry of the Nu-Audacists is filled with life “saturated with the ether of the real.” Happy birthday, beautiful ones. Never grow old, never grow up. Image credit: Flickr user lookcatalog