Monday, March 30, 2009

Something to think about

This hegemony of content over form in the mind of the critic is at the very heart of the uselessness of mainstream poetry criticism in America; in turn, the reaction to talk about the fact of form without any reference to its possible purposes or effect on a reader is a glaring flaw in much criticism that appears in smaller journals and on blogs, particularly ones that are primarily interested in so-called “experimental” poetry that foregrounds its own formal innovation. --Matthew Zapruder
Form and content. Content and form. i'm trying to think of how i discuss both. Do i fall into this trap? There is a temptation to discuss some poets in terms of form (Olson, for example), and others in terms of content (lyric poets, generally). Some poets intertwine the two: Ron Siliman's Ketjak is a long poem where the content really is the form -- a series of seemingly unrelated sentences placed paratactically that repeat, doubling in number, in each new paragraph. Whew. Siliman's form is meant to draw attention to language, to undercut the desire of the reader to form a continuous narrative when presented with something that looks like prose. The poem is politically motivated: Siliman wanted to distance language from capitalism; to de-commodify it. In other words, the "exchange" of language for meaning is disturbed because the referent of any particular sentence cannot be connected to the ones that comes before it. In short, its disconnected (but in a really fun way). While some readers have a hard time connecting with Ketjak, some knowledge of Siliman's project can really increase the sense of playfulness that comes from the work.

i'm off topic. In terms of criticism, how can a critic (or a reader) overcome this hegemony of content over form without falling into the trap of ignoring or reducing the content of the poem?

What do you think, the Internet?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

bpNichol: kinetic poetic

i found something neat when working on a project a few weeks ago:

bpNichol's computer poems!

i'm so glad these folks managed to make this poetry accessible; it would have been a shame if it were lost because of compatibility issues (the poetry was written in Apple BASIC in 1983/4). The introduction is worth a read - otherwise choose a version to watch in the menu sidebar, and enjoy!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay

i have to admit i didn't expect to like McKay. i heard "Canadian Nature Poetry" and thought "Wordsworth North". My mistake. McKay's nature is more theoretical and post-modern than Romantic - he conceptualizes wilderness not as a state of naturalness, but rather as the unknowable. Nature as Other. i found myself enjoying his lyric verse because of the striking imagery:

the Great Blue Heron
(the birdboned wrist)

These lines from "The Great Blue Heron" are a wonderful example of his use of juxtaposition. McKay's use of metaphor is extensive; the critical thought behind his use of metaphor is that metaphor can simultaneously explain the "other" while undermining the explanation (as opposed to definition, which seeks to name). A metaphor implies likeness, but necessarily means that the referents are unalike as well.

Yet I experienced a glaring moment of discomfort when I arrived at the poem "Poplar":

... Who else
has strength to tremble,
tremble and be wholly trepid,
be soft so she can listen hard,
and shimmer, elegant and humble,
in the merest wisp of wind?

My professor of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (for which I was reading this collection) clarified the problem of the poem for me: a metaphor assumes the speaker has some knowledge of the vehicle - the second image of the metaphor. Here, McKay is attributing femininity to a tree. This necessarily means that he assumes that "feminine" has an accepted, universal definition: softness, elegance, humility. This poem brought McKay's entire project tumbling down around me. If his project is to recognize wilderness in the world, why not in people? Why make the assumption that woman is classifiable/has been classified?

i have a feeling McKay knows the limitations of his project; using language necessarily means removing, in some form, "otherness" or "wilderness" from the thing(s) being described. Upon thought, while i will never like "Poplar", for the most part McKay works very hard to avoid this trap, to write "ethically".

Besides, how could i not admire anyone who can write "every feather is a pen, but living, // flying" ? It's the kind of line i wish that i had written first, that i could lay claim to. McKay's fascination with birds is one i share, and he manages to capture their image without interfering (too much) with their wildness. It occurs to me that McKay's ethics of trying to record wilderness without taming it is something very mature. In "Load" for instance, the narrator has the desire to stroke a grounded sparrow, but resists the temptation. i spent my childhood trying to tame any small creature that crossed my path, and i don't know that even now i could resist the urge to try and restore a fallen bird to health. McKay very subtly points out the type of presumption that would be: a type of playing god and/or a type of colonization. That impulse is always there; McKay points out the value of both recognizing and resisting it. And he points it out so beautifully, too.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What Stirs - Margaret Christakos

i would like to use my first post to discuss a writer who i respect very much, because it is very hard for me to tell Margaret how very beautiful i find her writing. that is something i very much need to work on -- having the courage to tell someone "your writing moves me" or "your use of language inspires me" or even "i have a crush on your text". the Interwebs exist for this purpose: to say without saying, to expose without exposure, amiright?

What Stirs juxtaposes moments of transcendence with the 'mundane' (exposing the mundane for what it is or could be?): "The sun's opal leaked in" while "the babies whimper" in "Visual Splendor Coupons" is a good example of the beautiful language used to describe domesticity throughout the book: the hightened description of the moment of sunshine is not lessened by the whimper of the babies. Motherhood is both revered and real in these poems.

The repetition of images (opals, milk, breasts, visual splendor) draw the reader through the book, revisions memory of the poems, makes the reader think simultaneously "this is new" and "i have read this before". The connections ask to be made, building layers of meaning and association while the poems individually do very different things -- some intensely sober and reflective, others more playful, flippant even (see: "Sherry Mary's Friend Billy Bob").

i think what i love most about What Stirs is the attention it draws to the language, the texts, that are always present in the world. "The Birdie Went Down" and "Key Brain Chemicals" are "reclaimed", to use Margaret's word, from news sources, and "Something Inside Me" uses texts found on the Internets. Reading "(I Really Don't Think You're) Strong Enough" was an incredible experience as my mind started linking the references i recognized (Cher, Linkin Park, a camp song from my childhood) into some kind of narrative, while those that i couldn't place often became some kind of background conversation. But then, that's the way the Internet usually works, doesn't it? We filter.

What Stirs pushes against that filtering impulse, bringing the things we often (unfortunately) ignore to the forefront. It encourages readers to engage with things we consider mundane or unnoteworthy, to re-evaluate those designations. The poetry is rich, and deserves multiple lingering readings. i know that i cannot begin to do it justice. So i'll leave it at that, for now.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

setting up shop

Hi there, the Internet!

Let me begin plainly: this is not a blog intended for formal review or critique of poetry. There are other places for that. This is a journey through poetry - some new, some old, most of it Canadian. Some posts will be my gut reaction to a text. Some will engage directly with a text. Some will be essays written for a class (how boring! I know, but you don't have to read the whole thing). Although I claim to be dealing with poets, I cannot promise that other genres won't appear. Nor should I. Stop trying to limit me, the Internet! Sheesh.

I have done a lot of reading recently, and have a lot to blog. Stay tuned.