Still life with two relaxed superheroes and a sparkle pen

seuss

Sometimes, if I wake up extra-early, I’ll make a pot of tea and read one of the many bound-to-be-good poetry books stacked on the cyborg (what we call the sideboard, for obscure reasons). This morning I read Diane Seuss’ Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and GirlIt’s full of elegy and ekphrasis, a very rich book I can’t do justice to here. As far as analytic sharpness, I’m tapped out at the moment by teaching and student conferences; I’m just reading receptively, to fill the well. But I’m moved by her poems mourning a father lost in childhood, friends lost to AIDS, and her own lost girl-self. I’m also processing a brilliant reading and visit from Rebecca Makkai, whose much-acclaimed novel The Great Believers concerns the arrival of HIV to Chicago’s Boystown in the eighties. Rebecca was my student here in the nineties; I remember her fierce intelligence well, how she blew in like a wind ready to strip away stupid traditions, as the best of my students do now. But that version of myself feels long gone. All these texts and memories mirror each other fractionally, so my head feels busy with bright shards.

I’m also especially taken by Seuss’s self-portrait series, perhaps because one of my classes is deep in discussion about confessionalism. Here’s one: “Self-Portrait with Sylvia Plath’s Braid.” But I like “Self-Portrait with Levitation” even better: “Embodiment has never been my strong suit.” Here’s to learning to float again, one of these days.

award

Poetry and fake news

I don’t think a poem can be true. I also recognize that when a writer works through something risky and important to her in a poem–when the stakes feel personal and significant, and language is used craftily to convey that cost–the end result is a more powerful poem.

That paradox is at the heart of a seminar I’m teaching now on mid-century U.S. poetry (starting with Olsen and Ginsberg and going up to spoken word in the 80s). I’m pressed for time in this busy September, but I thought I’d put down a few ideas here with the hope of coming back to them, as the students in my class will, reading a variety of poets and critics from those decades.

In conjunction with Ginsberg’s immensely powerful, high-stakes early poems, we just read the 1966 essay “Sincerity and Poetry,” in which Donald Davie tries, with obvious chagrin, to come to terms with a big turn in poetic priorities, apparently away from skill and towards something like authenticity, truth, or prophecy.  “Among the hoary fallacies which the new confessional poetry has brought to life among us,” he argues with an audible wince, “is the notion that we know sincerity by its dishevelment: that to be elegant is to be insincere.” He concedes that Beat and Confessional poetry challenge the very grounds of New Criticism, then the dominant approach in literature classrooms and literary scholarship; ambiguity, irony, and self-enclosed symmetry can no longer be the terms of value. He suggests, however–because we can’t simply ask a poet “hey, did you mean it?” and take his word for it–that we must find sincerity somehow within the poem and measure it by the artist’s control: “We must learn, I daresay, to give more weight to other features, notably to the tone in which the speaker addresses us, and to the fall and pause and run of spoken American or spoken English as the poet plays it off against his stanza-breaks and line-division. In short a poet can control his poem in many more ways, or his control of it manifests in more ways, than until lately we were aware of. Nevertheless we were right all along to think a poem is valuable according as the poet has control over it; now we must learn to call that control ‘sincerity.'”

My students found Ginsberg’s art sincere by Davie’s terms (Ginsberg’s portrays an out-of-control world in his lines, but does so with exquisite skill) but also despite Davie’s terms, because control isn’t exactly the feature that manifests a real person behind “Howl” or “Sunflower Sutra” or “Mugging.” In a strong poem read with attention, there’s a sense of presence exceeding the words–a secondary experience that comes from someone once representing some triggering experience in a highly artificial medium.

So is all news, all poetry, fake to some degree? Sure. It’s not the experience it represents, but a selected, shaped version of it. Is what’s important, then, the reporter-poet’s intent to get things right, as far as a brief snippet of language allows, vs. an intent to deceive? Hmm. Poet-Thing’s going to make more tea and keep thinking about it.

poet-thing tea

 

 

Amazing Poet-Thing #1 (2018, first series)

thing alone

Thing-Poet admits to moments of feeling like a geographically-isolated pariah wearing outdated costumes ill-fitted to her post-change, orange, lumpy physique.

thing map2

The cool poet-parties occur at League Headquarters far away, and she is not invited. So it was fun, this week, to give a talk and a reading at the first residency for the brand-new Randolph MFA, which was full of superheroes.

thing fly2

That’s in Lynchburg, Virginia, so she didn’t even have to fly. There was an awful lot of car-time, though, for Poet-Thing and Comics-Man, between zipping over the mountain to the residency, picking up their son in Ohio, and driving two cars to D.C. so they could help their daughter move out of summer housing and into a dog-sitting gig (she’ll be home, too, before too long, which is wonderful, although it also means that summer is winding down, which is less wonderful).

thing read

So during this last quiet week, Poet-Thing hopes to do lots more reading and writing and playful working–some of it involving poetry comics. Quiet-work play, after all, is one thing rural Virginia is good for.