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?


Blogger Kate said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:28 PM  
Blogger Victor Schnickelfritz said...

God, I hate it when people withdraw their comments. I can't decide if they're withdrawing their disparaging remarks or just hitting the wrong button on the keyboard.

In any case, on your poem . . . your concerns are not misplaced.

I admire your diligence in the pursuit of a particular diction. It reminds me of the way I play basketball. Finally, my teammates in the rec league asked me to stop playing on the team because I was hurting too many players [on my own team and opponents] diving after loose balls. Somehow intensity doesn't sell well. Nobody tells you that when you spend so many years scrupulously studying this thing and that thing in school.

I agree with you that the language of horsemanship (is that a word?) is compelling, especially for the situation you've set up—namely, battle. However, this seems to me too much, almost like piling on. The good news is: like muriatic acid, you can dilute it. Perhaps you can even move off the horse rhetoric and come back to it.

I like this line:

"to live together beyond human terms"

but I am not sure what the impications of it are. humans are embattled creatures and horses need to get beyond all that? Perhaps these horses could morph into humans—or is that too dungeons and dragons?

My concerns are:
a) that it smells of the lamp (i.e. sounds bookish and over-technical)
b) that it is confusing it is confusing, but only because the horse terminology predominates, and I am not familiar with 50% percent of the terminology. Again, a sports analogy. It is like watching a hockey game where you only know a few rules and can't understand what possible grudge the defenseman is holding for checking the right winger into the boards
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). to me, the point is not so much "the point" as it is "beside the point." The level of intensity you employ on getting the language down is not served by the kind of throw away ending. The drama of a scarred and damaged horse doesn't have enough weight for me . . . I'm not a horse person. Maybe the poitn of the poem is beyond the fight? horse reconciliation? horse shame and embarrassment? To me anthropomorphism is the next unexplored frontier for nature poetry. Let's imbur animals with human characteristics the way the Native Americans did. I'm not sure that they aren't entitled to them.

In any case, my blog(s) are

here this one is my personal blog where I review books and do other silliness.

The other one is a team blog where I have been invited to post on various different topics. Currently, I am on a diatribe against Dana Gioia and formalism (you may have heard parts of this one before) and for the avant-garde in poetry. I was vehemently attacked, but the other day I posted "The Writer's Writer or the Writer's Groupie" and there as been very little comment. I suspect that everyone is laying back to reload.

Take aim yourself. The more the merrier. Though I have to say that so far this has become somewhat of a male pissing match.

12:06 AM  
Blogger Brad said...

I hate it when my concerns aren't misplaced.

I am, however, pleased that my impolitic all-caps mini-rant lured my pet foe and doughty friend Victor Schnickelfritz (or was that Frickenschitzel?) out into the open. I'm just glad I managed to correct the misspelled words in my poem before he crashed my little inaugural blog party. Not that he would have noticed any mistakes in those body part words, though, since he's not "a horse person." I wonder how he found the nerve to comment on such a horsey poem? Then again, I wrote the thing, and I'm as unhorsey as they come.

Of course, the fact that he's right doesn't endear him to me. But it's my own fault. I offered him the chinks in my verbal armor and he slotted the knives right in. Or perhaps they are really like acupuncturist's needles: penetrating remarks around which the quickened flow of the blood will bring healing to an ailing poem. Next time I need to provide a not-so-sitting duck.

I do wonder, as a passing final thought, how the ending can be entirely "throwaway" in Victor's eyes if he professes to like the second-last line, which is a departure from the horse-heavy "intensity" he warns me against, and which leads (with what seems to me to be thundering inevitability) to the last line? I wonder, after reading his post, whether I ought not to sprinkle more "throwaway" lines into the rest of the poem. But then, I guess I kind of like diving after loose words in a poem, just like Victor does with loose balls on the basketball court. I tell my students that I'm the Ron Artest of the English Department, as a matter of fact.

In the interest of full disclosure, the first deleted comment was a test run by my helpful but embarrassingly uncritical wife. I believe its gist was that my poem was "nice."

Anyway, I'll be happy to join the fray on those other sites you've listed, Victor. Pissing matches are much more fun when they happen on other people's turf.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Victor Schnickelfritz said...

You are right. "Throwaway line" is not the right term. The last line reiterates the action of the poem, but that is all (in my estimation). It is a kind of summary?

Last lines are so hard to write. My inclination with them, at least, is to twist the discourse in order to push the reader to a different place that he/she had considered OR to level some delicious image or thundering profundity.

These are probably garden variety options, but they work fairly well.

I'm just not sure it has gotten there yet. I have this problem in a number of my pieces where the language may move well and be interesing, but the last line does not deliver a sense of closure because it hasn't revealed anything new or made the reader sense something arresting.

I guess this is what I meant.

12:04 AM  
Blogger Brad said...

In that case, I see your meaning more clearly.

I think the last line may suffer from being too obvious a summary, too plain a statement. I like your idea of taking the reader to a different place or level, but I feel that in a shortish poem about horses, there just isn't much room to wiggle around to transcendence. The poem is severely limited by its small scope, I guess, and the ending is more of a tuck-in with a goodnight kiss (whew, one more poem to add to the list) than anything else. Still, it is what it is, I suppose. I'm unlikely to expand it to embrace a new Native American anthropomorphic mythology—it's really a cameo, and it either does its little dance for you or it doesn't.

7:40 PM  
Anonymous Russell said...

It sounds so good read aloud that who really cares if you get every damn meaning of each word? (Quite frankly I have difficulty understanding long slow drawn out poems as well, even where I know what all the words mean - so a lot of ambiguity is a plus in my book, especially in a poem that exercises language like this one.)

Read aloud, it sounds like a Robert Burns poem. Scottish, slightly German, even. It gives great gutteral. It is rhythm and explosion - horses galloping and war.

Remember when the shape of a poem could mean as much as its significance flow?

8:21 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

Hi Brad - sorry it has taken me so long to check out your blog. Here are my comments about "The Fighting Horses":

a) Overtechnical? Who cares? Plenty of poets publish far less interesting, far more esoteric crap that requires research to comprehend the poem. Because the poem is so brief, this is not a problem for me because we've got Yahoo and Google--who couldn't do a little research? I'm too lazy, but I would bet that I could come to grips with most or all of the equestrian-speak pretty quickly if I had to do so.

b) See "a" above.

c) I don't think you should worry about whether or not people get the point. For me, the poem says that natural forces--natural selection, horsetosterone, or whatever--compel the horses to fight, but that once the event is over the horses are not still "armed" with the same baggage that humans bring to conflict: greed, prejudice, egomaniacism, etc.

I also find it interesting that you say, "without people on them horses seem awkward, and their violence kind of monstrous." For me, it's exactly opposite: the imagery of horses fighting on their own is quite natural (I'm picturing wild horses on grassy hills in Idaho or someplace). It's when humans enter the picture with a saber and/or firearm that it becomes unnatural and monstrous. And for your Canadian readers, I do not intend to slam the RCMP - I love their show and I try to see it every year at the state fair.

The imagery is clear and lively, and I think the poem works quite well. My favorite part is, "whinnying, flail to winnow blown manes" - nice word selection and a terrific image.

I wasn't sure about the title at first, but I've come around to thinking that its simplicity is just the ticket.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Being obsessive-compulsive, I feel compelled to correct myself. After I posted my comments last night it occurred to me that I had said "equestrian-speak," and that I should have written "equine-speak."

Sorry - I just couldn't let publicized evidence of my own ignorance sit out there without posting a correction.

10:45 PM  
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