Thursday, March 19, 2015

Not Quite a Manifesto

(I wrote this as an afterthought to a lengthy essay on contingency in the work of John Ashbery and Robert Frank.)

In studying aleatory effects in contemporary poetry and photography I have struggled to find a way into my own poetics. When I slump at my desk and wrestle with placing one word after another I’m unaware of or indifferent to larger issues. In writing about other people’s work I can usually find a way to negotiate between their poetics and the larger implications of their work, but have found it difficult to think about these matters in regards to my own practice. In recent months, however, several editors have asked me questions about my own poetry. While composed hastily, with little of the critical reflection I apply when reviewing or analyzing the work of others, my answers seem to offer some commonality of stance and purpose. These three  statements are among these offhand responses.

  1. My poetry explores the seams and gaps between the world our bodies live in and the cloud our minds occupy. Reality and imagination, in Stevens’ terms: but I reject the notion that what lies outside the body is more real than what lives in the mind. The ideal poem would in every line, sentence, and phrase juxtapose those two worlds and force them to fight to a draw. The actual poems I write—lacking the power to fulfill my own ideal—struggle fitfully from one competing notion of the real to another. Images flex, break, collapse into other images. Little dramas lead somewhere or nowhere. Two people, often, offer competing notions of the space they jointly occupy, and terminate dangling in a vacuum. Sometimes the poem learns something, a temporary stay against the muddle of the quotidian. Often it doesn’t go far enough to properly conclude. The tension between the line and the sentence—a stock property of English-language poetry for centuries—takes the form not of free verse but of rough accentual verse, descended from the venerable ballad meter of the late middle ages. Or I surrender to the flux and write a prose poem, which like an amoeba struggles to draw a boundary between its own form and the formless world.

  1. Language is our defining species characteristic. Not that other creatures don’t use a form of language, but ours is the most elaborate, abstract, and symbolic. Poetry has to be, first and perhaps foremost, an ongoing lesson in using language responsibly and with a view to enriching human experience. Some of my poems engage this topic more or less directly. “Spring Steel Trap” links the abuse of the natural world to the abuse of language—the scholar and the trapper, while not directly comparable, each greedy for prey and lacking the objectivity to fully appreciate nature and culture without trying to possess them. “The H in Hollywood” is about the idiocy of attempting to dominate the world through the abuse of language (erecting a huge wooden sign high in the hills to impress the world below), while “Fresh-Water Pirates” mocks the simple-minded parasitism we inflict on each other and the world. I don’t know that any of these deserves to be called a work of consequence, but I believe that all serious human effort is consequential, especially the arts.         

  1. I think the purpose of poetry is to educate our imaginations, and therefore it should be primarily imaginative—not journalistic, autobiographical, etc. I don’t mean that elements of the actual can’t be in it—but I like to see the actual challenged by the imagined. I want to see the imagination confront and change depictions of external reality. Like Wallace Stevens, I’m interested in the way imagination and reality place pressure on each other. But that’s topical. Aesthetically, I prefer accentual verse to free verse, and have a soft spot for the prose poem, whatever that is. I like Anglo-Saxon words, sharp consonants, and shorter lines, although I much admire Whitman’s facility with the long free verse line, something I could never do.

Reviewing these responses, with the task of justifying or at least accounting for my fifty years of effort in an unforgiving and thankless art, I find that I’ve taken refuge in the romantic notion of the poem as an expression of the conflict between the imagination and the world. This couldn’t be formulated until Kant, Schilling, Coleridge, Emerson and other late eighteenth and early nineteenth post-Enlightenment figures generated the modern concept of the imagination as a distinct mental force with the ability to process and combine our perceptions and reconcile us with the world outside of ourselves. That I have difficulty, without the filter of poetry, in reconciling myself with the world as I find it should be obvious. But this is the modern and postmodern dilemma, common to most even moderately reflective people. Not everyone finds poetry an appropriate or useful means of coping. Other arts, other occupations may serve as well. But because poetry is made of language it cuts to the bone, exposing the gap between the way we think and the means by which we express thought and perception. This gap is my subject.

Each of these three statements addresses the central issue; each also addresses a specific quality of language or poetry. The first mentions rhythm: the sound of words derived from Anglo-Saxon and the accentual rhythm also derived from that ur-source. The second comments on the social-cultural functions of language. The third also refers to accentual rhythm, shorter lines, and Anglo-Saxon words. But do my poems embody these rhythmic and linguistic desiderata and use them to effect useful social and cultural ends, as the second statement argues?

In reply to a specific question, the second statement mentions three poems (all appearing in 2015 in Upenders, a web journal) as examples of the socially responsible or at least conscientious use of language. “Spring Steel Trap,” the first of these, is a relatively recent poem triggered by a specific external event: a trapper wrote, for the local newspaper, a letter claiming that trapping is a “compassionate” activity, that trappers love animals, and that traps are designed for the “comfort” of the animal. Although these absurdities deserved a fact-based reply (and no other would make sense to the letter writer), they also sparked an imaginative response, one that substitutes lyric drama for polemic:

Spring Steel Trap

Midwinter. The gnawed carcass
of a woodchuck, out of season,
lies before a bedrock extrusion
where a gray fox has denned. I note
the location, and on my snowshoes
pivot back toward the village
where I’ll settle over latte
and an arrogant new novel
by someone I’d hate to meet.
The woods sigh and sough and even
sob a little as the wind picks up.
Halfway back I find a trap
with a torn woodchuck leg in it.
The fox beat the trapper to prey,
but the human would have discarded
the woodchuck, a useless pelt.
When I thought I was a scholar
I thought poems and novels were prey.
Stooping over them with open pores
I absorbed their precious fluids
and tossed the half-gnawed carcasses
back onto the shelf. Maybe
the gray fox is saving the rest
of the woodchuck for dinner tonight.
I could hide in a copse of hemlock
and try to photograph the creature,
catch it with a flash as it snacks.
But trundling home in the dark
doesn’t tempt me, so I slog off
with senses tingling, and appeal
to the winter light to buoy me
the last mile before the shadows
take charge. Then the books I failed
to adequately love would return,
word by word, surfing over me
to distract me from my own shadow
dissolving in the twilit snow.                 

The questions we might ask of this poem are whether its rhythm and word choice meet the standards I’ve posed, and whether its aleatory qualities add to or distract from its overall effect. The rhythm is simple accentual rhythm with three or four stressed syllables per line:

The woods sigh and sough and even
sob a little as the wind picks up.
Halfway back I find a trap….

The lines are neither particularly iambic nor trochaic, so rather than syllable-stress we are dealing strictly with accentual verse. This is a less disciplined versions of the verse of the Anglo-Saxon and ballad traditions, the meter that Ted Hughes (folowing Gerard Manley Hopkins) identifies as the true rhythm of English-language poetry. Whether the rhythm is effective here or even adequate to the poem is difficult for me to judge, but I can at least assert that it meets the stated criterion. The emphasis on Anglo-Saxon words is more a matter of emphasis than word count. The accented words in most lines are one-syllable consonant-heavy words, although some lines accent more Latinate words. The issue of the tension between line and sentence is a matter of syntax, and in this instance, at least, passages like

But trundling home in the dark
doesn’t tempt me, so I slog off
with senses tingling….

with their strong enjambments seem to catch the desired effect.

So what are the aleatory effects? In my first statement I describe them as a wrestling between the interior world of the imagination and the world outside the self: “The ideal poem would in every line, sentence, and phrase juxtapose those two worlds and force them to fight to a draw.” Obviously this poem does not meet that ideal, but it does juxtapose imagination and actuality through the familiar tactics of metaphor (“When I thought I was a scholar / I thought poems and novels were prey”) and through the larger strategy of moving between the world of nature and the world of books. Trapping becomes an overlay of metaphor on the act of reading. In a poetic era shaped by Language Poetry and the aleatory acrobatics of John Ashbery this metaphorical structure may seem too tidy and straightforward. Ashbery and I have a common ancestor in Wallace Stevens, but his work embraces the even more radical divergences of modernist French poetry (as evinced by his recently published anthology of translations), and the unkempt jokiness of Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara—two poets I also admire, but whose jauntiness I have never comfortably absorbed.

But aside from the extreme aleatory effects of Ashbery’s recent work and the syntactical dislocations of Language Poetry there are other ways for poetry to embrace contingency. The most basic is in the operations of the imagination. Bringing things together that don’t belong together in the outer world has always been a key function of the imagination, as Coleridge formulates it. Trapping and book-learning don’t go well together in the quotidian world, but this poem crushes them together like fissionable material in a bomb. The result is not so dramatic, or drastic, but the poem does at least create a space in which these incompatibles can confront and pressure each other.

What of “useful social and cultural ends”? How do we determine if a poem bears some function in the world outside of the specialized literary space poetry seems now to inhabit? The art for art’s sake notion still functions. If I didn’t believe that poetry was a worthwhile end in itself I would hardly bother with it, since there are many more direct ways to engage with the world beyond the self. Still, I want to believe that my work at least bears the potential to effect some consideration or awareness of the conditions in which we live. “Spring Steel Trap” in its literal reading refers to the cruelty of trapping and its distorted relationship to nature. But in simple prose I could have editorialized more directly about this obsolescent and abusive practice. The people who need to consider banning or at least better regulate trapping are legislators and fish and game officials who are not likely to read a poem like “Spring Steel Trap,” and who certainly would not take it into consideration in legislating changes in the game laws. Yet unlike most of my poems it engages with a specific issue that bears social, cultural, and political consequences. What of poems that involve no such immediately applicable material?

“The H in Hollywood,” the second poem to which my second statement refers, I describe as a protest against the abuse of language. Is that claim valid or useful?

The H in Hollywood

From the rear, the H
in the famous Hollywood sign
still spells H but propped by two
tree trunks, one with crosspieces
nailed for steps. I’d climb
at least as far the cross-arm
of the box-framed wooden H
but am afraid of falling deep
into Los Angeles sprawled
in muddled gray tones below.

This sign read “Hollywoodland”
long ago before memory
burned off the “land” the way
wildfires regularly burn the hills.
Peering through that flammable brush
I feel tall enough to span
the basin in a single stride,
but I’d probably trip on the H
and bring down whole worlds with me.

This poem relies on a specific physical perspective. Viewed from the rear, the H is still an H, but its constructive framework is exposed. Also this angle encompasses the huge space beyond, the Los Angeles basin. The poem invokes the history of the sign itself, which was erected by a land speculator to advertise his proposed development. The speaker imagines himself climbing the flimsy structure and falling into the view, the real world beyond the symbolic one invoked by a sign that no longer functions as intended. Language is composed of signs that often do not retain their original functions but work in new or differing ways. Keeping track of the changes in our semiotic world requires constant attention and possibly a certain degree of risk. Fouling up the language, misreading or abusing signs, could bring down the linguistic world on which we depend for almost everything we are and do. Most people don’t remember or never knew that this sign originally read “Hollywoodland.” Does it matter now? Only if we elect to honor history and memory. If we don’t, then perhaps there will be consequences, but that possibility lies beyond the poem, out there in the deep view of the city lying below. Is it useful to invoke so indirectly my concerns about the use and abuse of language, the possible loss of linguistic and semiotic history? Language changes constantly, and in this age of instant communication it changes more rapidly and unpredictably than ever. Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly an issue of which we should be aware.

My third example is the most complex, since this poem seems more fanciful than imaginative, and asks the reader to at least temporarily suspend expectations of serious purpose.

Fresh-Water Pirates

Fresh-water pirates, we prowl
the Mississippi-Missouri
river complex looting barges
and pleasure craft. No one resists.
Police refuse involvement.
The big slow rivers sprawl
past villages where bibles snort
and huff at sinners. Railroads
and highways soar on bridges
that glint in the pink sundown
and link one state to another
in a muddle of jurisdictions.

Our big powerboat hustles
among smaller, shyer craft
and we fuel at docks where no one
dares ask us to pay. Our flag,
black and orange and sporting
the face of a friendly housecat,
has become so famous a hundred
imitations fly on other boats.
Our loot piles up. Money, jewelry,
expensive liquor. Our victims
are usually too drunk to complain.
The thick brown current plods along
to New Orleans, where a fence
will cash our loot, file our tax forms,
and arrange to sell our boat.

This has been a great vacation.
The smell of river has embalmed us
against the ache of the future,
and we’ve left our many victims
unharmed but fueled with stories.
Their friends will envy the rush
of drama and long boozy nights
humming with cosmic energy,
and every tale will end with handshakes
as we, the mysterious pirates,
depart with our manners intact.

My assertion that “’Fresh-Water Pirates’ mocks the simple-minded parasitism we inflict on each other and the world” stumbles on the term “simple-minded.” The most destructive parasitism is ecological, economic, social, and cultural all at once. The huge and growing disparity between the very rich and most of the rest of the world’s human population is a complicated matter involving the very nature of capital (capital is restless, noted Marx) and government—transcending the distinctions between democracies and non-representative governments. No use appealing to the forces of law and order (“Police refuse involvement”), since this injustice is embedded so deeply in law and order that it cannot be rooted out through those means. Besides, this poem makes light of thievery. Piracy here is “a great vacation,” a break from routine reality. It has harmed no one, and ends with mutual courtesies. Loot piles up, but no one suffers in any obvious way. If it continued, of course, the pirates would get everything, and the victims might finally notice that they’ve been victimized. Nothing simple-minded is going on here; rather a crime so cunning in its innocuous charm that its victims seem to enjoy being victimized. What does this say about our current economic world in which one percent of the population absorbs most of the money and property, leaving the rest of us teetering on impoverishment?

But again, it is doubtful whether the playfulness of this poem is as effective in its social utility as an editorial would be. So why write it? The real function of the poem—any poem— is aesthetic, rooted in its imagery, its drama and humor, its gnashing of linear rhythm and syntax. That is, if we regard it as a poem and not a manifesto. It is not quite a manifesto, and neither are the other two poems. Describing these poems in terms of their consequences conceals rather than affirms their aleatory or contingent structures, their arbitrary mixing of elements from the real world and the world of the imagination. They do not flaunt their aleatory effects the way an Ashbery poem would, but they depend equally on the juxtaposing of elements from competing worlds.

March 19, 2015


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Absolute Pine

Absolute Pine


Pines revolve inside themselves,
revolve without moving. Inhuman,
the spirit of the pine in scope
and intention exceeds the distance
to the sun. The boughs stretch in cold
and touch the azure breaking
and bleeding into pink at dusk.

The few birds twitter and pivot
to face the breeze from Canada.
Because the distance seems remote,
impossible, the roots wrestle
with stony earth and brace themselves
and their burden against a silence
that always threatens to descend
from the dark and fell the entity
into a bleak place where nothing thrives.

Because time measures itself in rings
instead of seasons the snow means
nothing more than rain or sunlight,
only denser, a kind of knowledge
mere intelligence can’t process.
The pine is instinctive.
Its witness overlooks the sins
of beast, vegetable, mineral,
and zeroes on the cosmic moment
when starlight warps a certain angle
to intersect with straining boughs.

How minute the threesome needles
threading the air into lacework
fine enough to drape over moonlight
and conceal the seams that otherwise
would bleed pitch into open wounds.
The pine lurches from one stance
to another without moving—
its long, bottomless witness
true enough to foster epics
no animal voice, not human
or birdsong, can honestly rhyme.


This white pine stand blasted and grim.
Its bark sheathes off in scabs.
Thoreau argued that the spirit
of the white pine would carry it
to heaven, where it would thrive
as surely as a blessed human soul.

Whether or not it attains
that ultimate height this pine,
the stub of a great bifurcation,
attests to lifetimes spent in its shade,
to spirits departed in a calm
of antique leathery earth-tones
or in violence splashed with colors
too vivid for the eye to retain.

Deer cluster and nibble weeds.
They direct their skittish glances
at the darkest parts of the forest
where coyotes breed and plot
and form packs to act in concert.

A lone bobcat browses for mice
among dropped cones split open
and spilling seed. Hard as a fist,
small as a fist, this carnivore
could gut a deer from beneath,
spilling intestines and ripping
the larger creature’s neck when it falls.
Today he ignores the timid deer
although bones litter the forest floor
and shine with immutable voices
the human animal can’t hear.
The mice hear, and flock gnawing
to nourishment coyotes ignore.

A pair of antlers fit to crown
a hunter-king go unloved.
I wanted to find them to present
to you when the solstice darkened
our moods, but the mice got them first,
and the snarl of the bobcat spoke
from the shade of the pine, and the wind,
burdened with disbelief, shattered
the usual prophecies, dumping
their litter under the tree, scratching
at the light with brassy weeds.

At dusk a flock of turkeys struts
from the forest and examines
the weeds for the last scrap of seed.
They ignored me when I prowled
the forest for antlers, they ignore me
now in the shadows of my back yard
where the broken pine maintains
a certain dignity, casting a last
claw-handed image into the dark.


As thunder broke the sky a downburst
of hundred-mile-per-hour gust-front
twisted and snapped the upper half
where it divided. Both trunks spun
and fell into my garden and crushed
a stand of magenta bee balm.

With chainsaw raving I divided
the wreckage into moveable chunks.
The resin smell. Absolute pine.
Raw wood. The soul of a tree.
Nakashima says A mature tree
has witnessed much. In complete
silence it stands immobile,
a god of consciousness.

Yet I feel this ruined tree attempt
to uproot itself and walk
as a damaged man might try to walk
toward a unknown point of salvation.
The pine before the storm struck
was one of dozens littering
my scrawny acres. Since the storm
it has loomed in its injured state
more gloomily and yet more vividly
than the healthy pines nearby.

Even the turkeys favor it, although
roosting snaps dead branches
and tumbles indignant turkeys
to the ground where they strut and preen
as though nothing untoward has occurred.
Pine lacks the richness of walnut,
oak, maple, cherry, rosewood,
which Nakashima favors for sculpting
into furniture of smooth perfection.

But pine frames houses like mine;
and thus embraced I sleep as soundly
as any plutocrat, my wealth,
such as it is, in standing timber,
rhyming myself with my trees.

Pinus strobus, five-leaved pine.
Newfoundland to Georgia.

Intellectual? Yes, upright
and attentive in manner.

Central nervous system? Yes,
a bundle of fiber strung root
to needle-tip, alert to seasons.

Sight? A blessing of genetics,
each cell light-aware, wary.

Witness? Reliable, storing data
in rings of impeccable glory.

Truth-telling? Wood doesn’t lie,
unless lumbered into false
dimensions, shaving half an inch
or more from quoted measure.

Communication? By gesture,
sometimes contrary to wind,
or by casting certain shadows
only the well-trained eye can read.

Thought? Thoughtful rather than
enslaved to the logic of the Greeks.

Dress? The bark sometimes sheds
itself, exposing pale wood
to insects and disease, an act

sometimes mistaken for suicide
but only a lapse, a letting-go
common to aging organisms.

Sex? Yes, but bristling with reserve.

Pleasure? In every breath or scrape
of needle against sky-colored sky.

Foresight? A longing for the sun
and relaxation under starlight.

Thrift? Roots thick with moisture braced
against the droughts of summer.

Thirst? Endless, inevitable.

Religion? The ascent into blue.


A pair of flickers settles
a hole some twenty feet up,
not far below the fracture.
Their view embraces the whole yard.
The insect supply’s impeccable,
the base of the tree rife with ants.

Eggs follow, as they must. Chicks
gaze at the world, which gazes back
in the form of Shale, our gray cat
dying of cancer. No hunter,
only a browser, she regards
the yellow-shafted family
with infinite longing for something
evolution can’t yet satisfy.

Birds descend from dinosaurs
and bear instincts so primal
and focused no mammal can compete.
With undeniable prior claim
that bird spirit radiates from the tree,
shaming would-be predators.

Shale laps it up, lathers herself
in a primitive scent and sighs
the sigh of a long-dying creature.
She leans against her favorite rock,
which retains sun-warmth long after
clouds have obscured the distance.

The flickers will enjoy their season
and fledge all of their children
without disaster or loss. Shale
will die in the winter, though,
and next year the flickers will arrive,
look around, and leave. They won’t return,
not that year, the next, or ever.

With Shale gone we’ve planted succulents
around the rock to honor it.
A gray shadow lingers there,
too faint to suggest anything
but a trick of light, a flutter
of heartbeat we no longer hear.

Waving pine boughs stir the air.
The windless evening doesn’t respond.
The pine aches from the slow decay
of pith, exposed by the storm
a dozen years ago. Cambium,
still functioning, feeds the mass
by strawing nourishment from soil
and rainfall. The heartwood’s
neutral, indifferent. The ants
sampled by the flickers three year ago
have extended their colony
deep into the base of the tree.

The spirit of the pine still aspires
to something I can’t understand
but glimpse when the moon and Venus
together lilt through the upper boughs.
The idea of a tree is too old
for the human mind to comprehend,
but instills in every instance.
Bristlecone pines five thousand years old,
cypress and sequoia three thousand,
junipers, figs, and redwoods two
thousand five hundred years since
they sprouted from seed rebuke me
for plotting to cut down this stub.

Maybe two hundred years old,
but broken and decaying,
it threatens to crush my saplings—
oak, spruce, fir. The white pine
doesn’t live for millennia
even if two hundred feet tall.
But this thirty-foot stump blazes
with vitality. We reckoned it
dead the day the wind shear
beheaded it. But slabs of bark
peel from the jagged wound
and the ants look triumphant
with their trails of sawdust leading
deep into the root mass. A chainsaw,
with a shriek of combustion,
would topple it in seconds.

But who would record the agony
of trees all over the world,
the eloquence of their mourning?
I can’t listen that hard. The dusk
woven in the boughs suggests
how dim the future of this planet
looks from the pine-view, how raw
the heartwood, how wounded the pith,
and how gently the cambium
still bathes the living creation
in the primal matter of which
everything of spirit is made.