Saturday, November 14, 2009

Poetry Criticism With Bill Knott




He doesn't avoid his feelings, which I respect.

I always wished there were people like him in my crit groups--people who just fucking said what they thought regardless of feelings. That's much easier to deal with, I think, than people who read and try to quietly kiss your ass with gentle words when they really hate your work. That's what criticism is for, pointing out the weaknesses. I admit I'm too nice most of the time, though somewhat less so these days, since I'm no longer teacher material--at least in a university. I think everybody is too nice.



Anyway--on to the criticism.

fugh

The Shampoo (From The Nightingales) by David Wojahn

How long it must have been, the girl’s hair,
cascading down her shoulders almost to her waist,
light brown and heavy as brocade: the story I’m

remembering of N’s, remembering as my own
hair’s washed and cut, the salt-and-pepper
cuneiform to frill my barber’s smock.

Arts and Science is expanding. The wall
to the empty shop next door pulled down
and a dozen workmen slink improbably

on scaffolds butting the dusty ceiling,
cacophony and plastic tarps, the whirr
of drills that mingles with the dryers’

jittery hums, the scissors’ flash,
veronicas of clicks, the coloring, the curling,
the antique cash register,

melodious with its chime. And best,
the liquid gurgle of hands massaging scalps
the row of sinks, twelve hands and six

wet scalps in a line. I’m next, and leaning back
(let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon)

to the hiss of warm water cataracts
and Andrea’s long fingers. But I’m remembering
the girl in N’s story, the girl

she was at six. This is Birmingham,
1962, Rapunzel-tressed girl
whose parents are more glimpsed than known,

the Family Romance, mid-century American-
style, the child fetching ice
for the father’s drink, the far-off lovely

scent of mother’s perfume. More glimpsed
than known, separate phantom lights
edging from beneath closed doors

those nights she couldn’t sleep. Not the Birmingham
of sit-ins, the firehoses trained on
placard-waving crowds. But the Birmingham

of Saturdays when Anne-Marie would arrive
as always on the city bus by six,
before the parents’ cars would pull away.

Then the cleaning until noon, the cooking smells.
And then the big tin basin filled
at the backyard faucet by Anne-Marie,

the long brown fingers in the child’s hair,
the water sluicing, warm from the garden hose,
the soap suds almost flaring, the fingers

ten spokes over scalp and basin, their paths
through the hair and down the child’s back,
the synesthetic grace notes of the hands,

the stitchery, the trill, the body electric,
the fingertip pressure exquisite as it sings,
the braille of here and here and here.

David Wojahn, “The Shampoo (from ‘The Nightingales’)” from The Falling Hour. 1997.


*
Narrative poems like this one exasperate confuse and (increasingly) infuriate me.

First of all, what's Wojahn doing in this hair salon getting his hair shampooed, why doesn't he just shampoo it at home in the shower like most people? He seems to be a regular customer here, since he knows the hairstylist by name (line 23) . . .

In other words, he's doing something most of us don't do, and in reality

most people can't afford to have their hair shampooed at a salon,

he's doing something unusual but he doesn't acknowlege that fact, nor does he offer any justification for this abnormal practice——he's not a moviestar for chrisakes, so why—whatfor?

The poem is from a 1997 book, so presumably this hairparlor scene occurs in the mid '90s, in retrospect a kind of golden age of prosperity for some if not most in the US, post-Cold War surplus and surfeit, the Clinton years of flush expenditures—

the salon's business is booming, its chairs are filled (lines 18/19),

profits are rife and Professor Wojahn can you blame him wants to look as prosperous and spif as your average tv-anchor,

coiffed to the max—

And this is before he gets wound up. Well worth the read.

I remember, in the only poetry class I had with him, the way he would shake the poem-page in his hand, and (in my case) say something 'I just don't understand these line breaks.' Of all the many things he must have said about my work that semester, that's what I remember. And it's helped me. I don't know if I'm better now, but I have his voice in my head whenever I break a line.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Intarwebz Iz Gud 2day: Lynette Roberts and James Dickey



 
 
Yeah. I read a bit of this post by Johnathon Williams in my morning blog constitutional, and liked what I read of Lynette Roberts. I like discovering poets few think of any more (Keith Douglas anyone? Thanks to Ben Mazer for making me aware) or in some cases ever, so this is a great find for me, and I ordered her work.

Lynette Roberts, whose poetry was championed by T. S. Eliot and Robert Graves, might fairly be claimed to be our greatest female war poet, and her work constitutes one of the most imaginative poetic responses to modern war and the home front in the English language. Her first book, Poems, was published in 1944, with a blurb from Eliot, her editor at Faber:


"She has, first, an unusual gift for observation and evocation of scenery and place, whether it is in Wales or her native South America; second, a gift for verse construction, influenced by the Welsh tradition, which is evident in her freer verse as well as in stricter forms; and third, an original idiom and tone of speech. Graves called her “one of the few true poets now writing”; “her best is the best”, he declared, while Eliot praised her poems by that most Eliotic of criteria: that they communicated before they made sense. Dylan Thomas, with his usual waspishness about contemporaries, dismissed her as 'a curious girl, a poet, as they say, in her own right'."


When Roberts died in 1995, aged eighty-six, in a west Wales nursing home, her work had been out of print for nearly half a century, and has gone unregistered in histories of British poetry, even those dedicated to that much-maligned period, “the Forties”. “Oblivion” is too dramatic a word for what happened to her – footnotehood probably captures it better. She features in literary memoirs and correspondence as the wife of Keidrych Rhys, the flamboyant poet and editor of Wales magazine, in the letters of Dylan Thomas (who borrowed Vernon Watkins’s suit to be best man at their wedding), Alun Lewis, Robert Graves and others, and in occasional bibliographies of the period’s poetry. Though always an outsider, she cut a stylish figure on the London artistic scene, and was well connected not just with poets but with artists, photographers and designers. Alun Lewis, with whom she exchanged poems, was captivated, describing her as “a queer girl, [who] wears a red cloak and is unaccountable”. She moved in “New Romantic” and “Apocalypse” circles, encountering poets such as Henry Treece, Kathleen Raine and George Barker, while her husband’s close friendship with Dylan Thomas ensured she saw plenty of literary life’s underside. There are glamorous portraits of her by the photographer Ida Kar, less glamorous ones of her digging her garden in wartime by Douglas Glass (known for his weekly Sunday Times “Portrait Gallery”), and a pencil sketch of her, looking unusually serene, by Wyndham Lewis.

Now that I waggle around Google for a bit, I see there's a fair amount of info out there, though none of her poems. I shall have to fuck copyright over and type a few in here as soon as I can. Such wealth. . .

And then there's James Dickey, all over the place. Just look for him, if you care to. I've read him over and over and over, mostly just a few poems, but 'wild to be wreckage forever' is a line that sustains my perpetual adolescence, or did until I read the often-anthologized Sheep Child, after reading which I laughed until I shat my nice new green knickers and had to sally forth to teach undergraduate CW in my Bugs Bunny skivvies and work boots.

 


I have often longed to read this poem aloud--as a sort of intro to my work, maybe--at one of those ultra-serious no-one-breathes readings, introducing it by saying, in my best stentorian voice, "THIS, is a poem about the consequences (beat) of sheep-fucking.

There's more to Dickey than sexing up our animal friends though, beyond the Sheep Child and Cherrylog Road and that horrible Nimblewill Civil War thing, there's a decent novel and an early-middle period of generally stellar poems. Post-Deliverance, though, or from about 1972 or 73, it seems he became a parody of himself, though a vastly entertaining one, apparently, to judge by his speaking engagements. The exhaustive and fascinating biography The World as a Lie I also recommend highly.

Check out my dream office:


From The Creative Writing Guide

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Five New Poems at the Dead Mule




I would have said on the Mule, but I didn't want anyone to get the wrong idea. These are part of the last couple year's work. Poems.

Still radio silence until we get moved into the new house, where I will have an entire room full of books. My library, finally.