Friday, April 22, 2005

The Experiment Continues

Like the fickle obsessive I am, I've decided to work on avoiding end-rhymes in the opening lines of all my poems for the foreseeable future. Internal rhymes are OK, and some rhymes toward the end can be tolerated (I notice this happens a lot in supposedly "free verse" anyway). In other words, I have pledged to write only things that stand a chance of being read to the end by the editors of the prestigious American journals that have thus far closed their doors against me. My poems will open like "normal" contemporary poetry, at least. They might actually have to hear me out, and not just flunk me for being old-fashioned.

Cynical, you say? Well, in fact, this pledge has produced some blissfully naïve and almost childish results. (I'll spare you the poem on kissing, for now.) It's as though I can escape the perhaps overly intense and self-conscious personality I've created for myself and see the world all over again, as if I were someone else. This may have to do with impending fatherhood, I admit, but it's also based on a kind of awareness of how effortless poetry can be if you strip it down to its minimal ingredients, we're done over the last century or so. Poetry is EASY, if you let it be easy, at least in its first stages. An individual poem usually becomes hard work if you let it go on long enough, and that's where rhymes and other formal strategies come in handy-- as Russell says, they help you flesh out the thoughts that aren't fully formed until you put them into words. But, insofar as it can have its roots in any one of the everyday "acts of attention" we perform instinctively, a poem can (and probably should) begin in a simple, concrete situation or observation that is dictated to us by the world. "If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to the tree, it had better not come at all." So why not begin in a more conversational, unbuttoned, laissez-faire style, even if you know you'll end up clustering sounds together in formal-sounding ways by the end?

So here's an example of this new kind of poem I'm writing. It's the one that came the easiest and stopped the soonest, so it's emblematic of the effortlessness I'm talking about. If it communicates at all, it'll be a wonderful surprise. Maybe I've been too concerned with communicating in the past, anyway.

Icarus, from the Breakfast Nook

Light stays aloft, but illuminated
objects fall to us to be known.
A leaf is briefly sustained, on its slow,
erratic flight, as if flaming with grace
on its way to the damned. So we come to grief—
ablaze with amazement, weighed down by the looks
of expectant mourners and envious mothers
who see in their children’s bright eyes the distant
reflections of suns that desired and died
in a life-giving moment, afire, unaware.

The title irks me mildly when I read it here, since it endorses the lazy habit of transposing mythical figures into contemporary situations, but I like the juxtaposition of tragic falls with cozy domesticity. It seems apt for the tone of the poem, somehow. I'd be glad of alternatives, however.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Second Thoughts

Is it my imagination, or does blogging breed rapid changes of mind?

I've been mulling over my remarks from "Fighting Words" and wondering if I was really telling the truth when I said "I just don't know what to say in a poem unless there's a rhyme to lead me from one line to the next". Perhaps I simply haven't tried hard enough to imagine what a non-rhyming poem by me would say. Maybe I was just too pleased to be writing anything resembling a poem to question the devices that were generating certain lines in my brain and excluding others. Maybe I have been living for too long in the prelapserian world of Dylan Thomas and Willy Shakespeare, and failed to grasp the nettle of historical reality. Maybe it's time to join contemporary poetry as it limps along in Dick Cheney's America, purged of ecstasy but mature in its limitations.

So I've written a poem that avoids rhyme for the most part. Of course, it also comments on itself as a non-rhyming poem. If you can't be self-reflexive in a blog, where can you be? Here it is:

                 Wasted Gifts

The album you never had to hear
because I forgot it on my way
to see you (when your birthday came
around again, it was out of style);
the book I ordered in advance
and later saw you'd bought for yourself;
the box of chocolates I ate
alone in my bedroom every evening
for a week, until I knew
there was nothing to do but hide
the fact that it had ever existed;
the three thousand poems I wrote in rhyme
when nobody wanted to hear those echoes
in those places, then or ever:
I'd like to send them all out now
to find their destined recipients
at last. At least those absent tributes
will no longer be an excuse
to see myself as a generous man
misunderstood, or thwarted by fate.
My wasted gifts will be recognized
for what they were: self-portraits in miniature.
Vanishing and indistinct,
they were half-way to oblivion
even as I called them mine
and martyred them in a lopsided trade
with someone I would think about
at night until I'd found the objects
I could give them to be at peace.
Then I stopped my conscious concern—
it was an effort, distracting, most
of the time. I could rest, having found my offerings
and made them bear that burden of dreams.

This time, I'm not going to do any of my friend Victor Schnickelfritz's critical work for him (see the comments section for his response to "The Fighting Horses"). Besides, I think my concerns will be obvious to anyone who's tried a new way of writing.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Fighting words

I'm finally publishing my first book of poems. It's called "The Miracle Shirker" and it's coming out in a very small run (100 or so to start with) from a press in Stockton, California, which is an hour or so from where I live. I'm paying for the printing myself, which makes me a self-publishing loser, I suppose. I'm tired of entering semi-rigged contests and whining to underfunded presses, so I'm finally putting my money where my mouth is. By the way, if you want a copy of the book, feel free to email me at It'll cost you $15 US, $18 CDN, plus some shipping.

So I must think I'm a pretty decent poet, right? Well, maybe I am; I'm pretty damn prolific, anyway. I'm written approximately 3625 poems as of April 15, 2005, and I've published in more than 100 journals (including most of the really good ones in Canada), though no major American magazine (the New Yorker, Poetry etc) will touch me with a ten-foot pole. Why not? Well, maybe it's because I just suck after all, but maybe, just maybe, it's because I like some rhymes here and there in a poem. Frankly, I just don't know what to say in a poem unless there's a rhyme to lead me from one line to the next. It's just that simple. If I have a sermon to write, or an essay to compose, or an argument to win, I'll write prose. I guess I still think that's what prose is for. Poetry needs some slide in its step, for me. Rhymes just grease the skids that get me to the bottom of the ride. Call me a formalist pig, if you like.

Anyway, the point is not to complain endlessly. The point is to write more and write better, so I'm starting this blog to get comments on poems I'm still working on and fiddling with, and hoping to put in my second book someday. I'm also making this part of my commitment to visiting other poets' blogs and commenting constructively on their work. I value and try to offer criticism that goes beyond a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down, that points to specific lines and phrases as well- or ill-chosen, and suggests alternative strategies or words.

I do want to make this a place where people can post their work and make comments, so please feel free to add a poem or two in the comments section and I'll post it with my own remarks in due course. This blog isn't going to go away; I write almost every day and comment on others' writing for a living, so I have an endless capacity for producing and processing words.

So here's the poem I wrote last night and this morning, with the aid of a dictionary that pointed out the parts of a horse's anatomy.

The Fighting Horses

One, embraced by the other, nips
a throatlatch taut, its stifles flexed
with fetlocks cocked at pointed hips
and straining neck. The movement vexed,
the horses part and prance, rear back
on hock and tendon, spring from croup
to cannon, curvet to outflank
the other barreling beast. Hooves scrape
on shoulders, pummel pasterns stretched
with whinnying, flail to winnow blown manes
bravely, fight free. Forever unhitched,
they canter back blamelessly, limping and game,
to live together beyond human terms,
their bodies gone awkward: hostile yet disarmed.

My concerns are:
a) that it smells of the lamp (i.e. sounds bookish and over-technical)
b) that it is confusing
c) that no one will get the point, because it's a bit obscure (without people on them horses seem awkward, and their violence kind of monstrous, despite all the military-sounding names we've given to the parts of their bodies).

What do you think?